There was a time in the not too distant past, perhaps a couple of years ago, when I read every camera shootout article I could find; especially so after new iPhones hit the market. That enthusiasm was dictated by continued improvements to photos that were apparent to the naked eye.
Yes, camera and photo shootouts are subjective, but technology improvements were consistent on iPhones and other smartphones each year from 2008 until recently that it was obvious that some camera models produced better photos than other camera models.
Those days are gone. What happened?
Technology, it would seem, has caught up with itself and we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns. In other words, photos and videos from all major smartphone makers look about the same to the average viewer, and that’s where the sales are.
The quality of photos and videos have become purely subjective, and only the most experienced photographers and videographers can tell the difference. I’ve been around both camera industry segments for more decades than most of my readers, and I’m having trouble telling the difference without a long pause to look for artifacts and distortions in photos and other telltale signs in videos.
What’s going on? Diminishing returns on the technology efforts each year.
Search for smartphone photo shootouts in Google and limit the search to the past year. You’ll find at least a dozen decent reviews of iPhone X vs. this or that, Samsung Galaxy S9 vs. Google Pixel 2 or some other smartphone with a good camera. The most recent example came from Patrick Holland in CNET where he pitted last year’s iPhone X to this year’s Galaxy S9 Plus to a Google Pixel 2 to Huawei’s P20 Pro.
Hardware specifications vary only slightly between each model with the exception coming from Huawei’s P20 Pro which sports a 40MP camera, three cameras in total (40MP, 20MP, and 8MP) and 3X optical zoom. On paper, those specifications would make the P20 excellent for optical zoom and low light performance. In Holland’s tests,the Pixel 2 had the best detail and dynamic range, the Galaxy S9 Plus had the least noise and best low-light photos, while iPhone X came in with the best videos.
So, they’re all good, right? Right. And the photos in the article are so good that you would be hard pressed to determine which photo came from which camera. Holland’s initial assessment of each camera, based on specifications alone, ended up being accurate except that all the comparisons tell a different story– not the winner, but that everything each camera shot was very good.
Each smartphone camera has a visible lead in one or two categories, but each of the #2, #3, and #4 smartphones also produced excellent results. As usual, the Galaxy smartphone took the worst videos, and the iPhone remains the camera with high scores in each category.
In other words, nothing new, nothing unexpected except that it might be time to consider photo and video shootouts a thing of the past. They’re all just damned good.