Three giant companies each claims to make the best smartphone camera, but I didn't take anyone's word for it. All I needed is a three-way selfie stick.
How better to judge, I figured, than by taking the same photo on three different phones? So out of plastic bits, screws and a telescoping pole, I assembled my own testing trident. Onto the end I clamped the new Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus, Google's Pixel 2 XL and Apple's iPhone X. I named it the Triclops.
The sight of me wielding this contraption raised eyebrows. "Sir, may I ask what you're doing?" asked several. " ... are you that into selfies?" said another. (For the record, I was mostly shooting outward, not taking pictures of myself.)
And the most frequent question: "So which phone is winning?" My answer is the biggest surprise of all: Not the iPhone. Samsung's Galaxy S9, arriving in stores this week, has the best camera now. By a hair.
I'm not saying anyone should throw their old iPhone into the fireplace. (Seriously, never do that, it might explode.) Samsung's camera boost is subtle.
But its rise is a reminder of how much smartphone cameras have improved. And in a year of otherwise yawn-inducing upgrades, manufacturers continue to eke advances out of the phone function that's become more important than making a call.
The new photo tech isn't about more resolution; most phones have settled around 12 megapixels in the rear-facing camera. Nor is it just about hardware advances, though Samsung is touting that the S9 camera aperture -- the hole where light comes -- can physically open up in dark situations. Camera software, driven by Google in particular, is making leaps at compensating for the limitations of a phone's slim size.
All this means phones can now take photos in a dim restaurant without making your friends look like ghouls. They're faster to focus. With a second lens on deluxe models, phones can zoom in a little closer and add artsy background blur to portraits. And now they are using cameras to generate augmented reality features like stickers and cartoons you animate with your own face.
Samsung's biggest leg up, for now, is with lowlight shots and eliminating some of the noise that afflicts smartphone photos when you look really close. But its advantages weren't apparent in every shot. And whether you prefer what Samsung produces may be a matter of taste.
The three-way comparison
The competition on my Triclops was tighter than an Olympian's spandex. I whittled down over a thousand shots into about 65 three-way comparisons. Studying those, the shots from the Galaxy S9 came out on top about 45 percent of the time, while the iPhone X and Pixel 2 pretty evenly split the rest.
I share many of the same conclusions as an image science firm that took even more test photos than me. DxOMark Image Labs, a respected camera testing company, earlier this month put the Galaxy S9 on top of its smartphone ratings with a score of 99, right above the Pixel 2 with a 98 and iPhone X with a 97. DxO's wizards shoot photos and video in the field for subjective grading as well as in a calibrated laboratory.
What makes a good camera? It's not just about color and contrast. Those can be adjusted with filters -- Instagram has given us all that power. What I look for is the detail that makes the shot closer to reality. That might not matter as much on a tiny phone screen, but you'll care about it a lot more when you decide to crop in, make a big print or turn a shot into the desktop on your computer.
Where the S9 did best
The S9 shots usually came closest to reality, even if they weren't always the most dramatic. At the beach, the sand is actually white and the sky is the right shade of blue.
The S9 really shone (pardon the pun) in darker scenes. There, it did better than other cameras at smoothing out noise -- the random dark pixels you see in areas that should be flat in color -- while keeping the detail that matters. Reasonable people might disagree, though, on whether Samsung's smoothing is too aggressive.
Does Samsung's geeky dual-aperture trick make a difference? Most smartphone cameras are stuck with a one-size-fits-all aperture but the S9 can flip between two sizes. In lowlight shots, every extra bit of light helps. And in bright shots, the narrower aperture does seem to make for sharper focus. When I photographed a pie in daylight with each aperture setting, the crust looked decidedly flakier in the narrower aperture.
DxO also awarded especially high marks for the zoom on the S9 Plus, the larger model that contains a second lens capable of telephoto shots. Zooming up to 4x, the S9's images were a bit cleaner than the iPhone X, which also has a second lens, and significantly better than the Pixel 2 XL, which has just one lens.
Where the iPhone and Pixel did better
In some cases, the iPhone X shots were more pleasing to look at -- or closer to what I'd want to post on Instagram -- because they have more contrast and saturation. I also preferred the background-blur "portrait mode" shots on the iPhone because its tones were warmer -- the S9 looked pale by comparison, and the Pixel wasn't as good at finding the right edges between blur and sharp focus.
The Pixel 2 is, hands down, the best at capturing drama in tricky and lowlight situations. Using Google's advances in "computational imaging," it takes a bunch of shots and slices and dices them in real time to produce a final image that highlights all the most interesting parts. Sometimes the product looks a little unrealistic, but it's often cool.
The bottom line
Each camera managed to take a few shots I vastly preferred. But I'm not going to walk around with my Triclops forever.
Would I switch to the S9 just for the camera? Nobody buys a phone for its camera alone. But if you're in the market for a new phone, the Galaxy S9 overcomes Samsung's rap for fake-looking shots and closes the gap with Google's Pixel line. People who care about photography have some amazing Android options.
Is any of this a reason to upgrade? Not if you have one of last year's phones. But this year's camera tech will impress anyone still using a two- or three-year old model like the Galaxy S6 or iPhone 6s.
And if your goal is really just to take better photos, remember the hardware is only one part of the equation. A new camera won't guarantee better shots, but knowing how to use the camera you have definitely will.