Best smartphone cameras: Galaxy S7 vs. iPhone 6s vs. Nexus 6P vs. Lumia 950

Recently a new smartphone waltzed onto the scene, throwing a gauntlet to the ground: we have the best smartphone camera, Samsung said. There are already some excellent smartphone cameras out there — we learned that from our previous smartphone camera showdown, and with the new entrants into the field the time has come to do a proper comparison between them all. So let's do this: it's Apple iPhone 6s Plus versus Huawei Nexus 6P versus Microsoft Lumia 950 versus Samsung Galaxy S7 (otherwise known as the challenger and the new kid on the block).

Why these phones?

We went with four phones for this cross-platform showdown to keep things simple, picking what we know to be among the greatest and latest cameras. So there's the iPhone 6s Plus, which has the same sensor and lens set up as the smaller iPhone 6s, but adds in optical image stabilization for improved shake reduction and better nighttime shots.

Samsung Galaxy S7 camera

On the Android side there are so many phones to chose from that we went with the big brother of the barely winner from the last time around: the Huawei Nexus 6P. It has the same sensor and lens system as the smaller LG Nexus 5X, but the Nexus 6P has a more powerful processor and picks up electronic image stabilization in the process.

The Samsung Galaxy S6 was one of the strongest contenders the last time we did this, so it was only natural to include its successor: the Galaxy S7. It sports a wider aperture and a sensor that's larger yet packs fewer pixels for a claimed dramatic improvement to nighttime performance. Both the 5.1-inch Galaxy S7 and the 5.5-inch Galaxy S7 edge have identical cameras, so we went with the slightly more pocketable S7 standard.

Lastly, there's the Microsoft Lumia 950. The flagship Lumia phones have always had incredible cameras, and the Lumia 950 promised to pick up that torch and keep running with it. It packs a 20MP sensor behind an ƒ/1.9 lens with OIS. And unlike the other phones on here, there's a dedicated camera button to make launching faster and easier. (OK, Samsung allows for a double-tap of the home button.) Like the Samsung sister phones, the Lumia 950 and its bigger 950 XL sibling have the exact same cameras.

The LG G4, another strong contender from last time around, was left out of this round. With the LG G5 coming soon, it didn't seem fair to include last year's model in this comparison. Fret not, we'll come back to it all again when the G5 finally arrives.

How we shot

Over the course of a few days we took these four phones to various locations to try them out in a variety of settings. While a few feature advanced manual controls, we left each camera in full automatic mode with automatic HDR enabled. Keeping with the expectations of how you would use a smartphone camera, we shot every photo hand-held. The only alteration made to any photo before uploading was resizing as needed.

iPhone 6s Plus camera app

Technically, yes, both the Galaxy S7 and the Lumia 950 offer the option to shoot with manual controls and spit out RAW image files that are better for editing than the JPGs we know and love. But, the truth is most people who buy these phones aren't going to bother with manual modes — they're daunting and finicky and RAW files take some time to fully wrap your head around. There are apps available for the iPhone and Nexus 6P that add some of those controls, but again, that's not a thing a "normal" person is going to be include to do.

And let's be honest: If you're the kind of person who cares about setting your white balance, fiddling with the ISO and tweaking the shutter speed, then you already know what phone you want when it comes to the camera. Fact is, you probably don't want to do any of that on a phone at all — you want a real camera with real controls and a nice big sensor and lens to go with it.

You can shoot some really nice photos with a quality smartphone on auto. We're not professional photographers, and we don't expect you to be either. But if you want to get technical with your smartphone, there are phones that'll let you do that.

Spec showdown

One final thing before we dive into the photos: let's talk specs.

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CategoryApple iPhone 6sHuawei Nexus 6PMicrosoft Lumia 950Samsung Galaxy S7
Megapixels12MP12.3MP20MP12MP
Resolution4032x30244000x29924992x37444032x3024
Aspect Ratio4:34:34:34:3
Sensor Size1/3"1/2.3"1/2.4"1/2.6"
Pixel Size1.22μm1.55μm1.12μm1.4μm
Apertureƒ/2.2ƒ/2.0ƒ/1.9ƒ/1.7
Focal Length29mm29mm26mm26mm

But what do all those numbers mean?

