Sorry Galaxy S7, new camera shootout proves iPhone still best

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

Why you can trust iMore Our expert reviewers spend hours testing and comparing products and services so you can choose the best for you. Find out more about how we test.

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.

Spec showdown

Before we get into it, a comparison of the camera specifications for each of these phones:

Swipe to scroll horizontally
CategorySamsung Galaxy S7Samsung Galaxy S6Apple iPhone 6s PlusApple iPhone 6 PlusApple iPhone 5s
Megapixels12MP16MP12MP8MP8MP
Resolution4032x30245312x29884032x30242049x15362049x1536
Aspect Ratio4:316:94:34:34:3
Sensor Size1:2.6"1/2.6"1/3"1/3"1/3"
Pixel Size1.4μm1.12μm1.22μm1.5μm1.5μm
Apertureƒ1.7ƒ/1.9ƒ/2.2ƒ/2.2ƒ/2.2
Focal Length26mm28mm29mm29mm29mm
ManufacturerSonySamsungSonySonySony
Additional FeaturesDual-pixel autofocusReal-time HDRDual-LED flash, hybrid IR filterFocus PixelsTrue Tone flash

The Comparison

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

Indoors

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.

Daylight

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.

Portraits

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.

Macro

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.

Low-light

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.

Selfie

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

Galaxy S7 UI

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.

iPhone 6s Plus UI

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?

Conclusion

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.

Daniel Bader

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.

