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iPhone XR vs. Galaxy S10E: Camera comparison

At $750, both phones are cheaper than their flagship cousins. But which of the two takes better photos and videos?

Angela Lang/CNET

The iPhone XR and Galaxy S10E are wonderful phones that, for the most part, have all the same features and elegance of the iPhone XS and Galaxy S10, respectively. Fortunately for consumers, one thing these phones don't share with their flagship cousins is the price. The cost for each is $750, which isn't cheap, but it's lower than the $900 to $1,000 price tag of their higher-end phone counterparts.

To hit that lower the price, Apple and Samsung had to scale back some things, including camera specs. The iPhone XR forgoes a telephoto camera and only has a single rear camera, which is the exact same as the main wide-angle camera on the iPhone XS. The Galaxy S10E has two of the Galaxy S10's three rear cameras. Like the iPhone XR, it's missing a dedicated telephoto lens, but it does have a wide angle and ultra wide-angle rear camera.

After using and testing these blue beauties around San Francisco over the past few weeks, I got to know both cameras exhaustively and I have a confession to make: I fell hard for the Galaxy S10E. I specifically loved its ultra wide-angle lens and the creative rush I got using it. Read on to see the proof yourself.

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Going ultrawide on the Galaxy S10E

The ultrawide-angle camera on the Galaxy S10E really impressed me, though I know it's not the first phone to have a such a lens; Huawei has an ultrawide-angle camera on the P30 Pro, and LG has one on the LG G8.

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The ultrawide-angle exaggerates lines and framing. The distortion of the lens can make a mundane moment more dramatic.

Patrick Holland/CNET

What wows me about the S10E is how well Samsung matched the main and ultrawide-angle cameras. When using the cameras without the scene enhancer, colors and exposures were similar despite being very different lenses. The ultrawide-angle camera on the S10E not only gives me an entirely fresh way to see the world, but it's incredibly handy when you're in a tight spot.

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All three of these photos were taken from the exact same spot. From left to right: Galaxy S10E wide-angle, Galaxy S10E ultra wide-angle, iPhone XR wide-angle.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Above is a photo I took of a 7-foot statue of K-2SO from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The main camera on the S10E couldn't get K-2SO entirely in the frame, nor could the iPhone XR. But with a quick tap on the ultrawide-angle screen icon: BAM! K-2SO is all there.

The look and distortion the ultrawide-angle lens gives a subject can also make photos more epic. However, I rarely used this lens on people since the distortion can make a person look odd. Optically, the main camera on the S10E is sharper and has less vignetting. But the ultrawide-angle is just so much more fun.

HDR and optimizations

Like last year's Galaxy Note 9, the S10E uses scene optimizations on its camera. It seems to me that Samsung tuned the HDR recipe and scene optimizations a bit. Galaxy phones have a history of favoring brighter exposures, but the S10E does a better job balancing brightness, highlights and shadows than previous Samsung phones.

The iPhone XR's camera does a fantastic job nailing exposure and capturing detail. This is one of the biggest strengths of the camera. That said, the camera isn't perfect. The way it optimizes photos with Apple's approach to computational photography through features like Smart HDR can make colors appear off. The white balance can be inconsistent, too. While it's great at finding the white balance when people are in the photo, at other times, like when there are buildings, landscapes or objects, the color -- especially with greens and blues -- is off. Take a look at these photos below from a San Francisco Giants game. The grass just looks weird in the iPhone XR photo while the Galaxy S10E's version looks more true-to-life.

To complicate matters further, the HDR on the XR overdoes things a bit. Take a look at the photo below that I took at the Ferry Building. The XR made the sky the perfect color blue. It looks nice, but in real life it was hazier.

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Sometimes Smart HDR on the iPhone XR made things like the blue sky in this photo look better than it actually did.

Patrick Holland/CNET

For the most part, I like that the XR and S10E "improve" my photos with their software magic and I'm pleased with the results overall. But occasionally, I wish there was a way to override or dial down optimizations. Technically on the Galaxy S10E, I can turn the scene optimizer completely off. But I don't always need a perfect blue sky, I just want an accurate picture. And that's where we're at with computational photography on our phones these days. It's far from perfect, but I'm hoping it's something Apple, Samsung and others will get better with over time.

The iPhone XR takes sharper photos with fuller detail

In general, the iPhone XR captured sharper and better detailed photos than the S10E. That's not to say the Galaxy S10E shoots soft photos. It's just that they are not as clinically sharp as photos from the XR.

Above are photos of a Star Wars Stormtrooper costume at LucasArts. Both photos look very similar, but notice the black armor around the shoulder. The iPhone XR photo has more detail and the S10E version looks a touch softer.

Raw files and editing JPEGs

As someone who does a quick edit on most of the pictures I post, I tried a hand at editing photos from the S10E and XR on the phones themselves. I took photos of the Yoda fountain in the Presidio and gave the Jedi master less of a dark side.

Impressively, both phones had enough photo information for me to boost shadows without getting too noisy. You can see a before and after of the photo taken with the Galaxy S10E above and the one from the iPhone XR below. I used the JPEG files because that's what I shoot a majority of the time on my phone. The XR and S10E lets you shoot raw images if you prefer. But on the iPhone you'll need to use a third-party app.

