Google’s Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL had the best smartphone cameras when they were released in October 2017.
But Samsung’s new Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus phones are contending for that title in a serious way.
What I’ve found after taking both the Pixel 2 XL and Galaxy S9 Plus for a photo shoot is that they each have their strengths, but they don’t do everything superbly well.
I should note that I took out the larger models of each smartphone lines. There’s no difference between the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL’s cameras, and the only difference between the S9 and S9 Plus’ camera is the 2x dedicated zoom lens.
Take a look at the photo comparisons below to see what I mean, and which smartphone would best fit your needs:
For an indoor shot with mixed indoor/outdoor lighting, the Pixel 2 XL takes the better shot.
Both shots look pretty comparable at first, but a closer look at the details outside the window show the Pixel handles this indoor/outdoor lighting situation better. The Pixel lets you actually see the details of the buildings outside the window, especially those to the left of the photos.
When it comes to colours for indoor lighting, the Pixel 2 XL wins again.
I’d be perfectly happy with the Galaxy S9’s photo, but the Pixel 2’s does look better. The colours look more natural and richer in the Pixel 2’s photo.
And the Pixel 2 XL better handles that bright, harsh halogen-style indoor lighting, too.
Everything about the Galaxy S9’s photo is fine until you get to the leeks towards the bottom of the photo. The Galaxy S9 overexposed the light reflecting from the leeks, making them look super white. Meanwhile, the leeks are actually green in the Pixel 2’s photo.
For HDR, the Galaxy S9 Plus handles the brighter spots a little better, but the Pixel 2 XL’s photo is still better.
While the Pixel 2 XL overexposed some of the cloud detail between the buildings, I still think it took a better photo overall. There’s more contrast and colour richness on the Pixel’s photo, whereas the building colours on the Galaxy S9 look washed out and homogenized by comparison.
The Pixel 2 XL totally fudged this photo that represents dark, reflective surfaces.
Dark reflective surfaces are particularly tricky for cameras as they have to deal with keeping deep, dark colours while taking into account bright reflective elements. The Pixel totally fudged this and the Galaxy S9’s photo looks far better.
Both the Pixel 2 XL and Galaxy S9 Plus take great landscape shots.
Unfortunately, the fast-moving clouds on the day of my shoot meant that I took the Galaxy S9’s photo when it was slightly sunnier than when I took the Pixel’s shot. Still, both handle dramatic landscapes extremely well.
The Galaxy S9 Plus has a 2x zoom lens, while the Pixel 2 XL doesn’t.
Keep in mind that the regular Galaxy S9 – the non-Plus version – doesn’t have a zoom lens. So if you’re looking at buying the regular Galaxy S9, it will be closer to the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, which also don’t have zoom lenses.
The Galaxy S9 Plus’ zoom lens lets you zoom in using optical zoom, as well as digital zoom, and it’s a better camera for zooming than the Pixel 2.
The Pixel 2 relies entirely on digital zoom for zooming, which means you’re essentially zooming into the camera’s existing pixels and you lose a lot sharpness and detail as a result. You can zoom digitally with the Galaxy S9 Plus, but it piggy-backs off the 2x optical zoom lens which can already zoom at full detail and sharpness. As a result, you get better zoom shots with the Galaxy S9 Plus than with the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL.
Both the Galaxy S9 Plus and Pixel 2 XL shoot great portrait-mode shots, but the Galaxy S9 wins because you get more options for blurring the background.
Again, the clouds moved during the shoot and caused some differences in lighting.
Both phones handled portrait mode very well, where the background is artificially blurred to create that professional-looking “bokeh” effect. The Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus shots do appear to look slightly more natural, where I don’t look like a sticker on a blurry photo. The Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus also let you adjust how much blur you want while you’re taking the portrait photo, which is a great touch. For the Galaxy S9 Plus’ shot, we set the blur level right in the middle.
Now we’re getting to where the Galaxy S9 truly shines: Low light.
It’s indisputable. The Galaxy S9 Plus takes better low-light shots than the Pixel 2 XL. The Galaxy S9 Plus’ photo is much sharper, brighter, and you don’t see as much grainy “noise” as you do in the Pixel 2 XL’s shot.
The Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus have incredibly wide f/1.5 apertures, which lets in more light into the camera’s sensor than the Pixel 2 and 2 XL’s f/1.8 aperture (the lower the number after the “f,” the wider the aperture). It would take some pretty special software trickery – almost witchcraft – for the Pixel 2 and 2 XL to take shots as well as the Galaxy S9 does in dark situations.
In a very dimly lit room, the Galaxy S9 wins again.
The room where this painting hangs was very dimly lit. The only light that was coming into the room was coming from two doors at night time. The Galaxy S9, again, takes far sharper and clearer low-light photos. The Pixel 2 XL’s photo actually has richer colours, but it’s nowhere near as sharp or clear as the Galaxy S9’s photo. I’d take the Galaxy S9 for a low-light shoot any day.
But the Galaxy S9 isn’t always the best in low-light.
When you have some decent light at night, or in a low-light environment, the Pixel 2 XL actually took the better shot. Both look pretty similar, but you can tell that the waiter figurine’s jacket is a dark blue in the Pixel 2 XL’s shot, whereas it looks simply black on the Galaxy S9 Plus’ photo.
Still, while the Pixel 2 XL wins this particular low-light round, I’d take the Galaxy S9 for a low-light shoot regardless in case there are moments when there’s no decent lighting to be found.
Which smartphone wins?
Look through your photo gallery and see if you take most of your photos in dark settings. If you do, the easy answer is the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus. And if you find that you zoom in a lot, or you would like to zoom in more than you currently do but zoomed photos tend to look blurry, the S9 Plus and its 2x zoom lens is for you.
Otherwise, if most of your photos are taken during the day or in decently-to-well lit environments, you’ll be happier with Google’s Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. I prefer the way it shows deep, rich colours compared to the S9, which can sometimes wash out colours and cause photos to become overly bright. The S9 and S9 Plus handle bright situations very well, but just not quite as well as the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL.
With that said, the Galaxy S9 phones offer more versatile cameras, as they take good shots in decent lighting, and they can take much better photos in low-light environments than the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. And if you’re considering the larger Galaxy S9 Plus with a dedicated 2x zoom lens, you’ll get better zoomed shots than you would with the Pixel 2 or Pixel 2 XL.