189 Comments
  • How exactly are we supposed to judge color accuracy? By decree?
  • No, by taking a shot and comparing to the real object. DUH
  • if the shots are compared by looking at the real subject, then i should ask did the author copy all the photos onto his computer and view them on the spot with a screen that has been calibrated for colour accuracy? if not then everything is subjective as one cannot remember the exact colours 100% and if only viewed on the phones screen as that is subjective as well since every screen is calibrated differently. and who's to say the computer screen is accurate if it has not been calibrated.
  • I greatly prefer the S7 shots in most of these comparisons. The sunset shot, the iPhone may have shown the sunset with a little more color, but the rest of that photo was worthless.
  • I agree, right now Samsung Galaxy S7 much better result what iMore has take on this articles :)
  • Let me guess… your parent bought you a S7 and you're very happy, wrong?
  • Very wrong. I don't need my parents to buy me a phone, I am a grown person that can buy my own products. I did buy an S7 and I like it so far. I also like the iPhone camera and it is better in some of these shots, however the S7 does better to my eye in most of them. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • Haha, taking a jab at the idea that someone bought a phone that wasn't an iPhone. Nice one 759nelson. But in all seriousness this article was insane. My wife has a Note 5 and I have a 6s Plus. I am very jealous of both her cameras. Mostly the front. But if the Note 5 has last years camera and the S7 has a more advanced updated version of that camera then I think as apple fans we need to demand they keep up with the Joneses and put the best cameras into their phones like they did when the 4 came out. Android is pushing apple to advance and crap "emperors new clothes" journalism like this wont change the truth.
  • Isn't Samsung from South Korea?
  • I agree, the conclusion could have gone either way. I gave the edge to the iPhone 6s Plus for a number of reasons: I value accuracy over saturation, and I prefer the way the iPhone captures skin tones. While Samsung's wider aperture lets in more light in low-light shots, there is too much grain to do anything with those photos. Happy to continue having this conversation, though! Thanks for the feedback.
  • You have no integrity.
  • I would agree, but you can get that sunset shot to look the same on the S7 if you want it to, or shift the light around till you find the balance you like. I've got the S7, and was trying to compare with the iPhone to give someone suggestions when I came across this. They are comparing defaults with no attempt to optimize, at least from the S7 side. If I want the sunset to set the tone, I touch the sunset on the screen. If I want the face to set the tone, I touch the face on the screen. It would be a bit darker on the face doing that, but I can touch near the sunset, or move the light slider to get the effect of the iPhone. This seems to be comparing "I just want to point it at something and snap" settings, which has it's place, but isn't a "better camera" (the same criteria would make a point and shot "better" than a high end DSLR). I might have missed it somewhere, but I didn't see any mention of the shutter speed, ISO, manual focus, white balance and other settings you have access to in the S7. It's also seemingly praising an excessive depth of field, which confuses me.
  • I am not sure what you're really looking at, and this coming from an iPhone user, but majority of those pics look better for the s7..
  • Yep! Sent from the iMore App
  • I agree. I'm an Apple user, and I have the iPhone 6. But the Samsung pictures are better in my opinion. There's more contrast with the Galaxy shots, which gives better colour, whereas the iPhone shots looked kind of washed out, especially with the pictures of the apples in the grocery store.
  • Agreed. Sent from the iMore App
  • Am I the only one think the S7 photos are better?
  • No you are not the only one the Galaxy s7 is way better Sent from the iMore App
  • Every other blog/review site on the internet thinks the S7 is better. This is the reality distortion field in full effect. THIS is why iPhone users are notoriously known as some of the most uninformed and out of touch users out there. When they say its like a cult, they mean it.
  • You know it's bad when even iphone users here are baffled on how iphone was magically declared the winner
  • Hahah. True. Sent from the iMore App
  • It's quite disturbing actually Posted via iMore App
  • But even worse, Fandroids from 2009 are still saying the same old boring things. I'll wait for the iPhone 7 then compare... but if they keep putting a small camera in there vs. the beast that Samesung is using it will be hard to compete. That S7 looks like something from 2011. #livephotos
  • was this a joke? is there a koolaid joint that you fanboys keep puff puff passing around here? if the S7 edge looks like something from 2011 then your iphone must be coming from the World war era.
  • I rest my case. Too funny! (especially since the S6 and S7 are mostly iPhone 6 copies with worse build quality) Must not have very good lightning in your parents basement.
  • Typical ifanboy resorting to insults when your brain fails you. The edge looks nothing like the iphone. Maybe you think its a copy because they both look rectangular? or is it because they both *gasp* turn on?!!!!!
  • The edge/S7 are nice looking devices and some may say that look better than the iPhone. However let's not kid ourselves, they are a hybrid between the 6/6S and the iPhone 4/4S (glass back). Sent from the iMore App
  • *facepalm* thanks for making us iPhone owners look bad. You seriously believe S6 and S7 build quality is bad??
  • You're proving his point!! Both Apple and Android have flaws!!!! THOSE ARE FACTS!!! If you can't realize that, then you're snorting the same coke he is. You said he resorts to insults but what exactly is your goal with this comment?? There are literally very little to no differences in the pictures, and I'll ask yet again, do you think most of the general public is going to give a **** about these subtle and probably non-compromising experiences??? The fanboyism from both sides is REAL here but congrats to imore though. Yet again, you figured another way of earning clicks and watch everyone barks at themselves. But please, change it, because no one likes anyone that's predictable.
  • You're not the only one. Not sure what they are looking at here, the s7 is definitely a better camera. I was unimpressed with my 6s camera. Front camera was great, back camera, didn't really impress much.
  • I think the S7 is better Sent from the iMore App