Portrait mode: Two different approaches

Obviously a must-have feature on phones is portrait mode, which lets you add and change the blur of the background to make your subject pop. On the iPhone it's called "Portrait Lighting mode" and on the Galaxy S10E it's called "Live Photo." The iPhone uses software to take portrait photos, but the downside is it only works on people. If you try to use the mode on inanimate objects or pets, it won't work.

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The iPhone XR (left) can only take portrait mode photos of people -- no Darth Maul lamps. The Galaxy S10E's Live Focus (right) can take portrait mode photos of pretty much anything.

Patrick Holland/CNET

The Darth Maul lamp above couldn't fool the XR to take a portrait photo. However, the S10E used both of its rear cameras in "Live Focus" to give Darth Maul a blurry background. The S10E also lets me select a color to emphasize while making the rest of the photo black and white. You can also add a spiral blur and a zoom blur.

When it came to portraits of people, I preferred photos from the iPhone. They had better detail and more accurate skin tones. The S10E, even with beauty mode turned off, looked too soft.

Low-light and Bright Night, but no Night Sight in sight

The main camera on the S10E has a dual aperture and can open wider to let in more light. Couple this with Samsung's Bright Night scene optimizer and low-light shots look good.

Above is a shot of an intersection outside Oracle Park. The S10E's photo has a nice dynamic range though it suffers from motion blur. The XR is darker and has more contrast. Neither of these phones have a dedicated Night Sight or Night Mode like the Pixel 3 or Huawei P30 Pro. However, Samsung is rolling out a standalone mode soon, which we haven't tried yet. Between the iPhone and Galaxy, I prefer the S10E for low-light shots.

In case you use a flash

I rarely use a flash, but when I do fire it up, I dig the iPhone XR's slow-sync flash that was first introduced on the iPhone X, 8 and 8 Plus. It adds light while blending in with the foreground and background. Take a look at the photos below of statues of Peanuts characters. The flash from the S10E is a different color temperature than the ambient light, and makes the photo look flat. The iPhone XR, on the other hand, nails it.

iPhone video is unmatched

The iPhone has always been ahead of its Android competitors when it comes to video. Overall, videos on the iPhone looked better than the S10E in daylight, in low light, and in slow motion. The audio quality of video sounds richer and fuller from the iPhone, too. But the S10E really surprised me. It looks like Samsung improved the overall image quality of its videos.

Given the improvements, however, I did run into a bit of a problem. During the few weeks with the S10E, I recorded a dozen or so videos. On the phone, the videos looked great. But when I downloaded or offloaded the videos to a computer, they looked weird. Check out the video attached to this article to see what I'm talking about.

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Here is a side-by-side screen grab of a video I recorded with the Galaxy S10E. On the left, is how the video looked on the phone. On the right, is how the video looked when I downloaded the video.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Whether I saved the video to a Mac or PC (either through Google Photos or Android File Transfer) the files looked like they had what is called a "flat profile" on it. Higher-end cameras allow you to use a flat profile to reduce the saturation, and minimize sharpness and contrast. The idea is that a flat video file will have more information and give you more options in post-production. It's kind of like in photography when you save your photos as a "raw" file instead of JPEG.

On one hand, the video nerd side of me thought it was cool. I get videos that I can color like a film in post-production. But the phone reviewer and everyday consumer side of me thought, "Wait, this isn't right." I conferred with other editors at CNET who had written about the cameras on the Galaxy S10, S10 Plus and S10E and they mentioned that they had trouble downloading video files, too.

The truth is that most people will never download video files to their computer, and offloading these videos myself proved to be somewhat of a pain. I believe there's some kind of bug here, and that's all there is to it. It's looks like a video is missing a LUT (look up table) which uses a mathematical formula to modify how a video and its colors look.

I'm not sure what happened, but after many trials and four computers, I finally got a correct version of the video to download over Google Photos onto an iMac. Despite all these hiccups, I remain impressed with the Galaxy S10E's video. I'm working with Samsung to determine what exactly happened.

I like my selfies without beauty mode

There are two types of people in this world: Those who like selfies and those who don't. And out of those who like selfies there is a subset who like smoothing out their skin and imperfections with a phone's beauty mode. I am not one of those people. At any rate, the iPhone XR doesn't have a beauty mode, while the Galaxy S10E does. With or without beauty mode, selfies on the Galaxy S10E looked softer compared with the iPhone.

Overall, I prefer solo selfies from the iPhone XR because they had better color and detail. But I liked group selfies from the Galaxy S10E better because it did a better job getting everyone in focus.

Which camera I prefer

After heavily considering everything I discussed about both phones, I prefer the Galaxy S10. The iPhone XR is technically better in many ways, but I can't stop taking photos with the Galaxy S10E. It's such a blast to use and I'm inspired creatively to take more photos and videos. In my case, the photos and videos I get from the S10E along with the fun I have using the ultrawide-angle lens are more appealing to me than the more measured iPhone XR.