To start with we have to ask the question which camera on a smartphone takes the best photos in low light?
In the following article, we hope to clarify this question and reveal what the top five low light smartphone cameras are in 2020.
To begin, we narrowed down the results based on extensive research. We looked at a variety of criteria such as the camera, operating system, RAM, chipset, processor, pixel density, camera features, image resolution, sensor, aperture, autofocus modes, flash, and available shooting modes. As you can imagine the prerequisites were a lot to process, but in the end, we came to a conclusion on what the top seven camera smartphones are in 2020.
From our findings, the best camera phones in order of camera quality are:
With so many camera phones on the market today there is a multitude of different offerings. Some camera phones house larger screens, others contain more RAM and many have different cameras. What we are interested in though is the camera quality of the best camera phone for low light performance.
- Galaxy S20 Ultra
- iPhone 11 Pro
- Google Pixel 3a
- Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus
- Apple iPhone XS
- Honor View 20
- Galaxy Note 9
We also have to mention the amazing Huawei P40 Pro as an honorable mention, it would have topped our list, but unfortunately, the Huawei P30 Pro isn’t directly available in the US. If you live in China or any other country where it is available the Huawei P40 Pro is the one to go for.
Before diving into each model, there were three significant feature differences between them. These were the sensor size, pixel density (measured in µm) and lens aperture. We will aim to explain the difference between these in the article rather than focus on every little specification.
Each of these specifications made a real difference to the low light capabilities and fine detail of the final photo. All of these smartphones take incredible images during the day, but it was at night where we saw significant differences.
Take the Google Pixel for instance with a camera that’s 12.2 Megapixels, it’s slightly more than the others (The Honor View 20 says 48 Megapixels, but it uses pixel binning to create a 12 Megapixel image). Now there doesn’t seem to be too much of a difference here (.2 Megapixels), but if you look at the pixel density, sensor size and lens aperture between the phones, the Google stands out with an f/1.8 lens, 1/2.55″ sensor at 1.4 Micrometres (µm) pixels.
At 1.4µm, what this essentially measures is how large each photodetector is on the sensor. The larger the number combined with a larger sensor, the greater the light captured – ideally making the phone better in low light. Therefore it is right to say the Google Pixel at 1.4µm captures one more stop of light than the Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus in Ultra-wide at 1.0µm pixels. Comparing micrometers may seem such a small specification, but when combined with a large sensor such as the Google Pixel 3’s 1/2.55″ dual-pixel sensor, the results stand out, which is why you will find Google’s smartphone high on our list.
Galaxy S20 Ultra
Key camera Specifications
- 108 MP, f/1.8, 26mm (wide), 1/1.33″, 0.8µm, PDAF, OIS
- 48 MP, f/3.5, 103mm (periscope telephoto), 1/2.0″, 0.8µm, PDAF, OIS, 4x optical zoom, 10x hybrid zoom
- 12 MP, f/2.2, 13mm (ultrawide), 1.4µm, Super Steady video
- 8K@24fps, 4K@30/60fps, 1080p@30/60/240fps, 720p@960fps.
The Galaxy S20 Ultra takes phone camera techonolgy to another level. Having used this phone everyday for the last fe months I can say that I have never used a phone like it.
It has had some initial issues, but several firmware updates lates the phone and camera seems to be functioning as expected.
If you are a movie maker don’t buy this phone for it’s 8K video as you will be disapointed, unfortunately, there is no stabilisation in 8k mode.
As for photography and particularly low light photography, this phone is superb. The larger sensor and 12MP combination gives incredible low light capabilities.
One amazing thing that I noticed immediately is that the Galaxy S20 is the first smartphone I have used that produces natural Bokeh. This is facilitated by the large sensor and fast lenses.
iPhone 11 Pro
Key camera specifications:
- 12MP, Ultra Wide, f/2.4 with 120° field of view
- 12MP, Wide, f/1.8 with Dual optical image stabilization
- 12MP, Telephoto, f/2.2 with Dual optical image stabilization
- 12MP, f/2.2, True Depth Front Facing Camera
- 4K video at 24 fps, 30 fps or 60 fps
- 2x optical zoom, digital zoom up to 10x
Since discussing the pros and cons of the iPhone XS as a tool for low light photography (see below), Apple released the iPhone 11 Pro. This device made headlines about its camera system upon its launch for all the wrong reasons. You see, Apple made a small design error when cramming its three lenses together on the back of the phone. They forgot about people with Trypophobia (fear of tiny holes). For some, the back of the phone is terrifying while others just feel uncomfortable looking at it. So, is it worth overcoming that discomfort and fear to use all the new photographic features?
