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iPhone XS Max vs. Note 9: Which phone has the best camera

We tested the cameras on two of the biggest and most expensive smartphones you can buy.

Josh Miller/CNET

The iPhone XS Max and Samsung Galaxy Note 9 are two of the best phones you can buy for photos and video. Each has dual rear cameras, dual optical image stabilization and use a combination of software and brute-force hardware processing power to make photos and video look excellent.

According to Apple, the iPhone XS Max, XS and XR have an identical standard camera with a wider lens than last year's iPhone X - 26-millimeter instead of a 28-millimeter. There is a 32 percent larger sensor which Apple claims lets in 50 percent more light than the iPhone X.

A photo from the iPhone XS Max of the band Flogging Molly playing a CNET Smart Home Sessions concert.

Patrick Holland/CNET

For more of the differences between iPhone cameras, check out CNET's photo and video comparison between the iPhone XS and X.

The biggest addition to the iPhone XS Max is Smart HDR which takes a quick burst of multiple photos at different exposures and combines them to produce an image that retains more details in both the brightest and darkest parts of the picture. It's more advanced than previous iPhones, but other phones like the Google Pixel 2 have used similar blended HDR/computational techniques. The newly announced Pixel 3 has even more software camera features. (Take a quick look at the Pixel 3 camera photos if you're interested).

The Note 9 has a dual aperture (f/2.4 by default and f/1.5 for low light), HDR and scene optimizations which identifies a scene from one of 20 different subject categories like landscapes, pets and food. The optimizations enhance settings to make your subject look as ideal as possible, similar to what's found on the Huawei P20 Pro and the LG V35 ThinQ.

cafe-note-9

A photo taken of a cafe in Nob Hill. I like the way the the Note 9 captured the late-afternoon light illuminating the inside of the coffee shop.

Patrick Holland/CNET

I took the iPhone XS Max and Note 9 around San Francisco to the heights of Twin Peaks, the streets of the Mission and the lower level of the Xfinity CNET Smart Living Home to see how each handled real-world situations.

iPhone XS Max and Galaxy Note 9 rear camera specs


iPhone XS Max Galaxy Note 9
Rear camera Dual 12-megapixel Dual 12-megapixel
Wide-angle lens 26-millimeter f/1.8 26-millimeter f/1.5 - f/2.4
Telephoto lens 51-millimeter f/2.4 52-millimeter f/2.4
Stabilization Optical Optical
Optical zoom 2x 2x
Digital zoom 10x 10x

iPhone XS Max flexes its dynamic range

Overall, photos from the iPhone XS Max have better dynamic range than those from the Note 9. A lot of that comes from the new Smart HDR feature. Take a look at pictures I took of Senor Sisig's food truck in the Mission. The one from the iPhone XS Max holds the highlights in the clouds and in the yellow building on the left side of the photo.

The Note 9 exposed its photo brighter, showing more detail in the shadows of the shelves on the food truck but clipping the highlights in clouds and yellow building. The iPhone XS Max photo also has more color saturation than the Note 9.

Notice the differences between the photos below taken of a couple gazing over San Francisco from Twin Peaks. The iPhone XS Max shows off its dynamic range holding the details in the white shirt and not crunching the shadows of the the rocks to black like the Note 9. When taking the photo with the Note 9, I saw the "sky" icon for scene optimization which seemed to boost the contrast.

I like how Samsung's scene optimizations are not over-the-top like Instagram filters. They are subtle but have a big impact on image quality like Smart HDR on the iPhone XS Max.

In the photos below I took a picture of a cappuccino and hand pie from Four Barrel coffee. The Note 9 detected food and optimized photo settings accordingly while leaving the color temperature of the plate and wood table more neutral. The resulting photo has nice golden colors in the pie crust and in the foam of the cappuccino. The Note 9 nails the white balance here.

The iPhone XS Max brings out the highlights in the hand pie but makes it look almost orange. Notice how everything, the food, the plate and table, have a warm tone.

Interesting discovery: The iPhone XS Max I was using was gold, and when outdoors, the glass back acted as a mini gold light reflector.

Galaxy Note 9 and iPhone XS Max both have optical zoom

One of the most underrated features on both phones is the optical zoom which allows you to get two times closer to your subject without degrading the image.

The pictures below were taken late morning of this sky blue colored building in the Mission. The iPhone XS Max does a fantastic job with the colors and exposing the details in the shadows. The Note 9 has more contrast but still looks pretty great.

However once you start using digital zoom, photos from both phones look more sloppy. Here's a photo taken with 10 times digital zoom on the iPhone XS Max and one from the Note 9 focusing in on Salesforce Tower. Both look pretty rough though the iPhone XS Max has a smattering more color saturation.

iPhone XS Max and Note 9 let you adjust the blur for portraits

One of the coolest features on these phones is portrait mode... or "live focus" as Samsung calls it.