Megapixels is shorthand for the total number of pixels on the camera sensor. The pixels are arranged in a grid, with "1 megapixel" meaning "1 million pixels." So the Lumia 950's 20MP camera has 20 million pixels on it. More megapixels equal a more detailed image. Smaller-resolution photos might look fine on your phone or computer, but once printed at poster size they might fall apart in quality. Thankfully, the minimum 12MP sensors we're looking at here have enough detail that an 8x12-inch print would look fantastic, and even a full 24x36-inch poster would look pretty good.

Microsoft Lumia 950 camera

Resolution is essentially a different way of looking at the pixel count. Megapixels are computed by multiplying the horizontal pixel count by the vertical pixel count, and those two numbers just so happen to be the resolution.

Aspect ratio is an abstraction of the resolution that will give you an idea of how "wide" an image is. Your smartphone, computer, and TV all likely have 16:9 displays, which is to say that for every 16 units on the long side, you'll find nine on the short side. The 4:3 aspect ratio is a more "traditional" shape, narrower but taller, and what were used to from old film photography and pre-HD televisions. Most phones give you options for aspect ratios and total resolution.

Sensor size is a the physical size of the sensor. Having more megapixels doesn't necessarily mean you have a larger sensor, it might just be more but smaller pixels packed into the same space. Sensor size is measured in fractions, to the larger the number (i.e. the smaller the denominator), the larger the sensor. Of our four phones, the Nexus 6P has the largest sensor while the iPhone 6s has the smallest, but they're all fairly close to the same size — just 0.1 inches separate the two.

Pixel size is where sensor size and megapixels meet — it's a measure of the actual size of the actual individual light-sensing pixels on the sensor plate. Because we're talking about putting millions of pixels on a plate roughly the size of your pinky finger nail, we measure these in micrometers (μm). The larger the individual pixel, the more light it collect, and thus the better quality and brighter image it should able to produce. Still, we're talking about impossibly small things here — the Nexus 6P has the biggest pixels in our comparison at 1.55μm, and that's still 1/50th the width of a human hair. In a word: tiny.

Aperture is the size of the opening through which light flows to the sensor. It, too, is expressed as a fraction (the ƒ is standing in place of the number 1). The larger the number, the wider that opening, and thus the more light that gets through. (Because of this fractions thing, it seems a bit backward. An aperture of ƒ/1.7 lets in more light than ƒ/1.9 — because fractions.) A consequence of the wider aperture is a narrower depth of field — the range in front of and behind your focused subject that will also be in focus.

Focal length is a holdover from the olden days of film cameras, measuring the distance from the lens to the film. In essence, it's an indicator of how wide your photo will be, except that it's an inverse — the longer the focal length, the narrower your field of view. Think of it as looking through a tube — the longer the tube, the less of what's on the other end you'll be able to see.

The Photos

Okay, let's get to it. We've laid out the photos in a grid so you can easily compare them side-by-side. They are arranged in this order: iPhone 6s, Nexus 6P, Lumia 950, Galaxy S7.

Indoors

As you might be noticing, none of these is a particularly bad camera. In fact, we'll say they're all pretty great, so our analysis here is going to trend towards nit-picky preferences. Your opinion may differ, and that's OK. When it comes to indoor photography, none of these phones come up short. The Galaxy S7 tended to produce photos that were a little more saturated than the rest, but when it came to balancing darks and lights it was hard to top the Lumia 950's HDR "Rich Capture," which was able to accurately and cleanly bring out detail and visibility in the windows photo. As things got darker the iPhone and Lumia struggled a bit, though, with the iPhone producing a photo darker than the rest and the Lumia ramping up the brightness too much to the point that it was blowing out light sources and washing blacks with gray.

Daylight