iPhone Xs Max vs Galaxy Note 9, Pixel 2 XL camera comparison: which phone takes the best photos?

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Last Wednesday was a fun day. I got caught out in the rain, I crawled through a mud pit, and I got to enjoy the view of the full moon rising over the sea... while my exposed ears were being cryogenically preserved by the blowing wind. But enduring all this was worth it. After all, I got to snap some great photos for the smartphone camera comparison you've landed on. Welcome!

Without a doubt, the iPhone XS Max is the star of this camera shootout. It surely has the best camera on an iPhone yet, but is it better at taking photos than the competition? To answer this question, we'll be comparing the iPhone XS Max vs the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, which has already shown that it's a formidable opponent in the smartphone camera space. And to make things more interesting, we're throwing in the Google Pixel 2 XL in the ring – a phone that's nearly a year old by now, but also one that still ranks among the best shooters on the market.

Okay, now let's take a look at some photos!

Scene 1: By the sea

A shout-out goes to my colleague Vic for helping me capture this Instagram material! 

Anyway, it looks like the iPhone XS Max and the Galaxy Note 9 did really well in this scene, and it's hard to pick a favorite. But we're leaning towards the Galaxy Note 9 for exposing our subject a tiny bit better. The Pixel 2 XL, in contrast, has literally left Vic in the shadows. It's not a very inspiring photo, honestly speaking, as the subject appears darker than we'd want him to be.

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Dynamics range is also substantially better on the Note 9 and the iPhone XS Max than it is on the Pixel. Both phones have preserved those highlights in the sky really well. 

Scene 2: Flowers and colors

Among these three images, the one from the Note 9 does stand out the most, but we wouldn't call it our favorite. It's just that it looks slightly overexposed, skewing the natural colors of the plants and the grass. The Pixel 2 XL and the iPhone XS Max stick to a more balanced, more natural look, with the iPhone having a slight advantage for capturing a bit more detail in the shadows and a more faithful shade of green. 

Scene 3: By the casino

We're not sure why, but the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 delivers a slightly "flatter" image of this scene, without much contrast in it. This is easily noticeable if you compare how all three phones captured the puff and fluff of the clouds in the sky. The iPhone XS Max is again our favorite among the bunch with its eye-pleasing photo. The Pixel 2 XL comes in second place, having captured less detail in the shadows than Apple's smartphone.

Scene 4: At the opera house

Now that's interesting. It looks like the iPhone XS Max has a tendency to spice up its photos, and we won't be surprised if there's some "AI" algorithm tweaking the dials behind the scenes. Those fiery tones in the clouds cast by the setting sun look lovely against the afternoon sky, don't they? They're also a tad exaggerated, but the photo still looks impressive. 

The Galaxy Note 9, on the other hand, tamed those oranges and yellows a bit too much, maybe to expose the front of the opera house better. In any case, I'd much rather post the iPhone's photo on my Facebook wall. 

As for the Pixel 2 XL, we're once again seeing it toning down the exposure, and the results are a mixed bag. The clouds in the sky do look share-worthy, but the shadows seem too dark for our taste. 

Scene 5: The sunset

Much of the same as above is observed here in this scene. The iPhone XS Max presents us with a lovely picture prettified by a well-controlled boost in colors: the gradients in the sky and the hue of the cap look awesome. Only the skin tones are not as natural as they could have been. Meanwhile, the Galaxy Note 9 delivers a more neutral image. It is also good, but we wish the warm tones in the sky were captured more convincingly. And apologies for repeating ourselves, but the Pixel's photo should have been brighter. 

Scene 6: Dinner time

Frankly speaking, we're disappointed by all three images of this scene – though we have to admit that shooting photos around those warm, vintage-style light bulbs could be challenging to any camera. The iPhone's photo is rich in detail, but I'm not a fan of the pinkish skin tone of my face. The Note 9 couldn't focus on my face well. The Pixel 2 XL skewed the colors towards a yellowish-orange hue that's even further from reality. Who would know that a scene like this would be this tricky to photograph?

Scene 7: Pizza alley

The iPhone handled this particular scene very well. Its image is rich in detail, the signs glowing brightly are not overblown, and the overall exposure seems a lot more balanced. In contrast, the Note 9 and the Pixel 2 XL could not squeeze out as much detail from the shadowy areas. 

Scene 8: Full moon rising

Something interesting happened here: all three photos had their LED flash set to "Auto" and all three used it to illuminate the scene. All three photos looked horrible as a result, as if they were taken through a thick foggy layer, so we disabled the flash on all phones and took the shot again. What came out were these three, relatively better photos.

We have to admit that this particular scene is extra challenging, but the iPhone XS Max managed to capture it well nonetheless, with enough detail and likeable colors. But the Galaxy Note 9 is a step ahead with its clearer, more detailed image. And the photo from the Pixel 2 XL is the definition of a mixed bag. There's good detail below the horizon line, but tons of noise across the night sky makes the image unpleasant to look at. 


Having analyzed all of the photos above, we can conclude by saying that our camera comparison yielded predictable results – as well as one we didn't quite expect. Firstly, the iPhone XS Max takes great photos. It's not the perfect camera, of course, but it snaps lovely images without much effort on the user's side. And we're not sure what algorithms Apple has working behind the scenes, but more often than not, they do a really good job of bringing out the best parts in a scene. 

Despite the score gap, we'd say that the camera on the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is also one holding great potential. Perhaps the scenes we chose weren't ideal for it to show us the best it is capable of? In any case, the Note 9 seems worthy of a rematch.

Lastly, the Google Pixel 2 XL didn't quite manage to impress us with its results. Its photos were largely in the mixed bag category, leaving the iPhone XS Max and Galaxy Note 9 to run circles around what's practically still Google's best phone. Perhaps the Google Pixel 3 would be an equal opponent? We sure hope so!

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