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Smartphone camera shootout: Galaxy S7 vs. iPhone 6S

Lately, we’ve been inundated by advertising from Apple and Samsung about how great the cameras are on their phones. On my walk to work, I see Apple’s ad touting the iPhone 6S’s ability to shoot billboard-worthy photography. And when I turn on the television, I see Samsung boasting about how well the Galaxy S7 shoots in the dark.

While no phone compares to a good dedicated camera, these are two of the best shooters on the market. But how do they compare? That’s what I wanted to find out. I settled on comparing the iPhone 6S ($649 on Apple.com), to Samsung’s 5.1-inch Galaxy S7 ($633 on Amazon) because both phones are top-of-the-line and share a similar price.

The rig

It takes more to compare a pair of smartphones than holding one in each hand and shooting out into the void. I wanted this to be an accurate portrayal of how these two devices compared against each other in the real world, so I enlisted the help of one of our IDG.tv directors to build a contraption that would hold each phone steady to capture the same shot, with the shutters firing at the same time.

Florence Ion

This is our “rig.” It’s comprised of a selfie stick and two smartphone-hoisting bike clamps.

The “rig,” as we’ve so plainly dubbed it, consists of one heavy-duty selfie stick and two metal bike clamps with adjustable smartphone holsters. We then positioned both the iPhone 6S and Galaxy S7 at equal length and used two Bluetooth controllers to trigger the shutters. 

I still used the tried-and-true method of shooting with both phones on a standalone Joby GorillaPod ($21.80 on Amazon), but this homemade rig proved to be handy for many shooting situations. 

The contenders

Florence Ion

The Samsung Galaxy S7 and iPhone 6S both feature impressive cameras, but for entirely different reasons.

The Samsung Galaxy S7 comes equipped with a rear-facing 12-megapixel camera. It features Dual Pixel technology, which is fancy lingo for the technology used inside most Canon DSLRs. This means the camera sensor inside the GS7 has two photodiodes in every pixel of the camera sensor, which allows every single pixel to be a phase-detection autofocus point. It also features optical image stabilization. 

The iPhone 6S also has a 12-megapixel rear-facing camera, with a technology Apple calls Focus Pixels. Unlike the GS7, the 6S’s phase-detection auto focus only locks in on a few select pixels. The 6S also has a smaller aperture than the Galaxy S7 (f/2.2, compared to f/1.7), which lets in less light.

The 6S and GS7 both shoot with automatic HDR enabled by default, but I thought it would be best if we focused specifically on testing each phone’s camera capabilities without this feature enabled. I wanted this to be an exercise in pure pointing and shooting, without any extra software tricks. 

Shooting outside

The Bay Bridge as shot with the Galaxy S7. The scenery is vibrant and the bridge is sharp.

The Bay Bridge as shot with the iPhone 6S. In this photos’s histogram, it shows the iPhone introduces more purple into the sky, which is why it appears indigo.

When I first started this experiment, I favored the photos taken with the Galaxy S7. They were brighter, clearer, and more vibrant on screen than the iPhone 6S’s. They also required the least amount of editing with an app like Snapseed or VSCO Cam before being exported. But when I sat down to compare the photos with my videographer, Adam Patrick-Murray, who does his own professional shooting on the weekends, we noticed that Samsung is overly processing each photo.

In this underpass photo, Samsung overexposes the sky. 

The iPhone 6S’s end result is not as over-processed, which left more detail in the photo.

Take this photo under the freeway, for instance. You’ll notice that the Galaxy S7 increases the contrast in the scene. As a result, the sky is overexposed, and the scene under the bridge is too dark. It’s fine for sharing online, but this would become an issue if you were planning to take this photo into the editing room. The brighter sky means less detail to work with in a post-processing desktop application like Lightroom.

The iPhone 6S, on the other hand, has a tendency of producing pictures that appear flat and muted. Its photos were the type that I would probably run through a few filters before posting to Instagram. But despite that, the 6S actually offered more dynamic range than the Galaxy S7 precisely because it doesn’t overly process. As a JPEG, it’s the better picture to take to the computer or an editing application.

The Galaxy S7: The hood has a magenta hue thanks to the reflection of the sky. But look at how much more detail there is in the photo.

