Camera shootout: Apple iPhone 11 Pro vs Samsung Galaxy Note 10+

Note 10+ and iPhone 11 Pro: Camera ShootoutApple’s latest iPhone brought the ‘pro’ to imaging, in my opinion (see the full iPhone 11 Pro review), but how does it compare to, arguably, the best* all round phone camera in the Android world? The Galaxy Note 10+ is very new (just over a month), has the same triple camera ambition, and is the best yardstick in terms of a full shootout. So find out which one has the best smartphone camera.

As usual in such shootouts, I’m going to look at actual image quality at the pixel level as well as commenting on shots as a whole. And yes, for the naysayers, 1:1 crops are essential. We’ve all taken a 12MP photo and then cropped a section from it – a person, an object, etc. At half the original frame dimension, we’re already down to 3MP and are looking at individual pixels even on a phone screen. So artefacts and digital noise will show up in your crops and you’ll wish you had as high an image IQ (Image Quality) as possible.

In terms of raw imaging specs, we have:

iPhone 11 Pro Galaxy Note 10+
12 MP, f/1.8, 26mm (‘wide’), 1/2.55″, dual pixel PDAF, OIS
12 MP, f/2.0, 52mm (‘telephoto’), 1/3.4″, PDAF, OIS, 2x optical zoom
12 MP, f/2.4, 13mm (‘ultrawide’)
12 MP, f/1.5-2.4, 27mm (‘wide’), 1/2.55″, Dual Pixel PDAF, OIS
12 MP, f/2.1, 52mm (‘telephoto’), 1/3.6″, PDAF, OIS, 2x optical zoom
16 MP, f/2.2, 12mm (‘ultrawide’)

Which is a pretty good mix in terms of hardware match-up, though in 2019 we’ve become used to software and algorithms making a real difference, with combination of multiple exposures in particular – both Apple and Samsung use this trick.

Notes:

  • All photos were taken handheld (though I do have steady hands!) and in full ‘auto’ mode (apart from controlling whether the flash fires), as the average user would do. Each of these phone cameras either have ‘pro’ modes or (in the iPhone’s case) alternative camera software that can do more with the camera hardware, but then comparing results is somewhat meaningless.
  • All test photos were taken from the same spot in each case, so framing differences are due to the different field of view of the phone cameras concerned.
  • In each case, where there was a choice of focus points, I made sure to tap in the centre, or on the intended subject, so that focussing should be identical in each case.
  • I look at 1:1 crops in most cases, since only then do we see the actual image quality produced. In normal use you’d only see pixel detail on (e.g.) a 4K TV, but as soon as you start cropping a photo later then you’ll be glad of high quality pixels!
  • Behind the scenes, the phones take several exposures and then combine them (out of the user’s control) for best results. With modern chipsets and OIS in hardware, all of this is hidden – the output is just the one JPG, which is what I’m looking at here. And please don’t talk about ‘RAW’ output in the comments below – such processing is absolutely only for pros who want to mess around with their photos later. Here I’m looking at what the typical buyer sees.
  • All original JPGs are online in a folder on Dropbox here. Just in case you wanted to do your own analysis. Note that the iPhone natively saves images in HEIC format, so the files here have been converted.
  • I also shot wide angle photos of most scenes, but the images were nigh on identical for all ‘wide angle’ intents and purposes – so I’m going to concentrate most on main and telephoto lenses in this feature.

Test 1: Sunny landscape

A suburban test in perfect light! Here’s the overall scene, nice and easy, as shot on the iPhone 11 Pro:

Sunny scene

And here are 1:1 crops, from the iPhone 11 Pro (top) and then the Galaxy Note 10+ (bottom):

1:1 crop from the iPhone 11 Pro
1:1 crop from the Note 10+

I’m going to be picky here – but then that’s why you’re tuning in! – and say that the extra edge enhancement in the Note 10+’s image puts it a notch behind the iPhone. It’s typical image processing from Samsung, with edges thickened just a little too much. You can see it above in the brickwork above, looking at the apparent greater use of mortar between the bricks!

Score: iPhone 11 Pro:  10, Galaxy Note 10+: 9

Test 2: And now 2x zoomed!

The same scene, but this time shot with the 2x telephoto lens on both phones. Here are 1:1 crops, from the iPhone 11 Pro (top) and then the Galaxy Note 10+ (bottom):

1:1 crop from the iPhone 11 Pro
1:1 crop from the Note 10+

Again I’m going to nit pick – look at the finer detail, such as the greenery in the window – the iPhone’s shot has finer detail, while the Samsung’s shot has less due to edge enhancement, i.e. smaller details get ‘enhanced’ and then they’re not details anymore!

Score: iPhone 11 Pro:  10, Galaxy Note 10+: 9

Test 3: 4x zoom!

Yes, yes, software-driven interpolative zoom in each case, but how well do Apple and Samsung do their digital zooming? Here’s an overall scene, with a clock that’s crying out to be zoomed(!), as shot on the iPhone 11 Pro:

Sunny scene, clock detail

And here are 1:1 crops, from the iPhone 11 Pro (top) and then the Galaxy Note 10+ (bottom):

1:1 crop from the iPhone 11 Pro
1:1 crop from the Note 10+

A definite win for the Note 10+ here – Samsung is a past master at digital zoom, with amazing algorithms, and it shows. Look at the zoomed detail, you’d almost not know that it’s digitally ‘made up’. In contrast, the iPhone 11 Pro does well but you can see artefacts and uncertainty at the 1:1 level here. Maybe something Apple can improve in updates?

