Samsung Galaxy S9+ Review Part 2: Camera

Posted on April 19, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Android with 8 Comments

Samsung Galaxy S9+ Review Part 2: Camera

Smartphone buyers frequently cite camera quality as a key purchase criteria. And the Samsung Galaxy S9+ does not disappoint. But as is so often the case on this flagship handset, that quality comes with a ton of choice and complexity too.

Put simply, the Galaxy S9+ takes fantastic photos overall, and if you just want to stick with the automatic settings and point and click, you will be very happy with the results.

Professional and enthusiast photographers will also appreciate the many options and choices that I’ve described as complexity, too. If you’re not getting the desired effect from a shot, I have little doubt that the Galaxy S9+ could be tinkered with enough to make it happen.

The question, however, is whether typical mainstream users can discover and then master enough of the Galaxy S9+’s unique camera features—like super-slow motion, the pro camera mode, and even AR emojis–to make the effort worthwhile. My gut says that this will require work and dedication, perhaps more than most people can muster. But if you can make a go of it, doing so will pay off. This is, of course, true of the Galaxy S9+ in general: This handset is positively brimming with functionality. It is daunting in ways that others phones are not.

Before diving in, I should also state clearly that I am a photography enthusiast—an amateur—and not an expert. If you are interested in the Galaxy S9+ specifically because it may or may not be better than certain other flagship smartphones from a camera perspective, there are almost certainly more learned opinions out there than mine. I recommend reading DxOMark, which extensively tested the Galaxy S9+ and judged its camera to be slightly superior—really, roughly identical—to that of the Google Pixel 2 XL, Apple iPhone X, and Huawei Mate 10 Pro, all of which I’ve used extensively.

In my own testing, the quality of the Pixel 2 XL camera exceeds that of the Galaxy S9+, and in two meaningful ways: The Pixel 2 XL takes superior low-light and nighttime shots in virtually all cases. And the photos it takes provide better color accuracy than the Galaxy, at least in general.

Galaxy S9+ (left) and Pixel 2 XL (right). In this case, the Pixel shot is a bit more unrealistic, color-wise

But it’s very important to put those two points in context.

Again, the Galaxy S9+ takes excellent photos. And aside from the types of low-light photos that I am particularly fond of with the Pixel 2 XL, the differences between the two are often very minor. In fact, many people may very well prefer the Galaxy shots over the those of the Pixel: Samsung seems to have optimized the camera for heavy HDR color and bright lighting. Finally, I take snapshots, not carefully-crafted photos: Again, messing around with the advanced picture-taking modes in the Galaxy S9+ will really pay off for the dedicated.

No matter how you measure it, the Galaxy S9+ camera ranks among the best you can find in any flagship smartphone today. So the question is: Will you be able to handle all of the functionality it provides?

Camera hardware

Looking at the camera specifications, you can see that Samsung was looking to leapfrog the competition. Which in this case means high-end phones with dual-camera systems like Apple iPhone X as well as the computationally-impressive single camera-based Google Pixel 2 XL.

Specifically, Galaxy S9+ features a rear camera system consisting of two cameras. One is 12 MP telephoto camera with an F2.4 aperture. And the other is a 12 MP wide-angle camera that features a dual aperture capability, the first in a smartphone camera. It can switch automatically between F2.4 and F1.5, the latter of which nicely lights up low-light situations without a retina-injuring flash burst.

Both cameras sport optical image stabilization (OIS), of course, and 10x digital zoom. At least one of the cameras also supports 2x optical zoom, just like recent iPhones, and it is accessible via an easily-toggled on-screen button. (Just like recent iPhones.)

Like previous Samsung and Apple flagships, the cameras use large 1.4 µm (micrometer) pixels. But that size hasn’t changed year-over-year. So the real magic this time around is that there are dual cameras, and that those dual cameras have some very unique functionality.

This includes a live focus mode in which you can adjust the background blur—called a bokeh effect—on the fly as you shoot and after the fact in an editor. Yes, you can later adjust the bokeh on the photo you took, too. That’s impressive.

The automatic aperture switching is just as impressive. It works exactly as I’d imagined it would when I first heard about it. It’s an automatic system, so you can’t manually switch between the two available apertures. And it kicks in most obviously in low-light situations where you might otherwise feel inclined to enable the flash in order to light the scene.

This functionality works in the sense that it does allow you to effectively disable the flash—something I also do on my Pixel 2 XL—and never worry about low-light shots again. I do feel like it over-lights these scenes, overall. But for anyone who has struggled with low-light scenes, this functionality will be a godsend.

Galaxy S9+ (left) and Pixel 2 XL (right)

From a video perspective, the rear camera system supports 1080p HD and 4K video recording at 30 or 60 FPS. But the big new feature here is the camera’s new Super Slow-mo video support, which can record at 720p at 960 FPS or 1080p at 240 FPS.

This looks cool in demos, but I found it frustrating to use. I attempted to record running water and a moving fan in slow-motion, but it kept coming out of super slow-mo video mode. And then telling me to keep the on-screen focus rectangle on something that was moving in the scene. But it always was moving to begin with. So the resulting videos always feature instances of both slow and normal motion video. Rendering them useless, for the most part.

