Huawei P20 Pro vs Pixel 2 XL vs Galaxy S9+ vs iPhone X: 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):
- 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.
- The exposures are then blended (or stacked) to create an HDR image
- Aggressive noise reduction is applied
- 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.
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.
< Huawei P20 Pro Pixel 2 XL >
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 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
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.
< Huawei P20 Pro Galaxy S9+ >
Best shots: Galaxy S9+ and Pixel 2 XL
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.
< Huawei P20 Pro iPhone X >
Best shot: Huawei P20 Pro
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:
< Huawei P20 Pro Pixel 2 XL >
Crop from a 40MP photo from the P20 Pro vs a crop from a 12MP photo from the Pixel 2 XL, enlarged to 40MP
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!
This story is part of:Camera comparisons (23 updates)
1 October iPhone XS vs Pixel 2 XL vs Galaxy Note 9 vs iPhone X: low-light camera comparison
28 September iPhone Xs Max vs Galaxy Note 9, Pixel 2 XL camera comparison: which phone takes the best photos?
21 September Sony Xperia XZ3 vs Galaxy Note 9 vs Pixel 2 XL vs iPhone X: camera comparison
8 June OnePlus 6 vs Galaxy S9+ vs Pixel 2 XL: low-light camera comparison
30 May OnePlus 6 vs Samsung Galaxy S9+ vs iPhone X vs Google Pixel 2 XL Portrait Mode Comparison