Can the three cameras on the iPhone XS Max compete with the five cameras on the Galaxy S10 Plus? We compared photos, portraits and video from both to crown our winner.

CNET

The Galaxy S10 Plus added two new lenses to its already impressive camera array (one on the back and one on the front) and some useful software features that might just give it an extra edge on the competition.

I took the S10 Plus on a weeklong photo shoot alongside the iPhone XS Max, another camera giant, to find out if its five cameras are better than the iPhone’sthree.

How do they compare on paper?

Not much has changed with the main, wide-angle and telephoto lenses on the S10 Plus compared to last year’s S9 Plus. They share the same variable aperture (f/1.5 or f/2.4) that helps it adjust to different lighting conditions and a telephoto lens for optical zoom. But the S10 Plus has a third rear-facing camera: an ultra wide-angle lens that can capture a 123-degree panoramic shot with just one click (the S10 and the S10E also have the ultra side-angle lens). The Plus is also the only one from the line-up to include a second, 8-megapixel depth camera on the front for better portrait selfies.

The XS Max has a dual camera setup on the rear with a telephoto and wide angle lens as well, but a fixed aperture and a single, depth sensing camera on the front.

GALAXY S10 PLUS AND IPHONE XS MAX SPECS

Galaxy S10 Plus iPhone XS Max
Wide-angle resolution 12 megapixels 12 megapixels
Telephoto resolution 12 megapixels 12 megapixels
Super Wide-angle resolution 12 megapixels N/A
Variable aperture f/1.5, f/2.4 f/1.8
Telephoto aperture f/2.4 f/2.4
Optical image stabilization Both lenses Both lenses
Cinematic video stablization 1080p, 720p 1080p, 720p
Optical zoom 2x 2x
Digital zoom 10x 10x
4K video fps 24, 30, 60 24, 30, 60
1080p video fps 30, 60, 120, 240 30, 60, 120, 240
Front camera resolution 10 and 8 megapixels (dual) 7 megapixels
Front camera aperture f/1.9, f/2.2 f/2.2
64GB price N/A $1,099
128GB price $999.99 N/A
256GB price N/A $1,249
512GB price $1,249.99 $1,449
1TB price $1,599.99 N/A

For general shots they’re neck and neck

General shots look stunning on both phones, with just slight variations in color temperature, contrast and brightness. Some shots from the S10 Plus looked a bit brighter, and others a bit darker and moodier, depending on what aperture it chose for that specific scene. The iPhone’s shots look more consistent with a slightly cooler hue and more subdued colors. This category was tough, because the differences were so nuanced. For landscapes, I favored the bold look of the S10 Plus, but for people and objects I preferred the softer look of the iPhone. In most cases the better of the two really came down to personal preference.

With the Galaxy S10 Plus you have the option to take your photos up a notch by activating new software features found in the camera settings. The Scene optimizer can identify 30 scene types and allows the camera to detect what type of shot it’s looking at, then adjusts things like saturation and contrast based on what it thinks would best suit that scene. The Scene Optimizer also includes a Bright Night mode that brightens up lowlight shots, but the differences weren’t as drastic as other night-shot effects like the Pixel‘s Night Sight feature. In general I found the optimizations made colors look more vibrant, but less true to life. You also have a Shot suggestion option that gives you tips on optimal framing, and a Flaw Detection feature which alerts you of things like lens smudges and blurry shots.

I took most of the shots without any of the added features to keep things consistent for the sake of this comparison That said, it’s a nice option to have in your back pocket, especially if you’re looking for a bolder more saturated look in your pictures.

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IPHONE XS MAX AND GALAXY S10 PLUS

iPhone XS Max $1,099.99 See it on Amazon
Galaxy S10 Plus $9,999.99 See it on Amazon

More options to choose from on the S10 Plus

The S10 Plus lets you step back and take in the scene from a totally different vantage point thanks to that ultra wide-angle lens, a feature the iPhone XS Max lacks.

