The Eye of the Beholder

Smartphone camera selection is becoming a subjective choice

It’s been a busy few weeks in new premium smartphones, and a common theme has been the emphasis on the camera, or more accurately, the (multiple) cameras.

Anyone who knows me is aware that I’m a prolific smartphone photographer. I’ve been using mobile phones to take pictures since 2002 and my phone has been my primary camera since 2007. By then, I felt picture quality had become good enough on phones that I wouldn’t be left wishing I had a decent dedicated digital camera if I wanted to take a quick snapshot. However, I’ll admit that I was hugely sceptical, when in the same year — 2007 — Nokia’s charismatic Anssi Vanjoki declared that smartphone cameras would become so good that there’d be “no need to carry around those heavy lenses” of a digital SLR camera.

It turns out Anssi’s prediction was true, even if it took a bit longer than expected. We’re now seeing a range of high-end smartphones with features previously seen only on digital SLRs. They enable image quality and effects that go a long way to rivalling those of dedicated cameras, and on occasions, matching them. That said, I’m certainly not naive enough to suggest that smartphone cameras are now good enough to make digital SLRs obsolete, even though the progress on the latest crop of smartphones is nothing short of remarkable.

I’ve been testing three smartphones whose cameras have been marketed as a central feature: Samsung’s Galaxy S10+, the Nokia 9 PureView and the recently announced Huawei P30 Pro.

There’s little doubt these are by far and away the best smartphone cameras I’ve ever used.

But there’s a catch. I think we’ve reached a point where it’s getting harder to know which one to choose. I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s no longer purely down to technical specifications; rather, it’s more of a subjective choice depending on how you like your photos to look and how you plan to use the camera.

I’m certainly not qualified to provide an extensive review of different cameras, but here’s a few thoughts on the three devices I’ve been using.

The Samsung Galaxy S10+ is a fantastic all-rounder. It offers a standard lens, a 2x zoom lens and a wide-angle lens. The colours tend to be warmer, which is a Samsung trait. It’s responsive, and good in most conditions, as you can see from the pictures below.

The Nokia 9 PureView feels like smartphone camera for more accomplished photographers. It takes a radically different design approach with its five-camera array of two colour and three monochrome sensors built on technology developed by a company called Light.

The Nokia has a huge set of features and functions, allowing detailed adjustments that some consumers would overwhelming. To get the most out of the camera you really have to know what you’re doing. If you do, you can capture some truly stunning shots.

Also, a personal favourite is the ability to capture native monochrome shots. It’s not surprising that so many professional photographers adore black-and-white photography. As you can see from the examples below, you can get some great results.

Finally, the latest addition to the line-up of high-end smartphones centred on their camera capabilities is the Huawei P30 Pro. At the time of writing, I’ve only been using this phone for a few days, so it’s hard to draw any definitive conclusions, yet I can’t help but be impressed by the 5x zoom feature.

Huawei has also been a big proponent of enhancing pictures through artificial intelligence. This is a clear example of the subjective nature of smartphone photography, and it feels to me that some of the pictures that Huawei devices produce are tailored to the Instagram generation of users who love filters. Pictures often turn out more like how someone would like them to look, rather than an exact replica of a scene.

On the basis of my unscientific comparisons, I’ve reached the conclusion that, beyond hardware capabilities like zoom or monochrome lenses, the relative merits of high-end camera-phones comes down to how you like your photos to look. We’ve entered the era of smartphone photography in which pictures will be judged according to the viewer’s subjective opinion. I think all three devices mentioned here take great pictures, but which pictures are the greatest is in the eye of the beholder.

CCS Insight clients can read further analysis on Samsung’s Galaxy S10 family here and Huawei’s P30 launch here.