It’s no exaggeration to say that the fundamental part of smartphone upgrading is photography. With each passing year, major improvements occur, whether it be the increase in the number of camera modules, the size of the sensors, the power of zooms or the speed of focusing.
In an industry that relies more or less on the same processors and with devices that only have one screen, it’s often in the photo that it’s easiest to stand out. But also the hardest to break through, the level of the competition being very high.
Because while some are “content” with choosing good combinations of camera modules (and their good implementation already requires a lot of work), other players like Huawei are developing their own “custom” sensors, designing their exclusive optics, and even going as far as ‘to develop their own image processor (ISP). In terms of image, manufacturers are therefore waging an all-out war. Which starts with the number of camera modules.
Explosion in the number of camera modules
In 2019, we felt that we had entered the year of the triple camera module and this trend was consolidated in 2020: apart from the Google Pixel 4 XL which is satisfied with two modules on the back of its case, none of the terminals tested in this Top 10 has less than three camera modules on its back. And to these are added modules on the front as well as the various additional depth measurement sensors (ToF for Time Of Flight, read our article).
Note that this explosion in the number of sensors is not fully supported on the processor side. It’s not so much about digesting the pixels – Qualcomm’s latest chips incorporate an ISP called Spectra 480 capable of engulfing and processing up to two billion pixels per second – than to control the modules. If some brands manage the switching from one module to another better, the fact remains that the Spectra 480 can only drive two modules simultaneously. The integration of this deluge of camera modules will therefore only be perfect when the ISPs can “plug in” to all the modules simultaneously. Apple is doing a little better than the others in switching from sensor to sensor with an in-house ISP, but at the cost of a much lower optical range than the Android world.
This “deluge” of modules is not there to look pretty but to enrich the range of photographic tools, that is to say to bring new focal lengths to the cameras. If marginally we find macro lenses (of very poor quality) and ultra wide-angles for those who had not yet integrated, it is especially on the side of the zoom power that the competition is excited.
More and more powerful telephoto lenses
Remember 2018 when the 81mm equivalent of the P20 Pro wowed crowds? Well in 2020, you’ll love the 240mm equivalent of the Huawei P40 Pro +! In just two years, various manufacturers have exploded the limits of miniature telephoto lenses as we knew them then. At the heart of this evolution, breakthroughs in the fields of optics and the control of their lenses which have allowed the development of miniaturized periscope camera modules.
At these power progressions of optical magnification – improperly called “zoom” – it is necessary to note a significant improvement of the software mills. Both for the calculation of the intermediate focal lengths between two fixed focal lengths and for the digital zoom. Google is a benchmark here because with only two focal lengths – 27mm and 50mm equivalents – Google offers unprecedented digital zoom quality. Not enough to match the quality of Huawei’s premium telephoto modules, for example – flawless in daylight – but more than enough to offer a decent telephoto lens to any user.
Note in passing that, for reasons we are totally unaware of – and this is not for lack of asking the question to the manufacturers at every opportunity that presents itself – the zoom coefficients are sometimes wrong. And not necessarily to their advantage. For example, the Huawei P40 Pro + does not offer a 10x zoom factor, but a 13x zoom. Indeed, the zoom coefficient of the terminal obtained by dividing the narrowest angular coverage by the widest gives 240 mm / 18 mm = x13.3.
When asked about this, Huawei’s marketing teams explained that since communication has always been done at home from the main camera module and not ultra-wide angle, they continue to start from this module. Too bad for them, since they are the only ones to offer an ultra wide-angle camera module with a giant sensor!
Increasingly large and defined sensors
In this year 2020 we are therefore at the point where the sensor of a phone camera module can carry 108 Mpix. But be careful not to confuse the number of available photodiodes (improperly called pixels) and the useful definition. Thus, if the main sensor of the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra displays 108 Mpix, it actually couples information from 9 photodiodes to encode a single output pixel. The useful definition is thus equivalent to that of an iPhone 11 Pro or a Sony Xperia 1 II, or 12 Mpix. Ditto for Huawei which with its 40 Mpix and 50 Mpix sensors is in fact targeting 10 and 12.5 Mpix.
There are therefore always two fundamental approaches that clash: to offer few but very large photodiodes that capture a lot of light to take advantage of the cleanest possible original signal. Or multiply the light and color collecting units to refine the signal. In the end, the final result depends above all on the mastery of the device chosen by the software engineers.
When it comes to sensor size, however, it’s a bit of a consensus: the larger it is, the better. And manufacturers – and their suppliers of optical technologies – compete in feats of developing miniaturized lenses. This allows some devices to have sensors that are barely smaller than the sensors of the RX100 expert compacts. The sensor of the main module of Huawei’s P40 and P40 Pro + is thus around 75-80 mm². For comparison, the sensor of the camera module of the iPhone 5S, 6, 7 and 8 measured only 17.3 mm²!
This trend in the growth of sensors mainly affects the main “normal” module, the default module which is generally a wide angle ranging between 23 and 28 mm. If the other sensors grow larger, they do so within the limits of both physical (hard to put such a large sensor on telephoto lenses) and component prices.