Before using the S10 Plus, I didn’t think I needed a camera with a wider field of view; turns out I just didn’t know what I was missing. I found that landscapes looked more dramatic because the S10 Plus was able to capture more of the sky and the scenery. It gives photos an almost birds-eye view like it had been taken from a drone. The best part about the ultra wide-angle lens is that you don’t have to sacrifice anything to get the shot.

At 16 megapixels it’s just as sharp, if not more so, than the traditional wide-angle lens. There’s a little distortion around the edges which is one of my biggest complaints about these wider angle cameras. What’s nice is that you still have the regular wide and telephoto lenses to switch to if ultra wide doesn’t work with your shot. The iPhone XS Max seemed limited in comparison.

Samsung steps up its video game

You can also use the ultra wide-angle lens when recording video on the S10 Plus, but it will only work when you’re shooting at 1080p resolution (30 frames per seconds) or 4K at (30 fps). You can switch between all three lenses while you’re recording your video and go from the 2X zoom from the telephoto, to the wide angle, to the ultra wide all in one take without compromising image quality. The one downside with using the ultra wide angle lens for video is that it doesn’t have optical image stabilization (OIS), so your tracking shots won’t be as smooth and lowlight video looks blurry and dark. Click below to check out all our video samples.

The main lenses on both these phones produce great looking video that is relatively stable despite my shaky hands. I recorded video with both phones as I walked along the beach and the stabilization from both was good. Once I upped my pace and started running, the S10 Plus still managed to keep it stable despite the bounce. The iPhone struggled more and had trouble with the exposure switching between the sand and the sky with every bounce.

In terms of the actual image though, colors on the S10 Plus look cooler and the contrast is higher, while the iPhone has a warmer, more even tone which I thought looked more flattering when shooting video of people. The XS has softer, more cinematic image quality though it does suffer from lens flares more than the Galaxy S10 Plus when shooting into a light source.

Both can shoot up at up to 4K resolution at 60fps, but the S10 also has an option to record in HDR10+ for even better quality video on your phone. This feature is still in beta and not a lot of devices support playback yet, so you probably won’t even notice it unless you’re watching it on an S10 Plus.

They also shoot slow motion video at 240fps in full HD (1080P), and image quality is good on both, although slightly sharper on the iPhone. The Galaxy phone takes it a step further with a super slow motion option that shoots slow motion video at 960fps at 720p. This gives your slow motion shots a much more dramatic effect that I think surpasses anything the iPhone can produce, but getting it right is a struggle. The S10 can only record a few seconds worth of video at this frame rate which means you have to hit record at just the right moment to get the action, which is near impossible unless you’re dealing with a planned stunt, and you can’t go back to edit the effect later. It also doesn’t record sound. Instead it overlays a cheesy theme song of choice which you can change for your own music. Both allow you to edit your clip in regular slo-mo and shoot as much footage as you want.

Two very different portraits

Both phones can also produce a blurred background effect for portraits. In the iPhone you’ll find it as Portrait mode, and on the Galaxy it’s called Live Focus. This is not new to these phones, but the Galaxy S10 changed the way it produces the effect by using information from the wide-angle and super wide-angle lenses instead of the telephoto and wide-angle as in previous models.

This means you get a wider portrait when shot from the same angle as the main camera meaning you don’t have to re-adjust your framing. The iPhone XS Max uses its telephoto lens, so portraits look more cropped and intimate than those from the S10.

The downside of having the wider angle for portrait mode, is that the S10 is not good at determining what to blur out in the shot. In my experience, the blur is a lot more subdued. I had a hard time figuring out whether I had gotten the effect to work both while I was taking the picture and after when I was looking through the shots. The blur on the iPhone is way more dramatic, and there is no question when I’ve actually taken a shot in portrait mode. The XS makes it easier to get the effect to lock into place while taking the shot, which is key when you’re dealing with subjects that don’t like to sit still (like pets and children). In the picture below, the S10 blurred out the dog’s face, while the iPhone was able to distinguish between the fur and the shrubs in the background.

