Phone Camera Reviews… Grrr

This is a gripe of mine… I’m looking to upgrade my old Samsung Galaxy S3.  I have been severely disappointed with the S3’s camera… and my Galaxy Note 10.1’s camera.  Both are very lacking.  Tones washed out, bland and lifeless images. I thought I’d upgrade my phone and get something with some good potential with basic default shots.

So… what’s new?

Samsung S5, HTC One M8 and the not yet released Xperia Z2.  

So here’s my gripe.  The Samsung world seems to overshadow these comparisons online, with reviews that are dealing with minutia differences at 100% crop, or some contrast of a washed out bush in a blown out outdoor scene.  Think I’m wrong?  Just google the comparison reviews.  They’ll hail, “Samsung wins by a mile!” or “S5 really gets it” or “S5 10/10” yet all of the sample shots are worthless – showcasing blown out skies, washed out color (they call true color) or slight differences in levels/contrast.

What’s Wrong With Those Reviews

Rather then JUST taking the worst possible pictures between camera phones, one should try and take the best possible pictures as well.  I agree there is some usefulness in seeing who is sharpest at 100% crop, but that in the end won’t make a good appealing image.

Reviewers need to review the phones at their best.  What I have ended up doing is going to Flickr and Google+ and searching for images for phone cameras and seeing which ones have some good results…

So while a lot of people beat the drum of Samsung and hail it as the mightiest camera phone… check out these HTC One M8 shots taken by Rick Takagi on his HTC One M8 (no processing outside of the onboard camera itself.):

HTC One M8’s Camera

Rick Takagi’s HTC One M8 Photos:

M8 Panorama: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rt425/10793944985/

M8 Urban shot: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rt425/12918720765/in/photostream/

M8 HDR Example: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rt425/13805683814/

M8 HDR Example: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rt425/13521283453/in/photostream/

M8 Macro: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rt425/13782823124/in/photostream/

M8 Macro: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rt425/13594896693/in/photostream/

M8 Sharpness: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rt425/13655045703/in/photostream/

M8 uFocus: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rt425/13571973043/in/photostream/

M8 uFocus: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rt425/13497660814/in/photostream/

M8 B/W: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rt425/13522655784/in/photostream/

M8 B/W: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rt425/13494009663/in/photostream/

Rick is a fantastic photographer.  That in deed has a lot at play with the image quality.  But we can see the BEST at what we can do with this phone’s camera… and it’s pretty impressive.  We can also see the phone’s limitations – check out the uFocus shots.

uFocus

There’s some artifacts there with uFocus.  I’ve found that when people get the ground in the uFocus shot tends to confuse the camera – it goes from full focus to full defocus without a Z-Depth buffer that would be expected from the depth lens.  It’s good, but if you look at the image long enough you start noticing that.  You can work around it, by getting shots where the focus subject is isolated from the ground.  I wouldn’t call that a failure of uFocus, as it is defocusing the background vs. foreground (and vice versa) but it leaves this stark line of focus/defocus… rather then a gradual blend based on the ZDepth.

uFocus is amazing. In general it looks great and I have never seen a failure with it (where it confuses background with foreground.)  I have seen artifacting in about 20% of the shots I see online using uFocus.  I think as long as you know how to set up the scene you can make uFocus work well.

Image Quality

The tonality, the b/w quality, the sharpness, HDR – just amazing, right?  I mean who can argue that those shots are bad?  This coming off a phone is pretty crazy.

Megapixels

Yes the megapixels are low. 4MP isn’t good to see, and I don’t buy the “Ultrapixel” marketing sell of HTC. BUT Megapixels are not the be all either.  MP is more of a marketing ploy.  Going from 4 to 8MP won’t make great shots.  It will allow you to crop, and print to larger sizes… that’s all.

What about  HD TV?  HD TV Resolution is less than 2 MP.  So 4 is more than enough to display great on a screen.  The low MP will mostly affect printing at larger sizes (larger then 8×10.)

Xperia Z2’s Camera

There isn’t a lot of sample data out there for Z2 yet, but there is on the Z1… since the Z2 uses the same camera… I searched flickr for some examples to see it at it’s best…

Z1: Indoor Z1 Shot

Z1: Nature (fog, early morning)

Z1: Trees and Fog

Z1: HDR Example

Z1: Macro

Z1: Night (Cityscape)

Z1: Stop Motion

There’s some Z2 shots around the net as well… I assume the software adjustments on the Z2 will only get better… and if you look at the above linked shots on the older Z1 – they’re amazing.  The stop motion ability of the lens is so good, each drop is perfectly frozen in that shot.  HDR looks good, and the natural scenes look very nice. Like a real camera.