A still from a slow-mo video

Camera features

Most people likely use their smartphone camera in Auto mode. I do, for the most part: Only when I need something particular, like a panoramic shot, will I bother hunting around for whatever modes and special features the app might offer.

Galaxy S9+ (left) and Pixel 2 XL (right)

The Galaxy S9+ can (and will) be used like this, and as I noted previously, you’ll be happy with the results for the most part. But Samsung’s camera app is also bristling with additional functionality and loaded down with the extra UI that’s required to make that functionality accessible to the user.

Whether all the on-screen buttons and other UI in the camera all will prod users to explore further is debatable. What isn’t debatable is that you will find yourself discovering new camera features by mistake because the screen is so full of little UI widgets that are easy to mis-touch while trying to take a photo.

This is an issue with the iPhone camera app as well, where the camera’s modes are likewise available via a “wheel” of horizontal text choices on the edge of the display (on the bottom with iPhone and on the top with the Galaxy). I’ve been using the cleaner Pixel camera app for so long that I had kind of forgotten about this issue. But the Samsung quickly reminded me of the perils of an overly-busy camera UI.

Again, however, becoming familiar with these various options will result in a better understanding of how the camera app works. And that could ultimately help you deliver better photos as a result.

Most of the items on that mode “wheel” are obvious enough. The Food mode provides Instagram-friendly shots of food (and other items) by subtly highlighting the center of the shot and even more subtly blurring the edges. Panorama is as tedious as the similar mode on the Pixel—only Apple gets this one right, it’s amazing—but it at least walks you through the process fairly quickly. And Pro mode makes manual control of ISO, shutter speed, exposure, white balance, focus, and more available on-screen.

Once you get past the other two modes I’ve already discussed—live focus and super slow-mo—you get to the more esoteric features.

A Hyperlapse mode lets you take time-lapse videos that of the type that seemed cool for about 10 seconds three years ago: Basically, the video playback speed is sped-up so that a casual stroll down a busy city street seems like a fast rollercoaster ride. The effect is actually pretty cool, but it’s probably of limited interest for most people.

AR Emoji, new to this generation of Galaxy flagships, (badly) copies the terrible Animoji functionality that Apple debuted last year with the iPhone X. You can use this feature to replace your real-life image in selfies with one of several pre-made animated characters, each of which will mimic your expression and movements in real-time.

And you can create a cartoonish and customizable digital version of yourself and then use that character in various ways too.

For example, Samsung creates a library of animated GIFs of your cartoon you doing various things like blowing a kiss and laughing, and you can sure those via text messaging or whatever other apps you like. (Assuming it’s supported: In some cases, the animated GIFs arrive at the other person’s phone in static form. Whatever, they’re terrible.)

But you can also use the AR Emoji mode to record videos of yourself as one of those characters and then send that little creation to those you love the least.

Speaking of selfies, the Galaxy S9+ also sports numerous selfie-specific modes. In addition to normal selfies and AR Emoji selfies, you can choose between Selfie Focus, where the background can be auto-blurred, and Wide Selfie, where the areas to your left and right are statically added to a portrait-mode selfie. (It’s not a landscape selfie as you might expect, but you can just tilt the phone to achieve that too.)

There’s more.

I mentioned that Samsung’s camera app is bursting with features, and it is: In addition to that “wheel” mode menu and the prominent Photo, Video, and camera roll buttons you see on-screen, each camera mode also has several others buttons which, in many cases, are rather inscrutable.

Let me use the Auto mode as an example. In this mode, there are seven (!) additional buttons on-screen: Bixby Vision (yet another camera feature, though I’ve fastidiously avoided this one), Settings, Full View (which overlays the controls over the underlying scene), Flash, Effects, Camera switch (to toggle to the front camera and back), and Optical Zoom. In addition, you can also swipe left and right on the Photo button to use the camera’s digital zoom feature.

Woof.

Worse still, the available extra features vary, as they must, according to what camera mode you are in. And there are some options available elsewhere that you won’t see in Auto mode. Again, a lot to learn.

Conclusion

In the original and more tedious version of this review, I had used a lot of words and images to describe how the Samsung Galaxy S9+ camera compares to that of the Pixel 2 XL in particular. I ended up ditching that commentary—and wasting the time I spent creating it—because I feel like such a comparison isn’t particularly useful. I get bogged down in miscellany sometimes.

What potential Galaxy S9+ owners really need to know, I think, is how well the camera works. And it works great. No one—not me, not you, not some professional photographer—will buy this handset and walk away unimpressed by the quality of the photos it can take. Whether it is “better than” a Pixel 2 XL, or an iPhone X, or whatever other smartphone camera is sort of beside the point. Each is excellent in its own way, and all are roughly comparable.

And everyone’s needs vary. While I very strongly prefer the photographic prowess of the Pixel 2 XL when combined with Project Fi compatibility, others will have different needs. The one constant is that the Galaxy S9+’s camera will never in the negative column.

But wait, there’s more

In part three of this review, I will focus on the unique software and features offered by the Samsung Galaxy S9+.

 

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