Smartphone camera shootout: Galaxy S7 Edge takes on the iPhone 6S Plus

Samsung moves into the lead

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Samsung released the Galaxy S6 and the S6 Edge at the beginning of 2015, and spent much of the year garnering praise for finally catching up to the quality iPhone's camera. In fact, when we put the S6's camera up against the iPhone 6S and the LG G4 last fall it was largely a draw. Each phone's camera had its strengths — the iPhone produced the most consistent images, the Galaxy S6 did well in low light, and we were impressed with LG's stabilization and manual controls.

This year we saw the release of the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, and Samsung placed a big focus on the phones' new cameras. The Galaxy S7 Edge's overall design is an evolution, not a revolution, but that's not necessarily true for the camera. The company overhauled the camera hardware, and is touting a number of new features that should put it ahead of the iPhone.

The new camera is the same on both S7 phones, and it impressed us so much that we decided to pit the S7 Edge against the best Apple currently has to offer: the iPhone 6S Plus. I took to the streets of Manhattan with James Bareham, the man behind the photos in our Michelle Obama feature, to check out how each phone performs in a variety of situations. The photos were taken with the most basic automatic modes afforded, and we looked at things like low light performance, camera speed, video quality, and more. Be sure to watch the full video (seen above), but we've also broken out some of the comparisons below so that you can take a closer look.

(Note: For all side-by-side comparisons, the Samsung image is on the left, and the iPhone image is on the right.)

Depth of field

One of the most prominent new features of the S7's camera is that both the rear- and front-facing cameras now have big, bright, f1.7 apertures. This helps with low light performance and also gives the S7 the ability to shoot images with extremely shallow depth of field.

In the Samsung image above you can see that a much thinner strip of the street is in focus than in the photo taken by the iPhone 6S Plus. The 6S phones have an aperture of f2.2, so more of the street is in focus, and the background isn't quite so blurry. Picking one or the other here is a matter of taste, really, but a shallower depth of field typically makes for a more dynamic image.

Front-facing camera

Each phone has a 5-megapixel front-facing camera, and both perform well in good light. Like the rear camera, the front-facing camera on the S7 Edge has a much wider field of view than the one found on the iPhone 6S Plus. That means you can fit more people, or more of the background, in the shot. The narrower field of view on the 6S Plus seems to play better with selfies, but it's another matter of personal preference.

Again, the f1.7 aperture on the S7 Edge helps the phone perform better in low light, meaning you're probably going to get better selfies in dark places with than you would with the iPhone 6S Plus. In this example here, though, it gets fooled a bit by the lights above James' head and winds up underexposing the image. The iPhone does a better job of exposing for James' face, but the quality of the image suffers because of the limitations of the f2.2 aperture. Less light coming in to the sensor means the iPhone has to hold the shutter open longer, resulting in a blurrier photo.

Low light

Samsung's bigger aperture really comes into play when you're taking photos in low light. These images were shot in the dark back corner of a coffee shop, and both phones struggled. But the iPhone fared worse — it underexposed, missed the focus, and the result was an image worth deleting. The S7 Edge took a much better photo — the color balance skews very warm, a trend that is true about most Samsung phone cameras, but it's a much sharper picture.

Below is another example of extremely tough lighting, and again we get two images that aren't especially great. The iPhone captured a much more accurate color temperature, but the Samsung image is sharper, and there's much more detail in the shadows of the photo. Both the iPhone 6S Plus and the S7 Edge have optical image stabilization (OIS), but Samsung's felt much stronger all throughout our tests, and it's part of the reason why the S7 Edge took the better photo here. OIS is an important feature if you're taking pictures in low light. Combine it with the f1.7 aperture, and Samsung's newest phones have an advantage over the iPhone 6S phones in low light situations.

That doesn't mean that the new Samsung phones will always produce the better image. The S6 had a tendency to overexpose its images, and the same seems to hold true with the S7 phones. We see evidence of this in the image below, where the detail is gone from the white foam on the cappuccino. The iPhone nailed the exposure, and again produced more accurate colors. The S7 Edge might be better equipped for low light shooting, but that doesn't mean the 6S Plus won't produce good results now and then.

