Best Smartphone Cameras 2018 (2 New Releases to Look out for)

Huawei P20 Pro vs. Xiaomi Mi MIX 2S

We recently reviewed a bunch of newly released smartphone cameras. These, we feel, are the best smartphone camera 2018 has seen.

Now, the world of smartphones and digital cameras is evolving at a breakneck speed. A new phone sees the light of day almost every other week. Days after I finished writing the above article, the Huawei P20 Pro was released (not in the US though, find out how to buy the Huawei P20 and P20 Pro in the U.S or buy it on Amazon.co.uk).

Already many users are tagging it as the best smartphone ever.  A tag that was enjoyed by the Google Pixel 2 and the iPhone X only recently. The most interesting thing about this smartphone is its triple camera system. This is the first time we have seen a smartphone with a triple camera setup. Let’s take a closer look at the smartphone (its camera) and one other recently released smartphone system, the new Xiaomi Mi MIX 2S (another smartphone aiming for the top smartphone camera position in 2018).

Huawei P20 Pro

Huawei P20 Pro Back View
Huawei P20 Pro (the first smartphone with three Lenses)

The Huawei P20 Pro was released along with the P20. The P20 Pro is currently flagship in the Huawei stable. When we hear the word ‘flagship’, we immediately have some preconceived notions about what to expect. Above and beyond everything else we expect that the camera on the smartphone can capture stunning detail.

Three Cameras

Turn the phone around, and you would be pleasantly surprised. The P20 Pro has an array of three cameras. This is a first for a smartphone platform. The main camera is at the center of the array. At the bottom is a monochrome camera. Huawei has also fitted the phone with a third tele camera. But there is more to the smartphone’s camera system beyond the three cameras themselves.

Smartphone Photography is Improving

Many a time I have ostracized the small sensor on a smartphone (and point & shoot) camera. For me the biggest reason why DSLRs and mirrorless systems will always remain the choice for serious photography is the large sensor that they have inside them. This is something that smartphone systems don’t have, and I don’t think they will have any time in the recent future. But having said that smartphone systems are improving. And with technology making negative predictions is a matter of risk.

Related Post: Why you should buy a DSLR

Large Camera Sensor

The sensor on the P20 Pro is pretty large. The recently released Samsung Galaxy S9 has a sensor that is also large (1/2.55″). The main camera on the P20 Pro has a 1/1.78″ sensor. What does that signify? Cleaner files because of greater amount of light captured and less noise, especially when shooting in low light situations. It also means faster shutter speeds in good light.

  • Paired with the sensor is a f/1.8 aperture lens.
  • The focal length of this lens is the equivalent of a 27mm lens mounted on a 35mm system.
  • The main camera has a stunning resolution with a pixel count of 40 megapixels.
  • This sensor uses what is known as a Quad Bayer structure.
  • When the images are output, they are done using a 2 x 2 pixel binning which results in smaller resolution files (about 10 megapixels).

Get a DSLR Like Bokeh Style

One aspect of the P20 Pro’s main camera is its ability to mimic a DSLR (interchangeable lens camera) styled bokeh. One of the things that separates the bokeh (quality of background and foreground blur) produced by DSLRs (and mirrorless systems) as compared to those produced by a smartphone camera is that it is natural looking in the later. Most smartphone systems use a combination of hardware and software to overcome this problem.

I recently mentioned that the Huawei Mate 10 Pro comes with the best bokeh capabilities that I have seen in smartphone systems. Better than the Google Pixel 2 and the iPhone X. The P20 Pro is not that far behind. The monochrome camera helps the primary camera with a better estimation of depth, and that leads to a better background (as well as foreground) blur. The thing you will appreciate if you have a keen eye is the transition between the in focus and the out of focus areas. Additionally, anything in the foreground, as well as the background, are blurred. This is what DSLRs and other interchangeable lens systems do naturally.