The only notable exception is Huawei, which not content with offering the greatest zoom power, has the luxury of enlarging its sensors. In particular that of its ultra-wide-angle module, the only one in the competition to belong to the class of “giant sensors”. Earnings ? Quality shots – details, dynamic range, etc. – two to three notches above the competition. Next to the P40 Pro / Pro +, the ultra-wide-angle shots taken from other terminals really look pale …
The battle of software and the art of color
In digital photography, everything does not depend on the size of the sensors or their number of photodiodes, or even the number of camera modules: the software part and the image processing algorithms that propel it are just as important. From AF management to digital zoom or electronic stabilization, the scores are very different from one brand to another, and are quite difficult to assess – complexity of scenarios, updates that change gives it from one day to the next.
Regardless of uncertainties and software developments, there is one area where Apple and, to a lesser extent Google, subjectively seem to us to be one step ahead of the Asian competition: color rendering. Why “subjectively”? Because in this regard, visual culture as well as latitude (and therefore local sunlight) influence our perception and therefore our appreciations. The lighting on TV shows is different between Spain and Finland, so you can imagine the differences in taste between someone from Vietnam and someone from southern Chile!
In our eyes as users of Western Europe, the warm colors, constant from one module to another, not too saturated and with controlled shadows from Apple and Google seem more “natural” than the more punchy shots. of Oppo and others. The two brands “lagging behind” on the hardware side – less camera modules, less zoom power, less cutting-edge technologies (no custom matrix, no super definition, etc.) – are the ones that manage, in our opinion. taste, the better the colors. And in particular the consistency between two camera modules. It is difficult to say that the advance in one area explains the delay in another (hardware OR software), the rendering and consistency of colors can be an argument of choice as important as the power of zoom.
Autofocus: evaluation by comparative framing
Since the “summer 2017” version of this Top 10, the test procedure is to bring together all the competitors at the same time, and to confront them through a comparative framework. We take phones A and B in front of a scene, one in each hand and we assess on several shoots (on our lighted target and, in our back, in the dark bazaar of our stock) which of the two is the faster. This beginning of the hierarchy established, we take a terminal C that we compare to A and B. Then comes a terminal D that we compare to the others, etc. At the end of the exercise, we find ourselves with a series of terminals placed at our feet, the most to the left being the fastest, the lambin of the selection occupying the far right.
There comes a verification of the hierarchy by comparing 1 to 2, 2 to 3, etc. and the random confrontation where we take for example the 2nd and the 8th and where we check that the result is consistent. An empirical methodology that gives us complete satisfaction: since we proceed in this way, we offer you a “real” test at constant software scope – all terminals are tested on the same day, without the discrepancies that may appear following updates . Software updates which are, it must be admitted, a real headache for the testers that we are.
Huge price differences
One of the many problems with writing this sort of rating is the huge price gap that has grown between terminals. Can an iPhone 11 Pro priced from € 1159 (64 GB) to € 1559 (512 GB) be decently judged with the same arguments as a Realme X3 SuperZoom at 499 euros? Basically, no: we don’t expect the same performance from a Mégane as a BMW 3 series. But apart from the fact that part of the price difference is a little artificial – the brand’s image in the Apple case – our role here is to decide between pure technique, without regard to price. This is how pricing considerations have no influence on our top 10. This does not prevent us, at the end of the article, from crowning, for the first time, what we consider to be the best report. photo quality / price.
One last clarification: being equipped with the best smartphone in the competition will not make you a better photographer. The only things that count are the eye, the timing and the work. We must therefore listen to the wisdom of the ancients: “To photograph is to put head, eye and heart in the same line of sight. ” (Henri Cartier-Bresson).
THE BIG TEST
We ranked the smartphones and awarded them points based on their ranking in each test: 10th has 10 points, 9th scores 9 points, etc. At the end we obtain a ranking based on the inverse sum of the points: the best terminal is the one which scores the fewest points.
THE TERMINALS IN DETAIL
10. Xiaomi Mi 10 Pro 5G
Unlike the OnePlus which has a solid main camera module and mediocre companion module, the Xiaomi Mi 10 Pro 5G offers a good score in ultra wide-angle and telephoto. But Xiaomi still has work to do to master the Samsung 108 Mpix sensor on the main module. A module that handicaps Xiaomi (like Samsung) in terms of autofocus, the two terminals being the slowest in the competition. For the price, this Mi 10 Pro 5G is clearly a photographic disappointment.
Manufacturer price : from 999 €
Read the full review of Xiaomi Mi 10 Pro 5G
09. Realme X3 SuperZoom
It is only ninth and yet this X3 SuperZoom is a very nice discovery! Half the price of most of the cameras in this top 10, it is not last and offers a nice photographic palette with its four camera modules – including a macro module unfortunately so bad that it does not deserve to be there ( the main module does much better even after cropping). If it does not have the splendor of the most expensive terminals, the fact of being able to take advantage of a very good zoom power (x7.8!), An ultra wide-angle and a solid main module in a moderately priced smartphone with 256 GB of storage makes it a device of choice for travelers on a budget.