Camera Speed

There's a lot of room for subjectivity when you're evaluating the quality of an image, but that's not so much the case when you're talking about the speed of these phones' respective camera apps. The S7 Edge's camera app is faster than the iPhone's, especially because you can launch the camera by double-tapping the home button. The waiting time has been reduced to the point that, by the the time the phone is out of your pocket and in front of your eyes, you can already be shooting.

The iPhone's camera is still fast, but can take around three or four seconds or so to launch from the moment you pull it out of your pocket. It might not sound like much, but the difference is clear when you put these phones side by side. On the iPhone you have to hit either the home or the power button to activate the screen before sliding up on the camera icon, and then there's a delay before the camera app opens and is ready to fire.

The S7 Edge's camera app launches and focuses faster than the iPhone's

We put this to a casual real-world test during our shoot. I picked an intersection and waited for cars to hit the crosswalk before pulling the phone up and trying to take a picture. The S7 Edge was able to stop the cab just a few feet in front of the crosswalk (the wider angle lens helped, too), but the 6S Plus was never fast enough to do the same — the cab was always slightly, or often completely, out of the frame by the time the iPhone's camera app took the photo. It took a number of tries to accomplish the iPhone photo you see here, whereas the S7 Edge nailed it on the first try.

The other factor here is autofocus speed. No phone camera's autofocus is going to be reliable all the time, but the S7 Edge's is fast, and seems to be faster than the iPhone's even in good lighting. (You can see us test this in the video.) The 6S Plus is prone to "hunting" for the focus, which is when the camera focuses both behind and in front of an object before locking on.

Color reproduction

In good light, both cameras are good at reproducing bright colors. Last year, the S6 took photos that looked oversaturated next to the more neutral images from the iPhone 6S and the LG G4. Now, Samsung seems to have swung the other way. These flowers are a great example: the S7 Edge produced a flatter, but still pleasant image, making the iPhone photo look more saturated. (The iPhone also had a tougher time finding the focus here.) What we don't see here is the over-sharpening that has been so common with Samsung phones in the past. It seems that, with a better camera, Samsung has finally decided to turn down the amount of post-processing done to its images.

The second image below shows similar, but less exaggerated differences. In certain situations, like in the low light image of the cappuccino, the iPhone is still equal or better than the S7 Edge.


Other features

Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge

iPhone 6S Plus

Samsung and Apple fill out their camera apps with an assortment of shooting modes and features. Both can shoot traditional panoramas (seen above), though Samsung now offers a "motion panorama" mode. It's a panoramic version of the new "motion photos" feature, which was Samsung's response to Apple's Live Photos, something that debuted last year on the 6S. They're all essentially just movie files that the camera app plays back as GIFs, so the compatibility with other services is limited. (But it's growing; Apple's Live Photos are supported by Facebook, Tumblr, and Google Photos. Samsung has some catching up to do here.)

It's also worth mentioning that Samsung's camera app is much more robust. There's a "pro" mode that lets you adjust settings like shutter speed and ISO, lets you shoot in RAW, and most settings (like video frame rate and resolution) are just a tap or two away. Apple doesn't have manual controls, save for the ability to adjust the overall exposure of the image. The more frustrating aspect of the iOS camera app is that Apple buried almost all the settings when it released iOS 9. If you want to shoot in 4K, or adjust something like the frame rate (for slow motion), you have to leave the app and go all the way through the phone's core settings menu.

Conclusions

The cameras in the Galaxy S6 phones put Samsung head-to-head with Apple in terms of image quality, so in a number of ways the S7 phones feel like a step ahead. The new f1.7 aperture is a big advantage for both the front- and rear-facing cameras, especially in low light situations. Samsung's camera app is also faster, thanks to a combination of the ability to launch the app via the home button and lightning-quick autofocus. The camera on the iPhone 6S Plus is still excellent, and can even outperform the S7 camera in certain settings. But Apple customers will have to wait until the next version of the iPhone for something that equals or exceeds the quality of Samsung's new camera.

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