Huawei P20 Pro vs Pixel 2 XL vs Galaxy S9+ vs iPhone X: low-light camera shoot-out

Huawei P20 Pro vs Pixel 2 XL vs Galaxy S9+ vs iPhone X: low-light camera shoot-out
Being what my colleagues would describe as a "photography aficionado" (a.k.a annoying camera geek), and someone who loved the 20MP monochrome cameras on the Huawei P9 and the P10, I was excited to learn that the Huawei P20 Pro will feature three cameras and a massive (for today's smartphone standards) 1/1.7-inch sensor for better low-light performance. Not to mention the f/1.8 aperture, which albeit not the lowest f-stop number we've seen on a smartphone, is actually capable of capturing quite a bit more light than the competition, thanks to the increased surface area of the sensor.

So, naturally, I couldn't wait til I got my hands on the P20 Pro and took it out for some night-time photos, along with some of the other top-shelf smartphone cameras. And so I did, and now there are questions that I want and will try to answer about P20 Pro's low-light performance. Is it really the best? Or is it great in some areas, while not as decent in others? The answers to these questions and more, you will find here! This is Huawei P20 Pro against the Samsung Galaxy S9+, the iPhone X, and the Pixel 2 XL: low-light camera shoot-out.

Is Huawei P20 Pro the best smartphone for low-light photography?



Before we begin the comparison-proper, and before we can answer the question posed above, we should take a better look at how P20 Pro's much touted "Night" camera mode works. To see how it differs from the normal "Photo" mode, I decided to start out by taking two shots in the two different modes before it got completely dark out. Turns out, this is a great way to get a better idea of how "Night" mode actually works, as some of the things it does become much less apparent when there's no light left in the sky. So, let's have a look at these two images:


This is how "Night" mode on the Huawei P20 Pro works (too-long-don't-care version):

  1. The camera takes multiple photos at different exposures, starting at underexposed, through properly exposed, then overexposed. This is called exposure bracketing and is done so that, when the images are blended, the software can pull detail in the shadows from the overexposed shots, and detail in the highlights from the underexposed images. This process takes 5 seconds and image resolution is limited to 10MP.
  2. The exposures are then blended (or stacked) to create an HDR image
  3. Aggressive noise reduction is applied
  4. The result is "sharpened" by applying local contrast and structure adjustments. These mostly affect the midtones and create the illusion of a sharper image.

As you can see from the example above, Huawei's processing techniques are quite aggressive, though they do help when shooting in very poor lighting. This example serves only to better illustrate what's happening behind the curtains, as very dark environments don't lend themselves quite as well to granular inspection. That said, we are going to be shooting in "Night" mode on the P20 Pro for the rest of this comparison, as it is the intended mode to use when shooting at night. However, we'll also try out the regular "Photo" mode in some scenes, and even enable the 40MP setting, which is otherwise unavailable when shooting in "Night" mode.

With all this said, let's now begin the actual comparison to see how the Huawei P20 Pro stacks up against the best smartphone cameras on the market when it comes to night-time photography.

Scene 1



As is customary in our low-light shoot-outs, we are starting out at twilight. This way, we can see how the performance of each camera changes as we move through dusk, and then cut to the chase when night falls.

Right off the bat, Scene 1 is a disaster for the Huawei P20 Pro, with the Pixel 2 XL and the Galaxy S9+ producing the best-looking images, followed by the iPhone X. It's hard to pick between the Pixel and the S9+, as they excel in different areas. Details farther away in the scene have better definition on the Galaxy S9+, while the foreground, the writings on the train for example, look more natural the Pixel shot. The S9+ photo also exhibits ringing artifacts around some of the darker edges (these are the glowing lines that appear as a results of aggressive sharpening), which may turn some people off.


The iPhone X has blown out the highlights in the sky, but at least it's preserved detail in the shadows in the foreground, whereas the P20 Pro has produced an overly dark, muddled image, albeit with a properly exposed sky.

Best shots: Pixel 2 XL and Galaxy S9+

Scene 2



Scene 2 gives us a better glimpse at how the four phones handle bright, direct lights. And surprisingly, there's quite a difference between the four.

Starting from worst to best: it's a total blowout on the iPhone X, with a huge halo around the light; the Galaxy S9 fares a bit better, although the Pixel 2 XL manages the flaring even better; the P20 Pro is definitely the tightest of the bunch. Thanks to exposure bracketing, the Huawei manages to pull this scene off with the least amount of flaring.


