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Budget phone camera comparison: can the Nord 2 beat the best?

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Budget phone camera comparison: can the Nord 2 beat the best?
The new OnePlus Nord 2 borrows the camera sensor from flagship OnePlus phones, yet it is half the price, so it definitely has big ambitions, but are the actual photos and videos that it captures better than the competition?

We shot a bunch of photos to find out, and in this camera comparison, we pit the OnePlus Nord 2 vs Samsung's Galaxy A52 vs Apple's iPhone SE, all mid-range phones, all in about the same $400-$500 price range.

We have captured daylight, low-light, ultra-wide, front camera photos and a few video recordings, but first let's take a look at what you get in terms of camera hardware:


The iPhone SE here is the most humble of the bunch with just a single rear camera, no ultra-wide lens, nothing. It's a capable shooter, but it lacks in versatility compared to the other two. The Nord 2 and the Galaxy A52 both come with a main and ultra-wide cameras, but they also add a bit of extra spice: the Nord has a black-and-white camera, while the A52 features a macro and depth sensing cameras. Those are quite gimmicky, so we have left them off the scope of this comparison, and we'll focus on just the main shooters.

Read more:
OnePlus Nord 2 Review
OnePlus Nord 2 vs Samsung Galaxy A52 5G comparison: which is the best budget Android phone in 2021?
OnePlus Nord 2 vs Nord 1: what has changed?

Scene 1: Sunset Street



In this first shot, the OnePlus Nord 2 really impressed us: it stands out with great dynamic range, as it gets both the beautiful sunset gradient in the sky and properly exposes the ground, while the Galaxy gets a darker and moodier shot, and the iPhone also kind of disappoints us with the skies completely blown out.

Scene 2: Almost evening



The next photo once again showcases the great dynamic range of the Nord 2, but it also makes it abundantly clear that there is some heavy processing going on, notice the halos around the tree branches. Still, this is a good-looking photo. The Galaxy captures colder-looking colors, while the iPhone once again has trouble conveying the color of the sky in this photo as it is way blown out. We like the detail and overall look of the iPhone photo a bit better than the rest, the colors on the Nord are just a bit too muted and darker, but it's a very decent image.

Scene 3: A Walk in the park



This next shot on the Nord 2 again is characterized with somewhat muted, bleaker colors, while the Galaxy looks a bit washed out, and we'd have to give our preference to the iPhone that captures the most engaging, vibrant colors that make this photo so likable.

Scene 4: How do they photograph people?



It's really hard to pick a favorite in this scenario as all photos look quite similar with only tiny differences between them. Which one is your favorite? 

Scene 5: Portrait mode



The Nord 2 allows you to capture a 1X and 2X portraits (above is a 1X portrait), and that second 2X option is missing on the other phones, which we find to be a significant limitation, especially for portraits. As for the above photo, lens flare with the wider lens of the Nord 2 was more common and in this case has kind of ruined the shot a bit, and we wanted to mention it happening every now and then. Between the other two, the iPhone has the warmer colors and maintains a better dynamic range, while the Galaxy looks a bit colder and a few of the highlights in the image are blown out, so we'd have to give a slight edge to the iPhone here, but it's really, really close between the two.

Low-light photo 1: Architecture



In this low light shot, the Nord 2 shines: it has captured a ton of light, the white balance is correct, and the only issue with the photo is that it has a bit too much sharpness. The Galaxy is a bit too dark and lacking in vibrancy, while the iPhone has captured a great-looking photo but the white balance is too warm and we'd have to give this one to the Nord 2.

Low-light photo 2: Lights on



While the Nord 2 captures more light in this shot than the Galaxy, we notice one of the weak points of this phone and that is the orange cast when you have incandescent lights. We'd still say that this is a more usable photo than the darker shot you get from the Galaxy, but if we had to pick a winner, it's the iPhone that strikes the best balance here.

Low-light photo 3: Night falls



Just one more example to show the "orange incandescent" issue on the Nord 2 in the photos above, it's definitely a problem. The Galaxy photo is just all kinds of strange, the color of the sky looks plain unnatural, and this is another win for the iPhone.

