With spring comes the launch of another Samsung Galaxy phone. The S6 and S6 Edge are on their way into the hands of the masses, so we thought we would fire up the cameras and see how the newbies fare against tried and true competitors for the title of best smartphone camera.
This time around, we are pitting the following phones against each other:
Apple iPhone 6
Samsung Galaxy S5
Samsung Galaxy S6
Google Nexus 6
Nokia Lumia 930
Our tests remain simple, to represent the most common attributes that define great image quality. While our scenarios provide an accurate overall picture of how these cameras stack up, there are always unique conditions where one camera might unexpectedly overachieve, so don't be surprised if your personal experiences vary slightly. There are a ton of variables in every picture! These tests also don't take into account camera interface, filter options, or other more subjective extras you might factor in; we're strictly focused image quality.
All of the images are best viewed expanded by clicking the magnify icon.
Image quality depends on many factors, and one of the most important is detail. It's a measure of how well a camera can render the world's teensy tiniest pieces. When you zoom into your images, you want see clarity, not blur or noisy mush. Here are full-size crops of each phone shooting a buncha' beer:
The results of this test clearly show an improved S6 camera. Where the Galaxy S5 showed some over-sharpening and garbled detail, the S6 looks much more natural. If you look at the little "1844" on the Pabst can in the center, you can see which camera did the best job. Despite having a lower pixel count than most, the Lumia 930 takes the cake with great detail. I would put the Galaxy S6 in 2nd place. The HTC One M9 actually looks very nice as well, rendering detail naturally without an excess of sharpening.
Winner: Lumia 930
Runner-up: Galaxy S6>
For this test, we are looking at how each camera measures overall exposure and white balance, with a neutral cloudy sky as our scene.
It's easiest to point out the crappy ones here, which are clearly the Nexus 6 and HTC One M9. They both blew out the highlights. The Galaxy S6 surprised me by metering a bit dark, making the bricks at the bottom underexposed. Overall color is the warmest in the S6, but I think the most balanced is actually the iPhone 6 by a hair, with slightly more pop than the S5. The Lumia looks good too, but comes across a bit flat.
Winner: iPhone 6
Runner-Up: Galaxy S5
We all need a camera that won't turn our indoor shots into mush. It's that simple! Here are full-size crops of more beer.>
Again, despite having lower resolution, the Lumia 930 is the sharpest with a fine noise pattern, however it's doing very odd things with color casts (only visible on the full size image). The S6 does a good job on detail, beating out the iPhone 6 which looks over-sharpened, but its color is less on-point. Still, it's clearly an improvement over the S5.
Winner: Galaxy S6 or iPhone 6, depending on personal taste.
Runner-up: Lumia 930
Ugh, flash sucks. It's harsh, distracting, and usually makes for bad pictures. But some are indeed better than others. Let's see how they measured up on this creepy fellow's face.
It looks to me like the Galaxy S5 is providing the best overall exposure. The S6 is close, but its got a weird reddish cast over the whole image. The skin tones are arguably more pleasing, however. The iPhone 6 is blown out as usual, and the Lumia is doing weird orange things to the skin. Again, the Nexus 6 and the HTC One M9 are pretty bad with color rendition, which is weird because the M8 won our flash battle last time.
Winner: Galaxy S5
Runner-up: Galaxy S6
Out of all the software gimmicks churned out by smartphone makers, HDR is one of the few useful ones. Some results look way more natural than others. Unfortunately our Lumia HDR pic got screwed up, so it had to sit this one out.
HTC One M9
Most of the phones were on par with each other, except for the Nexus 6, which still managed to blow out the highlights in the clouds. There is little to separate this batch, but if I had to choose winners, the iPhone and the Galaxy S5 present the best combo of color and contrast. It's almost a wash though.
Winner: iPhone, Galaxy S5, or Galaxy S6
The tests we did are certainly not exhaustive, and there are other variables that can reveal the flaws in any of these camera. For example, while the Lumia did great in key areas like detail and low light, it also showed weird results like this picture of a shrub with an ugly blue haze overtaking the top of the frame.
Then again, the Lumia can output RAW files for much more flexibility in altering color without losing quality. That's huge for enthusiasts.
In light of the recent launch of the Samsung Galaxy S6, we can definitely say that the camera has improved from the S5, mostly when it comes to how the images are processed. Detail is much more natural, shedding the harsh over-sharpening that was on display in the S5, and which can hamper the iPhone 6 when viewed close up. Here is a look at the difference in a full-size crop from the S5 and S6.
That's pretty major, and it gives me much more faith in the S6 as a high performance camera over previous Galaxy models.
Choosing a phone for its camera really comes down to what you shoot the most, what camera software rubs you the right way, and how you personally react to the images. But weighing all the variables we tested, my pick for the camera with the best balance of image quality in various situations are as follows:
The Lumia 930 exhibits the most refined image quality overall, but is hampered by color abnormalities. Although the S5 and other phones actually won many of our specific tests, the Galaxy S6 gives the best balance of color and—most importantly—naturally rendered detail. For us, this beats out the fact that other phones may have been better at things like flash or minor variations in metering.