In recent times we've seen Pixel and iPhone camera systems match the classic Lumia and even exceed its imaging performance, so I'm not expecting an upset here. But the margins of victory are always interesting, plus in this case it's a toss-up, as I start to write the feature, as to which of the 2020 flagship smartphones will emerge the victor.
- All shots were handheld, no tripods allowed!
- All shots were in 4:3 aspect ratio using as much of each sensor as possible.
- The Pixel and iPhone were shooting in default 12MP resolution, while the Lumia 950 was left in 8MP PureView mode, to get the benefit of the oversampling and also get a degree of PureView zoom. (The alternative would be to un the Lumia in 20MP mode and that's even further away from 12MP on the other devices...) This results in some field of view mismatches, but
- Because we're looking at three images here, we can't use the usual interactive comparator. Instead the crops are placed one above the other vertically, always in the same order: Lumia, Pixel, iPhone
- The iPhone 12 being tested is the non-Pro model, matching the configuration of the Pixel 5 - but it's worth noting that there's also the 12 Pro, with extra telephoto lens, for an extra £200 or so.
Test 1: Sunny landscape
Picking my sunny moments in late Autumn weather in the UK, here's a riverscape with an office block behind:
I have to wonder what your own eyes tell you here. I get accused of bias towards Lumias and PureView, but surely you can see the realistic greenery, trees, bushes on the Lumia 950, while the iPhone 12 and even the Pixel 5 to a lesser extent opt for edge enhancement and general 'wow' factor, at the expense of accuracy. This is interesting this year in that last year's iPhone 11 series had algorithms that were far less aggressive with detail - it seems that Apple has gone a little 'Samsung'. Which is a shame - the fence, the grass, the trees, they don't look 'real' to me in this crop. The Pixel isn't quite as bad, but also loses a point for general indecision at the Pixel level, I'm wondering if the OIS didn't quite work here.
Scores: Lumia 950: 10pts; Pixel 5: 8pts; iPhone 12: 8pts
Test 2: Sunny landscape, 2x zoomed
True, none of these smartphones have telephoto cameras, but they should all be capable of (and indeed claim) some decent software zoom. The same scene above then, shot as close to 2x zoom as I could in their UI. And it's at this point that I discovered an issue with the software zoom on the Pixel 5 - after snapping such a shot you have to keep the phone still for a second, since it takes this long to capture the appropriate multiple exposures from which to take the composite zoom image. In this office shot, I hadn't allowed this extra second and, as a result, the Pixel 5 doesn't save the software-zoomed shot at all! It's clearly both a performance issue with the mid-range chip and also a software bug (since, at the very least, the initial single exposure zoom should be saved, I contend). As a result, only the 1x shot was saved again, explaining the complete mis-match below - normally I'd discount this test shot, but I wanted to highlight it as a serious problem with this Pixel (previous generations took their zoom exposures almost instantly).
Well.... it's not often that a Lumia 950 (traditionally terrible at zooming) wins a zoomed shot comparison. The Pixel 5, as explained, messed up completely in not saving the zoom at all, while the software zoom in the iPhone 12 is about what you'd expect - lossy and exagerated. Meanwhile the part PureView, part lossy zoom in the 950 manages to just about win out. But all three are pretty awful, reflected in the scores here. A proper telephoto lens is sorely missed in each case!
Scores: Lumia 950: 6pts; Pixel 5: 4pts; iPhone 12: 6pts
Test 3: Sunny landscape (take 2!)
Trying again but this time determined to wait the extra second so that the Pixel 5's software zoom system has no excuse not to save its result, here's a second sunny scene:
Although the Lumia just wins out again on greenery and actual detail, I can't ignore the fairly ghastly yellow cast here, and this evens the score right up. The Pixel 5 and iPhone 12 both try too hard with fine detail, and end up losing it altogether, but it's an imperfect score all round in this case.
