SAN FRANCISCO (Circa) - The Achilles heel of smartphone cameras has always been low light. The latest company to declare mission accomplished in solving this problem is Samsung with its Galaxy S9.
Now, some quick tech details: The Galaxy S9 has a dual-aperture lens that, in its largest setting, opens as wide as f1.5. It’s the largest aperture on any smartphone camera to date, which means it takes in more light than any smartphone camera to date.
Of course, aperture is only half of the story when it comes to low-light photography. You still need both a good-sized image sensor to capture that light, something most smartphone companies don’t advertise details on, and solid software processing chops to make the pics look great after they are digitalized.
So, to test out how good Samsung’s new smartphone actually is for shooting at dusk, at night or even indoors, I took some test shots with it next to LG's V30 smartphone, the new Google Pixel 2 XL and the iPhone X. Observe below:
First, some indoor still-life with limited sunlight. All four phones handled the setting fairly well, but the Pixel edged out the S9 for my pick because of the way it handled detail and dynamic range slightly better. The iPhone was odd-man-out in the bunch because of its coloring, which is artificially saturated but in a way that plenty of people might actually prefer.
Next, is a city shot at sundown. The S9 produces the brightest picture here, but at the cost of washing away some of the texture in the sky. The Pixel and iPhone really nailed that part the best, with the Pixel even going a step further and preserving the brick-by-brick detail in the far building. LG’s picture is the most blown out, but it’s still Instagram-worthy.
In the above night-time setting, the LG V30’s 1.6 aperture lens delivers the brightest picture of the cable car. The S9 comes close and so does the Pixel, even though the Pixel looks to be stretching the limits of its 1.8 aperture lens, evidenced by a little distortion.
This flag had no light shining on it in the middle of the evening. The Pixel did the best job of preserving the color of it and the building it was attached to, but in the sky around it, the camera again provided a little distortion. The iPhone, with its 1.8 aperture lens, took perhaps the best all-around picture, with the S9 and LG in a toss-up for the flattest and worst.
Finally, in the above long-distance night-time shot of the Bay Bridge, a tough ask for any smartphone, the S9, again, manages to pull in the most light from a dim setting, and it and the LG don’t show any of the noise in the sky that the Pixel and iPhone are producing.
So, the verdict: Is Samsung’s latest Galaxy the best low-light smartphone camera? It’s definitely one of them... Anticlimactic, I know, but it's a little complicated.
The S9 does seem to do a slightly better job at naturally snapping brighter pictures in darker settings than the phone I tried it against. But that sometimes comes at the expense of image detail or color saturation. So, if you’re seeking more natural-looking images and don’t mind going back in to brighten your pictures after they’re taken, then the Pixel 2 and iPhone X might actually be better options. As for the LG V30, that's less complicated: It had its moments, but it was definitely the most unreliable of the bunch.
That’s my take, but which phone did you think shot the best low-light pictures? Leave us a comment below.