We've recently had some new entrants in the venue of "excellent smartphone cameras", so it's fitting that we take a few minutes to do a proper Mobile Nations-style camera showdown between them. So here we go: the Apple iPhone 6s versus the LG Nexus 5X versus the Samsung Galaxy S6 versus the LG G4.
Why these phones?
The iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus have the same sensors and lenses. The only difference between the two is optical stabilization. Seeing as the the Galaxy S6 and LG G4 are equipped with OIS cameras, it was only fair to opt for the iPhone 6s Plus over its non-stabilized smaller sibling (not to mention that it's closer in size screen-wise to most flagship Android phones).
When it comes to Samsung, the Korean manufacturer opted to install the same camera module in the larger Galaxy Note 5 as they did in the earlier-launched Galaxy S6. In fact, each of the flagship Galaxy phones launched this year (S6, S6 edge, S6 edge+, and Note 5) has the exact same camera.
Likewise between the LG G4 and the just-released LG V10 — exact same camera.
It's the same story again when it comes to choosing between the LG Nexus 5X and the Huawei Nexus 6P — the 6P may be larger, faster, and better-built, but the camera is exactly the same as in the 5X.
How we shot
Over the course of a few days we took these four phones to various locations to shoot in various settings. Each was left in full auto mode with automatic HDR enabled. All photos were shot hand-held (as you do with a phone). The only alterations made to photos were to resize where applicable.
Yes, the Galaxy S6 offers a limited manual mode and the G4 has the option to go full manual and spit out highly-tweakable RAW files, but that's not the point of this comparison. The truth is, most people that buy these phones aren't going to bother with manual mode — it's there for the professionals. You could download an app for the iPhone or Nexus that provides many of those controls as well, but again, that's not what the average person is going to do.
If you're the type that wants to shoot with manual control of the focus point, white balance, and the like, you already know what phone you want. In fact, you probably don't want a phone at all for photos — you want a real camera with real controls. We're not professional photographers here, and we don't expect you to be either.
Before we get into it, a comparison of the camera specifications for each of these phones:
|Category||Samsung Galaxy S6||Apple iPhone 6s||LG G4||LG Nexus 5X|
|Additional Features||Real-time HDR||Dual-LED flash, hybrid IR filter||Laser autofocus, color spectrum sensor||Laser autofocus, dual-LED flash|
But what does all that mean?
- Megapixels are shorthand for the total number of pixels that are located on the sensor. The pixels are arrayed in a grid, with "1 megapixel" being "one million pixels". So a 12.3MP camera like the LG Nexus 5X has 12.3 million pixels on it. More megapixels mean a "larger" image, in that you can zoom in closer without losing detail, but they don't mean a wider image. A 5MP photo might look fine on your phone or even your computer, but blown up and printed as a poster it will probably look terrible.
- Resolution is essentially another way of looking at megapixels — it's the horizontal pixel count and the vertical pixel count. Multiply them, you get the total number of pixels.
- Aspect ratio is an abstraction of that count, reducing it to its simplest fractional form. This gives you an idea of how "wide" an image will be (in landscape). 16:9 has become a standard resolution for a lot of things these days — almost every smartphone has a 16:9 ratio display, your TV almost certainly does, and most computer monitors are 16:9. If it's "1080p" or "4K", it's 16:9. 4:3, on the other hand, is a more traditional aspect ratio, inherited from the days of film photography and pre-HD televisions. 4:3 cameras aren't quite as wide as their 16:9 compatriots, but they're also capturing more on the vertical axis when shooting in landscape.
- Sensor size is the physical size of the sensor. This is where things start to get hinky — more megapixels doesn't necessarily mean that you'll have a larger sensor, it might just be smaller pixels crammed into the same space. Measured as a fraction, the larger the number (i.e. the smaller the denominator), the larger the sensor. In this case, the Nexus 5X has the largest sensor of the bunch, while the iPhone 6s has the smallest.
- Pixel size is the collision of megapixels and sensor size, and where the rubber truly meets the road. This is the measurement of the actual width of the light-sensing pixels on the sensor, and because we're talking about putting millions of pixels on a plate that's barely the size of the nail on your pinky finger, they're tiny. We measure them in micrometers (μm) — one millionth of a meter, 1/10,000th of a centimeter, or 1/25400th of an inch. These things are tiny. The upshot is, the bigger your pixel, the more light it can collect, and the more light it can collect, the better quality photo you should be able to generate (in theory).