The iPhone 6S’s Mini Cooper looks flatter because there’s not as much contrast. The upside to that is there’s more information retained here so that you could edit in in another application if you please.

The iPhone 6S is also the winner when it comes to color accuracy, which is incidentally what contributes to its dull-looking photos. Look at the photo of a red Mini Cooper shot outside in daylight. The Galaxy S7’s end result appears more magenta on the hood of the car because of the reflection of the blue sky from above. The iPhone 6S’s end result shows that the hood is a firetruck red, which is the color I witnessed with my own eye.

On the left, you’ll see the iPhone 6S’s muted greenery. On the right is the overly-sharpened, overly-vibrant Galaxy S7 version. 

Samsung is notorious for over-sharpening its photos, too, and it’s singing the same song with the Galaxy S7. This isn’t particularly debilitating to the overall look of the photo, but it does introduce extra artifacts and speckles. On the plus side, it ensures the end result looks shareable from the get-go.

Shooting indoors

Humans spend about 90 percent of their days indoors, which means that a majority of the time you’re shooting with your smartphone, you’re likely somewhere inside, away from natural light.

If your primary shooter is the Galaxy S7, you’re in good company. Samsung’s flagship shoots clearer photos in low-light environments compared to the iPhone 6S due in part to its wider f/1.7 aperture, compared to the 6S’s f/2.2. But there were still a few times that the GS7 missed the mark because of its excessive processing.

The Galaxy S7’s version of the cheesy bar sign offers better white balance, in addition to a more vivid color palette. 

The iPhone 6S’s bar sign appears dull and lifeless, though you’ll notice some of the pinks in the picture aren’t as saturated as they are on the GS7’s version of the photo.

First things first, let’s explore how each phone handles indoor shots. The iPhone 6S’s version of this cheesy bar sign in the darkest corner of my living room looks almost lifeless, as if there’s a very thin layer of dust blanketing the wine cabinet and the metal sign. The Galaxy S7’s end result is brighter and more vivid, though there’s also noticeable saturation of the pinks and blue hues throughout the photo.

Regardless, Samsung’s penchant for over-sharpening actually puts at an advantage in this particular situation: if you zoom into the GS7’s photo, it’s sharpened enough that you can actually read Bar Los Compadres on the glass diorama.

I prefer this shot over the iPhone 6S’s (below) because the entire image is in focus, despite the poor lighting.

The colors of the iPhone 6S’s result feel more balanced, but the phone had trouble focusing in the low light.

A few times while shooting indoors, the iPhone 6S would lock on an subject and then lose focus after tapping the shutter button. This happened when I shot the above photo, thus resulting in a blurry narwhal figurine with wrapping that’s hard to parse. The GS7’s result offers better overall toning, though it could still use a bit of a “punch” in editing before it goes to social media.

I was not happy about the way the Galaxy S7 depicted me. I look ghostly, and I barely notice any contouring in my face.

The iPhone 6S was a little more diplomatic with my portrait photo. You can actually see that I have some blush on my cheeks. 

The Galaxy S7 struggled with the low-light portrait photo. In an attempt to overcompensate for the dark environment, the GS7 brightened everything up, including the fireplace in the background and my face. That kind of automatic editing left me looking blue-hued and pale, and you can hardly see that I’m wearing makeup. I prefer the iPhone 6S’s portrait photo instead, where you can actually see the color of my blush.

Up close and personal

You never know when you’re going to want to take an close-up shot of your food, your figurines, or an attractive lavender bush on your walk home. The Galaxy S7 is especially capable of handling the focus on these types of shots, and it’s particularly good at preserving detail up close.

In this macro shot, the Galaxy S7 managed to capture the entire cat figurine and keep it in focus.

The iPhone 6S struggled with its macro shot. It couldn’t hold a focus on the cat’s face.

The Galaxy S7 soared in the macro test, which I shot with the camera rig so that both phones were equidistant. The Galaxy S7’s depiction of the cat figurine pictured above appears clearer and more detailed, whereas the iPhone’s is flatter, with less detail around the cat’s eyes. The 6S also had trouble focusing on the subject, thus resulting in a blurry cat face.

