CNET editors, including yours truly, spend a lot of time comparing the main cameras on flagship phones like the iPhone 11 Pro and Galaxy S20 Ultra. Because of this, selfie cameras often get second-billing, despite them being used almost as often as the rear cameras. So I wanted to find out which smartphone takes the best selfies out of four top phones: the , , Google Pixel 4 and OnePlus 8 Pro.
To test what each front-facing camera could do, I took selfies across a range of categories: indoors and outdoors, in low-light, with a studio light and with the flash. This is a little different to our regular camera comparisons, where we post photos and label each one with their corresponding phone. Instead, you'll only see the photos in this article and in the video labeled 1 through 4, so you can compare results without knowing which image is from which device.
As with any camera comparison, the screen you're viewing pictures on will make a difference and do note that these images are somewhat compressed when uploading, which can affect image quality. Personal preference also plays the biggest role in deciding which one you like the most -- particularly if you're looking at photos of yourself!
All the photos taken in this comparison were with any beauty mode or filters turned off. For a fuller analysis and to see all the photo and video samples I took, watch the video embedded on this page. Otherwise, read on for a condensed version of my analysis.
Outdoor selfies show big differences in colors and perspectives
Here's an establishing shot to show you the differences in framing, because each phone has a slightly different field-of-view from the selfie lens.
Overall, all the phones produce a well-exposed shot with good colors in this scenario. I like the look of phone 1 the most here as it's nice and sharp. As you can see, phone 3 is immediately wider than any of the others, so it includes more of the background in the shot. To get the same perspective as the other phones, I had to bring the phone closer to my face for subsequent shots. In doing so, my face looked a little more distorted when taking handheld selfies because of that wider lens.
This is another photo taken using the self-timer, on a tripod, in outdoor lighting to show how each phone represents color. I prefer the shots from phones 2 and 4 overall because they are more vibrant. Phone 3's wider lens shows some lens flare because it captures a wider perspective.
In this photo above with flat, outdoor lighting, take a look at how each phone retains detail and dynamic range, particularly in the area behind my head where the sky meets the buildings. Some phones retain the building detail well, while others lose some definition in the highlights. Phone 3 has the most contrast out of all these selfies which I didn't find as flattering as the others.
There's one clear winner with portrait mode
All these phones have a portrait mode on the selfie camera that blurs the background to achieve a shallow depth-of-field effect. Although you can adjust the intensity of the blur either before or after you take the shot, I left the blur on the default settings. (And FYI, the Galaxy S20 Ultra's default camera app calls this live focus mode rather than portrait mode.)
Phone 1 is nice and sharp and has some pleasing background blur, as well as accurate white balance. Phone 2 has a slightly yellower tint than any of the others, but I think the blur looks the most natural and its edge-detection is strong. Phone 3's wider perspective helps accentuate this shot because I took it from a lower angle, but it doesn't get the blur quite right. Lastly, phone 4 gives a pleasing and flattering look overall, although its edge-detection doesn't correctly blur the areas around my arm and hair.
A key advantage for low-light selfies
Though some version of night mode for low-light photography exists on all four phones, only two have that same feature on their selfie cameras: phones 1 and 3. It's no surprise that they have the best low-light performance overall and deliver the most balanced photo, as you can see in the image below.
As for flash, they all use the screen to light up your face in the dark, rather than an LED flash used on the rear camera. I don't think any of the photos are particularly great (I broke the rule to never use flash!), but phone 4 delivers the most even and flattering lighting overall.
Only two of the phones can capture 4K video with the front-facing camera. Once again I'm not surprised that these were the same phones that also had the strongest overall video performance: phones 1 and 2. They did the best job of stabilizing the video while I was walking, had good exposure both indoors and outdoors, and had the best audio recording. See the samples and side-by-side comparisons in the video on this page.
And the best selfie camera is…
Now that you've had a chance to compare the photos and videos, here are the phones' identities: Phone number 1 is the Galaxy S20 Ultra, phone 2 is the iPhone 11 Pro, phone 3 is the Pixel 4 and phone 4 is the OnePlus 8 Pro.
While no one camera delivers a slam dunk across every single category, the Galaxy S20 Ultra is the most consistent performer overall, with strong video and photo results for the selfie camera. The iPhone 11 Pro is excellent for portrait mode shots, has great colors when taking outdoor selfies and records good audio and video footage. The Pixel 4 takes the strongest low light selfies both with and without Night Mode, although its wide angle lens isn't as flattering for faces as the other lenses. Lastly, the OnePlus 8 Pro has pleasing colors and good results overall, but selfie video recording isn't as polished as the other phones.
Selfie camera specs
||Galaxy S20 Ultra||iPhone 11 Pro||Pixel 4||OnePlus 8 Pro|
|Resolution||40MP (Pixel binned to 12MP or 6MP)||TrueDepth 12MP||8MP||16MP|
|Focal length||25/32mm||23mm||22mm||25mm fixed focus|