  • I was pretty much expecting Galaxy S7 to take this, since it's 6 months newer and would have a clear advantage in certain categories. My guess is some of the weirdness some are seeing in low light and daylight will be fixed asap in a software update, but that — like HTC when they dropped down — every gain in one area results in a slight loss in another. Nothing can be all things in all situations. Apple shot for a very specific target with the iPhone camera system, and it's one that makes it very good at a wide range of photos. Samsung targeted something different and perhaps more specific. Nothing wrong with that. It's how everyone gets better. I'm sure everyone who loves the GS7 will be disappointed, and some will cry foul. If it had gone the other way, I told myself I'd have to just deal with it and push Apple for even more and better with the iPhone 7. Like most things, there'll be people who subjectively disagree, and that's fine. That's what makes for great discussion. I'm just impressed a 6 month old iPhone 6s camera can push a brand new Samsung camera this hard, win or lose. That's good for everyone. Now seriously, bring on Note 6 and iPhone 7!
  • "I was pretty much expecting Galaxy S7 to take this".....and it sure did in most of the shots.
  • galaxy s7 does take this, especially in lower light scenarios. I dont see how you see iphone 6s winning here. In fact let it beat galaxy s6 first.
  • The hemp in Montreal is great.
  • Glad I switched to the yearly upgrade cycle. That way I will always be able to benefit from the newer things.
  • You've got to be kidding me.....lol
  • This is just Rene's faux concern with competition. Fact is, sure, photo quality is subjective, but there still measurements one can take to at least try to be objective. Instead, what we got was "Here is an iPhone picture and a S7 picture. As you can the iPhone is more natural". And how pray tell are we supposed to know that? The authors subjective memory of what the scene looked like? A real review would have done some actual work. "I'm just impressed a 6 month old iPhone 6s camera can push a brand new Samsung camera this hard, win or lose." As if camera sensors take huge leaps and bounds every six months, as if Rene knows how long the Samung camera was in the works before being released. Just completely disingenuous.
  • A lot of us have gone for walks in the sunset and looked around. We've looked into apple bins. We know what these things look like. So Rene calling the iPhone's photos "more natural"? I know exactly what he means and it's immediately obvious. Though I'm not really convinced that's "better."
  • The S6 camera is also slightly better than the Iphone.
  • R.R. "I was pretty much expecting Galaxy S7 to take this, since it's 6 months newer and would have a clear advantage in certain categories." And it clearly did Rene. I use and abuse an Iphone 6s+ and a Galaxy S6. My Galaxy S6 produces better results than the IP6S+ hands down, all day long. This "shoot out" just confirms what users like me already know.
  • I don’t think I’ve ever seen a post with 9 downvotes Rene.
    Trouble we have is three fold;
    First, even changing the position of a camera by a few mm especially when light is shining at you can have a dramatic effect on the output. Very difficult to get around I know but these are all from slightly different angles.
    Second, as a viewer on the web we don’t get a feel for what the real source actually looked like for comparison.
    Third, that said the Samsung offering is on the whole much better than the iPhone. Why couldn’t you just have said, “Well fair play to Samsung. They’ve produced a great camera that bests the iPhone, but I’m sure Apple will have better luck next time”.
    That would have garnered you more respect.
  • 16 downvotes now...
  • Keep em coming Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • I gave down vote #30 haha
  • Are you f**ing serious? Call a spade a spade. Even the S6 probably had a better camera than the Iphone. Anybody with eyes can obviously see the S7 shots are more detailed and better. Especially the low light. Your reality distortion field and bias is obvious.
  • He has lost credibility with his claim. Sent from the iMore App
  • Sorry Rene. My Galaxy S6 camera still beat your iPhone 6s camera. To my eye, the gs6 picture looks better. It's amazing how a 1 year old phone can still take on a newer device. And let see what iPhone 7 can do. Well, based on the track record. Apple is gonna recycle the same camera for a few generation until they are far behind the competition. Good luck. Posted from my Samsung Galaxy S6
  • Based on rumors the iPhone 7 will have dual lenses, so I think it will get quite a leap in photo/video quality.
  • Competition is good, it push tech giant like samsung and apple out from their comfort zone. I like to see they keep on out do each others.
  • If that is the case why is last years SGS6 a much better camera than the iPhone? Last years S6 was far and away the best camera, the S7 is even better. Samsung has the best cameras, I own these devices including iPhone, Samsung makes a killer camera. Most websites all come to the same conclusion. Sent from the iMore App
  • Yes, except people here blogging in iMore still living in denial.
  • You're a fukin joke Rene Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • Uh, I think the S7 takes better photos hands down...and it looks live everyone (even iPhone users) agree.
  • i guess my eyes are broken. both camera's look great except for several very obvious shots where the s7 blows the doors off the iPhone, and the following paragraph says the exact opposite of what my eyes see. after watching in amazement my coworker's s7 dual pixel focus compared to my 6s i'm pretty sure there isn't really a comparison between who the real winner is...
  • For the bright daylight shots, I kind of prefer the warmer tones of the iPhone. However, I do believe that the Galaxy is a lot better in low light. Even when the article says it's close, I find I prefer the detail that the Galaxy provides by a significant margin. Also agree with comment above about the sunset shot. I find the Galaxy more impressive, despite a washing out of color for the sunset. You can actually see the foreground with it. The iPhone version is next to worthless unless you were wanting just the sunset. Much closer than I thought it would be. As an iPhone 6 Plus user (and a Moto X Pure recently), I will at least look at the Galaxy later this year (assuming I can find a non-carrier version without all the carrier bloat ware - this is one area that really hurts Android phones in general).
  • Galaxy s7 has a better camera. Sent from the iMore App
  • GOING BACK TO SAMSUNG!!! Sent from the iMore App
  • Hilarious. I'm not seeing the iPhon