As far as detail is concerned, performance is comparable across all four devices, although the P20 Pro photo has some visibly more accentuated textures than the rest. The road and the sidewalk, for example, have this grittier look to them in the P20 Pro shot, which makes these areas appear more detailed when viewed on the phone's 6-inch display. Actually zooming in, things begin to look different, though many people are sure to like Huawei's processing over the more subtle results from the Pixel 2 XL and the S9+.

Best shot: Huawei P20 Pro

Scene 3



This intricate scene gives gives us a better understanding of how each phone handles details.

Here, the P20 Pro produces a completely noise-free image, albeit at the cost of some finer details. Examining the P20 Pro photo from up close, especially solid-colored areas, you can see that there is no noise. None at all. Completely clean. However, comparing it to the S9 shot, we can see that this comes at the cost of an all-around softer image across the entire frame. Whether you like it or not, is up to you.

Best shots: Galaxy S9+ and Pixel 2 XL

Scene 4



This scene shows how each of the four cameras handles distant, intricately detailed subjects.

As we go through the scenes, we are not going to discuss each one at length, as we've already established the defining characteristics of each camera. Besides, some of the images really do speak for themselves.

Best shot: Huawei P20 Pro

Scene 5



Alright, that's an interesting one. Here, the Huawei P20 Pro really manages to pull out some detail out of the sky. The image looks quite punchy as a whole, when viewed on a small screen, and is followed only by the Pixel 2 XL in terms of perceived sharpness. When we zoom in, however, it becomes apparent that, due to Huawei's aggressive noise reduction, actual detail in the P20 Pro shot has taken a hit. The perceived punchiness of the image is the result of local contrast adjustments, which create better contrast in the midtones, without blowing out the highlights.

In this scene, I was interested to see how the regular "Photo" mode on the P20 Pro fairs at 40MP resolution, and well, the results were quite disappointing. Not only is the background much darker, since there's no bracketing going on, but the entire image is very, very soft. I had to retake it, thinking something just went wrong the first time, but all consecutive images were just as soft. Then, when I looked at all the photos on my monitor, I thought it would be fun to do a little experiment: to take the Pixel 2 shot from this scene and enlarge it to match the 40MP resolution of the Huawei photo. Well, here's a crop:


The funny part (or sad, depending on how you look at it) is that, even when enlarged from 12MP to 40MP, the Pixel 2 XL photo still manages to be substantially sharper than the P20 Pro image. That's just a fun experiment, of course, in order to see how Huawei's latest flagship performs at night in its regular "Photo" mode. However, it is also a good way to see just to what extent the P20 Pro relies on noise suppression to deliver smooth-looking shots, and how actual detail suffers from it. At 10MP, you can't make out many of the details that are lost in the process, but at 40MP, it becomes obvious. As we've seen above, when shooting in "Night" mode, the P20 Pro manages to outperform the competition in some areas, and Scene 5 really does look great on the P20 Pro's 6-inch screen. The question is—and that's the eternal dilemma—whether you prefer your photos to look great on your phone's screen or on a bigger display.

Best shots: Pixel 2 XL and Huawei P20 Pro

The comparison continues on Page 2!

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109 Comments

1. Venom

Posts: 3821; Member since: Dec 14, 2017

When it comes to smartphone cameras, the Pixel is still the king. I don't see anything taking it off the throne anytime soon.

3. rsiders

Posts: 2009; Member since: Nov 17, 2011

That's why I'm holding out for the Pixel 3. I get a no compromise phone with my V20 and all the manual controls I need, QuadDAC, removable battery and the best all around point and shoot camera on the upcoming Pixel.

9. Sammy_DEVIL737

Posts: 1529; Member since: Nov 28, 2016

Same here I hope they Google brings Headphone jack back in Pixel 3 and take advantage of LG’s quadDAC.

4. umaru-chan

Posts: 372; Member since: Apr 27, 2017

Imagine what pixel phone will achieve in low light photography if only they add a monochrome sensor.

14. Cicero

Posts: 1148; Member since: Jan 22, 2014

Pixel 2 XL have an unnatural blue. Please take a look.

17. Cat97

Posts: 1976; Member since: Mar 02, 2017

Unfortunately, Pixel 2/XL2 is too ugly to be seriously considered.

39. GalaxyLeads_iCrapFollows

Posts: 216; Member since: Nov 29, 2017

Nope I think Samsung Galaxy s9 is best overall. Huawei and Apple is pure garbage.

