With the Samsung Galaxy S9 now launched, it’s open season for flagship phones in 2018. If the S9 and the S9+ are anything to go by, the camera is going to get most of the limelight this year. Samsung did hype up the camera at the back of the S9 and the S9+ a lot and when we received the S9+ for our review, we wasted no time in taking the camera out for a spin.
We took a few of our standard shots with the Galaxy S9+ and pitched them against the ones taken by flagship phones from last year. That included the iPhone X (of course!), the Pixel 2 XL and the Galaxy Note 8 and the Galaxy S8+. This gave us a good opportunity to analyse the imaging prowess of the S9+, something that Samsung claims has been vastly improved from last year. Going by the looks of it, Samsung wasn’t wrong. It does take some stunning shots. But it’s not without its limitations.
What’s so special about the camera?
In a world where every other OEM is going for dual cameras and if rumours are true, even three cameras at the back, Samsung thought of doing something different. Along with fitting a dual camera at the back, Samsung also gave the S9+ a one-of-a-kind dual-aperture system. The primary camera at the back of the S9+ can change between F/1.5 and F/2.4, which, even though was seen before in a Samsung flip phone last year in China, was never before seen in the global smartphone landscape. The F/1.5 aperture is also the largest we have seen on a smartphone so far.
Apart from this, the Galaxy S9+ uses a stacked CMOS architecture with a high bandwidth DRAM placed in between. The DRAM helps the S9+ shoot super slo-mo videos at 960 frames per second at 720p. The S9+ can automatically detect motion and that is thanks to the DRAM. The Super Slo-mo feature was seen in Sony’s Xperia XZ and with every 0.2 seconds of shooting time, you get a slowed-down six seconds of screen time.
The camera also has other features that dabbles in things outside regular photography. AR Emoji is what we’re talking about. Like the iPhone X’s Animoji, Samsung’s AR Emoji also leverages your unique facial expressions to animate a virtual avatar.
Thanks to such innovation, the megapixels have taken a back seat (fortunately!). Nevertheless, the Galaxy S9+ features a dual-pixel dual camera stack at the back. Of them, one is a 12-megapixel 26mm wide-angle lens with a 1/2.55” sensor and 1.4um pixel size. The other one is a 52mm telephoto lens with a 1/3.6” sensor and 1um pixel size. There’s optical image stabilisation in both the lenses along with 2X optical zoom and LED flash.
The Galaxy S9+ camera in action
Now that the theory part is over, let's dive into the practical aspect of this piece. This is what the Galaxy S9+ camera is capable of:
Considering the firepower that the Galaxy S9+ packs in the camera, daylight shots are comparable to that of a high-end point and shoot. The details are just about optimum and the lighting is spot on. What’s interesting is that under optimal sunlight, Samsung’s colour enhancement isn’t as aggressive as we have seen in the Galaxy Note 8 and the Galaxy S8+. You can see below that the red car in the frame is slightly more bland in the S9+’s shot as compared to the other two. The Pixel 2 XL too gets it perfectly right and to be honest, there’s not much separating the phones, as far as daylight shots are concerned.
Taken with the Galaxy S9+
Taken using the Galaxy Note 8 (Notice how there's not much difference, but the Note 8 slight oversaturates the red colour of the car)
Taken using the Google Pixel 2 XL (The true-to-source colours comes into play here)
Independently, the Galaxy S9+ performs wonders under ample sunlight. It gets crisp details with a little extra sharpness. The colours pop out and even the white balance is preserved quite accurately.
Taken using Galaxy S9+
What’s even more impressive is the shutter response of the S9+. It’s super fast and so is the autofocus. In fact, this is one of the fastest autofocus we have seen in action on a phone. Only the Pixel 2 XL comes close to locking down the focus as quickly as the S9+.
This is where things get interesting. The Galaxy S9+ definitely captures the minute details in a macro shots. Pair that with the F/1.5 aperture, (which can only be done through the Pro mode if you’re taking the macro under sunlight) and you’ll get a natural shallow depth of field which enhances the macro to a great extent. However, as for the colour reproduction, it’s pretty much at par with the older Samsung flagships. This is the same class of aggressive colour enhancement by the camera algorithms that is inherent in Samsung devices. The bland red of the flower (in reality) has become shocking pink.
Taken using the Galaxy S9+ (Notice the oversaturated colours and the shallow depth of field)
Taken using Galaxy Note 8 (Here too you will notice the oversaturated tones)
Taken using the Galaxy S8+ (Once again, there is oversaturated colours in play)
In comparison to the rest of the flagships, there’s nothing much separating the S9+ with the Galaxy S8+ and the Note 8. All three does aggressive colour enhancement. In contrast, the iPhone X and the Pixel 2 XL tries to retain the source colour. It comes down to the kind of photos you prefer.
Taken using iPhone X (Notice how natural the colours look)
Taken using the Pixel 2 XL (This is by far the most colour accurate but with a slight white balance issue)
Indoor incandescent lighting
Our test lab is sprinkled with books and objects that we shoot under incandescent light to simulate indoor shooting. We have warm lamps lighting the room that is perfect for the situation. As for the results, the S9+ is clearly an able performer when it comes to taking beautiful indoor shots. While most good phones will do the same, the S9+ takes it a ‘notch’ higher by enhancing the colours and aggressively reducing the noise. The details are exceptionally crisp, and to an extent, even better than the iPhone X.
Taken using the Galaxy S9+ (Notice the aggressive noise reduction at play, but more importantly, look how well-lit and oversaturated the photo is)
If you are coming from the Pixel phones, you will find the photos starkly more colourful, because Samsung’s algorithms completely disregards the source colours and adds more layers of contrast and saturation to make them look aesthetically better.