- Aperture is the size of the opening through which light flows to the sensor, again expressed as a fraction. The larger the opening, the more light, and thus the larger the fraction (the smaller the denominator), the larger the aperture. The side-effect of a wider aperture is that it also reduces the depth of field for a photo. This is the plane of the photo that is in focus, versus objects in the foreground or background that are not. The wider your aperture, the shorter the depth of field and the further things beyond that plane are, the more blurred they will be.
- Focal length is an old-school measurement of the length from the lens to the sensor (or film), but in practice it's a measure of how "wide" you should expect your photos to be, or the field of view. Except it's an inverse measurement — the longer the focal length, the narrower the photo. And obviously they've scaled it down to smartphone sizes — there's not an inch of space between the sensor and the lens, unless your phone is hilariously thick. Think of it as looking through a tube. If that tube has been cut very short, you'll still see a lot of what's on the other side. But if it's longer, you'll see much less through the far away opening. Practically every modern smartphone has a focal length of between 28mm and 30mm.
What follows will be grids of images in this order: Galaxy S6, iPhone 6s, LG G4, and then Nexus 5X. You can click/tap on any image to view the full size.
When it comes to indoor shots, none of these cameras will disappoint (and that's a theme that will repeat itself time and time again through this comparison). But, there are differences to be noted. The shot looking out the windows triggered HDR on all four phones and produced a balanced photo for each, but the Galaxy S6 and LG G4 both produced photos that were closer to what we saw with our own eyes (as HDR is meant to do). These two phones also better handled the reflected backlighting with Lego Wall-E, whereas the iPhone 6s blew out the backlight in trying to balance our adorable little robot.
The daylight photos revealed something that we'd noticed but not quite registered with the indoor photos: the Nexus 5X was shooting on the dark side. That made the colors richer, yes, but put side-by-side with the other phones, it just looked dark.
Interestingly, the LG G4's shots of the flame-red autumn tree turned out more orange than we anticipated, given the fancy color spectrum sensor at play on this device. Indeed, when viewing on the phone itself with its touted "Quantum Display" that's supposed to better render colors like reds, it looked quite red. But when we put it side-by-side and viewed it on our calibrated computer monitor, instead we get orange while the other photos from the other phones look expectedly red. The iPhone 6s did have a bit of orange to it as well, but nowhere near as pronounced as the G4's.
Additionally, the automatic HDR fired on both the Galaxy S6 and the G4, but the G4's delay in taking the three-consecutive shots meant that the constant light breeze moved the leaves around, creating a double-impression type of effect you can see in the 100% crop.
Dusk saw the first truly challenging conditions for these phones. Daylight and indoors are no problem for a modern flagship smartphone, no matter the operating system. But dusk, with its varying hues and brightnesses poses difficulties that only grow as the sun dips further behind the horizon. In the early hours of dusk where the sun is near the horizon the Galaxy S6 produced tones that were surprisingly muted but, as it got dark, the photos became more saturated.
The iPhone 6s photos during dusk were the closest to the actual colors of the scenes, but as it got darker the comparatively narrow aperture and small sensor struggled to expose the photos as brightly. Conversely, the Galaxy S6 and LG G4 started to overexpose, leading to photos that, while incredibly colorful and "punchy", blew out the brigher spots of the images. That trend continued into the nighttime photos.
In these nighttime shots the LG G4 turned into a serious disappointment. Photos that looked fine on the phone were seriously blown out when viewed off the phone. The bridge towers and city, for instance, were nowhere near as brightly lit as the G4 portrayed them. The closeup of the light on the bridge was similarly blown out. What's most distressing about those is that this was shot in HDR mode, which should have alleviated any blow-outs like that by properly exposing the bright, dark, and mid-tones. But it didn't — instead we got an entire photo that was almost comically overexposed — the city looks about how our eyes see it, but the bridge and the lights on it are brighter than bright. At least the lens flare is pretty.
The Nexus 5X, iPhone 6s, and Galaxy S6 all handled the night shots with aplomb, offering photos that were smartly exposed, sharp, and appropriately colorful.
As the saying goes, "The best phone is the one one you have on you." That's to say that it doesn't matter if you have a fancy DSLR with a 20MP sensor and 45mm prime lens at home if it's not in your hands right now to capture the scene before you. Unless you're engaging in controlled-conditions studio photography, you're engaging in an art of capturing a fleeting moment, be it the look on your friend's face or the beauty of the sunset or that crazy man raging about the Illuminati on the street corner. Photography is about capturing that moment, and more often that not that moment involves movement, which you want to be frozen in time. For that, you want a camera that can focus quickly and accurately and take a photo with as short a shutter speed as possible.
