In the previous episode of Last Cam Standing we saw the iPhone XS’ camera win its second straight victory over Huawei, Xiaomi, and Sony. In this matchup, Samsung steps into the ring with its S10+, Nokia pushes boundaries with the Nokia 9 Pureview, and Google’s Pixel 3 is back for a rematch. Let’s start this epic photo fight!
Last Cam Standing is PCWorld’s video series that determines the best phone camera for still images in a King-of-the-hill style battle. Whichever phone wins moves on to face the next contender—so subscribe to PCWorld’s YouTube for future shootouts!
First up, let’s meet the competitors. Apple’s iPhone XS has held the top spot for two rounds now, thanks to its computational photography chops. But now it’s up against some stiff competition, so we’ll see if it can stay on top.
The first challenger is Samsung and its Galaxy S10+. It features a triple-camera system, with the main lens maintaining that ‘dual aperture’ gimmick. Samsung has never done well in Last Cam Standing thanks to aggressive processing, so we hope it’s toned back some.
Next in line for the title is Nokia. The Nokia 9 Pureview and its five camera lenses could be a game changer for smartphone photography. Nokia has partnered with Zeiss and Light to push the boundaries of what’s possible, so let’s see if it works out well in our testing.
Last but not least is Google. The Pixel 3 lost to the iPhone XS a couple of rounds ago, but since then it’s gotten patched up and upgraded, so it’s looking for a rematch!
As always, I’ll be focusing mainly on the standard camera of each phone, using them in auto mode as they were configured out of the box. This allows for consistent testing and shows just how each company puts its own flavor on camera processing.
The tests will be broken into four categories: Color, Clarity, Exposure, and Extra Features. Extra features is where I dive into supplementary tests for things like portrait mode, extra lenses, and low light modes. We hired the fabulous Natalie to model for us—be sure to check out her Instagram page.
Category 1: Color
But enough with the build-up, we’ve got a lot of test results to get through! First up is color: We’ll be looking at things like color reproduction and white balance accuracy.
Starting with this first shot of Natalie chilling on the bricks, let’s note the differences in color temperature - illustrated mainly by the concrete. The iPhone is the warmest, followed by the Nokia. The Pixel is the coolest, and the S10+ is somewhere in between. The concrete in the S10+’s photo is cool, but the siding of the house is the warmest of the bunch. I’m going to give the Nokia the edge here, as it offers a great balance.
Switching to this next shot, Nokia ramps up the warm tones way too far for my tastes. The iPhone has the most saturated red shirt, as well as a reddish hue on her skin, which is typical for Apple. And of course the Pixel is the coolest, but is pretty great overall. I think the S10+ did the best here thanks to punchy, warm colors that don’t feel overexaggerated.
I feel the same about this shot across the Bay. The S10+’s photos just haven’t been as saturated as those from past Samsung phones, and that’s a good thing. But the Nokia falls flat on it’s face yet again, and makes a very odd choice in white balance—I’m not sure what to think.
Against this wall of vines, the Nokia struggles yet again, coating the entire photo in an orangeish hue that isn’t flattering. The rest of the phones look fine, but I’d give the slight edge again to the Pixel.
Strangely enough, Nokia did the best in this situation, thanks to the prevalance of brown tones in most of the scene. It’s not accurate but it is pleasing, giving Natalie’s skin a nice warm glow that’s missing in the S10+ and Pixel’s photos. Her skin tone is far too red in the iPhone’s shot, a horrible quality Apple just can’t shake.
Overall, Nokia has flashes of briliance when it comes to color, but it’s inconsistent and unpredictable. The iPhone leans too warm too often, and I’ve never liked the way it handles skin tones. The Pixel won this category last time and continues to impress with deep colors and pleasing tones—even when it’s the coolest of the bunch.
But I was surprised by just how muted the S10 was compared to older Samsung phones, performing great in almost every situation. I’m going to have to call the color category a tie between the Google Pixel 3 and the Samsung Galaxy S10+.
Category 2: Clarity
The next category is clarity. Here we’ll be looking at things like the sharpness of each camera, and how well they stay sharp in low lighting situations.
