Surprising Results From Smartphone Camera Tests Prove It's Not the Gear That Matters

Well-known tech YouTuber Marques Brownlee recently put together an ultimate smartphone camera test complete with a proper white board bracket, millions of blind votes on social media, and more. But when a Blackberry beats an iPhone XS, you know there's more to take away from this than pure camera specifications.

The iPhone XS and Google Pixel 3 are widely considered to have today's best smartphone cameras. But neither camera made it past the first round in Brownlee's camera phone tests. Instead, both of the respective flagships were knocked out in the very first round. While some features on other manufacturers' phones may be better, it is fairly well accepted that these two phones really do provide the best overall mobile image quality money can buy. So, how does this happen?

Of course, the obvious issue here lies in the same place most issues today do: social media. To get as large of an audience as possible, the blind tests were performed on images posted and viewed on Twitter and Instagram. While Twitter features arguably worse compression than Instagram, both platforms heavily compress images in ways that remove detail of all kinds by the time an image hits a viewer's eye. Furthermore, most people viewing these images are viewing them on smartphone screens. And that quickly, improved resolution, sharpness, contrast, and overall detail are all almost simultaneously thrown out the window, because on the platforms where, by far, most images in the world are consumed, you just can't tell at all.

Granted, better image quality does matter in other applications, but by the end of these tests, it was clear something other than objective image quality was playing a role (at least for the platforms that serve the most images views by far). There's obviously a massive subjective component: people like brighter, warmer, punchy photos. So when the image quality playing field is leveled, it's the light, golden, and contrasty photo that reigns supreme. Fair or not, this information is something we can use to our advantage. While some of you may have darker styles, ensuring you at least have true whites and slightly warm-shifted images will undoubtedly help increase your engagement. For you die-hard Apple, Google, Huawei, and Samsung fans, all is not lost. Your camera phones simply expose properly and don't add orange filters over raw images. But sadly for us, that's how people like them, apparently.

Thankfully, this is generally considered to be relative. So if blue is your thing or if you love those crushed blacks, that's fine (although your faded blacks make you a terrible human being). But consider warming and brightening up your images just a bit compared to what you would normally do, and you'll likely see greater social media growth. So now you know: increase your exposure to increase your exposure!

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18 Comments

greg tennyson's picture

Do you guys save a template so that you repost this article every time a new phone comes out? The notion that you gear doesn't matter is beyond absurd.

Refrac Sean's picture

Doesn't matter to whom? Obviously it won't matter to 95% of people who primarily use social media to view photos.
Very interesting test to show how the non-professional-photo-takers feel about typical smartphone photographs. Use of color and an interesting composition will always reign supreme to the majority of human eyes and brains.
What a great reason to put away all the fan-boy sentiment that divides us all and to embrace the simple beauty of photography that can unite.

greg tennyson's picture

Gear doesnt matter, output does. You have a duty to your clients to deliver the best work you can do and if you're out there shooting projects on your phone you're failing people who trusted you.

David Penner's picture

Your clients don't care what gear you use if you get them the results they expect.

"What a great reason to put away all the fan-boy sentiment that divides us all and to embrace the simple beauty of photography that can unite."
If it weren't for that darn "human nature" thing! :-)

Is it worth living in a world free of fan-boyism? We will be bored to death...

no affiliate links, im confused. gear doesnt matter up to a certain point.

More people eat at McDonald´s than in other restaurants. That must mean that Big Macs are healthy and better than real food.

...or at least that good food doesn't matter.

Simon Patterson's picture

No it means that if you want to make lots of money in the restaurant business, owning a few McDonalds stores is a good way to go.

That´s right. Owning them. Not working in them;-)

Maybe one day I will own a couple of photographers who shoot exactly the kind of mediocracy customers/consumers so desperately seek. What do I care if their precious memories look like Instagram's latest trend of 2015 a couple of years from now?
Till that day I´ll try to find middle ground between what my clients want and what I want to do.

Simon Patterson's picture

Let's face it, this test demonstrates which kind of look suits more people on social media sites. That doesn't necessarily translate to what any particular photo client may like, or even what any given photographer's target market will generally prefer.

If we want to garner a large social media following then this comparison is very helpful. But usually those who aim at getting such large follower counts are effectively selling products, not photography services.

Tomash Masojc's picture

Good test :) I understand why Huawei won, and why Pocophone made so high too. They go to instagram, they see photos that are popular, and they made it as a regular "present" that they put on their "raw" photo. And if you use Ai, they do it even harder. So that called AI, just puts preset. Every Pixel or Iphone user understand, that they can tweak their photos too look same and in some cases even better, with all information and details preserved, but you must do some tweak in postproduction. I am owner of Pixel 2 XL with Pixel 3 camera, and i can agree, my photos always look worst on instagram :D

Jonathan Brady's picture

We now know the direction that more and more smartphone manufacturers will take their OOC images.

On a small screen with images captured in good light and where the phone's wide angle lens and extreme depth of field is appropriate it is not surprising... But at low light, larger viewing size, need for a telephoto lens, or requiring a shallow depth of field- forget about it!! Physics is still physics (though software is making inroads simulating these optical effects...)

David Pavlich's picture

Gear does matter. I didn't see any BIF shots or shots or a deer 50 yards away or a motocrosser in the midst of a jump in this video.

Phone cameras are good as long as they are used within their limits. Beyond that.....