Samsung Galaxy S5: the camera review

Five generations in to the Galaxy S range, Samsung has equipped the S5 with some pretty strong photographic street cred.

Five generations in to the Galaxy S range, Samsung has equipped the S5 with some pretty strong photographic street cred. Let's see how it performs in the real world.

(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)

The Galaxy S4 had a rather slippery feel despite its predominantly plastic construction. The S5 alleviates this somewhat thanks to its textured back, which can act rather conveniently as a grip for your right hand when holding the handset in landscape orientation.

Like many other smartphone cameras, Samsung lets you press the volume rocker to act as a physical shutter button to take photos when the camera app is active. This feature is turned on by default, so you don't need to worry about doing it manually.

Behind the lens of the S5 sits a new 16-megapixel Isocell sensor. This is Samsung's own technology that made its debut last year , at least in prototype form. An Isocell sensor differs from a standard backside-illuminated (BSI) sensor in that is has physical barriers to separate each individual pixel.

A BSI sensor has the photodiodes on the surface so light hits them first, without having to travel through wiring. However, crosstalk can occur which causes noise and other image quality issues. The separation of pixels on the Isocell sensor aims to reduce this from happening, with Samsung claiming that the sensor reduces crosstalk by 30 per cent. Isocell is also purported to boost the dynamic range of the sensor.

Here's how the camera stacks up against some of its fellow high-end competitors:

HTC One M8 Sony Xperia Z2 Samsung Galaxy S5 Apple iPhone 5s
4.1-megapixel (1/3-inch) BSI sensor 20.7-megapixel Exmor RS (1/2.3-inch) sensor 16-megapixel Isocell (1/2.6-inch) sensor 8-megapixel (1/3-inch) CMOS sensor
5-megapixel front-facing camera 2.2-megapixel front-facing camera 2-megapixel front-facing camera 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera
f/2.0 f/2.0 f/2.2 f/2.2
2µm pixel size 1.12µm pixel size 1.12 µm pixel size 1.5 µm pixel size
Dual LED flash LED flash LED flash Dual LED flash
28mm fixed focal length 27mm fixed focal length 31mm fixed focal length 28mm fixed focal length

The Galaxy S5 does not skimp on features in its default camera app. Most of the photo controls are brought up from the settings cog which appears as an overlay on the screen.

(Screenshot by Lexy Savvides/CNET)

For the filter aficionados, there are a number of different effects to choose from, including faded colour, vignette, vintage and moody. A dedicated download option takes you to the Samsung app store to download more options if the default filters are not enough.

Unlike the HTC One M8, which comes with a secondary depth-sensing lens that is active for all photos, selective focus needs to be turned on manually from the settings menu in the S5. This mode doesn't use any actual depth information from a sensor to create the effect. Instead, the S5 gives you some instructions about the optimum shooting conditions to achieve the focus effect, which is placing the subject less than 50cm away from the camera and three times the distance from the background.

Editing an image with the selective focus mode. In this example, we've kept focus in the foreground which results in a blurred background, simulating a shallow depth of field effect. (Credit: Lexy Savvides/CNET)

Once the image has been taken, the S5 will show a little pencil tool in playback mode which can be used to manipulate photos taken in selective focus mode. Then, the phone gives you three options to manipulate focus: near, far or pan, the latter of which keeps everything in focus. The effect is reasonable given that the manipulation is entirely software-driven rather than via hardware, but the finished result can look a bit clumsy. Areas in the foreground that should be sharp often are blurred by accident, especially if the subject is not sharply defined from the background, such as the plant in the photo above.

Elsewhere in the camera app, remote viewfinder lets you take photos using the viewfinder of another device via a connection established with NFC or Wi-Fi Direct.

Unfortunately there is no manual exposure control available from within the default camera app. For that, you will need to install another app from the Play Store such as a Camera FV5. Exposure compensation, white balance and ISO control all come as defaults, though.

Also, the S5 opens up three standard metering modes which will be familiar to standalone camera users: centre-weighted, matrix or spot.

Scene modes are more sparse than the S4, but this is all for the greater good as only the useful ones have made the cut. These include:

  • Panorama, encompassing either a horizontal or vertical composition

  • Dual camera for taking a photo simultaneously with the front and rear camera

  • Virtual tour, which allows you to make interactive tours of rooms and locations

  • Beauty face, for creating attractive portraits with some in-camera trickery

  • Shot and more, which includes a range of options for working with burst photos. Here is where you'll find best photo and best face, as well as eraser and panning shot options.

HDR is quite effective on the S5 as you can see, with lots of extra detail retained in the shadows on this photo comparison with HDR turned on. (Credit: Lexy Savvides/CNET)

Image quality

Overall image quality from the S5's camera is very good. Colours are punchy with the typical Samsung saturation seen on earlier models. The S5, however, produces cleaner photos overall than its predecessors. You can see the difference in most conditions, from bright outdoor situations to low-light situations. Automatic exposures are spot on, while focusing is incredibly quick and shutter lag is not really an issue at all.

The lens does not show a lot of distortion at all, which is something you would expect as the field of view is a little narrower than many of its other smartphone camera competitors.

At 100 per cent magnification, photos do show over-processing elements, though detail is generally well-retained. The lens is sharpest at the centre of the frame and drops off most at the right-hand side of the frame.

In low light without using the flash, the S5 naturally pumps up the ISO sensitivity in order to obtain a photo. This does result in lots of noise from ISO 800 and above. Images look fine when viewed either on the screen or at reduced magnification, but zooming in to 100 per cent shows there's quite a lot of smudging and detail lost as a result of the noise.

At ISO 2000, there's plenty of noise even at reduced magnification. (Credit: Lexy Savvides/CNET)

The resolution of the S5 also gives you more scope for cropping images should you need to. Automatic white balance is reasonably accurate and a touch warm at times when shooting indoor situations.

On the video front, the S5 can shoot in 4K (3840x2160), though it is not turned on by default. Find the video resolution option in the settings menu to turn it on. 4K videos are limited to 5 minutes recording time and you will need a microSD card with fast transfer rates if you want to get the most out of the S5. Video quality when shooting in both 1080 and 4K resolution is excellent.

Image samples

Click each image for the full-res version.

Conclusion

The Galaxy S5 houses the best camera on a Samsung smartphone thus far. It's not perfect, but provides enough resolution for cropping, enlargement and detail preservation. Images look great on the screen and when shared at lower resolutions. If you are expecting best-in-class low-light performance you will want to look elsewhere, as this is still not the Galaxy's strong point.

It's a shame that the default camera app doesn't have manual exposure control beyond simple tweaks like compensation, but there are third-party apps that can give you this additional control. Overall the S5 offers a good compromise between image quality, general usability and control.

 

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