Low-light photo 4: Sun dial at night



Let's be honest, for most people the first picture captured by the Nord 2 here will be the winner, simply because you get a lot more color and ambiance, while the other two look a bit dull and not quite as engaging. Detail in the grass is also very clear on the Nord compared to the other two phones, so this round has got to go the OnePlus phone.

Low-light photo 5: Happy bar



Finally, one of the scenes we typical capture with the red neon lights. Yes, they are red in real life and not green or yellow, so the OnePlus definitely feels this "neon light test", and so does the Galaxy for that matter, while the iPhone is able to capture the lights in all of their glory. We'd say that the OnePlus goes a bit overboard with the processing here, it shoves up a bit too much sharpness in the photo and it looks overdone. The Galaxy and the iPhone look quite comparable, but it's the iPhone that has the cleaner detail and that gets those neons right, so it's our winner this round.

Low-light photo 5: Studio photo



A picture of yours truly in our studio in very dim light, reveals some interesting details: the photo from the iPhone, while exposed brightest, has almost no detail and looks blurry, so it has to go. The Galaxy and the OnePlus are pretty close, but it's the OnePlus that captures richer detail and does better with the skin tone, so it wins this one.

Selfies



Finally, a few selfies for those of you who care. The Galaxy really stands out here with all good things: proper white balance, dynamic range, detail, it's captured a great shot. The OnePlus is a bit overexposed and what's up with the colors on the iPhone? Selfie round 1: goes to the Samsung.


All similar issue in the second shot above, but this time the iPhone has done a better job. We'd still prefer the image from the Galaxy a bit better, but that is a quite subjective judgment in this case, and the OnePlus... a bit overexposed and a bit worse than the other two.


But my oh my, do we come impressed with the low light selfie from the OnePlus here: crisp detail at night, great looking colors, it's our favorite picture. The Galaxy is a close runner-up, and the iPhone, well... just look yourselves, not a great shot.

Video Quality



We've already mentioned in our OnePlus Nord 2 review that you still have some weird limitation when recording 4K video: once you start recording with the main camera, you cannot pinch out to the ultra-wide, and you have to start over the recording and select the ultra-wide to use that. Plus, the ultra-wide camera on the Nord 2 lacks any proper stabilization and is barely usable for 4K recordings.

With this in mind, though, if we were to just focus on the main camera, we ought to say that the Nord 2 does surprisingly well. The Galaxy A52 clearly has the widest field of view, but it is just no match for the other two in terms of dynamic range as you can see those highlights blown out way out of proportion. We'd say that the iPhone SE still impresses with the amount of detail you see on it, and just a rock-solid video stabilization that punches way above this class. You can see that flaring is a big issue on it, though, and the OnePlus Nord 2 does not suffer from that, plus the Nord 2 often has the more accurate white balance, so it's a close race between these two, and it's hard for us to pick a favorite.

Conclusion


So, is the OnePlus Nord 2 the phone that comes and absolutely destroys all existing competition in this $400-$500 price range? The answer to that is "no", but despite that, it's a huge improvement from the original Nord 1. With improved dynamic range, more gentle colors and newly acquired low-light capture skills, the Nord 2 can often capture better-looking photos than the Galaxy A52 and the iPhone SE, and it also has impressive video recording quality. It does have a few issues with incandescent lighting, a bit of an overprocessed look to some photos and aggressive oversharpening that is often apparent, but it definitely doesn't feel like it's a compromise in the camera department.

And that coupled with its speedy performance and other cool features like super fast charging, make it one of the most appealing budget phones on the market right now.

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OnePlus Nord 2 5G specs
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  • Display 6.4 inches 2400 x 1080 pixels 90Hz Refresh rate
  • Camera 50 MP (Triple camera) 32 MP front
  • Hardware MediaTek Dimensity 1200 6GB RAM
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  • OS Android 11 OxygenOS 11.3 UI
Apple iPhone SE (2020) specs
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