While modern smartphones don't actually have a physical shutter, the less time that is spent collecting photons on the sensor, the less time there is for the subject of your photo to move. In that regard, each of these phones did fine in capturing the rapid movement of the jets in the fountain, but upon close inspection it's the Nexus 5X that took the sharpest (and therefore fastest) photo here. With water spraying in every direction, there's hardly a hint of movement in the drops and jets. It's as if it was frozen in time.
Fine detail is where having a higher megapixel count comes in most useful. With more pixels to work with, you can "zoom" in closer without losing detail. And it's here that the strength of the 16MP sensors in the Galaxy S6 and LG G4 comes to the fore. In these shots the two phones can not only crop tighter, they also retain more sharpness while doing so. The iPhone 6s struggled here, but the Nexus 5X with its wide open aperture and large pixels was able to still collect a sharp shot of the rain-soaked Bearcat Band and fans, even if it wasn't as large of a photo as the Galaxy S6 or G4 produced.
The Nexus 5X also excelled at macro photography, though none of the phones particularly faired poorly. The iPhone had the most difficulty focusing up close, but still produced respectable results. Here the Nexus 5X and Galaxy S6 were stand-out cameras, offering crisp and bright photos with a spectacular depth of field.
When it comes to panoramas, nobody has yet to match the quality of the iPhone's output. It's easy to make a panorama — swipe to the right screen in the camera app. Tap, and start spinning your phone. Samsung has tried to duplicate and improve on the experience to great success, but it was still a bit on the fussy side to use. LG's panorama implementation is something of a step behind, awkwardly compressing the edges of the panoramas we took. It's as if they're trying to preserve the integrity of straight lines versus a true 1:1 panorama as Apple and Samsung offer.
The Nexus 5X with Android 6.0 Marshmallow, on the other hand, still uses the default Google camera app with its single-photo-a-time post-stitching panorama implementation. The result is that panoramas with any motion end up with awkward panorama artifacts. It's a shame Google's not improved on their app yet — it's great for capturing nature, but it's no good for capturing life.
For darker panoramas, the Galaxy S6 and Nexus 5X produced bright panoramas — far brighter than the reality of the scene. The S6 and G4's files were enormous, but a lot of the detail those images should have shown was lost in motion blur. So while they've replicated the iPhone experience of taking a panorama, they've yet to duplicate the results. The dusk panorama from the iPhone turned out crisp but with disappointingly muted colors. But for the most accurate panorama, the one that best captured the wash of color that was the sky and the city and the river, that was the LG G4.
For all the talk about what kind of photos these phones take, let's take a moment to look at how all of them actually take photos.
More or less everybody (except for Motorola) has boiled down their camera interface to one simple design: big viewfinder dominating the display, shutter button centered on the bottom/right side, quick access to the last photos taken right by the shutter.
Samsung's camera interface is equal parts simple and confusing. It has quick controls on one end and a shutter button, video record button, and front/rear camera button with easy reach on the other end. But then there are three more control options — an arrow, a gear, and a button that says Mode. While you might think the arrow is to get you to more quick toggles, all it does is collapse the quick toggles (but still shows the icons when you've activated something like HDR or the flash — but you can't do anything with those icons until you expand the menu again).
The gear icon offers access to a slew of additional settings, and it's the mode button that lets you switch between what are still probably too many camera modes: auto, pro, selective focus, panorama, slow motion, fast motion, and virtual shot. And then there's the option to download even more camera modes from Samsung, including "food shot" and "sports shot" and "beauty face". While we appreciate the flexibility and customizability offered, in typical Samsung fashion it's a daunting amount of choice that might be better solved with more intelligent software.
Apple's interface is the most straightforward, with each mode accessible by swiping left or right across the preview, with what you'll get in each direction clearly explained in easy-to-understand words (Video, Slo-mo, Photo, Square, Pano, etc.). The icons to toggle settings at the top are similarly self-explanatory, and those that aren't (like the Live Photos button in the center) become so once you tap them and they tell you what's going on.
LG's G4 was famous for bringing full manual controls to the smartphone, but the default camera interface is relatively simple, and rather similar to Samsung's and Apple's. But unlike Samsung, tapping the gear icon for additional settings doesn't drop you out of the viewfinder, it instead overlays the settings as rows of menus right by the icon. Where LG gets confusing, though, is between the mode button and the three dots overflow button. Mode lets you switch between taking "dual" photos (overlaying one small photo onto a larger photo), panoramas, and auto (i.e. standard) photos. The overflow button switches you between Simple (no controls, just tap the screen to focus and capture), Auto (default with a shutter button and a few controls), and Manual (every control conceivable) modes. So really they're both mode buttons, and despite having owned a G4 for months, I'm still not used to the distinction.