In addition to the new choice of telephoto, wide and ultra-wide shots, users can play with different settings and modes. The most interesting is the iPhone 11 Pro Night Mode. The ultra-wide lens immediately takes shooting options beyond those of the iPhone XS as this is a whole new feature. The iPhone XS did enough to get by with low light capture. The use of the autofocus with focus pixels to lock into the subject helped. There was also that f1.8 aperture for detail in low light and the new Bionic A13 chip help to process images faster. At the time, users were happy enough even if some results were a little soft. But, the unveiling of the new iPhone 11 Night Mode raises the bar significantly. Comparison shots of XS v 11 Pro night time shots show a big contrast in quality.
The standout development with this new iPhone 11 Pro model is the intelligence within the software. Users don’t have to manually mess around with any settings to get the phone to acknowledge the light conditions. Instead, sensors within the phone notice how dark it is outside and adjust the camera according to the light levels. Night mode becomes automatic and users can be sure of great low-light capture and just the right shutter speed. This is great for those that want the best camera phone night photos with no effort at all. A gallery of a night out with friends maintains the same level of quality as the night progresses.
The good news for all those that like to play around with settings is that you can override the system and do things your way. You might not get the optimal results but you can become artistic and play with the phone’s capabilities. If you tap the Night Mode icon on the screen it opens up the chance to adjust the shutter with a slider.
Another benefit here is the use of visual indicators to help users further. There is a fine line between wanting an automatic process and needing to know what the phone is doing. Once you set up a shot, you need to know how long you have to hold the phone in position. This can be tricky with super-long exposures. There are two tools here that help. The first is the Night Mode icon itself. This turns yellow when activated and a timer appears beside it to highlight the shutter speed. When working manually, that simple slider transforms into a countdown.
The iPhone 11 Pro Night Mode is the best low-light option Apple has created and it equals Google’s Pixel 3 in low light performance. You will need a tripod to get the most from this cool feature. As always, for better battery life consider the Max version, lasting on average and extra 1.5 hours over the regular size iPhone 11 Pro.
Google Pixel 3a
Key camera specifications:
- 12.2MP, 1/2.55″ dual-pixel sensor (1.4µm pixels)
- f/1.8 lens, 28mm equivalent focal length
- Optical image stabilization
- Dual-LED flash
- 1080p at 30/60/120fps
- AutoFPS for switching between 30fps and 60fps when using 1080p
- H.265 encoding for Video
The Google Pixel 3a is a phone that rivals most. You would think this considering Google owns Android so it should be able to get the most out of the software it owns. With this aside and the pixel micrometers explained, how does the rest of the specifications stand up against the other smartphones in this list?
One of the other stand-out features includes the flash. Most smartphones only utilize one LED flash; however, Google’s Pixel 3 goes a step further and introduces a second tier. Why?
Well, it comes down to the color, you see with a dual LED flash each flash emits it’s only colour cast. For instance, you may notice one flash slightly warmer than the other. The cooler LED tone, combines with the warmer LED light and together they create more of a natural hue for night shots (especially portraits).
Other smartphones with one LED will use a processing algorithm to turn the RAW data into a jpeg image. This is very subjective, and usually, the decision for ‘saturated’ or ‘vivid’ color sits with the color scientist within the company. That’s why you might see a different color taken when taking the same shot using a different manufacturer. With this said, the Google Pixel 3a aims to reflect more natural color compared to others when using the flash.
Finally, the video produced from this device is at the new standard of H.265. This format allows for better compression, especially at 4K. While some other manufacturers offer 60 frames per second in 4K, the Google Pixel 3 currently records at 30 frames per second. This is expected to be an upgrade in the upcoming Google Pixel 4 that’s rumored to release in early May 2019.
Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus
Key camera specifications:
- Triple-camera setup
- Primary: 12MP sensor with 1.4µm pixels and 26mm-equivalent, f/1.5–2.4 aperture lens, Dual-Pixel AF, OIS
- Ultra-wide: 16MP sensor 1.0µm pixels and 13mm-equivalent, f/2.4-aperture lens
- Telephoto: 12MP sensor with 1.0µm pixels and 52mm-equivalent, f/2.4 aperture lens, PDAF, OIS
- 2160p/60fps (1080p/30fps at default settings)
Samsung has had a great run with the image quality from its Galaxy range. With the much-anticipated S10 now released, the critics have had their say, and fortunately for Samsung, the S10 stands up to their testing. Boasting a 12 Megapixel sensor and an impressive range of focal lengths the image quality is exceptional. One place where you will see better images is using the standard 26mm equivalent focal length. While this isn’t as wide as some of the other phones on the market the camera will utilize a larger pixel density to capture light.
The advantages of this smartphone are in its triple lens capabilities. With a broader range of focal lengths over the Google Pixel 3, the S10 is great for photographers who wish to zoom in or out. For instance, at an impressive 13mm equivalent, this smartphone almost offers almost a fisheye view (considering the equivalent of a fisheye on a camera is around 8mm) which is outstanding for photographing interior shots or epic landscape vistas. On the other hand, the telephoto end is ideal for portraiture at an equivalent of 52mm. What you should expect to see when taking a photo of a person is a blurred out background that shows excellent bokeh due to a large aperture of f/2.4.
Following the three lenses, the S10 also houses a powerful battery. Samsung learned their lesson from the S8 and has vastly improved the power capabilities to now include the most powerful battery in all the phones mentioned here. At 4100 mAh Samsung suggests you will get 12 hours and 35 minutes of use from one charge. So if you are a heavy user, videographer/photographer or traveler, then the S10 could be the right choice for you.
Apple iPhone XS
Key camera specifications:
- 12MP primary camera with 1/1.25″ sensor (1.4µm pixels) f/1.8-aperture lens
- 12MP secondary camera, 2x optical zoom, and an f/2.4 aperture
- Optical image stabilization on both lenses
- AF with focus pixels
- 4K video at 24/30/60 fps, 1080p at up to 120 fps or 240 fps.
If you are an Apple fan, then the iPhone XS is something to consider. With a smaller sensor than all of the other phones, don’t let this be something to stop you from buying into the Apple experience. Being the only non-android contender, this could be a determining factor for some, however, with their marketing aside, the iPhone XS camera is impressive.
With an impressive f1.8 aperture, you can expect to see incredible detail in low light. The device has had a fantastic integration from previous models, but more importantly, the team behind the phone has included AF (auto focus) with focus pixels. This functionality alone is worth the money as while other phones may struggle to focus in low light due to a contrast detection autofocus, Apple has done one step further. One the sensor itself you can find what’s traditionally known as phase detection pixels. What this means is the focus system won’t hunt past the subject then lock back onto the area where you want the camera to focus. AF with focus pixels does the opposite. Instead, the autofocus will lock onto the subject, without having to focus past the subject. Without this function, low-light photography can become frustrating, so it’s great to see Apple breaking some ground here.
One other stand out feature that may sway you to join the Apple fanboys is the exceptional video. If you are interested in recording video, then Apple is no doubt the best in class. With an impressive frame rate selection, particularly at Full HD, slow motion is on another level. With the iPhone XS, you can record your footage at 5x (120 fps) or 6x (240 fps) slower than real life. The results from this feature are extraordinarily in quality. Although the phone records in 4K at 60 frames per second, it’s now considered an industry standard, with the added super slow motion frame rates at Full HD, it makes the iPhone XS an excellent video camera for serious consideration.
Honor View 20
- Single Camera
- Back-illuminated sensor (BSI), Exmor-RS CMOS Sensor, 1/2-inch sensor with Quad-Bayer setup, and pixel binning (12 MP Output – 1.6μm pixels).
- Primary: 48MP (48MP only in AI Ultra Clarity mode)
- f/1.8 aperture lens.
