With its latest flagship, Samsung opted to focus primarily on the display, slashing bezels and curving edges to create one of the most stunning designs and multimedia experiences ever found on a smartphone. That focus paid off in a major way and the company got the win it desperately needed after the Note 7 fiasco. The S8 is unquestionably a great phone, and its best feature is that forward-thinking design, but all the focus on maximizing screen-to-body ratio did leave a few areas behind in the process.
One component that was, surprisingly, left untouched is the rear camera. Instead of hopping on the dual-camera train, or giving a normal year-over-year spec bump, the company kept the camera hardware the same and only made improvements to the software and image processing.
As I noted in my S8 review, the camera is still capable of taking phenomenal photos, which is not surprising given it was one of the best systems upon its release a year ago. We wanted to take a deeper dive, however, and see just how good the S8’s camera is, and whether Samsung was right not to give it an upgrade in 2017.
For the breakdown, we’re going to take a look at three lighting conditions (good, moderate and poor) and the photo quality offered in those situations. All the pictures you’ll see in this article were taken by the standard S8 in auto mode and have not been edited in any way, unless otherwise noted. We’ll touch on a few photos below, but for more Galaxy S8 test photos, check out the gallery above.
Here we go!
We begin with the easiest conditions for any smartphone: lots of natural light. A phone in a price bracket as high as the S8 had better deliver solid photos in good lighting, and the S8 does with ease. I’ve said for years that all I really want from a smartphone camera, as someone who isn’t constantly documenting their life but does like to take a photo occasionally, is confidence. I want to be able to pull out my phone, hit the shutter button and know the result will be satisfying. The S8 provides that in spades.
Looking at the picture of the sheep above, you can see that color and detail are excellent. If you zoom in on the sheep’s face, all the little details of the coat captured by the S8 are phenomenal. There’s also a sense of depth of field, as the wood fence and background are slightly blurred, which is a nice touch.
In this landscape photo, you can see how well the S8 performs in terms of dynamic range. The color and detail of the highlights is great, and the sky is properly exposed, but the darker portions sitting in the shadow of the clouds is not completely lost, either. With a Snapdragon 835 inside, the S8 is more than capable of handling multiple exposures at the same time, and it shows here.
As expected, in good lighting, the S8 camera performs impeccably. It’s able to capture great detail and vibrant colors with a wide dynamic range that will keep both highlights and lowlights in on the action. If you compare the S8’s performance to that of the Pixel XL in similar situations, Samsung’s handset holds its ground against what many consider to be the best Android camera, or smartphone camera, period. In the photo above of the cow, taken by a Pixel XL, you see a lot of the same qualities as those in the S8 photos. Good dynamic range, colors and detail.
As light gets more scarce, the job of a smartphone camera becomes much more difficult. In moderate lighting, a photo taken around dusk or with a healthy amount of artificial lighting, the S8 is still largely up to the task. In the hot air balloon photo above, you can see that there is increased noise and overall detail takes a hit due to both the lack of light and the cloudy skies, but the S8 still makes a valiant attempt, and does a decent job maintaining dynamic range given the overcast skies. I imagine, had the weather cooperated more, this would have been an absolute stunner of a photograph.
In its current form, it’s still a photo I subjectively like. Subjectivity is important to note when discussing smartphone cameras these days, because a lot of them have similar hardware features, but all of them process images in slightly different ways, leading to varied depictions of the same scene. Which one you like more will depend on what your eye is drawn to. In the balloon photo, I actually like that some of the balloons are shrouded in shadows because it gives the whole image a serene, summer evening look. You may want there to be more hard detail, and thus prefer the photo to the left, in which the balloons are better exposed, but the sky is a little blown out.
Another example here of a photo taken with moderate lighting, this time indoors. You can see that the colors are a little duller than those shown earlier. Here, you lose vibrancy but still get a photo that is well exposed, sharp and offers good detail. In the cropped version below, you can better see the amount of detail captured on the cat’s face. It’s not just a fuzzy blur, you can make out individual hairs and the definition of his coat. Overall, a solid result with lighting that isn’t ideal.
In moderate lighting, the S8 camera still holds up quite well, and perhaps most importantly, still performs exceptionally fast. Colors aren’t as sharp, but detail is still good and dynamic range remains above average. In terms of confidence, I still felt like I could get a good photo from the S8 even when light became scarce.
Now, for a smartphone camera’s toughest test. Manufacturers have been tackling low light performance for years and, despite claims to the contrary, no one has really cracked the code yet. To my eye, the Pixel performs best in poor lighting, but again that is based largely on subjective opinion based on the image processing. Last year, Samsung pushed low light performance as a pillar of its new camera, but my experience then and my experience now with the S8 is one that is adequate, but not astounding.
The photos I was able to capture in low light conditions were heavy on noise and lost a significant amount of detail as expected. In auto, the S8 camera tends to overexpose the scene, artificially lightening it more than necessary. As a result, you get an image that looks brighter than reality, which can help with visibility but does so at the cost of accuracy. Colors also take a hit, coming out far duller than with proper lighting.
Still, compared to budget phones or those with weaker cameras, the S8 does a decent job in the dark. It’s not going to blow anyone away, but it will provide a usable photo in most instances. The bigger issue I had with low light performance wasn’t image quality, but the speed of the camera. It was far slower than the Pixel in similar conditions, meaning the chance of missing a shot was exponentially higher. You also have to be careful about camera shake because it takes a longer time for the camera to complete the exposure. I ended up with a lot of blurry photos even though it seemed like the camera was finished with its exposure.
You can see in the photo of the coaster above that detail is actually pretty good, though it’s not the toughest test considering the object is flat. Still, the exposure is nice, colors are not bad and noise in kept largely in check. A better look comes in the photo below, in which you can see a drop in detail on the cat’s face from the moderate lighting example. It’s an acceptable photo to share on social media, but under intense scrutiny, it breaks down fairly quickly. Colors are dull, signified by the washed out pillow in the background, the scene is overexposed overall and the entire shot is far softer than the camera was able to produce in better lighting.
All of this is pretty much par for the course when it comes to low light, however. No company has mastered the night when it comes to smartphone cameras, and Samsung is no different. The S8 will give you a better result than lesser handsets, but it sits behind the Pixel and iPhone in the flagship category. It won’t completely disappoint you, but it won’t blow you away either.
Despite opting not to upgrade the camera for this year’s S8, Samsung remains one of the best performers in the category in 2017. That’s due in large part to the excellence the company has built over the years, which undoubtedly played a role in its choice not to make a change for the latest iteration.
In good and moderate lighting, the S8 is capable of delivering photos that users can have full confidence in. They offer good colors, great detail and fantastic dynamic range. I have been continually impressed with the quality of photos I’ve managed to capture in proper lighting with the S8; it’s not uncommon for me to do a double take.
When lighting begins to wane, the quality does as well, but that’s the case for every smartphone camera, even those with the highest marks. Samsung would have been wise to join the dual-camera trend in 2017, giving the S8 another feather in its cap, but you can’t deny that what is offered is still one of the better camera experiences on any smartphone.
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