The announcement and release of the Samsung Galaxy S8 means it’s time to throw a few more logs on the fire of an always fun debate: which smartphone has the best camera?
For years, the answer was the iPhone. But when Samsung shifted to better optics, smoothed out its image processing, the Korean company seriously challenged Apple’s spot on the throne. Then the Google Pixel arrived on the scene, boasting a camera capable of doing what amounts to behind-the-scenes magic with its software.
The S8 takes some cues from Google’s software-heavy approach and marries that with great optics and hardware. So we decided to put it up against the other flagship frontrunners: the Pixel, the iPhone 7, and the LG G6.
Each of these smartphones is supremely capable when it comes to mobile photography. So the question I wanted to answer with this test was a little different than just “which one is the best?” (Though I’ll try to answer that.) Rather, since the S8 is the newest, I’m more interested in whether it does anything to eclipse the competition in a meaningful way.
Short answer? It doesn’t.
Two notes on process — in past comparisons, I’ve kept HDR off to get a better baseline comparison on the JPEG images these phones create. But HDR has become more than just an effect. It’s now, in many ways, integral to how these companies think about photography — what is a short shutter tap for the user is a chance for the sensor to capture and combine all sorts of information. So I left everything on auto, because that output matters more than ever.
With that in mind, this piece isn’t going to compare RAW photos. (Sorry!) That’s a useful thing to evaluate at some point, but I was most interested in what kinds of images these phones can capture out of the box.
Enough words, let’s see some pictures.
This set is a good place to start, because it touches on a question I asked myself a lot during my time with these phones, which is: honestly what was the iPhone doing here? The red of the tulips in the iPhone photo is oversaturated, and the darks in this photo are aggressively dark (and a little bit blue). I ran into this problem a few other times with the iPhone, too.
Apple’s competition is better at creating photos with sufficient dynamic range and accurate color representation than ever before. In contrast, the iPhone’s take on the idea looks very much like a last-generation camera. At the very least, I don’t prefer it as much as I used to.
I think the other photos here are relatively even when it comes to color (and overall exposure), especially compared to the iPhone photo. Samsung washed out the exposure a tiny bit, but the S8 photo is also not quite as warm as Google’s or LG’s and represents the truest color of the scene.
Here’s another look at how each phone handled color differently:
The S8 missed this one pretty badly, pulling in cooler tones from who knows where. Google produced the flattest image with the best detail, but LG’s processing did wonders with the orange color here. I think you could describe the iPhone 7 image as “realistic” if you want to be kind, but it’s a less pleasing image with darker shadows than the rest.
Lastly, here’s one I find to be a complete toss-up:
These are all slightly different takes on the lighting that was available at the time, but I can’t fault any of them for being “wrong” or “bad.” The G6 looks clean and crisp but the light wasn’t really so daylight blue at the time. The Pixel and S8 photos are warm, but the sun was setting.
The point here is that these phones can be fooled on color from time to time, but they are all fooled in roughly equivalent amounts. As has been the case in the past, the phone with the best color reproduction might be a matter of personal taste.
This is one area that affords more difference. The Pixel and the S8 lead, and together with the G6 they all consistently offer better detail reproduction than the iPhone 7. However the G6, as you’ll see, over-sharpens to the point that it loses some of the fine details it captures.
The S8 can compete with the Google Pixel when it comes to capturing detail. I can’t say that it eclipses the Pixel, though. Google’s phone regularly captured more detail across the entire frame better than the S8, and both were better than the LG G6. All three of those consistently captured more fine detail than the iPhone 7.
These pictures above are an excellent example. While the LG G6 initially popped out to me as “the best,” a closer inspection shows how the G6 is prone to oversharpening its images. That might look fine from a distance, but it means that detail is lost. Check out what the pink flowers look like when zoomed in at 100 percent:
The G6 tends to be overly aggressive with fine details, as well as with HDR and overall contrast. There are times when that means you’ll wind up with a photo that needs less tweaking on Instagram, but I’d always rather have the cleaner photo even if it needs a little bit more work. I can always turn the S8 or Pixel photo seen here into the one from LG if I want.
Now, the S8 and Pixel are close on detail here, and Samsung’s result might even look more fine than Google’s. But the problem I found with the S8 is that it’s not consistent with this detail throughout the whole image. Take a look at a different part of this same comparison:
Here I think the Pixel clearly wins out. It captured subtle detail on the tree trunk and even in the bushes beyond that the S8 missed (and that the LG simulates with its oversharpening). Scroll to the far left side of these images and you’ll see a similar result. And this tends to bear out in the rest of the comparisons you’ll see below.
This is the scenario we often hear the most about from phonemakers, because low-light situations are still a big obstacle — even for full-size cameras. We’ve written in the past about how the Pixel seemed to have a clear advantage in low light thanks to the software trickery it’s capable of.