Even when the Galaxy S10 Plus did manage to get the effect right, I still favored the portraits taken on the iPhone XS Max. The subject looked brighter, it got the blur right more often, colors were more accurate and it had a shallower depth of field.

That said, both let you adjust the intensity of the blur before and after you take the shot and have different effects you can play around with. The iPhone is all about changing up the lighting effects, while the Galaxy can distort the background into a swirl, or a zoom, or make it black and white while keeping the subject in color which really makes your portrait pop.

Zoom and close-ups

The XS Max and S10 Plus use their telephoto lens as a 2X optical zoom which looked relatively similar in pictures from both save for a few of those minor differences with color temperature, contrast and saturation. Once you go past 2X, each can zoom digitally up to 10X. Neither looks great fully zoomed in, but if I had to choose I might go with the S10. The iPhone’s zoomed pictures look brighter, but the shots from the S10 are a bit less grainy.

For actual close-ups I would go with the Galaxy S10 Plus. The phone’s greater contrast also works in its favor for this type of shot because it makes it seem sharper and captures more detail. There’s also a Pro mode option on the S10 that lets you manually adjust the focus which gives you even more control over macro shots. You can also change the aperture, ISO and shutter speed in Pro mode. Though it’s a nice option to have, I rarely used manual settings out in the field. It’s also possible to adjust the exposure manually on the iPhone, but only with a third-party app like VSCO or Halide.

Two types of selfies to choose from

The Galaxy S10 Plus also has the edge when it comes to the front facing camera.

It has a 10-megapixel front facing camera with a slightly wider field of view, and an 8-megapixel depth sensing camera with a tighter frame. Both are used for Live Focus, to create that same blurred background effect that you got from the rear facing camera. But the effect might actually look better from the front facing camera. It’s softer, brighter and took a flattering selfie of me even after a long hike when I was looking less than my best.

The iPhone XS can also do portrait mode selfies, but it relies on the one depth sensing camera, so it’s not as good at figuring out the blur. It left out some of my hair, and would sometimes blur one person out when there are multiple people in the shot. The iPhone did get points for color accuracy in selfies though, the Galaxy S10 tends to wash out skin tones.

The S10 Plus shines in low light

In low light or at night, the S10 also shines brighter. It’s able to let in more light which in turn allows it to capture more detail and have more vivid colors. But sometimes the Galaxy S10 Plus went a bit overboard and cast a yellow glow on light sources that made the shot look unnatural.

Low light shots from the iPhone XS Max look duller in comparison with a bit more noise and muddled details, although colors seem true to life.

For portraits especially, I would  prefer better lighting over the true to life tones. The Galaxy S10 is still able to capture enough detail in a shot to produce a blurred background effect in a dimly lit room. But the same shot on the iPhone looks almost pitch black because that telephoto lens has a narrower aperture that the lens used by the S10.

And that’s not even with the extra help of the Galaxy’s own night mode which can lighten up the scene a bit more. Activate the scene optimizer to get slightly brighter and more saturated results when the camera detects a dark environment.

Extra features

The S10 also lets you bypass the middle-man when it comes to sharing your shots on social media. If you’re logged into your Instagram account on the phone, you can toggle to this mode directly from the camera module to share with all your followers. Anything you take here will immediately post to you feed or stories

The camera winner is…

The iPhone XS Max, puts up a good fight considering it’s last year’s model. If you want a solid camera that produces great quality shots without much fuss, then this is the phone for you. It’s my personal favorite when it comes to portraits, cinematic video, and great overall shots.

But the Galaxy S10 Plus has more to offer right now in terms of features: an extra lens on the back for more dramatic shooting angles and an extra lens on the front for more flattering selfies and brighter night shots. If you’re looking to take your phone photography to the next level, this phone gives you a lot more tools to get you there if you’re willing to put in the extra work to learn all its tricks.

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