The Galaxy S7 managed to hone in on the foreground and more eloquently blur out the background.

The iPhone 6S looks good from afar, but upclose you’ll see that the edges of the leaf are hardly in focus.

At least the iPhone 6S managed to pull off a depth of field shot, though the extra lighting probably helped it lock its focus. Still, the Galaxy S7’s penchant for sharpening things made it so that you can actually see veins on the leaf in the foreground.

Why OIS matters

Unlike the Galaxy S7, Apple’s iPhone 6S does not offer optical image stabilization, which is a problem (the larger, pricier iPhone 6S Plus does). The image sensor in a smartphone is already so much smaller than a traditional camera, and without OIS it’s hard to keep the shutter open long enough to let in plenty of light. So images are either too dark, too noisy, or blurry from your hand shaking.

The Galaxy S7’s fountain is a sparkling blue, with splashes you can very well distinguish.

The iPhone 6S’s splashes muddled together. 

The iPhone 6S certainly struggled in this test. In this photo above of the fountain spout, the iPhone 6S shot at half the speed and half the ISO of the Galaxy S7. This resulted in a blurry stream.

This pigeon flew away from me and not only did the Galaxy S7 capture her, but nailed the focus on her, too.

The iPhone 6S could not keep up with the pigeon, however. 

We see the same result in this photo of a pigeon flying away (with a dumpster in the background—poor framing on my part). The GS7 shot at a higher shutter speed than the 6S, which managed to capture the bird’s flapping, while the 6S’s pigeon appears blurry against a similarly blurry background. The GS7 isn’t entirely excused, however, because if you zoom in, you’ll notice the halo effect around the bird’s body that’s a result of over-sharpening.

Shooting in the dark

With an aperture of f/1.7, the Galaxy S7 is already capable of taking in more light than the iPhone 6S’s f/2.2 lens. I took both phones into our pitch-black photo testing lab to show exactly how those numbers translate into photos.

Squint just a bit. You’ll see the outline of the inside of a computer case in this photo taken by the GS7.

All that the iPhone 6S could capture was a faint blip of the LED lights.

If you squint a bit, you can see the outline of an open computer case with the GS7’s photo, while the 6S barely managed to capture the two LED lights. The metadata showed that the 6S shot at a higher shutter speed of 1/15 and an ISO of 2000 to compensate for the lack of lighting, compared to the GS7’s longer shutter speed of 1/4 and ISO 1250. Because the GS7 employs OIS, the shutter can stay open longer to capture more light.

I was shocked to see so much chromatic abberation with the Galaxy S7. This photo is not easily editable.

The iPhone 6S’s backyard photo is the clear winner because it doesn’t have any purple fringe, though there’s some distortion if you blow the photo up to its full size.

I then took some shots out in my backyard to see how the Galaxy S7 and iPhone 6S each handle soft night lighting. The Galaxy S7 experienced some intense chromatic aberration around the string of lights. The worst part is that there’s not much editing I can do to this photo to try and fix it, either.

The Galaxy S7 tends to skew towards yellow and green hues, in spite of the lighting situation. 

The iPhone 6S skews red-orange, which matches its white balance hue in daylight.

You can see the difference between Apple and Samsung’s white balance in low-light environments, too. In the photo above, the 6S skews red-orange, while the S7 gravitates more towards yellow-green. I prefer the iPhone’s coloring, though there’s a ton of noise in both photos that would make it difficult to edit either one. The Galaxy S7 picked up a lot more detail in the lower pot.

The Galaxy S7’s low-light photo is sharper, which leads to a more detailed image.

The iPhone 6S offers a little less oomph.

Again, Samsung’s wide aperture and sharpening seems to pay off in low light situations. I like that I can see the distinction in the texture of the teak patio furniture in the GS7’s result, and though the coloring is a bit off, it’s more appealing to look at. 

Panoramas

Back in the day, when I used an iPhone 4S as my daily driver for about six months, I remember being really impressed with the phone’s panoramic stitching abilities. I’m happy to report that the four generations later, the iPhone still does a great job stitching together panoramas.

The Galaxy S7’s Panorama file is massive, and though it can go farther to either side than the iPhone’s panorama mode, it’s not as detailed.