Z2’s Refocus

The ability to change focus on the Z2 looks good, but it’s a process outside of normal shots.  You have to go into a mode, and when you take the shot, it takes several images at different focus and then lets you blend them manually.  It’s pretty time consuming.  I think I’d rather just use the Google Camera’s refocus.

Image Quality

Superb.  Just amazing for a small little phone camera sensor.  I think this is a winner hands down.  The tones, colors, depth of tonality, contrasts, curves/levels all look awesome when you actually use the phone to take a good picture.

Samsung S5’s Camera

Like the Xperia Z2, there’s not a lot out there yet for the S5.   I’ll put what I found, along with shots from the S4 for comparison.

S5: Urban Shot

S5: Urban Daylight

S5: Nature/Sky

S5: Outdoor

S5: HDR

S5: Night shot

S5: Nighttime Cityscape

S5: Selective Focus #1

S5: Selective Focus #2

S5: Selective Focus #3

S5: Selective Focus #4

S4: Macro

S4: B/w (can’t find a single S5 B/w)

Selective Focus

Samsung’s S5’s selective focus feature left a lot to be desired. It’s hailed as the equivalent of the HTC One M8’s uFocus.  While neither one is perfect, the HTC One samples of uFocus seem to fail about 10% of the time… where’s 80% or more of the Samsung S5 selective focus shots fail.  What do I mean by Fail?  I mean that the focus is mixed.  If your foreground is in focus, the background should be defocused (or vice versa) – in the S5, I found almost all shots had elements of the background in focus, along with the foreground.  Very awful results.  It wasn’t just one shot here and there… the majority of S5 shots have issues like that.   The reason is that the S5 solution is software only.  It has no depth information.  It just guesses.

HOWEVER, as some have noted, if you have KitKat 4.4.2+ you can download Google Camera and use their defocus… which has much better results.  This wasn’t included in a review as it’s a app.  But… yes, you could use any Android phone with 4.4+ and get Google Camera and get some nice defocusing, much better then the selective focus on Samsung.

Image Quality

The vast majority of shots I find for the Samsung look like “snapshots.”  What I define as a snapshot is something that takes a good sharp image of content – but has a loss of creativity or appeal.   After sifting through the fake S5 images (taken on a  DSLR and tagged as S5) I found those images above as representing common uploads of users (some being the best I could find.)  There are some nice shots there.  The Nature shot is probably the best.  I found a lot less “good” shots on the S5 – not much that I would call appealing or creative.    It looks lackluster and just boring. I think my go pro would make more engaging photos.

This is the same result on my S3.  You get an image… but it’s nothing you want to print or upload to FB.  Just boring.

Conclusion

So unlike reviews found on PhoneArena, technobuffalo and the dozens of similar “reviews” out there on Google+, I’m not showing you what a 100% crop in less than ideal conditions looks like.  Nor am I showing you, who has the sharpest letters on top of a taxi cab in a blown out sky, with all auto settings… such comparisons are pointless for a phone camera that has a sensor the size of my pinky nail.

From what I’ve seen of ALL Samsung phones (including my own S3) they all have the same similar resulting image – it’s lack luster, boring, has poor tonality and just doesn’t push any creative buttons.  Instead it makes nice sharp snap shot style photos that no one will really care about.  Yes you can push it to make something a bit creative, but the best I saw, was the average I found in the likes of the Xperia Z1/Z2 and HTC One M8.

I think the Xperia Z2 has the most potential... it has some great features, awesome creative results (without needing 3rd party apps to post process) and you get slow motion, 4k video, image stabilization, etc.

The HTC One M8 I think is a strong contender – if your carrier doesn’t get the Z2, go for the M8.  I put it above the S5 but probably below the Z2.  I like shallow dof, and I think using it on HTC One M8 was the best of DOF.  The Z2 was a process, where you go into a mode, shoot multiple images at different focus and then blend them.  Whereas the HTC One M8 stores the depth info on each image.

Come on, get real reviewers, show what you can do with the phone camera in a good sense. Do your BEST and show us what you get. Not snapshots and 100% crops or running around a city at night taking photos of light posts.  Get real. Show us your good work on the cameras and then compare.  It’s fine to use 100% crops and sharpness tests, but that in itself doesn’t make an appealing image.

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