Taken using the Galaxy Note 8 (the texture of the books are coarse as compared to the S9+)
Taken using the Galaxy S8+ (It's significantly warmer than the other two, and there's noise in the details)
Taken using the iPhone X (Surprisingly, there's a lot of noise in the photo but the colours are true-to-source)
The white balance, though, is quite accurate. The Galaxy S9+’s sensor is smart enough to gauge the white point in a frame and even under low light, the whites look white. Not many can come close to the white balance accuracy of the S9+.
The moment of truth. The primary reason to fit a variable aperture camera on the S9+ is to enhance low light photography, something all smartphone makers have been attempting to crack using various methods, but never quite getting it right. Well, with the largest aperture ever seen in a smartphone at its side, the Galaxy S9+ attempts to conquer the treacherous realm of low-light photography, with among the current crop of flagships, it achieves the finest balance between low light, details, colour and quality.
Taken using the iPhone X (There was minimal lighting in the room with the lamps turned off, notice the grains in the shadows)
Taken using the Galaxy S9+ (The difference is self-explanatory)
It’s definitely miles ahead of most of the flagship phones, with some like the Pixel 2 XL coming dangerously close. What’s difficult for Samsung is that it has to preserve that extra colour in the shots and provide enough lighting in a low-light shot, to maintain uniformity with other scenarios. While that would usually make the photo quite noisy, the aggressive noise reduction algorithms makes things less grainy. But the downside is that the photo comes off somewhat softer.
Taken using the Pixel 2 XL (There's minimal noise, but details are lost in trying to control the noise)
Taken using the Galaxy S9+ (Aggressive noise reduction at play but also an attempt to increase saturation which gave an yellow tint to the photo. Details, however, is quite well-preserved with a slight dip in sharpness)
Under low light, close-up shots will give you good details, although you will be able to tell the over-sharpening effects the sensor has put during post-processing. The sample we took for testing had a warm yellow tint which the camera picked up from the frame. It’s definitely brighter than the rest, but there’s also the softening effect.
If you want to get the best results from the S9+ camera, the Pro Mode is the one you need to master. Basic knowledge of photography will easily get you accustomed to the options, although the interface is a tad bit complicated and messy to operate seamlessly. With the ability to control both aperture and shutter speed, you essentially have the same options as that of a DSLR and it’s fun to play around with the options until you get the best shot.
The auto mode will prefer the extra lighting with higher ISO, but you can tweak that in the pro mode to increase the shutter speed and keep noise level to a minimum. The OIS in the lens will help you in keeping things steady, although don’t count on it as much, as a longer shutter speed will undoubtedly make things shaky and blurred.
‘Live Focus’ Mode
The Galaxy S9+ comes with the same ‘Live Focus’ mode that was there on the Galaxy Note 8 and to be honest, it’s the exact same implementation as the Note 8. Right down from the hardware to the resulting shots, the portrait mode on the Galaxy S9+ has seen no progress. It has both the Note 8’s pros and cons, in terms of the portrait mode.
Taken using the Galaxy S9+ (Heavy blurring with well-maintained exposure and edges are consistently blurred)
What I mean by that is that the Galaxy S9 camera can take good bokeh shots with well composed blurring and consistently blurred edges around the object in focus. However, since it relies more on the hardware than software to take the bokeh shots, the feature is pointless to use under low-light. The Galaxy S9+ uses the secondary camera that has a lower aperture and a smaller sensor size. This results in bokeh shots coming out dark and noisy under poor lighting, which isn’t desirable especially considering that cheaper phones can now pull off a standard portrait shot under indoor lighting.
Super Slo-Mo Videos
One of the marquee features Samsung boasted about during the launch of the Galaxy S9 and the S9+ is the ability to record super slo-mo videos. While slow motion videos are now common in phones across the price range, super slo-mo was introduced last year by Sony. This is essentially the same technology but with a better implementation. There’s also some limitations which might be a bummer if you are keen on recording such videos often.
The Galaxy S9+ can record slow motion videos at a whopping 960 frames per second, but at 720p resolution, unlike the new Sony Xperia XZ2 which can take it up to 1080p full HD. More than that, recording a super slo-mo indoors or under low-light will give you disastrous results. The frame is extremely dark and you will see banding in the video. That’s understandable considering how fast the shutter is working. At 960 fps, there’s not much light falling on the sensor, which gives the suboptimal results.
But when it works, it will leave you awed. It’s almost like slowing down time. The phone expands a mere 0.2 second of footage to a 6-second one. That’s how much it slows down. What’s more, under daylight, it preserves the details quite well and it’s especially useful if you are recording a fountain or playing around with water.
The Galaxy S9 can also automatically detect motion and start recording in slow-motion. You don’t have to manually start the slo-mo recording, although there is an option for that. A major caveat with the auto mode is that the motion is detected in a small square in the frame, which sometimes feels too small to lock down a moving object.
The resulting slo-mo video can be stored either as a full-fledged video or turned into a GIF. You can also apply some post-production effects like ‘Reverse’ and ‘Swing’.
Considering this is the flagship phone to beat in 2018, the Galaxy S9+ surely sets the benchmark high, at least in terms of imaging prowess. It has one of the best cameras seen on a smartphone so far, and a lot many will be left trying to match up to the results the Galaxy S9+ can produce. Having said that, the dual aperture feature of the Galaxy S9+ will not come into play till there's poor lighting and more often that not, you will be shooting at the F/2.4 aperture. But when the F/1.5 aperture does come into play, in taking low light shots as shown above, it will give most flagships a run for their money.
Interesting to see will be what others like Google and Apple will do later this year to take on the Galaxy S9+. What’s even more exciting is the anticipation of what the next Galaxy Note will come with. If this is what’s in store for this year, we are not complaining. And you definitely shouldn’t.