Samsung gets serious with the Galaxy S4: Camera review
Lars Rehm | Published: Jul 12, 2013 at 17:56 UTC44
As Samsung's current top-of-the-line smartphone, the Galaxy S4 comes with a very comprehensive list of features. Our review focuses on the S4's camera features and performance, but let's take a quick look at the new non-imaging features on the Galaxy S4:
In terms of camera features, the Galaxy S4 comes with a whole bunch of new shooting modes that we are having a closer look at below. It's worth noting that in almost all modes other than Auto you loose the ability to control parameters such as exposure compensation or ISO and are relying on the camera's automatic exposure systems. It's also not possible to combine shooting modes; for example, you cannot shoot HDRs in Panorama mode. Annoyingly it's also not possible to combine the Sports Mode (which selects faster shutter speeds than Auto Mode) with the burst shooting function.
This feature has potential for some interesting shots, especially when shooting action sports or just playing around. In Drama mode the S4 continuously captures frames over a period of five seconds or so, detects a moving subject in the frame and creates a composite image, combining multiple shots of the moving subject against the background.
It took us a few attempts to create a usable output image as the function struggles with subjects that are too small or large in the frame or move too slow or fast. However, when subject size and speed are within acceptable parameters Drama mode creates good quality composites. You can manually select which frames to include after they have been captured which gives you a little creative flexibility, but as you can see in the sample on the right, including too many frames can lead to body parts disappearing.
Animated GIFs have been around on the web for a long time but have more recently seen a revival and might just be the trendiest file type in the imaging world at the moment. These quirky moving pictures only seem to be growing in popularity, even popping up as a new photo booth trend. Samsung is hopping on the bandwagon with the S4, adding a built-in Animated photo mode.
After you've recorded your eight-second clip, you'll see options to animate or freeze objects. You can also trim your recording and change the direction of playback to move backward, forward or in a back-and-forth loop. Below you can see an un-edited GIF. The image size is approximately 800x450 pixels and file size could, depending on the size of the animated areas, be anywhere between 2 and 30MB which makes them a little large for sharing from your phone.
Below you can see a sample for which we froze part of the screen. After a clip has been captured you can mark parts of the frame and then select to animate or freeze them.
The results are not too impressive. As you can see below the function simply animates the marked areas, but makes no attempt to isolate a moving subject from the background like some third-party apps do. It's also important to keep the camera very still, otherwise you'll see camera shake in the moving portions of the frame.
Animated Photo mode is fun to play with but we like Cinemagram, recently launched for Android, better. The app offers more creative choices for constructing your moving images and a more user-friendly interface. Overall we've seen the best animated GIF results from the Cinemagraph app that is currently only available for Nokia Lumia Windows Phones.
Eraser mode works by snapping a series of images and identifying and removing moving objects from the final composite image. After the images have been captured, moving objects are automatically identified and marked in purple. You can then select to hide or show them and save the final image.
In our testing this worked quite well for the scenario we see it most likely to be applied: when a passerby walks directly in front of a subject in a busy public setting. How many ruined snapshots taken at tourist hotspots could have been saved with this feature?
The S4 is the first smartphone that we know of which is capable of recording images from its front- and rear cameras simultaneously. This has resulted in one of the more gimmicky photo features of the S4: the Dual Shot mode which allows you to capture images with both cameras at the same time and create a picture-in-picture effect, with a variety of frames to surround your front-facing camera capture.
The default is a stamp frame that creates a postcard effect when combined with a scenic vista. While this might be fun for vacation photos, we imagine you'll find your kids clamoring to play with this effect more than you will. To access it, select the Auto mode and then tap the Dual Shot icon, the overlapping image of both the front and back of the camera symbol. Tap the arrow at the bottom of the screen to experiment with more borders around the front-facing camera image.
Some app makers have been playing around with the dual camera idea before the arrival of the S4: DuoCam and 2sidez create click-to-flip pictures with the front-facing camera capture on one side, the rear-facing camera capture on the other. Dblcam makes a blended image from the two captures. However, none of these apps take pictures simultaneously (simply because that's impossible on any other phone), but capture the images very quickly one after the other. Of course live preview or picture-in-picture video is not possible.
Panorama modes and apps aren't anything new. However, what's new on the Galaxy S4 is that the end-results are very large. When shooting in landscape orientation the image is approximately 22,000 pixels wide and 1,600 pixels tall. In comparison, on the S3 panoramas are only 6,000 pixels wide, only about double the width of a standard 4:3 frame.
Stitching and exposure are typically fine too, so if you manage to capture an attractive panorama shot on the Galaxy S4 it could potentially be printed in a very large format. You can shoot both in landscape or portrait orientation. If you don't want or need to capture a full 360-degree panorama, you can press the shutter button any time to stop capture. The app will then create a panorama with the images you have recorded so far.
The Galaxy S4 comes with the same Night Mode we've seen on the Galaxy Note II before. It avoids intrusive noise by blending a quick burst of frames into one image and averaging out the noise. As with the HDR mode, objects moving through the frame may create strange artifacts, so the tool works best with static scenes. You should also avoid any camera shake while capturing the burst.
However, the main advantage of the Night Mode is that you can still achieve a decent exposure when the Auto mode reaches its limits. For the night scene below Auto mode selects the maximum ISO (1000) and the slowest available shutter speed (1/15 sec) but still the scene is underexposed. By combining various exposures Night Mode can create a brighter image and allows you to shoot night scenes like the one below hand-held. The camera app can be figured to automatically switch to Night Mode when the light conditions make it the most suitable shooting mode.
Rich Tone (HDR)
The Galaxy S4's HDR mode is very similar to its predecessor's. The camera takes three frames at varying exposures in quick succession and combines them into one "High Dynamic Range" image. Given the limited dynamic range of the tiny sensors that are currently being used in smartphones, this feature can be a life saver when shooting high contrast scenes.
There are no parameters to play with when using the HDR mode, but luckily Samsung's implementation produces very natural results. As you can see in the sample below the HDR image shows visibly more detail in the clouds while at the same time the shadow areas in the trees have been slightly lifted.
Depending on the scene, the effect can be stronger but if you end up with an image that looks a little too flat it's easy to optimize with a level adjustment in the image editing application of your choice. You can also set Rich Tone to save both versions of an image, standard and HDR, so you can pick the version you like best.
All HDR modes struggle with moving subjects or camera shake while the exposure series is being captured and the Galaxy S4 is no exception. If you don't keep the phone still while shooting you can end up with a shadow effect like in the sample below. That said, normal handheld shooting works totally fine and it appears the S4 does to a degree compensate for subjects moving at a moderate speed, for example a walking person.