The Great Galaxy Experiment

Through the Looking Glass

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A week into my experiment, I’m developing a better sense of where this phone excels and where it falls short of my expectations.

Since it’s one of the most important aspects of the modern smartphone experience, I want to focus this entire article on the camera.

 Optics

The S7 Edge features the fastest aperture of any smartphone camera on the market: a bright ƒ/1.7. The iPhone’s is ƒ/2.2, which means the Samsung optics are letting in approximately 2/3rds of a stop more light.1

Samsung also reduced the resolution of the sensor from the S6’s 16 megapixels to a more modest 12, putting it on par with the iPhone 6s, but it increased the size of those pixels to 1.4 microns (versus the iPhone’s 1.22).

In practical terms, this means that the S7 Edge will gather more light in dark conditions, and thus be better equipped to produce usable images. Since many casual shooting conditions happen in low light (parties, restaurants, etc.) this makes a lot of sense.

 Photo Processing

Of course, the hardware is only part of the equation.

Apple has maintained a healthy position in the smartphone camera space not because of its camera hardware - which is routinely trumped by competitors - but because its software processing is accurate, pleasing, and above all else: reliable.

That’s why it’s not surprising that the S7 Edge, while clearly superior on paper, is not leaps and bounds better in practise.

 When it Works, it’s Wonderful

Here’s an example shot of a memorial stone from a local park (sorry for the morbid subject but it’s a good test for rendering texture and detail):

Apple iPhone 6s Plus:
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Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge:
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Setting aside minor differences in framing, there are a few things that stand out to me when comparing these two images. For one thing, the iPhone’s rendering of the scene is significantly more contrasty, with a lot of detail in the surface of the stone as well as the plaque.

The Samsung version is less hyped, with slightly warmer white balance and a more noticeable separation between foreground and background (look at the way the houses in the back look). The plaque is razor sharp, but the surface of the stone looks softer. This is another consequence of the faster aperture: the area of the photo that’s in focus (known as the focal plane) is thinner the faster your aperture, and as soon as you exit that plane the image softens into a pleasing blur that’s often called “bokeh”.

In this situation, I definitely prefer the S7 Edge version of the shot. It’s more true to life, and because it looks less processed, there’s more editing leeway.

More on that in a bit.

 When it Doesn’t Work, It Sucks

Now I want to show you a different set of images.

This was taken on set this weekend:
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Notice anything strange? How about now (zoomed in to a 1:1 view):
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See that awful pixelation along the edge of the circle? And the colour noise in the white parts of the sign? That’s not a JPG compression error, that’s the way this shot looks straight out of the phone.

It isn’t fair to pixel-peep at smartphone photos, but this instance of over-processing damage is visible even on the phone itself, without zooming in at all - that’s clearly unacceptable.

Even when the shot is mostly fine, there’s a smearing of details that frustrated me:

I decided to investigate.

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 Auto vs. Pro

After shooting in a variety of situations, I discovered that the culprit was the shooting mode.

By default, the S7 Edge shoots in Auto mode, which pretty much does what it says on the tin. There are a number of other modes though, including a fantastic Pro mode that opens up control over exposure settings. If you don’t touch any of the settings though, then the camera handles them automatically, just like in Auto mode.

Or so I thought. For whatever reason, even though the settings may be identical, photos shot in Auto mode are processed very differently from those taken in Pro mode. JPGs from the Auto mode suffer from significant detail smearing, looking like watercolour paintings up close.

Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean; Auto vs. Pro Shooting Modes:

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For both of the above shots, the focus was on the same spot and the shots were taken one after, just switching modes in between. No change in ambient light levels or other shooting conditions occurred. The camera chose a shutter speed of 1/15 at ISO 200 for both shots so the settings didn’t vary either.

Nevertheless, the shot on the right (Pro mode) is noticeably more detailed. What’s strange is that it isn’t any noisier; my initial thought was that Auto mode might be going a little heavy on the noise reduction, destroying fine detail in the process. Except…the noise levels are basically equivalent in both shots, so I have no idea why Auto is processing JPGs the way it is.

