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

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.

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!



1. NateDiaz

Posts: 1089; Member since: Mar 03, 2018

Note X will beat XS Max for sure.

23. Phullofphil

Posts: 1817; Member since: Feb 10, 2009

Yeah probably so what like what you want. You look at all 3 and the author likes one over the other barley. They all take great photos. It’s in the eye of the beholder. What’s more predictable the outcome or the none stop crybaby crying from the same assholes that don’t agree. every positive Apple article has somebody saying iPhone arena in the comment section. But any positive android article on you don’t see a bunch of iPhone fan saying or crying spell why not. One of these days I wish, sections will be cleaned up stop all this crap but until then I will still complain about it or be butthurt what ever you want to call it. I am completely but hurt over everyone complaining about apple phones. The best selling phones on the market.

25. maherk

Posts: 6926; Member since: Feb 10, 2012

"But any positive android article on you don’t see a bunch of iPhone fan saying or crying spell why not." Ironic since you're always trolling Android articles, whether they're positive or negative news.

39. RoyalMike unregistered

Note 9 camera is at par with XS max as they both have their advantages in their zones. But one thing is for sure, no other brand comes close to iphone xs and Note 9 in camera department

49. Taphius

Posts: 101; Member since: Aug 20, 2018

Yeap it's pretty much Apple and Samsung for main stream phones. Huawei is getting there though if they can fix their terrible video recording

2. Nokfan1603

Posts: 63; Member since: Mar 13, 2013

This result on iPhoneArena was predictable.

5. Well-Manicured-Man

Posts: 702; Member since: Jun 16, 2015

Typical... Apple haters. Just accept that Apple is fully competitive. Apple lacks software features though.

16. Atechguy0

Posts: 918; Member since: Aug 03, 2018

Others have said there is an automatic beauty mode truned on the new iPhone XS's, and there is no way to turn it off either. The same thing happened here last year, where Phonearenas results made the iPhone X win. So it's to be expected at this site. Just look at unbox therapy.

19. maherk

Posts: 6926; Member since: Feb 10, 2012

The last YT reviewer you should take his words on smartphones is Lew, and especially when it comes to iPhones. Since the bendgate video, he was blacklisted by Apple, which is a silly and childish move by Apple, and because of that, he always find something to attack Apple for. I have the P20 Pro, and I absolutely love it, and guess who loved it also and threw praises on it? Lew himself, and rightfully so. But why I'm mentioning the P20 Pro? Well, let's say it has the same issue as the iPhone Xs in terms of the selfie camera, and even worse, but because Lew is promoting Huawei phones as of late, he turned his blind eye to this serious issue, and decided to only highlight the pros of the phone, which are a lot if you ask me from my own experience. Still, my point is, he's a hypocrite, and he's more like a promoter than an honest reviewer. Now, is this a problem for many? Hell yeah, but as we all know from Apple, if something gets criticized a lot, they'll send an update immediately to fix it, and I believe they'll soon give the option for iPhone XS owners to enable or disable beauty mode, it's just that I found it hypocritical and silly from Lew to dedicate a full video for this.

22. Atechguy0

Posts: 918; Member since: Aug 03, 2018

It turned out that Lew was right about the bendgate crap all those years ago. Wasn't he maherk! Lew is not promoting Huawei. Clearly you don't watch his videos. He switches phones all the time. He is currently using the iPhone XS Max right now. The one that is a liar is you maherk. Plus your a known Apple zealot. You just have to read some of your previous posts.

24. maherk

Posts: 6926; Member since: Feb 10, 2012

Did you read my comment smartass? I did say that it was a stupid move by Apple to blacklist him simply because he highlighted a serious design flaw in the iPhone 6. And I know he switches smartphones, he just didn't say anything negative about the phone. And he even mentioned in one of his videos that he's working on future projects with Huawei. Stop crying ffs.

33. worldpeace

Posts: 3135; Member since: Apr 15, 2016

Nope, P20 didn't have this issue, no Android flagships have this issue simply because you can easily turn it off. He's right about bendgate, and now he's right again about beauty-gate. He didn't promote Huawei lately, he never show huawei phones in his newer video, he'll pulled out a Note9, pocophone, or razerphone, if he need to compare the speaker.