The Nexus 5X camera app is the Google Camera app, and it's the most barebones of them all. On one end you've got a shutter button, last photo preview, and a button to switch cameras (which is abstract but clear enough, we suppose), there's a small set of controls to toggle the time, HDR, and flash, and a hamburger button to access just four options: Photo Sphere, Panorama, Lens Blur (which is fake lens blur but generally passable), and Settings. Wait, how do you switch to video? You swipe right across the screen — that's what the two dots at the bottom are meant to show; left side is photos, right side is video. But if you don't know where to look, how to switch, or worse, what you just triggered by an errant swipe across the display, is not immediately obvious.
Each phone also has a quick shortcut to get to the camera. The latest generation of Samsung Galaxy phones (S6 and newer), the iPhones, and the Nexus phones all have a quick shortcut on the lock screen — swipe up from the bottom right corner and you'll launch straight into the camera, bypassing any security you have enabled, but also keeping the rest of the phone locked down until you do enter your code or scan your fingerprint. Oddly, LG opted to leave that shortcut out of the latest devices.
The Android phones we looked at here do each offer a hardware shortcut to get to the camera, but each is different. On the Samsung phones you can double click the home button from anywhere, even when the display's off, to launch straight into the camera, though we found that thanks to the button's large size and forward-facing location we were too often activating the camera in our pocket (even when we weren't the crazy guy walking around with 4 phones). The Nexus phones let you double click the power button in the same manner — display off or on, no matter the app, to open the camera. Samsung's was easier to use when we wanted it — the home button doubles as the fingerprint sensor to unlock the phone anyway, so our thumb was typically already there — but that's not to say the Nexus power button option was bad.
LG's hardware camera shortcut is on the back, exactly where you find all of the hardware buttons. With the display off or showing the lock screen, and double click of the volume down button not only launches into the camera, but focuses and takes a photo. For the absolute quickest time and least steps from pocket to photo, the G4 wins. Unfortunately, that high-center positioning of the power and volume buttons means that it's easy to access when you're holding the phone in portrait mode, but rather awkward in landscape. Additionally, the volume button shortcut only works with the phone sleeping or on the lock screen; if you're using the phone, you have to open the camera app manually through the launcher.
The iPhone is the one option here that doesn't offer a quick hardware shortcut to the camera. Motorola's phones don't either, but a quick double twist of your wrist serves as a gesture to launch into the camera app from anywhere, even off. Apple, however, despite offering two volume buttons, a power button, and a home button, doesn't have a hardware shortcut. The home button has had the double click dedicated to going into multitasking view (logical, since a single click goes to the app launcher), or opening Wallet while the phone is asleep. Apple does offer a from-anywhere software option. Swipe up from the bottom of the display to access the Control Center with, well, controls for audio playback, quick settings toggles, and shortcuts for flashlight, timer, calculator, and the camera.
When it comes to the user interface, Apple offers the most straightforward option for the most users, but it doesn't offer nearly the customizability choice as Samsung or LG. And when it comes to quick access, it's hard to beat the shortcuts offered by Samsung and the Nexus phones — no matter what you're doing, the camera's just a double-click away on a button whose positioning you've learned by heart.
So how do these smartphone cameras truly stack up? They're all excellent, and any would be a fine "camera that you have on you" at any given moment. And while in the past whatever the most current iPhone was had a tendency to thoroughly pants the competition, this time it's a closer battle than we've seen in the past. In fact, I can't say that the iPhone is the best smartphone camera out there. It's a great camera attached to an excellent phone, but no longer the best, even with the improvements that Apple's made in the latest generation.
Kudos need to go Samsung and LG for really stepping up their game in the past few years, going from mediocre cameras to best-in-class units. But it's the Nexus 5X (and thus the Nexus 6P) that win this battle. The new Nexus phones may not have the most pixels to work with, but the big sensor with relatively huge pixels, collecting light through a nice bright aperture, but the photos they're producing are positively phenomenal.
It's a weird position to be, lauding a Nexus camera. After years of disappointment at the hand of multiple companies, the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P are coming at us with phenomenal cameras that will serve you well in practically every situation. The only real spot of concern was in the darkness of some of the daytime photos, but overall it handled itself quite nicely.
Apple, for all their expertise and effort in cameras, has met its match. And that's a good thing — so long as these companies keep pushing each other, we'll keep getting better and better devices on all fronts. Everybody wins.