Is Flagship iPhone’s Camera Really Worth the Premium Over Budget Smartphones?

Something a little different – you’ll be used to various comparisons of Android flagships versus the iPhone, but, given that Android phones are available at budget prices too, here I’m throwing in some wild cards deliberately. One theory is that you don’t lose that much in phone imaging by going for a budget smartphone – or going for last year (or the previous year’s!) flagship now at clearance and cheap second-hand prices. But I contend that the flagships here will take better photos by enough of a margin to warrant the extra purchase price. As evidence, I pitch two budget options against today’s iPhone 11 Pro and the top imaging phone in the Android world.

In other words, I’m asking how much do you actually lose in terms of your precious photos and memories by saving a load of money and heading down a different tack?

My test devices here are the iPhone 11 Pro (iPhone 11 Pro review), the best in the iOS world (obviously, with the Pro Max); the Huawei P40 Pro, currently (arguably) the best imaging in the Android world right now;  the Moto G8 Plus, now £200 new in the UK (down from an RRP of £280 when launched late last year); and the Samsung Galaxy S9+ (a two-year-old flagship, now also down to £200 on clearance or second hand). So two £1000 phones and two at £200, at least in UK money.

So plucking data points from four very different corners of the phone world!

iPhone 11 Pro, Huawei P40 Pro etc

I’ve tried to use real-world test shots, the sort of photos real users might take (or at least attempt) on a day out. No test cards or indoor still life mock-ups here! In each case, all photos are taken on full auto, handheld, the way regular users would take photos. True, my eye for framing is good and true, my hands are very steady, but still the shots are ‘real’, as it were.

I’ve scored the shots and crops as I go. All the phones could attempt some ‘zoom’ and so I’ve build tests around this, while only the two flagships have wide-angle cameras and so I’ve simply provided example shots and awarded a few bonus points as appropriate, below.

Test 1: Pub time!

Good daylight, though not sunny. An archetypal phone camera snap. Here’s the overall scene:

Typical scene

And, in order to see the pixel-level quality, here are 1:1 central crops from, in order, the iPhone 11 Pro, the Huawei P40 Pro, the Moto G8 Plus, and the Samsung Galaxy S9+:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop

Although all four snaps are decent enough, the 1:1 crops above show a slightly better color on the two flagships. Though, of course, if all photos were taken unzoomed and in good light then no one would ever need to worry about how good their phone camera was… Hence the rest of the tests in this feature.

iPhone 11 Pro: 10 pts; Huawei P40 Pro: 10 pts; Moto G8 Plus: 9 pts; Samsung Galaxy S9+: 9 pts

Test 2: Pub time, zoomed!

The same scene, but zoomed x2 to see the signs more closely (in a typical snap, this could be anything, of course, but 2x zoom is a pretty common zoom requirement, i.e. getting optically closer). In order to see pixel-level quality, here are 1:1 central crops from, in order, the iPhone 11 Pro, the Huawei P40 Pro, the Moto G8 Plus, and the Samsung Galaxy S9+:

1:1 crop from zoomed shot
1:1 crop from zoomed shot
1:1 crop from zoomed shot
1:1 crop from zoomed shot

The iPhone 11 Pro wins again, not least because 2x zoom is one of its core strengths – the white balance and processing is just perfect on its telephoto lens. The Galaxy S9+ is arguably in second place, some way behind, it also has a 2x telephoto but somehow manages to wash out colours and there’s some typical Samsung edge enhancement going on.

As for the Huawei P40 Pro, it has to zoom at 2x on its main 50MP sensor by ‘smart cropping’ in – this gives decent results, but the flowers are now more orange and details in the photo are all edge-enhanced in a way that lets you know that software has been at work. Meanwhile, the G8 Plus’s 48MP main sensor should in theory be capable of smart cropping, but it does seem as though it does the usual Quad Bayer reduction to 10MP and only then does lossy digital zoom – which doesn’t seem at all clever. The subtleties in all this, by the way, are why you pay extra for a flagship. And so far it seems that Apple’s triple camera pair is the one to go for. But plenty of tests to go…!

iPhone 11 Pro: 10 pts; Huawei P40 Pro: 7 pts; Moto G8 Plus: 4 pts; Samsung Galaxy S9+: 8 pts

Bonus points to the iPhone 11 Pro and Huawei P40 Pro for these two wide-angle shots too:


Wide angle snap

It’s not worth commenting on angles and fish eye distortion since both phones have software options to correct all this if needed.

Three bonus points each to the iPhone and Huawei.