Scores: Lumia 950: 9pts; Pixel 5: 9pts; iPhone 12: 9pts
Test 4: And again... Zoom X2 Take 2...
With attention to detail in giving the Pixel 5 time to take its software zoom set of photos (of which I'm expecting much after all this hype!), I took a 2x zoom shot ot the same scene above, looking specifically at the clock on the tower.
The Pixel 5 at last scores well, with its 'Super Res Zoom' multi-exposure system producing a result that, while not up to the quality of a genuine 2x telephoto, at least looks half decent at the pixel (pun intended) level. The Lumia 950 lags behind with its traditional blocky zoom attempt and with that yellow cast still evident. The iPhone 12 site between the two, with more artefacts than the Pixel 5 and with the software-interpolated shot OK for social use, at least. Just don't look too closely.
Scores: Lumia 950: 5pts; Pixel 5: 8pts; iPhone 12: 7pts
Test 5: Autumn colour
A lovely rich coloured set of leaves (in the wind, explaining slight differences between shots and also focus points!) in the garden. Here shown scaled for the web below, in turn, from the Lumia 950, the Pixel 5, and the iPhone 12, click on the device names to download the full resolution zoomed image from each phone:
Three excellent shots - I was aiming for the tip to be in focus even though it's not the centre of the frame - and the Lumia 950 and iPhone 12 did just this, but I can't blame the Pixel for centring focus in the middle of the branch. The colours vary slightly, from paler (and probably more accurate) on the Lumia to richest on the Pixel, but they're all terrific and no points lost all round.
Scores: Lumia 950: 10pts; Pixel 5: 10pts; iPhone 12: 10pts
Test 6: Sunset plane
One of my favourite subjects, here snapped with the sun very low in the sky and light starting to fade. Here's the overall scene:
The classic Lumia 950 does a wonderful job here, the photo looks 'real', with no artificial edge enhancement. The iPhone 12 and the Pixel 5 achieve slightly better dynamic range, but they also impose an air of 'colour photocopy' on proceedings. See the barbed wire in front of the plane - it seems a lot thicker on the Pixel and iPhone than on the Lumia - this is edge enhancement at its worst. Still, the snaps would be good enough for most people - this is just me being picky and playing spot the differences!
Scores: Lumia 950: 9pts; Pixel 5: 8pts; iPhone 12: 8pts
Test 7: Indoor gloom
Light now drops further, with a controlled shot indoors, 6 feet away from a window and with the weather gloomy outside. In other words, the two teddies here were poorly lit, more so than the shots here would indicate - OIS in each phone enabling longer exposures and doing a good job.
Although the iPhone 12's famous Deep Fusion image processing does a good job with the textures here - have a look at the sweater and scarf in the full resolution HEIC file - it's all about colours and noise here. And, unusually, the award for best colour balance goes to the Lumia, which nails Pooh's yellow fur, while the Pixel 5 and, to an extent, the iPhone 12 err on the light side. A win for the Lumia 950 by a nose. A teddy's nose!!
Scores: Lumia 950: 10pts; Pixel 5: 8pts; iPhone 12: 9pts
Test 8: Indoors, no direct lighting
Another real world test, with some painted pebbles on a church altar, lit by overhead windows about 6 metres away. Light enough to the human eye, but starting to create challenges for phone cameras. This time we'll go to 1:1 crops again, so here's the overall scene:
PureView to the fore here - the Lumia 950's oversampling algorithms are just superb here - the Pixel 5 photo looks like a photocopy of the Lumia's, and the iPhone 12's a photocopy of the Pixel's, i.e. two generations of purity back. It's a crying shame, it really is. Why can't we have a really good imaging option in 2020 that doesn't max out every parameter and try every trick in order to get more 'pop' and more 'wow'?
I'm upset. But we have to press on...
