Camera - Low Light Evaluation

In low-light scenarios, we should see the new iPhone XS showcase significant improvements thanks to the 50% better light capture ability of the new sensor. Apple’s still only employing a f/1.8 aperture lens on the XS - so while it will improve over past phones, at least on paper it’s still at a disadvantage to say Samsung’s latest phones, which have an extra-wide f/1.5 aperture available to them.

Click for full image
[ iPhone XS ] - [ iPhone X ] - [ iPhone 7 ] - [ iPhone 6S ]
[ Galaxy Note9 ] - [ Galaxy S9+ ] - [ Galaxy S8 ]
[ LG G7 ] - [ LG G6 ] - [ LG V30 ] - [ OnePlus 6 ]
[ Mi MIX2S ] - [ Pixel 2XL ] - [ P20 Pro ]

In this first shot, we immediately see the new iPhone’s advantage over last year’s flagship. There is a lot more definition in the grass, less noise throughout the image, and less blown out lights in the scene.

Unfortunately, Apple is as expected still at a great disadvantage to Samsung here, as the latter is just able to give more light onto the whole scene, and the most evident, more colour to the grass. In terms of raw low light capture, the Huawei P20 Pro is still far ahead here, thanks to its massive sensor that is able to collect significantly more light.

Click for full image
[ iPhone XS ] - [ iPhone X ] - [ iPhone 7 ] - [ iPhone 6S ]
[ Galaxy Note9 ] - [ Galaxy S9+ ] - [ Galaxy S8 ]
[ LG G7 ] - [ LG G6 ] - [ LG V30 ] - [ OnePlus 6 ]
[ Mi MIX2S ] - [ Pixel 2XL ] - [ P20 Pro ]

At first glance, the iPhone XS didn’t shoot a much brighter picture than the iPhone X in this construction scene. Opening up the full resolution images however shows that the new XS showcases much better details and lower noise. It’s not enough to compete with the S9+, and certainly not with the insane ISO25600 shot of the P20 Pro.

It’s interesting to see the improvements over the years from the iPhone 6S on – which barely manages to capture anything in this scene.

Click for full image
[ iPhone XS ] - [ iPhone X ] - [ iPhone 7 ] - [ iPhone 6S ]
[ Galaxy Note9 ] - [ Galaxy S9+ ] - [ Galaxy S8 ]
[ LG G7 ] - [ LG G6 ] - [ LG V30 ] - [ OnePlus 6 ]
[ Mi MIX2S ] - [ Pixel 2XL ] - [ P20 Pro ]

The next shot is probably the only one that I found to be really problematic for Apple. Both on the iPhone X and the new XS, the resulting images weren’t consistent in consecutive shots. In four shots in a row, the iPhone XS kept changing the colour temperature. The same thing happened on the iPhone X, so I think this was part of Apple’s exposure / colour balance algorithm.

Colour balance aside, the exposure is similar between the X and the XS, and all the improvements of the new sensor go directly into improved detail and noise reduction throughout the scene, which is significantly better again compared to last year’s iPhone.

Here Apple is very close to Samsung, showcasing a bit better shadows, but still losing out in details in some parts of the scene. The P20 Pro is yet again the low-light kind here, as it just have that much more dynamic range work with.

Click for full image
[ iPhone XS ] - [ iPhone X ] - [ iPhone 7 ] - [ iPhone 6S ]
[ Galaxy Note9 ] - [ Galaxy S9+ ] - [ Galaxy S8 ]
[ LG G7 ] - [ LG G6 ] - [ LG V30 ] - [ OnePlus 6 ]
[ Mi MIX2S ] - [ Pixel 2XL ] - [ P20 Pro ]

Again, the iPhone’s new sensor comes into play in these concrete trucks. The XS makes very good dealing of the blown highlights present in the iPhone X shot. Samsung is able to produce more vibrancy in the blue of the trucks. Huawei’s multi-exposure computational photography night mode is the best of all phones here as it’s just able to bring out that much more from the shadows.

Click for full image
[ iPhone XS ] - [ iPhone X ] - [ iPhone 7 ] - [ iPhone 6S ]
[ Galaxy Note9 ] - [ Galaxy S9+ ] - [ Galaxy S8 ]
[ LG G7 ] - [ LG G6 ] - [ LG V30 ] - [ OnePlus 6 ]
[ Mi MIX2S ] - [ Pixel 2XL ] - [ P20 Pro ]

Apple's use of SmartHDR in this picture is extremely evident, as it really brings down the highlights of the lamp and brings out more shadows throughout the scene. The XS provides better detail, but it’s not as big of a difference as we’ve seen in other shots.

Apple’s usage of HDR here puts it ahead of the Samsung devices, trading blows with the P20 Pro, winning in some regards, while losing in others.

Click for full image
[ iPhone XS ] - [ iPhone X ] - [ iPhone 7 ] - [ iPhone 6S ]
[ Galaxy Note9 ] - [ Galaxy S9+ ] - [ Galaxy S8 ]
[ LG G7 ] - [ LG G6 ] - [ LG V30 ] - [ OnePlus 6 ]
[ Mi MIX2S ] - [ Pixel 2XL ] - [ P20 Pro ]

Finally, I wanted to test the iPhone XS to its limits and see what it can do in essentially impossible scenarios of low light.

Exposure-wise, the iPhone XS is no better than the X here. It provides better sharpness and less noise, however the image is still too dark to be of any use. I wish Apple would introduce a more innovative low light shooting mode, such as LG’s pixel binning mode. Huawei’s ISO51200 capture of this scene is just so beyond any other current phone, that it really raised the bar in what we’d normally expect to see in a smartphone.

Low-light conclusion

The new iPhone XS sensor is a great improvement to Apple’s lineup. Its advantages over the iPhone X are clearly evident in every single low-light shot, showcasing greater detail and sharpness while reducing noise. SmartHDR doesn’t seem to be something that’s solely for daylight shots, as Apple and the iPhone XS seem to make use of it in some low-light scenarios, giving the camera a further advantage over last year’s phones.

While Apple has showcased some really good progress, it’s can still lag behind low-light image quality of Samsung and Huawei’s P20 Pro. The former’s bigger aperture is just a sheer hardware advantage, while the latter enormous sensor makes use of innovative image processing to really raise the bar in terms of extreme low light photography. Here the iPhone XS is good; but it just can’t keep up.

Camera - Daylight - More HDR & Portrait Camera Video Recording & Speaker Evaluation
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  • alexdi - Tuesday, February 5, 2019 - link

    As a tech geek, I agree with your analysis. I have an X because the XR looks like a cheap design and I appreciate AMOLED. I think this is a minority sentiment, though. The XR is a stellar handset, perhaps the best available for most people. Between the battery life, SoC, and Apple's generous iOS update policy, the longevity will be extraordinary. I expect to see "still happily rolling along" comments even into 2025. Reply
  • Anirudh2FL - Wednesday, June 26, 2019 - link

    Is it just me or are iPhones fast becoming one of the worst flagships to take pics in low light/indoor light ?

    Are the pics as bad as they appear ?
    Reply
  • Forgun - Tuesday, June 23, 2020 - link

    Thanks for the useful information. Reply

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