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.

Scene 5: Oculus lift Ultra-wide

Switch over to the ultra-wide samples, though, and OnePlus begins to regain its footing. To my surprise, I actually prefer the 8 Pro's ultra-wide shot here over that of the 9 Pro, the latter of which once again looks a bit dim and gloomy.

Still, I think the OnePlus 9 Pro managed a nice balance of exposure levels, and overall sharpness is great; you can see more of the items in the display on the left side of the image in the 9 Pro's shot than in, say, the S21 Ultra's.

Scene 6: Patterns Wide-angle

Before leaving the World Trade Center, I took an upward shot into its glass light dome to test how each phone's cameras handle massive differences in exposure. Upward shots are always challenging, since the brightest points are so exaggerated, but I think the OnePlus 9 Pro and S21 Ultra took my favorite two shots for very different reasons. The 9 Pro has a very high contrast look, with the darkest shadows of the bunch in order to preserve the highlights coming from the sky. I love the look of this shot, but from a technical standpoint, it definitely underexposed the shadows.

The S21 Ultra, on the other hand, completely lifted the shadows in typical Samsung fashion, without completely sacrificing the details in the sky. It's a much brighter shot; it's sort of hilarious how dichotomous these two shots are, but as much as I like the look of the 9 Pro's high-contrast shot, the S21 Ultra's is a bit more true to life.

The other two photos sit somewhere in between. The OnePlus 8 Pro's photo is still quite dark in the shadows, but much less so than the 9 Pro. This is especially noticeable around the outer edges of the frame, where you can still make out some of the smaller details in the 8 Pro's photo. The Pixel 5's shot is brighter still, and much warmer, with a fiery orange shade cast in the mid-tones and shadows.

Scene 6: Patterns Ultra-wide

Once again, though, OnePlus pulls considerably ahead with its ultra-wide shots. Just as before, the OnePlus 8 Pro's photo is a bit brighter than the 9 Pro's, but both retain very impressive levels of sharpness and clarity across the board. There's a bit of highlight bloom in the 9 Pro's shot, but I'm just taken aback by how sharp the lines leading up to the floating panels in the dome are — as well as the panels themselves.

I can't say the same for the Pixel 5, whose ultra-wide sample rendered the floating panels into little more than thin lines of pixels, with rampant purple fringing abound. Colors are also disappointingly muted, and the highlights in the overhead lights are completely blown out.

Things aren't quite as bleak with the S21 Ultra, but the floating panels are still barely visible. On the bright side (and I mean that literally), this is the brightest image of the four, though I can't say the orange mid-tones and blue light dome are particularly accurate. Overall, my money's definitely on the OnePlus 9 Pro this round.

Scene 7: On the run Wide-angle

Before I reached the World Trade Center, I was coming from a day trip to Hoboken, which landed me in front of the breathtaking and historic Loew's Jersey Theater in Jersey City's Journal Square. In lieu of the concerts and live performances that'd typically bring me to such a place, I wanted to grab some exterior photos to show off the beauty of the building.

I really like the photo from the OnePlus 8 Pro, which shot a bit brighter and more vivid than the others. Believe it or not, this more closely resembled the actual scenery — New Jersey isn't always as gloomy as you might think! Everything from the greens in the road signs to the yellows and reds on the storefronts and the terra cotta tiles on the exterior of the theater have just a bit more pop in the 8 Pro's shot.

Otherwise, every photo looks about the same here. The OnePlus 9 Pro's shot is just a touch darker, particularly noticeable in the tall building next to the theater, but colors are pretty consistent across the board, as is exposure and sharpness. There's really not much to complain about here.

Scene 7: On the run Telephoto

Once we switch to the telephoto lenses, the differences quickly become much more noticeable. Tapping the zoom button in each phone's viewfinder nets you a different focal length; on the OnePlus 8 Pro and Galaxy S21 Ultra, you get 3x, while the OnePlus 9 Pro punches in a bit closer at 3.3x, and the Pixel 5 trails behind at only 2x. It's also important to note that the Pixel 5 doesn't have a dedicated telephoto lens, instead relying on digital zoom for anything beyond the standard field of view.

That's important to keep in mind because, well, the Pixel's image is already pretty soft compared to the competition. Google uses a lot of software trickery to make the digital zoom on the Pixel 5 a bit more sophisticated than a simple crop job, but it just doesn't stack up to a real telephoto lens. You can immediately tell with the detailing of the terra cotta tiling that the Pixel just can't keep up.

The other shots all look great at this baseline zoom level. You can definitely notice the slightly tighter 3.3x perspective on the OnePlus 9 Pro, but you'll also notice just how much more magenta the 9 Pro picked up compared to the 8 Pro and S21 Ultra. The OnePlus 8 Pro's telephoto shot is dramatically warmer overall, and I love how much the green from the oxidized bronze statues come through, but the S21 Ultra's shot benefits from wildly impressive sharpness.