Scores: Lumia 950: 10pts; Pixel 5: 8pts; iPhone 12: 7pts
Test 9: Night lights
A very tricky scene here, with bright lights and pitch black, all within a few metres of each other. On full 'auto', how will the phone cameras approach the scene?
All rather imperfect! Note the out of focus shot from the Lumia 950. I left in the zoom failure from the Pixel 5 earlier on, so I felt it only right to be upfront about the Lumia 950's difficulty focussing in low light - it's something that's been an issue for years. And, although I didn't notice at the time, you can see above that it's messed up the focus. Which is a shame, since it nailed the exposure. The Pixel 5 also does well with exposure, but again it's missed the focus slightly, with unsatisfying results. The iPhone 12 nailed the focus but also went hyper on 'night mode', turning night to day generally and, ultimately blowing out most of the light sources.
Well, I did say this was a tricky shot to get right!
Scores: Lumia 950: 5pts; Pixel 5: 6pts; iPhone 12: 6pts
Test 10: Full on night
No really bright lights, just darkness. The Google Pixels and (more recently) the Apple iPhones have made the night their own. Here's the scene:
Yes, another out of focus Lumia 950 shot. As to why these 950 photos are messing up focus so badly, it's fair to say that the phone has always been terrible at focussing at night, thanks to only having 'ye olde' PDAF (Phase Detection Auto Focus, using just a few pixels in the sensor). Given a little more time, I'd usually manually set focus to infinity or else try and find a bright spot in the viewfinder that a focus lock would work on. But I'm out of patience - most other decent phone cameras can now focus happily in most light conditions, thanks to 'Dual Pixel autofocus' across their sensors. So if the 950 needs to be marked down here then so be it.
The Pixel 5 doesn't quite nail the focussing of the shot either, despite automatically being in 'Night Sight' mode, while the iPhone does as well as any phone camera could under the dark conditions. Overall, the iPhone 12 wins here by a nose - look at the trellis to the left and right of the door in the crops - you can make out individual slats! (There's just one defect in the iPhone shot here and that's the blue dot in the full image just right of middle of the photo - this is an internal reflection of one of the street lights and this seems to be a characteristic of Apple's new lens design. Is this worth docking the iPhone a point? Jury's out!)
Scores: Lumia 950: 5pts; Pixel 5: 8pts; iPhone 12: 10pts
It's very evident that each of these three smartphone cameras has a strong suit:
- The Lumia 950 is incredible in most light conditions, with super natural renderings of the smallest details - its weak points are zoom and very dark scenes.
- The Pixel 5 is very decent in all light conditions, a good all-rounder, let down by glitches in the UI, such as having to wait (without warning) when zooming while all the extra exposures are taken (just as in Night Sight mode).
- The iPhone 12 is usually stunning and especially so in very low light, but with no telephoto (as on the Pro range) its zooming is disappointing. Plus the new HDR routines do too much edge enhancement, in my opinion. Hopefully Apple can dial this back in software updates.
So a couple of test cases were spoiled for the 950 by its ancient focussing system, but let's tot up the scores and see what emerges as victor anyway.
- Apple iPhone 12 (2020): 80 pts
- Lumia 2015 (2015): 79pts
- Google Pixel 5 (2020): 77pts
So, all round, there wasn't too much in it. I guess the Pixel 5 and iPhone 12 should get points for also having an 'ultra-wide' camera, giving other creative possibilities, but that's perhaps another article for another day.
My biggest disappointment here was that all the scores were so low. We're a long way from a perfect 100% score. With more care over extreme low light focussing, the Lumia 950 could be taken up into the high eighties. With the zoom factor prompting the user to stay still after zooming, the Pixel 5 would get into the low eighties. And with a dialling back of the totally unnecessary edge enhancement in its 2020 algorithms, the Apple iPhone might even make 90. So room for improvement all round and I'm going to attempt this same three way comparison at Christmas, with more lights, more atmosphere and... a bevy of updates acquired for both Pixel and iPhone here.
Watch this space!