The takeaway is that if you care about image fidelity, you’re going to want to shoot in Pro mode, even if you don’t actually change any of the settings manually. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to change the default shooting mode for the camera app, nor does it remember which you used last, so you’ll have to manually switch it into Pro mode every time you shoot - very stupid.

 Zooming Out

While I spent a lot of time berating the S7 Edge for the camera issues above, the overall experience of shooting with it is actually fantastic.

Focusing doesn’t even feel like a process anymore. You point, it’s focused. Instantly.

It’s a great experience, and one that I’ll miss on other smartphones without the same focusing technology that Samsung has put in place here.

Paired with minimal shutter lag and a genuinely excellent camera app, this is the first Android smartphone I’ve used that challenges the iPhone not just on hardware but on software experience as well.

 Serious Shooting

There are two more aspects of the Pro shooting mode that I wanted to delve into briefly before I wrap up this part of the experiment report.

 Custom Settings

The first is one that I almost didn’t notice at first. In Pro mode, you can actually assign setting combinations to a Custom Settings menu, just like you might find on the mode dial of a professional DSLR.

If you know what you’re doing, this opens up a tremendous amount of potential for creating preset “behaviours” optimized for specific needs. I made a setup with fast shutter speed and high ISOs for freezing motion in low light (at the expense of noise), along with a super slow shutter speed with low ISO for long-exposure landscapes.

The fact that I can have that creative control in the native camera app on my phone is amazing.

 RAW Files

The second aspect of Pro mode is the ability to shoot in RAW. Support for RAW shooting is one of Android’s major triumphs over iOS, one that I hope they address soon. If you flip the switch in the camera settings, you’ll get a JPG plus a DNG file (Adobe’s universal RAW format) for each shot you take.

Why might you want to do this?

Well, a RAW file is not actually an image, it’s a total record of all the data the sensor gathered for a given shot. Anything that makes a JPG is taking that raw data and interpreting it to produce the image that you share and look at.

By saving the RAW data separately, you can pull that file into a capable editing environment and build your own interpretation of the scene as you see fit, without relying on someone else’s algorithm. Since RAW files contain a lot more data, you can also recover blown highlights, lift crushed shadows, fix wonky white balance, and otherwise tinker with images on a much more detailed level than you ever could with a JPG.

Best of all, as technology evolves, RAW processing gets better, so if you have the original RAW file you can go back and re-process old images to get better results!

Since the S7 Edge has a tendency to blow out highlights in favour of keeping the shadows bright, the fact that I can make my own adjustments is a game-changer for mobile photography.

The ball’s in your court, Apple.

 The Dead Pixel

I should mention that this is actually my second S7 Edge.

This weekend, a couple of days after getting it, I noticed a dead pixel on that glorious new screen of mine. One pixel out of several million isn’t the end of the world, but when you pay a premium price for a phone, you want it to be perfect.

Thankfully, my carrier was able to get a replacement unit from HQ, and I was back up and running in no time. While it made me worry about Samsung’s QA, it was a good opportunity to test out the transfer process from Galaxy to Galaxy.

Thankfully, the process that I attempted while moving from iOS to Android is much smoother when transferring between like devices. Still not as seamless as iCloud backup and restore, but it’s better.

This second S7 Edge also seems to have better battery life than the first unit, so my verdict on that front may change.

 Coming Up Next

Now that I’ve wrapped my head around the camera’s quirks, I’ll follow up with a closer look at some of the other features I’ve explored: TouchWiz, the fingerprint sensor, apps, and more!


  1. A “stop” is a term in photography used to compare exposure. Exposure refers to the amount of light being captured to make an image, and it’s determined by a combination of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO sensitivity. Since each of those metrics is measured in different units, we use “stops” to compare exposure settings. One stop is equal to a halving or doubling of the amount of light being captured.

 
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