58. drkuthan

Posts: 76; Member since: Mar 08, 2013

No it is not. I owned the iphone X, pixel 2 xl, galaxy s9 plus and now the p20 pro in order. If you want the detailed picture in daylight or night time especially for a building or landscape etc. nothing can come close to the p20 pro. XL is a great shooter indoors and outdoors maybe the best results you can have with it yes it is true but it can not do night time or the details in the daylight as good as the p20 pro. S9 plus and also the iphone X has great cameras but there is no king now. No phone is way way better than other in photo and video.

68. xenontetroxide

Posts: 57; Member since: Apr 23, 2018

From most full resolution samples I've seen id say that's false, the exception being dpreview's for some reason. The 40mp mode smears in broad daylight due to the color information lost to the "quad bayer" layout, and ends up only very slightly sharper than say the s9, which has 12(honest)mp. Also high contrast edges yield red to purple interpolation artifacts across the frame, it's not ca as far as i could tell because it's so consistent.

83. Aruminiumaian

Posts: 209; Member since: Jul 22, 2017

While it's not really a "true" 40MP sensor, they couldn't have claimed that it is 10MP either since there ARE actually 40 million pixels to work on and extra resolutions are fully utilised when performing digital zoom. 10MP sensor cannot produce 40MP without upscaling being involved, and the detail level of the final 40MP image produced in this way will still be that of 10MP image. If you look at RAW samples from P20 Pro, however, even though the amount of details still don't match what comes out from Lumia 1020(partly due to smaller pixel size), it is still vastly superior to what S9/iPhone X/Mate 10 Pro etc can offer. But yeah, purple fringing can be annoying especially under broad daylight in 40MP mode as you say.

87. xenontetroxide

Posts: 57; Member since: Apr 23, 2018

I struggled very hard to find ANY improvement in detail rendition of the "40MP" sensor over both the S9+ and the Pixel2XL in GSMArena's comparison tool, I found in the end that the map on the left side of the sample has a tiny bump in legibility over both the 12MP samples, but not anywhere else which looked, as it actually is, heavily interpolated. And in some parts of the sample the 40MP even renders inferior detail, notably the red puff at the bottom of the sample, that's in the "good light" sample at ISO80, if it's not base ISO then it's 1/3-2/3s of a stop above it. In the low light sample of course the 40MP sensor smears further and is clearly no match for the two 12MP sensors. Honestly that comparison is pretty fair as all three phones use only their main sensor in auto mode shooting the exact same scene, and the result is that the 40MP 1/1.7" sensor is far inferior to Samsung's 1/2.55" 12MP and Google's 1/2.3" 12MP.

91. Aruminiumaian

Posts: 209; Member since: Jul 22, 2017

That's because the processing is pretty mediocre in 40MP mode. I downloaded some RAW samples of P20 Pro from internet and the amount of details was really good. I struggle to understand why Huawei even bothered to apply any software processing when shooting in 40MP mode, as those RAW samples clearly looks better than out-of-the-camera full-res JPEG images in terms of details. Anyway, it's not quite Lumia 1020 level, but it's still better than most. But as we both agree, the purple fringing is really evident: something Huawei could've dealt with instead of just applying half-assed NR and sharpening. >that comparison is pretty fair as all three phones use only their main sensor in auto mode Except it's not set to 40MP by default, you're meant to shoot in 10MP to benefit from extensive software processing. Also S9 shoots at lower ISO and slower shutter speed presumably due to presence of OIS and brighter F 1.5 aperture, so you cannot say that S9's sensor is superior to P20 Pro's. Now, the fairest way to compare the sensor quality directly is to set the ISO the same on both phones in pro mode and adjust the shutter speed on each phone so that they gain the same exposure. In this way the multi frame NR and HDR, which can alter the outcomes, can be disabled as well to achieve even fairer results. Anyway, back to the first topic, I compared the 10MP sample to 12MP ones from S9+ on the same comparison tool, and I think, only slightly, P20 Pro is edging out S9+ in terms of image processing which you can tell if you zoom into the map, with sharpening halo and noise reduction being less apparent in P20 Pro's photo. With that said, although S9+ and P20 Pro are indeed great at holding onto details, they clearly fall behind something like U11+ (U11+'s camera has other issues to deal with but let's just not talk about it here). There is definitely a room for improvement in this area for both companies.

