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Google Pixel 3, Samsung Galaxy Note9, Huawei Mate 20 Pro Compared

Google Pixel 3, Samsung Galaxy Note9, Huawei Mate 20 Pro Compared - We compare the leading smartphones portrait modes to see which is the best, and how they compare to using a mirrorless camera.

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Samsung Galaxy Note9 in Camera Phones

Top Smartphones For Portraits

Huawei, OnePlus, Samsung, Google and other smartphones offer portrait modes - we thought we'd compare some of the top of the range smartphones from these companies to see how they compare.

Some smartphones cameras, such as the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, P20 Pro, and Samsung Galaxy Note 9 offer telephoto lenses, giving a more traditional portrait camera. Many offer a portrait mode, using a secondary camera to create "Bokeh" or background blur, as in the case of the OnePlus 6. Some, such as the Google Pixel 3 use one camera, and are still able to create a background bokeh effect, by combining a number of images.

We've also taken the same shot with a mirrorless camera, the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II, with a relatively bright 25mm f/1.4 (50mm equivalent) lens, some would call this the "classic" portrait lens. All photos were taken with flash off. 

 

All of these premium smartphones offer a dedicated Portrait or background blur mode, but do they actually produce good looking portrait images? Let's find out. 

 

Here's the portrait of Lucy Woodroffe, taken with a mirrorless camera, the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II, using a lens with a wide aperture, of f/1.4, using a Leica 25mm f/1.4 prime lens, equivalent to 50mm. The photo is an unedited JPEG straight from the camera.

Lucy Portrait Leica 25mm f/1.4 | 1/1600 sec | f/1.4 | 25.0 mm | ISO 800
Lucy Portrait Leica 25mm f/1.4 | 1/1600 sec | f/1.4 | 25.0 mm | ISO 800

The photo has a narrow area of the image that is in focus, and with the camera's face and eye detection, the area in focus is the eyes. This means that anything in front of this area will show blur, such as the hand in the foreground, as well as the background of the image. Most smartphones, on the other hand (no pun intended), aim to blur the background. 

 

Huawei Mate 20 Pro - Portrait

Lucy - Portrait - Telephoto (81mm equivalent) | 1/100 sec | f/2.4 | 2.4 mm | ISO 50
Lucy - Portrait - Telephoto (81mm equivalent) | 1/100 sec | f/2.4 | 2.4 mm | ISO 50

We used the 3x telephoto lens (81mm equivalent) on the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, which is quite a flattering focal length for portrait shots. We haven't used the portrait / bokeh mode in this shot, and the camera has retained the fine detail in the hair. When we switched the Portrait mode (for Bokeh) - the camera switched to digital zoom, and the results are particularly awful, so we haven't included these. This can happen when the camera decides that it's too dark, or seemingly randomly as well, as the scene wasn't particularly dark. 

 

Google Pixel 3 - Portrait Mode

Lucy Portrait (Bokeh) | 1/309 sec | f/1.8 | 4.4 mm | ISO 55
Lucy Portrait (Bokeh) | 1/309 sec | f/1.8 | 4.4 mm | ISO 55

Using the portrait mode on the Google Pixel 3, the camera zooms in to give a similar crop, as though it was a portrait lens. The background of the image is pleasantly blurred, for a good bokeh effect, however, the image appears to be over-sharpened, particulary for the hair and face, making this our least favourite image, and the least flattering photo for the portrait. In the portrait mode, there are options for "Face retouching" and this can be set to Off, Natural, and Soft. Using the soft setting produced a slightly improved image. It's also quite clear where the bokeh effect hasn't worked, blurring out the fine strands of hair. 

 

OnePlus 6 - Portrait Mode

Portrait Mode (Bokeh) | 1/115 sec | f/1.7 | 4.2 mm | ISO 100
Portrait Mode (Bokeh) | 1/115 sec | f/1.7 | 4.2 mm | ISO 100

The OnePlus 6 doesn't use as much zoom as the other cameras, so you get a more wide-angle image. The camera does still offer a background blur, and the results are reasonable, although the saturation and colour is strong. Again, it's quite clear where the bokeh effect hasn't worked, blurring out the fine strands of hair. 

 

Samsung Galaxy Note9 - Portrait / Live Focus Mode

Lucy Portrait - Live Focus with Background Blur (Telephoto lens) | 1/33 sec | f/2.4 | 6.0 mm | ISO 32
Lucy Portrait - Live Focus with Background Blur (Telephoto lens) | 1/33 sec | f/2.4 | 6.0 mm | ISO 32

The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 has produced an image that is slightly overexposed, however the bokeh mode has worked well, and the image looks quite natural. The 52mm equivalent lens lends itself to portrait shots. The "Live Focus" mode lets you adjust the level of background blur, as well as adjust the level of skin softening. The bokeh effect is quite natural, and the effect doesn't appear as obvious as with the other phones, although you can still see where it's gone wrong when viewing the image in detail. 

 

Taking Portraits With a Smartphone 

All of the smartphones here, which are some of the highest scoring smartphones in our reviews, offer portrait modes designed to give great portrait shots. 

The Huawei Mate 20 Pro with a 3x telephoto lens, and an 81mm equivalent, has an advantage for portrait shots, however, we were disappointed by the portrait / bokeh mode failing to work correctly. We have also encountered focusing issues with the telephoto lens. So overall, a good image is possible, but the reliability of the modes and the telephoto lens isn't ideal, so it may take a few attempts to get a good shot. 

The Google Pixel 3 produces images that are far too sharp (and overprocessed) for natural looking portraits. Because of this, it will be quite difficult to correct the image. Considering how good the Google Pixel 3 performs generally, and how good the Night Sight mode is, it's disappointing, and suprising to find that the portrait mode on the phone is so poor. 

The OnePlus 6 gives images that look quite good on the phone, but are far too bright and saturated. This would be a fairly quick to fix, and the image should still please most people. 

The Samsung Galaxy Note9 with a 2x telephoto lens, and a 52mm equivalent, has what many would consider the "classic" portrait lens, and with options to control the bokeh level and skin softness, the results are very pleasing. The image is perhaps the most natural looking of all the smartphones here, although attention needs to be paid to the exposure, so as to avoid over-exposure. 

Overall, smartphones are making some impressive strides in portrait shooting. None are quite perfect, and all could be improved, even if just a bit. The best results were produced by the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, and Samsung Galaxy Note9, with dedicated telephoto lenses giving these smartphones the advantage. 

However, none could match the natural looking transition between the in focus area of the image and the background blur (bokeh) offered by the entry-level mirrorless camera, the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II used here for these shots. Saying that, we're also aware that the smartphones all offer an image that has already been optimised to look it's best, whereas the image from the Olympus will need further processing to match the brightness and colour offered by the smartphones. 

 

What do you think? Which image(s) do you like the most? 

 

Portrait Smartphone Winners: Huawei Mate 20 ProSamsung Galaxy Note9
Portrait Smartphone Runner-up: OnePlus 6
Portrait Smartphone Losers: Google Pixel 3

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