Smartphone Shootout

It’s that time of the year where we grab the best camera phones around and take them out for a side-by-side shootout. We have six entrants we’ve been particularly impressed with throughout 2021. The Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max and Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra showcase the best that the big two have to offer.

We also liked the OnePlus 9 Pro for its ultrawide setup, the Google Pixel 6 Pro as a return to form, and the Sony Xperia 1 III for its novel telephoto technology. We also heard you loud and clear and picked up a Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra as the reader’s choice entry this time around.

First, a little housekeeping. We installed all the latest software patches before heading out for our shootout. Camera apps were left in their out-of-the-box settings, so using Apple’s Standard color profile for example, and there’s no post-editing on any of these images.

All we’ve done is resize them to save on bandwidth in this article. Given that most of these phones have been on the market for many months now, this is likely as good as these cameras are ever going to look.

So go and grab a coffee and get comfortable, as there’s a serious amount of pictures to get through here. If you want to read along with your own analysis, be sure to check out the original-sized files over at this Google Drive folder.

Color balance and exposure

To start our shootout, let’s look at how these phones handle a wide variety of typical shooting environments. We’ve hand-picked four scenarios to showcase how these phones adapt their image processing to blue skies, warm hues, cold color palletes, and vivid colors. I’ll say in advance, all six are perfectly fine here and more alike than different, but there are some minor yet not insignificant discrepancies.

First up, our random assortment of colorful objects. Here we’re checking to see the overall white balance, hue, and if any particular colors are oversaturated or undersaturated.

Next is our warm autumn woodland scene. Keep an eye out for over or undersaturation of the yellows and reds, as well as how well the blue breaks through the trees. I also think the dynamic range from the sunlight on the ground is interesting to observe.

Color, exposure, and white balance rankings:

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra — Unlike previous years, the Galaxy S21 Ultra mostly avoids oversaturated colors. Despite overly punchy reds in our first picture, it generally finds a sweet spot between the Pixel and Xperia. The camera leans slightly into the warm and cold white balance in our curated scenes but only enough to indulge the scene’s tones. The handset offers excellent sky blues without oversaturation. Consistently very good results here.

Google Pixel 6 Pro — Google prefers a slightly warmer white balance than is strictly accurate and oversaturates its colors a little, although it’s the only camera to get the blue book in the first shot correct.

The lakescape image showcases the phone’s brilliant exposure and white balance, although the browns are a little colorful for a dim day. The autumn scene is slightly oversaturated but provides the most push out of the bunch. The blue sky is incredibly accurate and offers superb dynamic range in the foreground and background too, although the foreground plant is a little too orange. Realism isn’t the aim of the game for Google but the results are pleasing to the eye.

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max — There’s a clear yellow tint in the first two images, which pushes the blues closer to turquoise and the orange leaves closer to yellow. The red background is also rather heavily saturated in the first image.

The phone’s white balance leans more heavily into the scene in our cold and warm shots, making them look more saturated. Although the lakescape looks brilliant and really captures the cold feel as a result. Unfortunately, the blue sky is a little oversaturated and the background considerably darker than competing phones.

Sony Xperia 1 III — Sony prioritizes a neutral white balance and color accuracy but doesn’t always get it right. The camera avoids oversaturation in all of our images but this produces washed-out colors across our first image. Equally, the camera suffers from underexposure in the first, second, and third pictures. The shadows are generally far too dark. That said, the Xperia nails plant color in our final picture and doesn’t lean too warm or too cold in our autumn and lake scenes. Realism over punch is the Xperia’s raison d’être.

Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra — Our random item selection is tinted too warm, as seen on the cushion and yellow toy lid. We can see a similar over-warming in the blue sky and dock shot, so this phone doesn’t offer the most accurate white balance. The camera also prefers a little oversaturation, as can be seen in the yellows and pinks of the first shot as well as the leaves in the autumn scene.

The HDR effect in that image is also far too strong, removing the contrast from the shadows. Even so, it doesn’t take bad pictures but there are a few more issues than the competition here.

OnePlus 9 Pro — Oh dear. This camera has a consistently over-warm white balance, particularly in the first and third pictures. The first image is also underexposed and oversaturated, as evidenced by the purple ball and red background. In addition, the sky scene ends up with a purple tint that’s outright wrong.

The autumn shot is the phone’s best result here, but even so, there are issues with the blue sky and washed-out shadows from overexposure.

High Dynamic Range

Our first four images didn’t stress the phones too badly so let’s put them to the test in more demanding HDR environments. Here we’re paying attention to three key things — highlight clipping, shadow detail extraction, and color saturation. We definitely don’t want to see heavy clipping, completely black shadows, and washed-out colors when the going gets tough.

Our first shot isn’t too tricky, but we’re looking for phones that avoid background clipping and retain a realistic color balance with the indoor lighting.

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