On the iPhone, portrait mode is superb. Not only can I change the lighting looks on people's faces but also the amount of background blur after a photo is taken. Like previous Samsung phones, the Note 9 also lets you change background blur both before and after a photo is taken, but the iPhone renders it more pleasing.

Portrait photos from the iPhone also have more detail and sharpness in people's faces and colors are more saturated than the ones from the Note 9 which genuinely look softer even with beauty mode turned all the way down -- though some people might prefer that look. Notice in the photos below, how much the Note 9 crops in. I was standing in the same place when I took both photos.

iPhone XS Max and Galaxy Note 9 approach low light differently

When it comes to low light, the Note 9 switches to its f/1.5 aperture -- the widest on any smartphone -- and exposes scenes brighter than the iPhone XS Max. Note 9 low-light photos definitely have less noise than the iPhone XS Max, but images are really soft and suffer from blown highlights and motion blur.

Low-light photos from the iPhone XS Max have more noise but are sharper and hold highlights better. Unless I'm taking photos of something static, I almost always prefer low-light shots from the iPhone XS Max over the Note 9.

Video on the iPhone XS Max has a new feature called Auto Low Light FPS

Both these phones are two of the best for capturing video. However, the iPhone XS Max has better image quality, colors and can record video in 4K resolution at 24fps.

The Note 9 records excellent videos but sometimes they can look over-sharpened. Watch the video that accompanies this article to see footage recorded with both phones.

Now playing: Watch this: iPhone XS Max vs. Galaxy Note 9 camera shootout
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Low-light video from the Note 9 looks soft and has lots of noise while footage recorded at the same time with the iPhone XS Max looks decent because of a new feature called Auto Low Light FPS which automatically changes the frame rate in low-light conditions from 30 frames per second to 24 to improve the image quality. By changing the frame rate (and possibly the shutter speed) the iPhone XS Max is able to expose each frame a tad longer. While the difference isn't night and day there were improvements when it came to color saturation and the amount of image noise.

iPhone XS Max selfies are improved

As for selfies, the iPhone has finally caught up to Samsung. Gone are the gray-washed selfies from the iPhone X. Selfies from both phones are good and have nice color.

But as I was testing these phones, a small hubbub unfortunately dubbed iPhone XS "beauty-gate" bubbled up. In a nutshell, some people believe iPhone XS and XS Max photos look "softened" like a beauty mode found on some Android phones. But check out CNET's story explaining why your selfies actually look different on the iPhone XS than they did on the iPhone X. For the record, I like selfies from the iPhone XS Max.

You can take portrait mode for selfies with the iPhone XS Max which look good (the rear camera version still looks better) while the Note 9 has selective focus which is serviceable at best. Take a look at the photos below.

selfie-compare

On the left is a selfie taken with selective focus on the Note 9. On the right, is a portrait mode selfie taken on the iPhone XS Max. Notice the differences between sharpness and skin color.

Patrick Holland/CNET

I hope you have long arms, because selfie video on both phones is really cropped in. Colors look more saturated on the Note 9 and the image is a tad sharper on the iPhone.

The Galaxy Note 9 has a pro camera mode

For me, the iPhone XS Max's native camera app is easier to navigate than what Samsung offers. And while it's nice to have so many mode options, the Galaxy Note 9's default app can be overwhelming and sometimes finicky to use. Many times when I'd tap on a point to focus, it read my gesture as a swipe and switched from the rear camera to the front camera. There's nothing worse than having a friend hold a pose while you're fiddling with the screen because the camera switched to selfie mode.

I should mention that I accidentally hit the Bixby "key" on the side of the phone many times when shooting photos. Not only is it annoying to have to close Bixby and switch back to the camera app, but sometimes if I'm not fast enough Bixby's voice starts talking which just made everything worse. I am not against Bixby… just that button which you can and probably should disable.

I do like the Note 9's Pro mode which allows me to take more control over the shutter speed, ISO and aperture of my photos. I find myself experimenting with things like long-exposure photos with artsy light streaks or tweaking the white balance to my liking.

arch-iphone-low-light

Look at that light streak!

Patrick Holland/CNET

Then, there's the Note 9's included S-Pen that doubles as a remote control for the shutter letting you snap a photo while standing away from your phone. Any time I showed this off, my friends had so much fun using it.

But the iPhone can do something similar with its bundled EarPods. You can activate the shutter by pressing the volume button -- if you're within the length of the cable. And if you have an Apple Watch, you can use the Camera Remote app to not only take a photo with your iPhone, but get a preview of it, too.

So which phone has the better camera?

At the end of the day, both the iPhone XS Max and Galaxy Note 9 are significant improvements over last year's models. The iPhone XS Max has better image quality, wider dynamic range, higher quality video and its interface is a lot easier to to use. Those features are all really important to me, and even though the Note 9's camera is still excellent, the XS Max easily gets my vote as the better of the two.