Starting with some scenes that don’t include any people, let’s zoom in on this building and focus on the bricks. Right off the bat we can see Samsung’s signature noise reduction in play, taking away detail and smoothing textures. Nokia’s shot is clear enough but features some jagged edges and doesn’t really impress. The Pixel has the most definition in the bricks, but it’s highly sharpened, which produces artifacts. The iPhone isn’t too far behind on this one, pulling in a solid performance.
At this closer distance we see a striking amount of detail on the pole and in the wood grain in Nokia’s photo. I’m impressed by just how sharp this photo turned out without looking oversharpened. The Pixel is the only phone that comes close to that kind of clarity, but it’s hampered by the sharpening style that produces this swirling pattern.
That S10+ photo is horrible. Not only does it remove noise, it also removes any chance of showing fine detail. The iPhone disappoints here as well, but at least it’s better than the S10+.
Moving on to my favorite building in San Francisco, I do need to point out a problem in some of Nokia’s shots. Zooming in on the power lines we notice haloing around these cables. But it’s not just in this photo; it’s present in others as well. This haloing happens around edges with high contrast because of how sharpening works. It essentially increases the contrast of edges, causing the edge pixels to overlighten when pushed too far. Like I said, it only appears in photos that feature hard contrasting edges, so it’s not a huge problem, but it does reveal what Nokia is doing in its software.
Checking out some photos in this dark garage, we notice that the S10+ is almost the brightest of the bunch, but zooming in reveals a pretty soft image. There is some detail in the S10+’s photo at least, more so than with the Nokia, which turns in a blurry mess. Nokia’s five cameras are supposed to bring in more light, but it doesn’t seem like the system knows how to keep the photo sharp. The Pixel’s photo exhibits some serious chroma noise in the darkest parts of the image, which is a real bummer. The iPhone does the best here—especially in the corner.
Before I zoom on this dark photo, I’ll point out that when I was standing there shooting, I couldn’t even tell whether the Nokia even captured anything, as the screen was completely black. I thought I messed something up, but this is really how poorly it performed—an absolute waste of a jpeg file.
Zooming in reveals pretty crappy performance across the board, each breaking down in their own ways. The Pixel’s noise is out of control. The S10+ is supersoft and lacks definition. The iPhone holds up the best, but it’s still not anything to write home about. (If you’re wondering how night mode shots perform here, stick around for the extra features category.)
Now let’s move onto some examples with Natalie. For this wider shot let’s focus on the bricks as well as her face. The results are fairly similar to what we’ve seen so far, espeically on the S10+, where it’s smoothing over details like strands of hair. Luckily the Nokia does just fine here and remains a viable option in some cases.
Moving to a closer shot, I’m a bit concerned by some of these results. The Pixel’s oversharpening isn’t very flattering to skin. The Nokia’s photo has the most background blur, suggesting it’s applying blur even though it wasn’t in portrait mode. The S10+’s shot is the most extreme, smoothing over her skin to the point of her looking like a doll. Its noise reduction has been heavy this whole time, but the amount of smoothing on her face seems to go past basic noise reduction.
Moving in even closer, the effect on the S10+ is obvious. The details in Natalie’s iris and eyelashes are clearly sharpened, yet the skin on her cheek and forehead are smoothed over and exhibit barely any detail. This is far too extreme in auto mode—seriously, this type of beautification should only be applied in a dedicated beauty mode.
But what about that Nokia shot? It appears to be trying to replicate a DSLR with shallow depth of field by having most of her face in focus, while blurring everything else. Once again, this isn’t in Portrait mode, this is from auto mode, and it’s going too far for me. Of course the Pixel doesn’t flatter Natalie’s skin, and it’s the iPhone that looks the best in all the shots with her in it.
So this category has been defined by extremes. The S10+ applies heavy amounts of noise reduction and appears to smooth skin. Nokia is hit-or-miss, and tries to add depth to photos of people whether you want that or not. The Pixel can be the sharpest of the bunch, but uses sharpening to get there, which doesn’t flatter skin. So it’s the iPhone that’s consistent and performs well in almost every scenario. Apple’s iPhone XS takes the clarity category.