With the release of Samsung's Galaxy S7 and S7 edge, the six-month old iPhone 6s has a brand new rival for the title of best mobile camera. Sure, there are other contenders, but not at this level. These are the most popular, most used camera phones in the world. And now we're going to find out which one is the best.
iPhone vs. Galaxy
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Though the iPhone 6s Plus was released in September of last year, it is still considered one of the best mobile cameras on the market. Optically stabilized and raising the megapixel count for 8 in the iPhone 6 to 12 in the iPhone 6s, Apple made improvements to almost every aspect of the camera array as well, including utilizing the intelligence in its A9 image signal processor to boost things like autofocus speed and color accuracy.
Where Apple went up, Samsung went down, reducing the megapixel count from 16 in the Galaxy S6 to 12 in the Galaxy S7, focusing instead on larger individual pixels that let in more light. Along with an F1.7 aperture, the Galaxy S7 should perform extremely well in low light. But can it best Apple's best? And how does it compare to previous versions of each company's devices, the iPhone 6 Plus and Galaxy S6, respectively?
How we shot
Last weekend, iMore an its sibling site, Android Central got together for a retreat at Lake Lanier, in northern Georgia. There, we got to spend some time taking photos in a variety of conditions.
While using the phones, all settings were left on Auto, which is closest to how most people will shoot with their devices. A couple of shots were taken with HDR (High Dynamic Range) Mode turned on, where applicable.
Before we get into it, a comparison of the camera specifications for each of these phones:
|Category||Samsung Galaxy S7||Samsung Galaxy S6||Apple iPhone 6s Plus||Apple iPhone 6 Plus||Apple iPhone 5s|
|Additional Features||Dual-pixel autofocus||Real-time HDR||Dual-LED flash, hybrid IR filter||Focus Pixels||True Tone flash|
We've got an amazing assortment of smartphones here, and they'll go in the following order:
iPhone 6s Plus, Galaxy S7, iPhone 6 Plus, Galaxy S6
These are two very different photo scenarios with two opposite lighting conditions, but one thing is clear: the wider aperture on the Galaxy S7 helps the sensor eke out a tiny bit more light — enough to preserve some finer details in the calendar text that are lost in the iPhone 6s Plus.
In the grocery store, however, both the 6s Plus and 6 Plus manage better results than either Samsung device, with more accurate colors that preserve the original scene.
Shots taken without HDR
Shots taken with HDR
HDR is an important tool in a photographer's tool chest because it allows otherwise-shaded details to come through in photos with bright and dark spots in them. Here, you can see the differences in how each phone and manufacturer processes contrasting daylight shots, with and without HDR.
In the shots taken without HDR, Apple attempts to find a balance between exposing the light and dark areas, whereas the Galaxy S7 keeps things hidden in the shadows a bit more. It is likely done that way because, by default, Samsung uses HDR to artificially exaggerate the light in scenes such as this. When it is turned on, you can see the red berries of the bush much more clearly, but that uniform exposure comes at the expense of realism: colors are cooler than on the iPhones, and lighter areas are much more heavily emphasized, making the scene appear fake.
Here we try something a bit different. In an attempt to test the Galaxy S7's autofocus prowess — which has been boosted over its predecessor's — we stabilize the three phones on the ground so that we could better follow iMore managing editor, Serenity Cadlwell on her roller skates as she moved into and out of frame.
While the results aren't perfect, we are able to determine that the Galaxy S7's ability to track subjects is likely the best in the industry. Due to its comparatively wide 26mm equivalent focal length, it's simply able to keep more of the frame in focus at once. This is in spite the F1.7 lens, which normally creates a shallow depth of field.
Here we see further evidence of the iPhone's skin tone color accuracy. The daylight portraits taken with the iPhone 6s Plus and iPhone 6 Plus are natural and warm, and true to life; the Galaxy S7 looks washed out and blue, unable to find equilibrium between the grey cement walls and the light hitting Serenity's face.
What's really interesting here is how much more yellow the iPhone 5s capture looks compared to its successors; Apple really calibrated for naturalism in the 6 Plus and 6s Plus, leaving its customers to use filters in post-processing to achieve visual effects.