That benefit only gets better as you zoom further in. Moving up to 10x (with the exception of the Pixel 5, which maxes out at 7x), you can really see how well-deserved the Galaxy S21 Ultra's reputation for zoom photography truly is. Once again, the OnePlus phones are no slouches in their own right, though, and the 9 Pro remains impressively sharp at this length.

One downside to the 9 Pro's shot, however, is the purple fringing around the statues of Saint George and the dragon he battles, as well as around the arch behind the statues. That fringing just isn't there with the OnePlus 8 Pro — though on the bright side, neither photo looks nearly as bad as the Pixel 5's 7x shot.

The fringing around the edges on the OnePlus 9 Pro's shot only gets more exaggerated as you zoom in further, and once you reach its max range of 30x, I'm inclined to call the 9 Pro the worst of the three remaining cameras. The 8 Pro's photo, while still not terribly sharp, is dramatically cleaner with practically zero fringing in sight.

I also far prefer the colors from the 8 Pro's shot — though neither of OnePlus's phones holds a candle to the S21 Ultra when it comes to telephotography, and the Galaxy retains an outrageous level of clarity even at 30x. There's shockingly little noise or artifacting, though I could do without the aggressive over-sharpening. Still, this a much cleaner photo than any of the other phones could produce ... and that's without even mentioning the option for 100x Space Zoom.

Of course, 100x isn't going to be terribly useful for most people, but even being able to say you can take a photo at that range is impressive, and there's still less noise in the shot than what either OnePlus phone could capture.

Scene 8: Leaving on a jetplane Wide-angle

Time to finally leave my beloved city, and as luck would have it, I missed my flight out. It was a bit frustrating, but as I sat at my gate in Newark trying to reschedule my return flight, I looked out the window and realized what a great opportunity this was for a telephoto comparison set. So through Gate B46, we have a surprisingly nice skyline view of Manhattan, complete with One World Trade in sight.

As has often been the case, the OnePlus 8 Pro took the warmest shot overall, but I actually like the colors from the Galaxy S21 Ultra, with a bit of a cooler look that makes the sky look a bit more natural. The bridge obscuring One World Trade looks noticeably more faded in the 8 Pro's shot, especially compared to the photo from the 9 Pro, but as per usual, I'm pretty happy with the wide-angle shot from each phone.

Scene 8: Leaving on a jetplane Telephoto

All of the same applies to the telephoto shots from each phone — though just like in the last telephoto set, the different zoom lengths are apparent here, particularly with the weak 2x digital zoom from the Pixel 5. While I still prefer the S21 Ultra's colors overall, I like the sharper and slightly higher contrast look from the OnePlus 9 Pro, as well as its 3.3x perspective.

Punching in even further to 10x, though, I didn't even bother taking a 7x photo from the Pixel 5. It's just not a strong zoom camera (and in its defense, it isn't marketed as one!). Here, you can see where, once again, the S21 Ultra stakes its ground as a telephoto powerhouse with dramatically sharper detailing in the bridge and the Manhattan skyline — almost certainly thanks to its dedicated 10x lens.

It's sort of funny how these phones begin to trade off their characteristics at different zoom lengths. In these 10x samples, I actually like the colors from the OnePlus 9 Pro best, with a mild magenta cast over the sky, but you can definitely see the digital artifacting in some of the smaller details; there's no beating the S21 Ultra at this point.

To really drive that home, here's 30x from each phone, where the Galaxy S21 Ultra absolutely decimates the competition with sharper, cleaner images — of course, you can punch in even further to get up close and personal with One World Trade, maxing out at 100x for a fuzzy, yet impressive jumble of pixels.

OnePlus 9 Pro delivers the goods Which phone took your favorite photos?

All things considered, I'd be happy shooting with any of these phones, but there are clear advantages and disadvantages to each. Zoom photography is clearly not a strong point of the Pixel 5, which lacks a dedicated telephoto lens of any kind, while the Galaxy S21 Ultra conversely excels in telephotography, reaching ludicrous zoom lengths of up to 100x at the touch of a button.

I was surprised by how often I preferred OnePlus's colors over Google's or Samsung's — and to a further extent, I certainly wasn't expecting the colors from the older 8 Pro to keep up with and, at times even beat those of the OnePlus 9 Pro.

But enough of my preferences. Which phone took your favorite photos? Were you surprised by the results, or has this test only confirmed your imaging suspicions? Let me know in the comments below!

Have you listened to this week's Android Central Podcast?

Android Central

Every week, the Android Central Podcast brings you the latest tech news, analysis and hot takes, with familiar co-hosts and special guests.

  • Subscribe in Pocket Casts: Audio
  • Subscribe in Spotify: Audio
  • Subscribe in iTunes: Audio
Hayato Huseman

Hayato was a product reviewer and video editor for Android Central.