Low-light camera shootout: Galaxy S9 Plus vs. Pixel 2 XL vs. iPhone X and more

The Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus take great photos in low-light environments thanks to the variable aperture system on the main rear lens. We’ve shown off how the camera performs in our Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus reviews, but now’s the time to pit it against several flagship smartphones to find the best low-light snapper.

In this test, we used the Galaxy S9 Plus, the Google Pixel 2 XL, the Apple iPhone X, the HTC U11, the LG V30 (with a photo from the new V30S ThinQ), and the Huawei Mate 10 Pro. We took the photos as the average person would — simply tapping on a subject in the viewfinder and letting the camera do the rest. The subject matter? The streets of Barcelona at night.  Here’s how the phones performed.

If you want to see more camera comparisons, check out our smartphone camera shootout series. Comment below to let us know what camera shootouts you want to see next!

Correos Y Telegrafos

Choosing a winner for this photo is tough, and a lot of it may come down to personal preference. It’s easier to eliminate the poorer photos first, which come from the LG V30, the HTC U11, and the Huawei Mate 10 Pro from worst to best. The V30 photo has the worst detail and is very fuzzy, and the latter two are the darkest photos on the list (though with decent detail and solid color accuracy).

Our favorite photos come from the Galaxy S9 Plus, the iPhone X, and surprisingly, the LG V30S ThinQ. The V30S ThinQ’s Bright Mode automatically kicked in due to the poor lighting, and it easily is the most detailed photograph. It captures the mood very well, though we think it could do a better job with color accuracy.

low light camera comparison post office LG V30S Thinkq
LG V30S ThinQ

Next up is the Galaxy S9 Plus, which has solid detail, but impresses us more with its excellent noise reduction. Take a look at the sky and compare it with the rest of the photographs, and it’s easy to see how the S9 Plus’ photo feels more realistic. The colors also feel natural, though perhaps a little too on the yellow side.

The iPhone X took the photo with the best color accuracy, and it’s slightly more detailed than the S9 Plus. There’s a lot of noise, though, which is largely why we gave the S9 Plus the edge.

The Galaxy S9 Plus’ excellent noise reduction is impressive.

That leaves the Pixel 2 XL, which sits somewhere in the middle between the worst photos and the best. It’s a great photo, but it looks too sharpened, and we feel as though it doesn’t capture any particular mood about the setting at all. It has great detail, but the V30S ThinQ beats it, and we love the colors in the S9 Plus and iPhone X photos more.

Overall, these are great photographs, but the S9 Plus, iPhone X, and V30S ThinQ stand out the most. We’re giving the top pick to the S9 Plus for its impressive noise reduction, but the iPhone X is a close second for color accuracy. We love the detail on the V30S ThinQ, but it looks a little greenish, as though someone added an Instagram filter over it.

Arches at the Barcelona Cathedral

The arches of the Barcelona Cathedral are the only lit up part of the building late at night. It’s a great way to test which phones can bring out the rest of the building, while not overexposing the archway.

We’re happy with all these photos, but since we’re picking winners we’d place the LG V30 and the HTC U11 at the bottom of the list. The U11 lights up the rest of the cathedral well, but the color is a little bland, and the archway is overexposed. The V30 has great detail (we didn’t test Bright Mode here), but the overall photo has a greenish tint. The areas outside of the arches are also too dark.

The Pixel 2 XL arguably has the best exposed photo with good detail on the cathedral and great lighting on the archway.

Our favorites this time are from the Galaxy S9 Plus, the iPhone X, the Pixel 2 XL, and the Mate 10 Pro. The Galaxy S9 Plus easily takes the win for best color accuracy, excellent noise reduction, and it manages to light up the rest of the cathedral.

The iPhone X is our second favorite, but it’s a little too warm for our tastes. It does have the best detail, but the statues at the bottom of the arches are a little overexposed.

The Pixel 2 XL arguably has the best exposed photo. You can see plenty of detail on the cathedral, while also maintaining great lighting on the archway. Its detail is second to the iPhone, but it loses points for color accuracy with its cooler tones.

The Mate 10 Pro impressed us here with beautiful colors and solid detail, but the areas outside of the arches are hardly visible.