Manufacturer price: € 499
Read the Realme X3 SuperZoom full data sheet
08. OnePlus 8 Pro
Stumbling on the speed of autofocus – the brand’s Achilles heel – the OnePlus 8 Pro is still good if you stick to its main camera module. Because the ultra wide-angle and telephoto modules are not the best on the market and its zoom power is far from Huawei, Oppo and others. OnePlus therefore loses a place in the top 10 compared to last year with a technical sheet not ambitious enough and an achievement just at the level.
Manufacturer price : from 899 €
Read the full review of OnePlus 8 Pro
07. Sony Xperia 1 II
Sony is picking up a bit of the beast with its new flagship, the “Mark II” version of the Xperia 1 from last year. Equipped with a triple camera module (16-24-70mm equivalent) which smacks of traditional photographers’ focal lengths, it is equipped with the AF tracking algorithms of its cousin the Sony Alpha A9, the “king” of hybrids in terms of burst and AF. Algorithms that benefit this Xperia 1 II which is the device with the best subject tracking in the history of smartphones. Too bad Sony has gone too far with the back of the spoon when it comes to pure image quality. And be limited to a “small” 70 mm when the competition is doing much better.
Manufacturer price : from 1199 €
Read the first photographic takeover of the Sony Xperia 1 Mark II
06. Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G
By choosing super digital zoom based on information from two pixel-rich sensors – 48 Mpix telephoto lens and 108 Mpix main module – Samsung has proven that its choice is not the best when it comes to zoom. Thus, long focal length shots from a “real” 240mm equivalent telephoto lens (the P40 Pro +) are much better than Samsung’s “computation”. Besides that, Samsung seems to have definitely lost its superb autofocus, which was its lethal weapon a few years ago. The photo score remains solid, but without stunning functionality.
Manufacturer price : from € 1359
Read the full review of Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G
05. Google Pixel 4 XL
On the battery side, Google’s top-of-the-range terminal offers the most pleasing color rendering, one of the most responsive autofocuses, the best stabilization algorithms and an appreciable starry sky mode. But it is riddled with flaws and major material limitations: no ultra-wide-angle module, no real powerful optical zoom, no real night mode, a portrait mode limited by the nature of the focal lengths, etc. Not to mention too little storage (64 GB on our test model, 128 GB maximum) which would not be enough for photo and video enthusiasts.
Manufacturer price : from € 699 (launched from € 899)
Read the full review of Google Pixel 4 XL
04. Apple iPhone 11 Pro
Simple and efficient, the iPhone 11 Pro still benefits from responsive autofocus and good color consistency between the three camera modules – but beware of the slight over-emphasis on details. We appreciate the arrival of the ultra wide angle on this generation, even if its level of detail is mediocre. Another regret: this mobile does not yet have a super telephoto lens like some Android competitors. Faced with the powerful zooms of the Huawei and Vivo greater than 200 mm, the small 52 mm equivalent of the iPhone 11 Pro is a bit pale, especially for travelers.
Manufacturer price : from 1159 €
Read the full review of Apple iPhone 11 Pro
03. Oppo Find X2 Pro
Here is the most serious Chinese competitor for Huawei. With responsive autofocus, a solid main camera module and a good telephoto lens, the Oppo Find X2 Pro is the most obvious alternative to Huawei devices, deprived of Google services. Its serious zoom power and excellent telephoto camera module make it a partner of choice for travelers who want to skip the camera while traveling. Only its ultra-wide-angle module is set back with the modules of the Huawei P40 Pro / Pro +, absolutely untouchable with their giant sensor.
Manufacturer price : from 1199 €
Read the full review of Oppo find X2 Pro
02. Huawei P40 Pro
Lack of Google services aside, the P40 Pro is a big picture success. If its telephoto lens is less powerful than that of its big brother the P40 Pro +, it is a bit sharper in terms of image precision and offers a more than sufficient zoom coefficient (x6.9). Always efficient in low light, the main camera module delivers always very clean images, even if the colors are less constant than at Apple or Google. Special mention to its fabulous ultra-wide-angle module (which it shares with the P40 Pro Plus) which offers breathtaking image quality.
Manufacturer price : from 950 €
Read the full review of Huawei p40 pro
01. Huawei P40 Pro +
A demonstration of technological mastery: The super telephoto lens of this P40 Pro + which equates to 240mm is simply an engineering marvel, capable of producing images above the rest. Added to this is the same ultra wide-angle module as the P40 Pro which is nothing less than the best module of its kind ever created. As for the 50 Mpix main camera module (which produces 12.5 Mpix shots), if it turns out to be good, it does not widen the gap to the competition as much as the 40 Mpix module of the P30 Pro. We would gladly have swapped these 10 Mpix more (effective 2.5 Mpix) for more colorimetric consistency between the different modules. But for us, this is the best camera phone around, not only dominating the rest of the competition, but allowing itself to be the first smartphone in history to start seriously teasing bridges …
Manufacturer price : from 1400 €