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(Pocket-lint) - Smartphones have taken a leap forward in low-light performance in recent years.

Gone are the days when taking a photo in less than perfect conditions would leave you with a blurry mess.

The first attempt at night shooting involved controlling noise in photos from boosting the sensitivity - or ISO - of a camera, before moving to capture multiple frames and combining the information they contained.

The latest iteration of these modes uses AI to determine the conditions, control ISO noise, take multiple exposures and combine the information, cleaning up the image to give you a photo that 2 years ago was almost impossible.

The comparison phones 

Over the past year Huawei and Google have established themselves as the phones to beat when it comes to night shooting.

Google's night sight really leveraged AI, relying not solely on hardware, but on machine learning and artificial intelligence to clean up the image you've captured. It changed the game. Huawei has shown a lot of leadership in smartphones recently and the P30 Pro's night shooting aimed to be the best and out-perform Google.

With Apple introducing a new night mode on the iPhone 11, we wanted to see how it compared. Can Apple take itself to the top of the photography tree? We'll let you decide. 


Is anybody home?

Illuminated windows shine from this darkened townhouse presenting a number of challenges. The P30 Pro doesn't brighten the image as much, meaning that it preserves more detail within the windows themselves, giving greater dynamic range. You can see the wood panelling in that room, which is blown out on the iPhone. The Pixel sits between the two, losing some of the room, but not as much as the iPhone.

For the exterior of the house, the Huawei is more muted - it hasn't raised the levels as much (which is probably how it preserved the detail in the windows), but the iPhone gives better detail than the Huawei and Pixel on that exterior brick work. However, the iPhone also shows some lens reflections, introducing bright spots in several places. The Pixel also has a couple of these too but they are minor, but the Huawei phone does not.

The White Cross

Sitting on the river bank, The White Cross presents a range of fine beverages, as well as neon, the night sky, and street lighting from various sources. All the phones capture the scene well, the Pixel lifts the levels to give a slightly lighter sky, which makes for a nice image overall, but the iPhone and the Huawei both hang on to a lot more detail. 

The P30 Pro again manages to control bright spots, the window has detail, whereas the Pixel bleeds some of this out. The Huawei also has detail in the neon sign which the others lose. Both Apple and Huawei capture this scene at a much higher ISO than the Pixel, that brings some noise in the sky colours, although Huawei controls it well. Apple almost loses the stars and doesn't lift foreground shadows quite as much as the other phones - so there's less detail in the shadows. Again, there's a small lens reflection in the sky produced by the iPhone - but most of the bright patches are aircraft lights.


The well-deserved pint

Nothing beats a quiet pint, except perhaps testing phone cameras. A gloomy interior, lots of details and the richness of this IPA - and also a world of difference in the results. Here the Pixel looks the more natural with skin tone, with a brighter overall image. The iPhone is a little blushed and dark, while the Huawei loses grip on the while balance and produces a photo that's a little too yellow. 

Again what's interesting in this image is that the Pixel has a low ISO of 149 compared to ISO 1000 on the iPhone - but it appears to be a much brighter image overall. That's because it's a longer exposure, but it's done so without blurring. Huawei appears to have blurred the background, but while there's good detail in the face, the colour hue spoils it.

The inevitable selfie

One thing that stands the iPhone apart from the Huawei and Google phones is that it doesn't support night mode on the front camera. The result is a darker selfie, full of noise as it bumps the ISO up to 2000, destroying shadow detail when you get in close. Well, the surprise is that Huawei bumps the ISO to 3200, but preserves the detail in the shadows and creates a better overall result.

The Pixel goes off in a slightly different direction. This time it struggles with the white balance, creating an image that's a little too yellow. Ironically, using the Pixel's front camera without night sight produced a more natural image - in this instance, the night mode on the Pixel made it worse. 

Over the bridge

A classic night scene, expanses of sky and water, punctured by lights. Plenty to get confused with. In this instance, the night mode on all the cameras produces a photo that's much better than a shot from the normal camera. In fact, the Pixel on normal mode produces an image that's almost unrecognisable. Thankfully night sight saves things, but the Pixel is a little soft compared to the iPhone and the P30 Pro.

The iPhone photo gets something of a yellow hue to it, with the sky strangely illuminated - and again with some of those reflections on the lens, while the Huawei P30 Pro gives a much more natural image overall.

The long walk home

Shooting across the cricket green gives us a chance to see what happens when there's not a lot of light around. Here the green is unlit, with light coming from the road lighting around its perimeter. Here the Pixel gives us a bluer dying sky, while the iPhone 11 Pro Max and the Huawei move towards a slightly greyer result. We suspect Google's AI is behind this.

But both the iPhone and the Huawei make a better go of showing us that there's actually grass underfoot - although the warmth of the street lighting is reflected in the warmer tones in the night shot. The colour balance of the Pixel is probably the most accurate here, but you can see more in the other photos. What separates the Huawei and the iPhone, is that Apple's processing has added noise to the sky, probably because it's been lightened a little more - but if you're viewing on a phone, you might never notice that, so it probably doesn't matter.

Summing up

We're not going to tell you which is the best night camera - you can make up your own mind.

What we will say is that the Google Pixel 3 XL in these photos reveals how important night sight is for it - in some cases a "normal" photo just doesn't produce anything useful in low light. Both the iPhone and the Huawei devices are better in that sense at producing usable images in low light without using any sort of night mode.

One of the big differences that you find in the iPhone 11 Pro Max is that you can't force night mode on - and in the Pixel and the P30 Pro you can use night mode when you want - and that can give you some great results in conditions that are lighter.

The iPhone does have a weakness in not offering night mode on the front camera - that's likely to be downside to the iPhone 11 series on the camera front and those lens reflections can be annoying. But overall - we're so far ahead of the capabilities of phones a few years ago. The next target for all manufacturers based on these results really needs to be achieving a realistic colour balance in these tricky shots.


More about this story

To capture the comparisons between the phones we took photos using the Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max, Huawei P30 Pro and Google Pixel 3 XL. In each case Pocket-lint editor Chris Hall and Pocket-lint founder Stuart Miles took pictures in normal and night modes in a natural environment as possible in Richmond-upon-Thames, London. 

We picked Richmond-upon-Thames because of the riverside setting and the nightlife by the river knowing that it would allow us to capture a wide variety of shots to test the cameras. 

The iPhone engages night mode automatically when it detects a dark scene. There's the option to turn it off, but you can't force it to turn on when it detects that it has enough light to take a photo normally. The P30 Pro and Pixel 3 both let you shoot in night mode whenever you want - but you have to manually switch to it to use it. 

In each case, the photos we took were handheld, taken from the same location and using the default settings suggested by the phones. The galleries we've selected show a composite, before presenting the iPhone, Huawei then Pixel images. 

Writing by Chris Hall and Stuart Miles. Originally published on 16 September 2019.