OnePlus 9 Pro camera showdown: OnePlus 8 Pro, Pixel 5, S21 Ultra compared

OnePlus 9 Pro review
OnePlus 9 Pro review (Image credit: Apoorva Bhardwaj / Android Central)

OnePlus is known for a lot of things these days: speed, clean software, competitive prices, you name it. But up until recently, the brand hasn't been particularly celebrated for its photography prowess. Time and time again, in our reviews and others', the OnePlus story has revolved around its phones being almost good enough to play in the big leagues, if not for the sub-par cameras — but with the OnePlus 9 Pro and the company's newfound Hasselblad partnership, that story is finally beginning to change.

The OnePlus 9 Pro comes with massive new sensors and a handful of optimizations from Hasselblad, including improvements to the phone's color science, making it finally competitive with some of the best Android phones around. But don't just take our word for it — I took the OnePlus 9 Pro with me on a house-hunting trip to New York City, alongside the OnePlus 8 Pro, Pixel 5, and Galaxy S21 Ultra to see how it really holds up.

Scene 1: Good pup Wide-angle

Let's start off with some dog photos because, well, Tobu is a national treasure and deserves all the attention and adoration he can get. This set was taken on a beautifully sunny day in Central Park, with perfectly clear skies giving us a look at each phone's handling of differing levels of exposure, saturation, and white balance.

The Pixel 5's photo is noticeably more muted than the others overall, with slight magenta hues in the white of Tobu's fur, and doesn't exhibit nearly as much natural depth of field as the rest of the bunch — you can still make out many of the details of the buildings in the background.

Of the remaining three, I think the OnePlus 8 Pro's shot looks the warmest overall. There's a more yellow hue in the highlights, and the brightest points (specifically the top of Tobu's head) are just on the brink of overexposing. The photo from the Galaxy S21 Ultra is similarly warm, though the highlights are a bit tamer, while the 9 Pro leans surprisingly a bit cooler, with much more saturated blues in the sky and Julian's pants.

Interestingly, the orange in Tobu's harness is fairly washed out in the S21 Ultra's shot, and the most vibrant in the Pixel's — an unusual occurrence.

Scene 2: Portrait of a David Wide-angle

Moving on from pets to people, let's say hey to my good friend David Imel and see how each phone handles human skin tones and fabric patterns. Right off the bat, I'm torn between the shots from the Pixel 5 and OnePlus 9 Pro. I really like the warmth of the shot from the 9 Pro, and I like the skin tones on each — though I enjoy the higher contrast look of the Pixel's shot, particularly in darker details like David's mask and the parked black car in the background.

These shots were taken on a pretty overcast day, so I was surprised to see that the S21 Ultra blew out the brighter portion of David's face ... though that wasn't nearly as surprising as the wild amount of moire it produced in his shirt, resulting in a weird, splotchy-looking green pattern that wasn't actually there.

You can see a bit of this moire effect in the shot from the OnePlus 9 Pro, as well, though not to nearly the same degree. It's also worth noting that the OnePlus 8 Pro doesn't do anything particularly wrong with its photo, though I'm not a huge fan of the overly green hue it cast compared to the others.

Scene 3: Pretentious coffee Wide-angle

Every successful morning starts with a cup of coffee, so here's an oat milk cappuccino (yep, I'm that guy) sitting next to a window with the kind of soft lighting you only get at 7:30 in the morning. I think the OnePlus 9 Pro absolutely nailed this set, with tack-sharp focus on the microfoam of my drink, balanced exposure levels between the brightly lit rim of the cup and the shadows on the table, and punchy but not overdone colors that really make the photo pop.

The OnePlus 8 Pro, on the other hand, totally missed the mark here. I'm not entirely sure what happened with the focus; despite tapping to focus on the coffee with every phone, the 8 Pro's sample is easily the softest of the bunch, and even the sharpest points near the bottom lip of the mug are less so than the 9 Pro.

Similarly, the S21 Ultra's shot is a bit soft near the top of the drink, though this once again may have been caused by the large sensor's narrower plane of focus compared to, say, the Pixel 5, whose photo is considerably sharper if not a bit dark compared to the rest.

Scene 4: Gin and take it Low light

Just as every great morning begins with a coffee, any night worth celebrating ends with a cocktail — in this case, a fine gin and tonic garnished with a lime wedge. In these low light samples, you can immediately notice a wildly different handling of color and exposure on the OnePlus 8 Pro compared to the rest of the bunch. Where the others retained the warm orange glow of the heat lamps above my drink, the 8 Pro opted for a drastically cooler, brighter look that, while less true to life, makes for a convincing enough shot that could fool you into thinking it was taken much earlier in the day.

While the other photos are much more similar to each other in terms of lighting and color temperature, the S21 Ultra's photo is strikingly greener, and the ice looks significantly softer than in the Pixel 5's more crisp shot. The same soft look in the ice goes for the OnePlus 9 Pro's image, as well; I wonder if this is a side effect of the much larger sensors in these phones, which result in a narrower plane of focus.

Still, considering these photos were taken late at night, and lit only by the overhead bulbs and heat lamps at an outdoor restaurant in Brooklyn's Greenpoint, I'm impressed by the level of clarity maintained in each shot.

Scene 5: Oculus lift Wide-angle

If you haven't been through the World Trade Center in Manhattan and gotten to see the architectural marvel that is the Oculus, it's absolutely worth the trip — though the whole station house admittedly begins to lose some of its charm once you notice that it's more or less just a shopping mall for people mid-transit, akin to what you'd find walking through any major airport.

Still, the sweeping beams leading up to the 50-meter high windowed ceiling felt like a perfect opportunity to demonstrate the ultra-wide capabilities of the OnePlus 9 Pro and its photo rivals. Before we can show off the secondary sensors, though, we need a frame of reference from each phone's main camera.

Here, I think the S21 Ultra finally takes a victory with a bright, warm photo that doesn't under- or over-exposure the darkest and brightest points. The World Trade Center Mall isn't a particularly dim setting, but you wouldn't know it from the looks of the other photos in this set. In particular, the OnePlus 8 Pro and Pixel 5 seem to have captured the darkest shots with the highest contrast in what almost look like bleak scenes.