The iPhone 6S appears clearer and more true-to-life. I would rather have an untouched panorama photo to show than a massive file that requires editing before I can do much with it.

I took three panoramas in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood from our office’s rooftop terrace. The iPhone’s remains the champion. It’s clearer, and you can see more detail. The Galaxy S7 locked on to the exposure of the buildings, severely overexposing the sky.

I can see stitching errors in both photos, but I feel like Samsung’s penchant for getting in more detail and more scenery is at a disadvantage here. It’s nice for your own personal memory making, but if I’m showing off a mountain side, I don’t want the panorama to be so big that I have to crop it. The Galaxy S7’s saving grace in this particular situation is that you can turn your panoramas into a shareable video, which should make posting to social media an easier venture. 

Selfies 

In keeping with our tradition of testing each smartphone’s selfie capabilities, I just had to compare these two 5-megapixel front-facing cameras.

The Galaxy S7’s wide-angle front-facing camera makes my selfies look far away. And though my face looks fine, I noticed the GS7 spent more time working on the contrast for the background than the actual subject—which is me!

The iPhone 6S shot straight and narrow, without doing too much post processing. My face is closely toned to the way I look in real life.

The iPhone 6S did not mirror my photo, like the Galaxy S7. It’s actually brighter, and rather than focusing on how to contrast the background, it focused on capturing the details of my face. The Galaxy S7’s wider camera angle makes me look like I’m farther away, too, when all I did was strap each smartphone to the GorillaPod and shoot a selfie at arm’s length. The iPhone’s view is better for a solo selfie, but the Galaxy S7 makes it easier to fit your friend in frame with you.

Vain photographers can at least appreciate the Galaxy S7’s wealth of customization options for the selfie, including the ability to soften or slim your face. But be forewarned that if you increase any of those filters to the highest strength, you’ll start to see some unnatural distortion, and then you’ll look like a bad Photoshop job. 

Extra features 

The iPhone 6S may preserve more dynamic range than the Galaxy S7, but it’s subpar in its feature set. Apple limits its users to six basic functions, including a Time Lapse mode, Slow Motion video mode, an Instagram-ready square photo mode, and a Panorama. Automatic HDR is also available, along with eight different colored image filters, but if you want anything else you’ll have to download an app for that. 

The Galaxy S7 is more versatile. There are ten different camera modes, including a Selective Focus option, which helps better fake the macro shot, as well as a video collage mode, live broadcasting mode, and a gimmicky Virtual Shot mode, which makes neat 3D photo animations. (I’ve posted a few to Instagram.) The crown jewel of the Galaxy S7 is its Pro mode, however, which converts the smartphone into a manual camera of sorts. It’s not as robust as an actual DSLR, but if you find you don’t like the look of the overly saturated, overly sharpened photos that Samsung produces, you at least have the option to take matters into your own hands. What’s more: the Galaxy S7 lets you save RAW images, which retains way more information than a normal JPEG would. 

Every phone has its thorns

Florence Ion

In their own right, both the Galaxy S7 and iPhone 6S both feature capable cameras. It’s just that one offers a tiny bit more choice over the other.

Samsung’s claim that the Galaxy S7 has a better camera than the iPhone 6S is one side of the story. It’s true that the iPhone doesn’t produce photos that are as vibrant, but you can easily toss those pictures through an app to polish them up a bit before sharing them with the Internet. And like Apple, Samsung pushes its preferences on users by asking them to trust their image processing engine. The results are more vibrant and colorful, but often overexposed and overly-sharpened. Samsung’s saving grace in this fight is that it offers a manual mode with adjustable camera settings.

While no phone has a perfect camera, you want the phone that will produce the best-looking photo right out of the box. In that case, I’m entirely in favor of Samsung’s end results, even if they are a little over-processed at times. But you don’t have to resign yourself to that, either. If you don’t want Samsung to do what it does with your photos, you can choose to do something differently with the manual mode. Apple’s iPhone doesn’t offer that, and though its photos offer enough dynamic range for anyone who gravitates towards the iOS platform and likes a little edit-ability in their photos, it’s not the most versatile smartphone camera. 

IDG Insider

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