Phase Detection Auto-Focusing

Another feature that this main camera (sensor) has is phase detection autofocusing. Phase detection autofocusing on the main sensor ensures that the camera can lock auto-focus faster and more precisely than traditional contrast detect sensors. Auto-focusing performance is really good, even in low light where most second string smartphone systems tend to suffer big time.

The second monochrome sensor helps in the overall quality of the images by capturing a lot of light on its own. This camera also helps in reducing the amount of noise producing cleaner files. It also helps in estimating the subject to camera distance and helps in producing better quality bokeh than traditional single-lens smartphone cameras can.

Telephoto Lens

Finally there is the telephoto lens. This one is positioned at the top of the array. The lens has a 35mm format equivalent focal length of 80mm. The resolution of this camera is 10 megapixels as well. Huawei has provided optical image stabilization on this lens. The images shot with the telephoto lens do retain a lot of detail even when viewed zoomed in.

Image Quality

Enough with the specs. Now for some real-life shooting experience. The P20 Pro captures excellent images with high amount of detail in bright light conditions. Outdoors, and under a bright sky you will hardly ever go wrong with the P20 Pro. Colors and details are very impressive too. Colors are never too vibrant to become disconcerting and the dynamic range (in bright outdoor conditions) is very good too. Noise in day light is negligent, if at all.

Great Low Light Performance

The real test for a smartphone camera, as they say, is in low light. And this is where the P20 Pro scores extremely well. Thanks to the two camera set-up when shooting images (the main RGB camera and the monochrome) the level of noise is very low. The dynamic range of the images produced is also very good, along with reduced halo and greater contrast.

What Needs Improvement

However, not everything is picture perfect with the lens of the P20 Pro. There have been issues with the white balance of the images, especially in some strong lighting scenarios. Colors can be little wayward in some situations as well. This happens especially with brighter colors which are a little muted in bright light. The difference is subtle though when compared with some of the other top of the line smartphone camera systems.

Good Performance in Backlit Situations

Another challenging situation to shoot in is in backlit environments. Let’s say there is a window behind the subject and there is no way you can have the subject turn facing the window. The P20 Pro’s main camera is surprisingly great to work within this situation. The dynamic range in this situations is not only good; details are retained both in the highlight areas (the scene through the window) as well as the shadows (the scene within the room).

Xiaomi Mi MIX 2S

Now, let us compare the Huawei P20 Pro to the new Xiaomi Mi MIX 2S.

Xiaomi Mi Mix 2s
The Xiaomi Mi Mix 2s (now available for pre-order on GearBest.com)

Xiaomi is a Chinese branded smartphone manufacturer. They have been producing phones for a while now and have come up with some devices in the mid and lower segment of the market. But they have also come up with concepts and designs that have since become the norm with other major players – such as the famous bezel-free all screen design of the Mi MIX that came out in 2016.

Apple and Samsung had since then made this something of their own. Xiaomi has returned and has introduced what could potentially be the best smartphone camera we have seen so far.

The Mi MIX 2S (you can pre-order the phone at $659.99 on GearBest.com) is probably a masterstroke that has come out of the blue promising only good things for the company. That DxOMark gives the Mi MIX 2S 97 points (ahead of the iPhone 8 Plus and at par with the iPhone X) also points to the fact that it has an extremely capable camera.

Related Post: Gearbest.com Review

Dual Camera

The Mi MIX 2S is the new flagship camera phone of Xiaomi. This is a dual camera set-up. The two cameras are backed up by a sensor each. A 1/2.6″ sensor and the other a 1/3.4″ one. The larger Sony IMX368 sensor is paired with a wide angle lens which has the same focal length as a 26mm lens mounted on a full-frame camera body.

The main wide-angle camera comes with a resolution of 12 megapixels and with a four-axis optical image stabilization system. Optical image stabilization ensures that you can slow down the shutter speed to capture more light (in low light situations) when hand holding the camera.