We’re giving the S9 Plus the win, with the iPhone X taking second place again. The Pixel 2 XL gets third place.

Barcelona Cathedral

All of these phones do a great job of capturing the old Barcelona Cathedral, which has been around since the 1300s. Perhaps unsurprisingly, our favorites again are the Galaxy S9 Plus, the Pixel 2 XL, and the iPhone X.

The S9 has excellent lighting overall, with a nice warm color that carries the mood of the Gothic Quarter, as well as solid detail. This photo has the best sky, thanks to very little noise.

Yet again, our favorites are the Galaxy S9 Plus, the Pixel 2 XL, and the iPhone X.

The Pixel 2 XL is noticeably grainier, but it comes second because it also has great lighting all around. You can see the turrets of the cathedral far more than the rest of the photos (except the S9). It also has the least overexposed arches.

The iPhone X may have some of the best detail, but it’s a little too dark for our tastes. It does have great warm tones just like the S9 Plus, though.

The HTC U11 does a solid job here as well, though with a slightly yellow tone, but good detail. We’re not fans of the V30 and the Mate 10 Pro’s photos, as they both offer poorer detail than the rest, with muted and bland colors.

The S9 Plus gets the win here, followed by the Pixel 2 Xl, and the iPhone X.

Las Arenas

We’re going to have to sit the HTC U11 out on this one, as we didn’t have the phone on hand for this comparison.

The easiest phone to eliminate here is the LG V30. Details are a little blurry, and overall the photo has an unusual green tint. Next comes the Galaxy S9 Plus. It doesn’t do as well with detail compared to the other phones, though we do like the colors it produced. It’s not a bad photo at all.

The Huawei Mate 10 Pro and the Pixel 2 XL tie for second place. The color in the Mate 10 Pro photo looks much more natural than the cooler tones on the Pixel 2 XL photo, but both are well-detailed, and the Pixel wins points for being one of the only phones to not overexpose the A symbol on the left side on the tower.

That means our favorite photo comes from the iPhone X. It offers the strongest detail, but it also has the best color accuracy. The photo looks very natural, and the color of the sky adds more depth. At the end of the day, we’d be happy sharing any of these photos, but we’re nitpicking and the iPhone X gets the win.

Food

Right off the bat we have to note that the HTC U11 and the LG V30’s photos aren’t the same as the rest — the food at El Salon is so good, it made us forget to match up our photos. We can still comment about coloring and detail here, though. The LG V30 does a great job with the warm color and solid detail, but the U11 goes in the opposite direction for a colder color. It’s a good photo, but the lighting was nothing like the U11’s photo. It’s also not as sharp as the V30 photo.

The poorest photo of the lot comes from the Mate 10 Pro. It’s not nearly as detailed as the rest of the cameras, and the colors are over-saturated. The iPhone X photo is well-detailed, but like the U11, it surprisingly goes for a cooler tone — which is not representative of the warmer colors at the restaurant.

That leaves us with our two favorite photos, the Galaxy S9 Plus and the Pixel 2 XL. The latter phone’s photo is also cool instead of warm, but the level of detail is stunning. We’d love this photo even more if the camera could just get the colors right. The S9 Plus, however, manages to maintain a lot of detail, while capturing colors well. It’s the photo we’d share of the lot. The S9 gets the win again.

A running theme here — the Galaxy S9 Plus has come out on top for almost all of these comparisons.

There seems to be a running theme here — the Galaxy S9 Plus has come out on top for almost all of these comparisons. That doesn’t mean the photos from the other cameras are bad; they’re all incredibly good, and it’s impressive how far smartphone camera technology has advanced. We should note, though, that the Galaxy S9 Plus is our pick for the best low-light camera. We still think certain phones like the Pixel 2 XL outperform it in daylight and other scenarios, such as Portrait Mode.

Not satisfied with our results? That’s OK. Photography is subjective, and if you show two people two photos from different cameras, they may not like the same photo. Let us know what you think of the S9’s camera in low-light in the comments below.

David Cogen, a regular contributor here at Digital Trends, runs TheUnlockr.com, a popular tech blog that focuses on tech news, tips and tricks, and the latest tech. You can also find him over at Twitter discussing the latest tech trends.

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