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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.