In the portraits taken at dusk, it's once again easy to distinguish Apple's and Samsung's divergent strategies: the former goes for naturalism, with realistic tones biasing the light source, whereas Samsung chooses to keep the shutter open longer, washing out the beautiful sunset in favour of seeing more of the foreground subject.
In looking at these macro results, it's clear that the Galaxy S7's comparatively wide 26mm equivalent focal length does it a disservice when trying to focus on close-up objects. The iPhone 6s Plus's advantages are obvious here: in daylight, it is able to capture more detail with its 12MP sensor, quickly finding and locking in on its subject. The Galaxy S7, on the other hand, struggles to focus (we took multiple photos of this statue, and this was the best result we got), and fumbles the exposure. I'm seeing a trend here.
Unlike the daylight and macro shots, the Galaxy S7 is the clear winner in our low-light shootout. It has a few things going for it: a larger sensor than either the iPhone 6s Plus or 6 Plus; a much wider aperture, to let in more light, than any of the other phones tested; a latest-generation optical image stabilization (OIS) module; and the Exynos 8890's digital signal processor (DSP), which helps to clean up artifacts.
As it has proven throughout this test, the iPhone tends to settle on a more realistic white balance setting than the GS7, which tends to get mixed up by the available light source. That said, none of the four devices offer truly great low-light performance, continuing to affirm that small sensors can't fully make up for more open lenses.
Both the iPhone 6s Plus and Galaxy S7 sport 5MP front-facing cameras, and following the addition of a so-called Retina Flash on the iPhone, Samsung's newest device also offers a similar feature.
In practice, both devices perform admirably, grabbing subtle details in well-lit areas. The iPhone's front-facing flash appears more effective, though.
Camera Software and Experience
The differences between the simplicity of the iPhone's iOS 9-based camera and Samsung's own are enormous. Though the Korean company has pared down and hidden many of the complicated settings and modes that once shipped with the Galaxy S4 and S5, there are still many knobs in which to get bogged down. Thankfully, Samsung makes it easy (and very fast) to enter the app and reliably snap a great photo, something the iPhone has excelled at for years.
On the Galaxy S7, Samsung has fashioned a Pro mode that allows photographers to tweak focus, white balance, light sensitivity (ISO), shutter speed and exposure, along with focus, metering, aspect ratio and resolution. These are power tools for people who want complete control over their photo-taking experience; I had a much better time capturing macro shots adjusting focus in Pro mode than I did in Auto.
The iPhone's camera experience hasn't changed for some time. It is still ultra-simple, though the 6s introduces the option to enable Live Photos, something the Galaxy S7 copies poorly with its "Motion Photo" option. It would be nice to have some manual controls built into the iPhone's camera app, but there are a bounty of manual camera apps available in the App Store (many of which are free) for that purpose.
Which flagship wins?
It's not easy to tell which device wins this contest, as both the iPhone 6s Plus and Galaxy S7 dominate a couple of categories. The iPhone's strengths are in situations with ample light, particularly with the sun as a source; Apple manages to capture photos with more natural colors and less artificial sharpening. This is especially evident in shots with lots of minute detail, or in macros.
The Galaxy S7, on the other hand, performs well in lower light, owing to a larger sensor and wider aperture. That said, the device doesn't outright dominate, as photos taken in dim situations tend to emerge warmer and less lifelike.
The takeaway, as we often say at the end of these comparisons, is that both the iPhone 6s Plus and Galaxy S7 pack extraordinarily capable smartphone cameras. The same can be said for the year-old iPhone 6 Plus and Galaxy S6. Even the iPhone 5s pulls out some nice photos.
Still, there can be only one. And in this shootout, under these conditions, with this hardware and software, to our eyes the iPhone 6s Plus came out on top.
Your move, Galaxy Note 6 and iPhone 7!
What's your take? Sound off in the comments!
Serenity Caldwell, Lory Gil, and Derek Kessler contributed to this piece.
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Daniel Bader is a Senior Editor at iMore, offering his Canadian analysis on Apple and its awesome products. In addition to writing and producing, Daniel regularly appears on Canadian networks CBC and CTV as a technology analyst.