That advantage is still pretty clear in most low-light scenes. Here’s a set of photos that illustrates the point really well:
The Pixel blows the other three out of the water here, capturing and presenting detail in the shadows without muscling the exposure and introducing a bunch of noise into the photo. The cue ball’s blurred movement is a reminder that success in low light is about more than just being able to capture the light — even with the Pixel’s capabilities, you’re still going to be better off capturing still subjects in dark settings. But the advantage here is clear, and props to the iPhone for finally not producing the worst photo of the bunch.
Now, did the Pixel win out every time in low light? Nope:
For once I wound up deciding between Samsung and LG. The Pixel gets the colors sort of right, but the focus is fuzzy. The G6 and the S8 handled the situation deftly, and both captured good detail despite the poor lighting. The S8 has a bit more detail, but LG balances everything else out a bit better.
One last low-light test. This was taken beyond dusk, with essentially just errant street light filling the scene. It’s another good example of how the Pixel isn’t perfect. It also shows that the iPhone can still outperform the competition, even if that seems to be the exception these days, and not the rule.
The Pixel’s photo is excessively blue, and it also missed the focus. The S8 and G6 might look better zoomed out, but a closer inspection shows the iPhone captured similar detail without adding in a ton of JPEG artifacts. The noise reduction applied by the iPhone smooths out the image without making it look mushy or splotchy, too.
Sure, the iPhone photo is a bit dusty and green. iPhone photos still tend to look that way from time to time. It’s a closer representation of the color of the actual scene, and I’d take it over the S8’s version of things.
I ’ve mentioned it a few times already so let’s examine some more obvious examples of how the different phones handle dynamic range. Again, since they’re all using similar image sensors of the same size and similar apertures, the differences are more obvious in the way that each camera’s HDR mode handles scenes with difficult and differing lighting.
Here the Pixel’s HDR — which I once decried was way too aggressive — slaps together more detail in the middle and high tones of the image than any of the others, and it does it without overdoing the “HDR look.” Either I’ve adjusted to it or Google’s scaled HDR back in daylight situations, because this time around I was generally much more pleased with the results.
Here’s another late-day scene with even more challenging light.
The LG G6 comes close to the Pixel here, but the Pixel did just as well handling the bright sky without losing details in the shadows (check out the tree in the bottom left corner). This is also another good example of a situation where the iPhone 7 hung in there, though if you zoom all the way in you’ll see again that it didn’t capture the same level of detail as its competitors.
Here’s one last look at dynamic range with a relatively calm image, lighting-wise.
These are really hard to choose from because of how similarly each phone handled the scene. The iPhone covered the dynamic range about as well as the Pixel and S8 did, revealing details on the gravestone and even in the trees without washing out the sky.
But these images also serve as a segue, because my favorite image of this scene was actually taken with a different camera.
The Dual Camera advantage
The iPhone 7 Plus and the LG G6 share an advantage over the S8 and the Pixel, and that’s versatility. After taking the four similar shots above, I realized that the LG G6’s super-wide second camera was able to catch the sun setting over the hill. I was shooting through a fence here, so I wouldn’t have even been able to back away and try to get this shot with the other cameras. It was the super-wide angle lens that made this shot possible.
Here’s another example where the G6’s crazy wide angle won me over, compared to the same shot from the Pixel, which was the best of the rest:
Most of the time I kind of despised the G6’s super-wide camera. It is frankly too wide for most settings, and it doesn’t bend the image as pleasingly as, say, a GoPro or any comparable action camera. But it was good enough these few times to illustrate the point that, no matter what Samsung and Google do with their current software, it will be hard to compete with the versatility afforded by more hardware.
Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus proves this point even more, as I think its 2x optical zoom is more useful to more people than the G6’s second camera. It doesn’t have image stabilization — which is frustrating on a zoom lens — and the fake blur afforded by Portrait Mode can be hit or miss. But the iPhone 7 Plus’ second lens let me take images that I can’t capture with the S8 or the Pixel.
Samsung improved, but didn’t radically overhaul, the rear camera from the S7 to the S8. It did upgrade the front-facing camera, employing a new image chip that bumps the resolution from 5 to 8 megapixels. That accounts for much more detail and brings it on par with Samsung’s competitors. As for the difference between the four, the S8 and the Pixel capture the most detail, while the Pixel is capable of better dynamic range. LG’s is the lowest resolution, while the iPhone 7 still struggles with a greenish cast.
The S8 doesn’t have any clear photographic advantage over the Pixel. Maybe it will if it ever finds a way to use Bixby for more than just shopping or AR for more than just face filters. Right now, though, the Pixel simply captures better photos more often than the rest. It produces richer detail across the entire image, and it does this regardless of lighting.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the LG G6. I think LG applies more aggressive post-processing to its images than the competition, but it’s not so aggressive that I’d hate the images I was getting out of my G6.
What surprised me the most is how the iPhone now feels a generation behind. It was harder to see last year when we pit the iPhone 7 against the Pixel and the less capable S7. But the S8, along with the Pixel and the G6, illuminates the extent to which Apple has fallen behind