97. xenontetroxide

Posts: 57; Member since: Apr 23, 2018

I disagree. I just found some RAW samples today and checked out the only one that was exposed properly at base ISO(photographyblog, last sample). There's not as much visible smearing but that still doesn't mean the detail is there, it's not so "smeared" as in smooth and without texture, but it's really fuzzy across the frame, that's still detrimental to sharpness, I haven't seen this sort of fuzziness anywhere else before. Other RAWs may be soft but it's a smoother sort of soft without this fuzziness at pixel level. For example there's a sign at the right of the image that's pretty big already, but disproportional to the number of pixels it takes up I can't make out most of the words, also most of the bricks still smear too much that I can't make out individual ones. On all high contrast edges there's still the CA which I once thought was interpolation artifacts. The building on the left which is obviously made of brick looks like clay because of the smearing, and where that building casts its reflection on the water there's too much interpolation to make out anything, like the puff from GSMArena. It's better than JPG and has more potential but then all RAW are better and have more potential, this one at base ISO still doesn't take pushing very well and pushing shadows immediately results in visible noise. Also keep in mind that to even start using this mediocre result you're going to need to process a 76.2MB file. "you're meant to shoot in 10MP to benefit from extensive software processing" You're fine to say that if that's how they advertised it, it's not, they mislead people into thinking 40MP actually means high quality and "professionalism", but it outputs really low quality JPGs and mediocre RAWs at 40MP. Most amateurs buying this phone will have high hopes for the 40MP and will be disappointed, and the "AI" isn't helping. I'm not really saying this is the absolute sense of sensor quality, but it's the most perceptible to consumers and it's a popular testing method. I did suggest that they add the 10MP sample but didn't know that they updated it already, I'll need to take a look. I didn't notice the U11+, I think HTC already fell off most people's radars. That's interesting, I'll be looking into reviews.

103. Aruminiumaian

Posts: 209; Member since: Jul 22, 2017

>They mislead people into thinking 40MP actually means high quality and "professionalism Nokia 808 PV was performing in exactly the same way, when shooting in full-res the image quality quickly went south as the lighting gets dimmer due to very high noise level. So in reality shooting in 8MP or less yielded much more usable results since lower resolution allows it to perform pixel binning and apply extra NR to produce more pleasing, cleaner images. Yes, the resolution of the sensor is high and it doesn't use any sort of pixel interpolation, but because of rather soft lens the rendered details weren't really what you could expect from 40MP sensor. The dynamic range is rather poor (at least in today's standard) and what's even worse is that it doesn't even support shooting in RAW. And despite all that I still see many people on the internet still referring to it as a "professional level" camera and nobody is claiming that they are "misled" by Nokia. Some even claim that its camera is still better than cameras on current flagship phones today, while completely ignoring photography is not just about details, but also about colour reproduction, DR, noise level, tonality, lens quality etc. Don't get me wrong, I'm not criticising Nokia here: 808 was truly magnificent cameraphone at that time. But I just don't understand why they didn't take all the criticism about 808 actually pixel-binning and downsampling photos by default despite widely advertising as a 40MP sensor, whereas when it's Huawei people suddenly turn into like "it's shooting in 10MP by default so it's fake/misleading/deceiving" Now, my apology but I have to excuse myself. I will not have a time to comment on this website for a while, so feel free to reply to me, but please don't expect me to reply back.

104. xenontetroxide

Posts: 57; Member since: Apr 23, 2018

The 808 most certainly does not perform in the same way, not least because it has a much bigger sensor but also because it doesn't use the quirky "quad bayer" layout. P20Pro's 40MP is questionable even facing the 12MP flagships, but the 808 clearly resolves more than 12MP, DxO's samples(they lie about the conclusions but at least they use real samples, then again if they faked even the samples they'd better be prepared to go down in flames when exposed) clearly show that the 808 is much sharper in good light than the S6 which had a 1/2.3" 16MP sensor. As for "people on the internet", I don't know about "people", but Huawei, officially, specifically stated in their ad that "this is a professional camera", and contrary to how professionals want their files(to be easy to process) they overcook their files, with the non-cooked option also falling short (monochrome notwithstanding, but that's not how they advertised it). I looked at your samples and, yes, 3/4 samples don't have fake looking skies (then again I don't have samples from other models for reference of the conditions), one still looked fake and pastel-like and the halo from the intense clarity boost could be seen in two of them, so while "colour reproduction, DR, noise level, tonality, lens quality" are important, I don't agree that the P20Pro really has a clear advantage in any of them, certainly not in daylight and only in some cases at night.

