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Connect: The season’s most colourful smartphones

Vibrant: The Apple
iPhone XS Max produced
lifelike images despite
challenging lighting

ALONG with the longer nights, cooler days and warmer sweaters, autumn brings with it an album of opportunities for photographers of all abilities. And like richly rusted leaves falling from the trees, also landing around this time of year are a colourful supply of new smartphones, all ready for the winter rush. So how does the pick of this season’s high-end handsets fare against the best of the British countryside? Could they capture the mood in what can be challenging conditions? We took to the fringes of the National Forest in leafy Leicestershire to catch an autumnal sunrise.

1. Apple iPhone XS Max

Best For: All-round ability

Apple recently supersized its smartphone range, introducing a new plus-sized 6.5in iPhone XS Max alongside an updated 5.8in XS. The new dual 12-megapixel cameras with wide-angle and telephoto lenses work together with some smart internal processing to create vibrant, lifelike images across challenging lighting conditions.

Improved low-light and high-dynamic range (HDR) performance accompany a new feature for iPhone: Depth Control. This lets you adjust how in or out of focus the background of a portrait mode shot looks after you take the picture. There are no particularly clever optics here — it’s all performed in software — but the effect is no less satisfying.

The detail in landscape shots was sharp, with the intricacies of leaves and trees never a problem. The large screen reproduced colours accurately even in HDR mode without pushing the saturation too far.

The only minor black mark was the less-than-satisfying lens flares when the sun was in shot. Solar reflections are inevitable — yet other handsets created more pleasing effects.

Nonetheless, the XS Max proved to be a trusted, go-to companion for must-have shots.

Apple iPhone XS Max from £1,099 (sim-free), apple.com

2. Sony Xperia XZ2 Premium

Best for: low-light shooting

On paper, the XZ2 Premium is an impressive piece of kit, headlining with a 4K screen, the range’s first dual-camera system and a piano-black shell that oozes Sony style. As expected, the Sony’s camera specs are impressive: the Motion Eye dual camera features a 19-megapixel f/1.8 main sensor assisted by a 12-megapixel sensor for depth sensing.

But for all its technical strengths, this XZ2’s camera didn’t click. The bulky, curved body never felt comfortable, whether shooting portrait or landscape. The stock camera app experience was uncomfortable, with the controls not as intuitive as others. The 4K screen is bold and bright but the motion in the camera app became jerky, distracting and artificial.

With some persistence, the Sony revealed itself as a capable camera, capturing richness, nuance and detail. A shame it’s so frustrating.

From £799 (sim-free), sonymobile.com

3. Google Pixel 3 XL

Best for: portraits and detail

The newest device on test, the Pixel 3 XL is a handsome handset with some smart tricks. What the Pixel lacks in camera count — it’s the only phone here sporting a single sensor — it makes up for in intelligence.

Google makes a noise about how it uses AI technologies to compensate for the physical limits of the lenses and sensors. Its Top Shot feature uses machine learning to select the best frame, analysing motion blur, focus or blinks and smiles. Motion Auto Focus locks on to moving images — just tap a moving subject and the Pixel will do its best to keep it sharp.

Autumnal: These shots taken with the Google Pixel 3 captured the seasonal feel

In general, the results from a single lens match the dual- or triple-lensed devices, although its Super Res digital zoom needs some further work to match the optical versions here.

The 6.3in OLED screen is UHDA-certified for accurate colour and brightness, and when viewed on a desktop the autumnal browns and reds were rich but faithful, capturing the seasonal feel.

£869 (sim-free), store.google.com,

4. Huawei P20 Pro

Best for: sunrise and sunsets

Huawei equips the Leica-tuned P20 Pro with three cameras: a whopping 40-megapixel main sensor, 20-megapixel black-and-white secondary sensor and an 8-megapixel telephoto, which — using the magic of AI — combine to capture some of the strongest images here.

The colours produced by the P20 Pro are vibrant without being overbearing, even with HDR in full flow. Oversaturation can be a problem with some cameras but with the P20 Pro they enhanced the mood of the scene.

In portrait mode the separation between foreground and background was spot on, identifying the finest edges. The camera app was snappy, simple to navigate and offers creative modes to experiment with.

The AI assistant was good at identifying the shot I was capturing, automatically adjusting the camera settings to suit. If the suggestions got too much, it was easy to turn off.

The Huawei P20 Pro is a superb camera that rewarded me with some of my favourite images on the shoot.

£799 (sim-free), consumer.huawei.com

5. Samsung Galaxy Note9

Best for: sweeping panoramas

The Note9 isn’t the only smartphone here to wear a dual 12-megapixal optical image stabilised camera but it is the only one with a dual-aperture that adapts to the light, flipping the iris from f/2.4 in daylight to a fast and wide f/1.5 when things get dark.

AI optimises images and makes good suggestions; Flaw Detection told me when my lens was dirty. With a 4,000-mAh battery and up to 512 GB storage there’s power for a day’s shoot.

Clear colours: But greens were sometimes pushed too far on the Note9

The 6.4in infinity display screen was a joy to compose shots with. The blacks really are black, and the colours are clear.

Those colours could be hit and miss though: the oranges of the sunrise were sensitively captured, yet the greens of the grass were sometimes pushed too far to be realistic. But make no mistake, this is a sharp camera.

£899 (sim-free), samsung.com

TERMS TO KNOW

HDR

High Dynamic Range images often combine multiple exposures to ensure the full gamut of dark and light colours appear in a single image.

DOF

Depth of field determines how much of an image is in focus and is used creatively to direct viewers’ attention around an image. In a portrait, for example, the face may be sharp but the background blurry; in a landscape the entire image may be in focus.

BOKEH

An appealing artefact found in out-of-focus parts of an image; usually artificially generated in smartphone photography.

AI

Artificial Intelligence isn’t a photography term, but so-called ‘computational photography’ is increasingly important as smartphone software attempts to overcome physical limitations of small sensors and slim lenses to deliver beautiful images.