- Secondary: 25 MP (f/2.0 lens, 1/3.6-inch sensor, AF)
- OIS on both cameras
- Single LED flash
- 4K video at 30 fps, 1080p at up to 60 fps
The Honor View 20 is an impressive smart device when looking at the specifications. Just look at that 48MP camera – wow! But, as you start to delve into the details, you will quickly notice the camera isn’t as impressive as it makes out to be…
You see I would say the 48MP is deceptive advertising. What many unassuming customers may not know is that the 48MP is only available in an AI Ultra Clarity mode. What this means is the camera takes four 12 Megapixel images quickly and combines them to create a 48MP image. The problem with this is camera shake. If the camera isn’t mounted on a phone holder or tripod, you will start to see misalignment in the final image. So essentially, the camera only produces 12MP images natively, but it does this through pixel binning. Pixel binning combines surrounding pixels (generally in a 2×2 grid) to form one larger pixel. As you can imagine this changes the micrometres, making it harder to honestly compare the Honor View 20 (1.6μm pixels) against the rest. While the statistics say the 1.6μm pixels is the best in the five models mentioned, it’s hard to believe.
With this aside, the Honor View 20 does produce some great results, which is why it made the list. The primary camera features an optical image stabilizer, similar to others, but what’s remarkable is the f/1.8 aperture combined with a 1/2-sensor. Adding to this is also the industry standard 4K video, but it lacks the 60 frames per second like the Apple iPhone XS.
In saying this though, the Honor makes up for this by providing the user with a larger 4000 mAh battery, something that it shares with the Galaxy Note 9.
Samsung Galaxy Note 9
Key camera specifications:
- Dual cameras
- Primary: 12MP (1/2.55-inch sensor, dual-pixel PDAF, f/1.5-2.4 variable-aperture lens), 1.22µm pixels
- Secondary: 12 MP (f/2.4 lens, 1/3.6-inch sensor, AF)
- OIS on both cameras
- Single LED flash
- 4K video at 30/60 fps
Unlike the newer Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus, the Note 9 is a little older but still packs a punch with the same 12 Megapixel camera, however with a slightly older sensor. Comparing sensor micrometres the Note 9 isn’t as good (1.22µm pixels) in low light compared to the higher end Samsung (1.4µm pixels). As an estimate, the difference is nearly one stop of light, so as long as you have your subject in good light with the aperture wide open, you should be okay.
What is great to see with this smartphone camera is the primary camera uses dual-pixel PDAF (phase detection autofocus) which uses planar image phase detection to speed up the focus system. What’s great about this is the PDAF covers the entire pixel array. The advantage of PDAF in this arrangement is moving subject become a breeze to focus on quickly no matter where they are in the frame.
Looking at the front and rear cameras, both include an optical image stabilizer (OIS). With OIS on board, hand-holding the smartphone is possible in low light situations where the shutter speed may drop below 1/60 of a second. Any slower shutter speed and the OIS will prove to be a welcome feature.
Honorable Mention – Huawei P40 Pro
- 50 MP Ultra Vision Camera (Wide Angle, f/1.9 aperture, OIS) + 40 MP Cine Camera (Ultra-Wide Angle, f/1.8 aperture) + 12 MP SuperSensing Telephoto Camera (f/3.4 aperture, OIS) + 3D Depth Sensing Camera
- Image stabilization: OIS + AIS
- Zoom Mode: Digital Zoom, Optical Zoom, Hybrid Zoom
- Video recording: Support for 4K(3840 x 2160 pixels) 60fps video recording
- Image resolution: Support up to 8192 x 6144 pixels
- Video resolution: Support up to 3840 x 2160 pixels
As we mentioned at the start of the article, the Huawei P40 Pro would be at the top of the list, if it were available to purchase directly in the US. The image quality from this camera certainly stands out in all fields.
Probably the most prominent feature of the Huawei is its quad-camera design. With three rear-facing cameras, the user can photograph focal lengths ranging from 16mm, 27mm or 125mm. Although the camera isn’t going to be as wide as the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra at 13mm, the telephoto makes up for the difference. The telephoto camera equipped on the P40 Pro zooms in over double the focal length of the Galaxy S10. Even though the megapixel count varies across the two brands by four sometimes getting closer to your subject using optics (over a digital zoom) is far more important.
In conclusion, many people may think the more megapixels, the better the image quality in low light; however, this is far from the truth. What’s more important to look at are three factors the sensor size, aperture range, and pixel micrometers. These three specifications will change the way you think about low light photography and image quality in smartphones. So, don’t be fooled by a higher megapixel count, instead, delve into the specifications and look for the features mentioned and you will be well on your way to identifying which device has the best camera performance.