The other camera (telephoto) also has a resolution of 12 megapixels. This lens has a focal length that is the equivalent of a 46mm lens mounted on a full-frame camera. In reality this is not a telelens, more of a standard prime. But you get a slightly zoomed in view than what you get with the wide angle lens. The thing that you will miss on the telephoto lens is optical image stabilization.

The 2x optical zoom on the telephoto lens gives a handy advantage when composing portraits and a bit of sports and other similar photos. It helps you to get a closer access to the subject even though you may be physically standing at some distance.

Bokeh Capabilities

Speaking about the lenses and their capabilities, one thing deserves a special mention and that is their bokeh capabilities. DSLRs (and any interchangeable lens cameras) are the champion in this area. Smartphone cameras don’t have quite the same effect. But things have been improving fast. Additionally, due to an improvement in the hardware and the use of smart algorithm smartphone cameras can also reproduce a similar background blur effect.

Related Post: How to Capture Bokeh

The Mi MIX 2S built-in bokeh simulation is a beautiful replication of the real thing. The background blur behind the subject is soft and looks fairly natural. Almost too natural. Thanks to the gentle drop in focus and the smoothness that is imparted by the software algorithm. Having said that the effect is not 100% perfect. You might get the occasional blurring in areas which are supposed to be in focus.

Dual Pixel Phase Detection

The secondary front facing camera has a resolution of 5 megapixels. The Xiaomi Mi MIX 2S’s main camera comes with dual pixel phase detection auto-focusing mechanism. Thanks to this the Mi MIX 2S locks focus very accurately in most lighting conditions. Auto-focusing performance using the standard focal length is fine in bright light conditions. It nails almost 99% of the time without issues. AF performance takes a dip when you utilize the 2x optical zoom. Additionally, in very low light conditions, the AF performance can be a bit wobbly as well.

Now for some real-life shooting experiences. First thing, the Xiaomi Mi MIX 2S’s performance is extremely good. It gives the current best smartphone camera systems like the iPhone X, the iPhone 8, the Samsung Galaxy S9 and the Google Pixel 2 a run for their money. DxOMark gives the Xiaomi Mi MIX 2S a score of 101 specifically for the camera which is the same as the more formidable iPhone X.

Related Post: Best Smartphone Cameras 2018

When shooting in real life situations, the Mi MIX 2S captures great exposures with good contrast and color rendering. Let’s talk about bright light or outdoor shooting scenarios. In bright light, the Mi MIX 2S produces good clean and contrasty images. Exposures are not blown out, and there is ample amount of detail across the image.

Whats Missing: Dynamic Range

The thing that might be lacking when compared to some of the bigger brands is the dynamic range. Dynamic range denotes the number of stops of brightness between the brightest white and the darkest black. This creates a punchy look and feels to the final images. The Mi MIX 2S lacks in that department. Mind you this is when you are comparing it with the likes of the Google Pixel 2 and the iPhone X and the Samsung Galaxy S9. Additionally, the default white balance does a fair job of keeping things ‘neutral’.

Good Low Light Performance

Low light images are unsurprisingly very good, clean and contrasty. The internal software algorithm that process all snaps does a good job of balancing exposure and noise and the resulting images are quite smooth. Results are smooth even when you shoot with candlelight. Note, that I mentioned smooth, which is not always a great thing. However, details do get lost when you shoot in very low light. Which is acceptable.

Backlit Shots still Need Improvement

When shooting backlit shots, mainly portraits the results are inconsistent. At times the Mi MIX 2S will balance out the difference in lighting on the focusing plane and the background. Hus, creating images which are well exposed across the frame. At other times, however, the camera can get it horribly wrong. Therefore, producing a dark face against a well exposed background. A good option in this situations would be to select the spot or center-weighted metering mode and or use the HDR mode to get a better result. The camera struggles a bit in the white balance department when shooting in mixed lighting situations and images made tend to have a bit of color cast.

Related Post: Best HDR Software 2018 (Top 4 Picks for Mac, Windows & Free)


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