Test 3: Arty flowers

Good daylight, though not sunny, again. Don’t worry, there’s some sun below!  I was attempting an arty shot of the red flowers with natural bokeh from the phone camera optics blurring out the background. In each case I tapped to focus on the flowers. Here are the final shots from, in turn, the iPhone 11 Pro, the Huawei P40 Pro, the Moto G8 Plus, and the Samsung Galaxy S9+:

Arty scene
Arty scene
Arty scene
Arty scene

As you can see, I had to vary the distance slightly, in order to get the phone cameras to focus properly. The iPhone and Samsung managed it the first time, the P40 Pro took a couple of tries, and the G8 Plus took half a dozen. Of the results, the iPhone 11 Pro and Samsung also nailed what I wanted, in terms of blurring the other flowers just a little and the background more so. The P40 Pro lost some of the detail in the red flowers, plus its larger aperture and sensor meant a shallower natural depth of field, so the other flowers were blurred too much for my artistic sensibilities.

The budget G8 Plus’s shot isn’t terrible, but the bokeh effect is clearly less and it’s a less impressive ‘arty’ shot.

iPhone 11 Pro: 10 pts; Huawei P40 Pro: 8 pts; Moto G8 Plus: 7 pts; Samsung Galaxy S9+: 9 pts

Test 4: Tourist gold

Another archetypal phone camera snap – a tourist-friendly gold post box! With handy text on the front, aiding examination of pixel-level quality. Here’s the overall scene:

Scene

And, in order to see the pixel-level quality, here are 1:1 central crops from, in order, the iPhone 11 Pro, the Huawei P40 Pro, the Moto G8 Plus, and the Samsung Galaxy S9+:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop

Again all four snaps are decent enough, though the P40 Pro’s larger sensor and aperture ensure a lighter and better-defined image, helped by Huawei’s edge enhancement working a treat for text – it’s clearer here than in the other three photos. The Samsung Galaxy S9+’s processing, also good with text, just pips the iPhone this time, with the G8 again in the last place, with extra artifacts and uncertainty, probably down to cheaper optics and a more ‘smeared’ image on the sensor.

iPhone 11 Pro: 7 pts; Huawei P40 Pro: 9 pts; Moto G8 Plus: 6 pts; Samsung Galaxy S9+: 8 pts

Test 5: Sun, water!

Sunshine at last, plus a scenic river subject. Perfect for some camera phone snaps, and at various zoom levels (the P40 Pro can’t wait to use its 5x periscope zoom). Here’s the overall scene:

Scene

And, in order to see the pixel-level quality, here are 1:1 central crops from, in order, the iPhone 11 Pro, the Huawei P40 Pro, the Moto G8 Plus, and the Samsung Galaxy S9+:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop

Four pretty decent shots, as you’d expect in the sun. I can’t really split the iPhone, Huawei, and Samsung renditions – but the G8 Plus can’t quite handle the detail or light, with typical uncertainty at the pixel level from the cheaper optics. So I’m docking it a point.

iPhone 11 Pro: 10 pts; Huawei P40 Pro: 10 pts; Moto G8 Plus: 9 pts; Samsung Galaxy S9+: 10 pts

Test 6: Sun, water, zoomed x2!

The same scene but this time going for 2x zoom. In order to see the pixel-level quality, here are 1:1 central crops from, in order, the iPhone 11 Pro, the Huawei P40 Pro, the Moto G8 Plus, and the Samsung Galaxy S9+:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop

Zoom again sorts out the different tech involved. The iPhone 11 Pro’s 2x telephoto is a star again, with almost perfect pixel-level detail, despite the distance I was shooting from. So few artefacts. The Galaxy S9+, despite also having a 2x telephoto camera, is some way behind, with its more exaggerated image processing degrading the image and making it look less real. In fact, the ‘smart cropped’ 50MP sensor of the P40 Pro just creeps into second place in this section, doing surprisingly well. Meanwhile the G8, yet again, fails when asked to zoom – it seems its 48MP sensor really has no good reason to have that resolution in the first place, if it can’t handle zoom at all.

iPhone 11 Pro: 10 pts; Huawei P40 Pro: 8 pts; Moto G8 Plus: 5 pts; Samsung Galaxy S9+: 8 pts

Test 7: Sun, water, zoomed… wait for it… x5!

The same scene but this time going for 5x zoom. Yes, we’re playing into the P40 Pro’s periscope zoom territory – and I still don’t think most people will use 5x in daily life, it’s a big zoom factor. Still, it needs testing and even highlighting, so here goes. Obviously the digitally zoomed 5x shots on the other three camera phones are going to suck to varying degrees. That’s just maths.