Score: iPhone 11 Pro:  8, Galaxy Note 10+: 9

Test 4: Nature beckons

This time looking at greenery and nature generally – leaves and natural detail often trip up image processing algorithms! Here’s the overall scene, as shot on the iPhone 11 Pro:

Lake scene

And here are 1:1 crops, from the iPhone 11 Pro (top) and then the Galaxy Note 10+ (bottom):

1:1 crop from the iPhone 11 Pro
1:1 crop from the Note 10+

Although the Note 10+ does have better dynamic range and generally more saturated colours (which you may or may not like), the iPhone 11 Pro shot here clearly has the edge when it comes to natural detail. Look at the extra detail in the sunlit leaves here, for example. So I’m giving the win to the iPhone – yes, Apple uses sharpening and edge enhancement too, but it’s more tasteful, I think, especially when it comes to anything green!

Score: iPhone 11 Pro:  9, Galaxy Note 10+: 8

Test 5: Nature zoomed!

The same scene but this time checking out what can be seen through the 2x telephoto lenses. Here are 1:1 crops, from the iPhone 11 Pro (top) and then the Galaxy Note 10+ (bottom):

1:1 crop from the iPhone 11 Pro
1:1 crop from the Note 10+

Just as with the main lenses, the image processing is the difference here. Edge enhancement on fine details in the Samsung camera software means that everything ends up looking very slightly indistinct. It’s a small difference, but hey – again – this is what you’re here for, right?(!)

Score: iPhone 11 Pro:  10, Galaxy Note 10+: 9

Test 6: Close-up time

A gorgeous flower in Autumn sunshine, with delicate detail and vibrant red. Here’s the overall scene, as shot on the iPhone 11 Pro (in each case, I tapped the viewfinder to expose for, and to focus on, the flower itself:

Red flower

And here are scaled crops, from the iPhone 11 Pro (top) and then the Galaxy Note 10+ (bottom) – I didn’t go down to 1:1 here because you’d be virtually inside a petal!

Scaled crop from the iPhone 11 Pro
Scaled crop from the Note 10+

Image processing magic perhaps, maybe Apple’s new ‘semantic rendering’ at work, but the two photos are dramatically different – surprisingly so. The iPhone 11 Pro manages to pull dramatically more (relevant) contrast out of the mass of red – I’m guessing the software worked out that it was a flower and so went hunting for petal edges. The Note 10+ does have an ‘AI’ mode and it was enabled, but I think the results speak for themselves.

Score: iPhone 11 Pro:  10, Galaxy Note 10+: 8

Test 7: Low light, indoors

A still life scene in a gloomy living room, a random selection of book spines, with lots of lovely textual detail to focus on. Here’s the overall scene, as shot on the iPhone 11 Pro:

Book scene

And here are 1:1 crops, from the iPhone 11 Pro (top) and then the Galaxy Note 10+ (bottom):

1:1 crop from the iPhone 11 Pro
1:1 crop from the Note 10+

A clear win for the iPhone, despite the Note’s best attempts to sharpen things up – which often works well for text. The red and yellow spine backgrounds show off the differences best though. It’s a fair cop, the iPhone 11 Pro has an edge here in that it automatically switches to its Night mode, while the Note 10+ seemed happy to shoot in a ‘normal’ mode. But I have to allow this – Apple has ‘done’ Night mode ‘right’  and the user really shouldn’t have to mess around in low light to mentally process whether to toggle an extra mode on or off…

Score: iPhone 11 Pro:  9, Galaxy Note 10+: 7

Test 8: Night time!

Dead of night, and ‘Night’ mode enabled on the Samsung. Here’s the overall scene, as shot on the iPhone 11 Pro:

Night scene

And here are 1:1 crops, from the iPhone 11 Pro (top) and then the Galaxy Note 10+ (bottom):

1:1 crop from the iPhone 11 Pro
1:1 crop from the Note 10+

Both night modes are pretty damn good, I think Samsung’s is often under-rated. But the evidence of the crops here shows that Apple’s new system produces slightly better results, if only because it doesn’t try and reduce the digital noise so much, i.e. small details are left in. Plus Apple – again – has to get credit for using this system automatically, even at dead of night I had to activate Night mode manually on the Note 10+.

Score: iPhone 11 Pro:  9, Galaxy Note 10+: 8

Verdict: The Best Smartphone Camera Goes to…

Adding up the scores gives us:

  1. Apple iPhone 11 Pro: 75 (out of 80)
  2. Samsung Galaxy Note 10+: 67

Which, to my slight surprise, constitutes a statistically significant victory. I was expecting the iPhone to be ahead by a nose, but there’s enough above that I can confidently say that the iPhone 11 Pro has the better camera system (both software and hardware). The more reined back image enhancement, the contrast and details when you need them, the night mode jumping into action automatically, it all adds up – Apple has jumped into a world phone imaging lead with the 11 Pro range.

Of course, the Google Pixel 4 range is imminent, but that’s another feature comparison for another day!

* the Huawei P30 Pro is a contender, with higher telephoto zoom, but I’ve been dismayed through the year that Huawei hasn’t dialled back its over-zealous edge enhancement and noise reduction. The Google Pixel 3 XL is also a contender, but that’s a) a year old now, and b) only has a single lens, so is rather outgunned if I’m going to check more than one lens scope.