92. Aruminiumaian

Posts: 209; Member since: Jul 22, 2017

That's because the processing is pretty mediocre in 40MP mode. I downloaded some RAW samples of P20 Pro from internet and the amount of details was really good. I struggle to understand why Huawei even bothered to apply any software processing when shooting in 40MP mode, as those RAW samples clearly looks better than out-of-the-camera full-res JPEG images in terms of details. Anyway, it's not quite Lumia 1020 level, but it's still better than most. But as we both agree, the purple fringing is really evident: something Huawei could've dealt with instead of just applying half-assed NR and sharpening. >that comparison is pretty fair as all three phones use only their main sensor in auto mode Except it's not set to 40MP by default, you're meant to shoot in 10MP to benefit from extensive software processing. Also S9 shoots at lower ISO and slower shutter speed presumably due to presence of OIS and brighter F 1.5 aperture, so you cannot say that S9's sensor is superior to P20 Pro's. Now, the fairest way to compare the sensor quality directly is to set the ISO the same on both phones in pro mode and adjust the shutter speed on each phone so that they gain the same exposure. In this way the multi frame NR and HDR, which can alter the outcomes, can be disabled as well to achieve even fairer results. Anyway, back to the first topic, I compared the 10MP sample to 12MP ones from S9+ on the same comparison tool, and I think, only slightly, P20 Pro is edging out S9+ in terms of image processing which you can tell if you zoom into the map, with sharpening halo and noise reduction being less apparent in P20 Pro's photo. With that said, although S9+ and P20 Pro are indeed great at holding onto details, they clearly fall behind something like U11+ (U11+'s camera has other issues to deal with but let's just not talk about it here). There is definitely a room for improvement in this area for both companies.

2. Papa_Ji

Posts: 876; Member since: Jun 27, 2016

clearly iPhone x is worse.

5. Fred3

Posts: 582; Member since: Jan 16, 2018

Pixel 2 still the best

6. Sunbae-min

Posts: 135; Member since: Mar 25, 2018

So basically Huawei just use a dirty trick to oversharp its image in order to make it look better in small display size whereas in full scale zoom the image looks worse than ever. What a pathetic cheating technique. Stop believing them guys. They even paid Dxo Mark to boost the score. Shame! From my honest perspective, I see the Galaxy S9+ captures the best photo in almost scenario. The pixel 2xl comes 2nd. Both iPhone x and p20 aren't there yet.

30. andriodfanboy1

Posts: 169; Member since: Jul 22, 2014

Majority of smartphone users don't analyze there photos on large phones to find out flaws,unless they are tech savvy

69. xenontetroxide

Posts: 57; Member since: Apr 23, 2018

When you put this to perspective, Huawei's ads consist of hyperbole like "this is a professional camera", and burning scenes of *actual* professional equipment, so they can't complain when held to such a standard.

7. Sparkxster

Posts: 1245; Member since: Mar 31, 2017

1. Pixel 2 XL 2. Huawei P20 Pro 3. S9+ 4.iPhone X

8. shield

Posts: 868; Member since: Sep 12, 2015

No LG V30 why? is**t with s**t Camera.!

11. Sammy_DEVIL737

Posts: 1529; Member since: Nov 28, 2016

If Pixel 2 can out perform every other latest flagship including a Triplecamera setup phone than what Pixel 3 will do when it comes out. Google clearly showed that you don’t need 2 camera to make best camera, one is still enough. For the first time Iam eagerly waiting for Pixel phone than a Galaxy.

12. Bondurant

Posts: 785; Member since: Jun 04, 2014

Pixel 2 Xl wins 4/10 and P20 pro wins 7/10. But pixel fanboys read otherwise.

18. Fred3

Posts: 582; Member since: Jan 16, 2018

Please get your eyes checked.

49. Bondurant

Posts: 785; Member since: Jun 04, 2014

You and all those pixel fanboys giving a thumbs up should be doing so. Once again, out of 10 scenes, the best photo wins goes to: P20 pro - 7/10 Pixel 2XL - 4/10 S9+ - 3/10 Iphone X - 1/10

70. xenontetroxide

Posts: 57; Member since: Apr 23, 2018

If you have really poor eyesight then the fake oversharpening of the p20pro caters to you. The samples looking ugly to people who could see and appreciate actual detail.

71. Aruminiumaian

Posts: 209; Member since: Jul 22, 2017

And other people including myself can appreciate much higher dynamic range from the night mode. Also keep in mind that if you don't use night mode the amount of details from P20 Pro's photo is similar to those from S9 but with the dynamic range still as good as Pixel 2.

75. xenontetroxide

Posts: 57; Member since: Apr 23, 2018

Nope, without night mode the details are still oversharpened and fake, they're not convincing at 10mp, just look at the branches, the way thinner branches are fainter than thicker branches is what they're supposed to look like to a resolution limited sensor, the way the p20pro renders it is like charcoal sketching, you obviously don't have an idea what real detail looks like, and seem oblivious to the smear.

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