In order to see the pixel-level quality, here are 1:1 central crops from, in order, the iPhone 11 Pro, the Huawei P40 Pro, the Moto G8 Plus, and the Samsung Galaxy S9+:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop

An obvious and understandable win for the 5x periscope optics, though do see my comments in the ‘Verdict’ at the bottom of this feature. The Samsung S9+ uses Samsung’s always excellent interpolative digital zoom algorithms and just manages to pip the iPhone into second place, some way behind, even though neither photo is really useable, except for some low-res social sharing. And the G8 Plus again lags horribly behind, almost certainly digitally zooming the 12MP result after an original Quad Bayer reduction from 48MP – which is the wrong way to do a zoom on a high-resolution sensor.

iPhone 11 Pro: 5 pts; Huawei P40 Pro: 9 pts; Moto G8 Plus: 4 pts; Samsung Galaxy S9+: 6 pts

Test 8: Very low light…

I’m not going to head into full night time testing here, because that’s just geekier than most folk would need. Besides, we then come into the territory of ‘night modes’ and whether it’s best to go hyper-real or keep things as the eye sees. So I shot in very low light, but while there was still some natural light in the sky. This is about as low a light shot as most normal users would attempt. Here’s the overall scene:

Night scene

And, in order to see the pixel-level quality, here are 1:1 central crops from, in order, the iPhone 11 Pro, the Huawei P40 Pro, the Moto G8 Plus, and the Samsung Galaxy S9+:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop

Now, we still have to address the fact that the iPhone and P40 Pro produced a shot which was a lot lighter than the scene was to my eyes. But as both did the same and neither dropped to a ‘night mode’, I think we just have to accept that both flagships are showing off, at this point! Of the two, the iPhone 11 Pro photo has more actual detail, despite some noise, while the Huawei P40 Pro shot goes out of its way to lighter, to enhance edges, and to reduce noise. Making it artificial but arguably more immediately attractive. A score draws in my opinion, though.

The Galaxy S9+ and Moto G8 Plus are only marginally behind, despite producing a darker image – they have the same level of detail and you could even argue that they should win because they captured the scene more ‘accurately’. In fact, the G8 Plus has more noise and the S9+ just edges it. So – controversially – I’m spreading the points out more or less equally. Consider what a 2015 phone would have made of such a dusky scene and marvel at what our phone cameras can do these days!

iPhone 11 Pro: 8 pts; Huawei P40 Pro: 8 pts; Moto G8 Plus: 7 pts; Samsung Galaxy S9+: 8 pts

Verdict

For fun (partly!), let’s add the points up:

  • iPhone 11 Pro (current iOS flagship): 73 pts
  • Huawei P40 Pro (current Android flagship): 72 pts
  • Samsung Galaxy S9+ (two-year-old Android flagship): 66 pts
  • Moto G8 Plus (current budget smartphone): 51 pts

Yes, yes, get over the fact that the iPhone pipped the Huawei and that this is being published on iPhoneHacks.com – there’s no preconceived bias here. The two scores are effectively equal and it’s fair to say that if you need to shoot 5x or 10x zoom shots a lot  – for example, because you like snapping wildlife – then the Huawei P40 Pro will take shots that few other phones can. While if your needs are more grounded – landscapes, people, pets, objects – then the iPhone 11 Pro will give more natural images with more detail and more consistent colors. The P40 Pro (and other Android phones with 5x periscope zoom lenses) have a huge ‘weak area’ between 2x and 4.9x zoom – so if your daily needs center around 2 and 3x zoom factors at most then you’re far better off with a smartphone with 2x telephoto on call and a little software zoom on top.

Returning to the point of the feature though, all this does prove that flagship cameras (even the older S9+) have better optics, better sensors, and cleverer image processing. There’s a reason you’re paying more. Maybe this is obvious to you, but I was surprised how poor the G8 Plus was – the raw imaging specs, with ’48MP sensor, f/1.7 aperture, Laser autofocus’ look terrific and you think there has to be a catch. And there is. The plastic optics are of lower quality, there’s little or no attention paid to optimizing the software drivers, including completely overlooking zooming by ‘smart cropping’, and with no wide-angle or telephoto optics to draw on, the budget option here is rather shown up. (At least for stills – it has some video tricks up its sleeve, but that’s another article for another site and another day.)

However, what I think you should definitely focus on (pun intended) is that the S9+, from 2018 (or think iPhone X (iPhone X review) in the iOS world?), produces results that are very close to today’s flagships. Yet costs under a quarter of the price. Again, think iPhone X, actually from 2017, currently available second hand in most countries for less than a third of the 11 series flagships. Either on clearance or second-hand. If the value for money, if photo quality-per-dollar are major factors for you then this is clearly the way to go – and to recommend to others. In terms of camera quality, it’s far better, it seems, to go for a flagship from previous years than to skimp and buy a current model in the budget segment* – it’s a false economy.

* Obviously, in the iOS world, the ‘budget segment’ doesn’t really exist anyway, even the new iPhone SE 2020 (iPhone SE review) is twice the price of the Moto G8 Plus here!