34. worldpeace

Posts: 3135; Member since: Apr 15, 2016

Nope, P20 didn't have this issue, no Android flagships have this issue simply because you can easily turn it off. He's right about bendgate, and now he's right again about beauty-gate. He didn't promote Huawei lately, he never show huawei phones in his newer video, he'll pulled out a Note9, pocophone, or razerphone, if he need to compare the speaker.

47. maherk

Posts: 6926; Member since: Feb 10, 2012

Buy the phone, use it, them come back and argue me about it. This is something you can't switch off on Huawei and most Chinese phones. Once the phone detects a face, it immediately overexposes the picture. https://forum.xda-developers.com/huawei-p20/review/selfie-quality-t3769423 https://forum.xda-developers.com/huawei-p20-pro/review/selfie-quality-t3769457

56. Trex95

Posts: 2383; Member since: Mar 03, 2013

You need to check YouTube camera comparison between iPhone XS max and other android flagship non of android flagship beats iPhone XS max in camera. Beauty mode even in nite 9 or S9/S9 plus even if you turn it off still shows some effect in photos nit only iPhone iPhone.

10. apple-rulz

Posts: 2177; Member since: Dec 27, 2016

And yet you stay here.

17. maherk

Posts: 6926; Member since: Feb 10, 2012

The results everywhere are predictable. I'm not the biggest Apple fan, but they have done a fantastic job with the camera this year. The camera on last year's X was always overrated imo, but this year, they killed it. Any test putting the XS against either the Note 9 or Pixel 2, I know straight ahead which one will come on top, and it will stay like that until the Pixel 3 and S10 are released, maybe then things will change. It might lose few points in extreme low light conditions, but it takes over in all other scenarios.

28. vincelongman

Posts: 5717; Member since: Feb 10, 2013

Apple's done a fanatasic job with their camera hardware and Smart HDR this year Literally jumped from a couple years behind to potentially leading the pack But I'm really disappointed they haven't brought Smart HDR to older iPhones The A12 doesn't do much better than the A11 in benchmarks Goes to show benchmarks don't cover everything And credit to Qualcomm's SoCs which have supported computation photography like HDR+ since 2013

18. maherk

Posts: 6926; Member since: Feb 10, 2012

Double post.

26. MarvzIsFallen

Posts: 646; Member since: Aug 11, 2017

Can’t accept the fact that iphone is the best camera out there. Stop crying now, it won’t help the sales of your note 9. In a matter of year, this will be free for Note X

44. sissy246

Posts: 7124; Member since: Mar 04, 2015

Why don't you face the fact that both phone cameras have their ups and downs, one is better at something and the other is better at something else.

67. robocopvn

Posts: 504; Member since: Mar 10, 2010

As long as I read the title, I know the result

3. Plasticsh1t

Posts: 3109; Member since: Sep 01, 2014

Could you make a blind camera test with the Xs/ Max included?

43. AmashAziz

Posts: 2931; Member since: Jun 30, 2014

Yess! We need this so that people would stop crying over Phonearena being biased.

4. Whitedot

Posts: 823; Member since: Sep 26, 2017

Nick won this time. He always finds the way to win at all cost

68. robocopvn

Posts: 504; Member since: Mar 10, 2010

Isheephonearena is actually the true domain, guys!

6. deanjen

Posts: 5; Member since: Sep 14, 2016

I am a bit confused with the night camera samples between Note 9 and Pixel 2 Xl. PhoneArena has done a similar photo shot in Pixel 2 XL vs. Note 9 (Blind-Shot)comparison before. The sign "Segafredo" was miserable in image taken by Note 9 at that time. Has the most recent software update on Note 9 made such a dramatic change?

15. nikhil23

Posts: 467; Member since: Dec 07, 2016

They pushed an update to Note 9 to improve HDR and low light photos

54. nodes

Posts: 1160; Member since: Mar 06, 2014

Obviously, the update bumps up the Note 9 sensor and pixel size. Of course the change will be dramatic.

7. Pcworld1976

Posts: 171; Member since: Sep 18, 2018

Lol today Pay apple

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