Samsung Galaxy S5 camera shootout versus HTC One M8, iPhone 5S

Samsung's marquee Galaxy S5 is blazing fast and chock full of new features. But does its 16-megapixel camera have the chops to compete against the HTC One M8 and Apple iPhone 5S?

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The Samsung GS5, HTC One M8, and Apple iPhone 5S go head-to-head in our camera battle. Josh Miller/CNET

Powerful, fast, and now even water resistant, the Galaxy S5 is Samsung's latest offering into the hyper-competitive smartphone industry. Thrusting in everything from a crisp 1080p screen, to an agile quad-core Snadragon 801 processor, Samsung isn't holding much back to ensure that its new flagship is markedly better than its predecessor.

That includes bumping up the once 13-megapixel shooter to a 16-megapixel one. And throwing in some new editing tricks as well, like enabling users to change the focal point after they take a picture, and annotating photos.

But the mobile business is tough, and full of other devices that are marketed to be just as good, if not better, than whatever Samsung brings to the table. So when it comes to camera chops at least, we had to ask: What's better? The GS5, HTC's newly minted One M8 marquee handset, or the high-end Apple iPhone 5S?

To find out, I took all three phones out in everyday situations and captured a number of shots for real-world testing. All photos were taken within minutes of one another, at the same location and distance from the focal object or scene (though due to its different aspect ratio, pictures on the iPhone 5S appeared as if I were closer, but I wasn't.) All cameras were set on auto-mode with default settings. Two shots ("Indoor group shot" and "Inside the photographer's studio") had the flash manually turned on. Then, along with CNET mobile editor Jessica Dolcourt and photographer Josh Miller, we took a hard look at the pictures.


In general, the GS5 showed solid aptitude with low-light situations. This was much better than the previous GS4, which struggled with dim environments. Another strength was that certain hues, like blues and greens, appeared vibrant without looking too saturated, and objects were consistently crisp and in-focus.

And while each handset had their strength and weaknesses, for the most part, the GS5 outperformed the One M8, with the latter often blowing out and overexposing its photos. Compared to the iPhone 5S, however, the two devices were usually neck and neck. At times we preferred the GS5's color contrast, while there were other photos when the iPhone 5S' even lighting and tone won us over.

To see for yourself, check out the photos below (be sure to click on the pictures individually to view them at their full resolution), and tell us what you think in the reader comments below.

1. Relaxing at the pool

Given that there are zero clouds in the sky, it's a sunny day, and there's an ample amount of even lighting, this photo was the easiest scene to capture. Though there are nuanced differences here and there between the photos, especially in terms of coloring and shadows, all cameras did well, as expected.

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Samsung Galaxy S5: This picture had the lightest blue sky compared to the others, but greens are vivid. Lynn La/CNET

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HTC One M8: The brown building is purpler than the other two, and you can see less details in the shadows to the left. Lynn La/CNET

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Apple iPhone 5S: The sky here is vibrant, but the leaves aren't as green as the GS5's photo. Lynn La/CNET

2. Meet me at the bench

Due to the overhanging leaves and the backlit setting, this environment had its challenges. The One M8 blew out the sunlight each time, despite several shots. However, both the GS5 and the iPhone 5S did well to balance out the lighting. The latter had a slight edge when it came to retaining the details of the branches and leaves against the sky.

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Samsung Galaxy S5: Despite the backlit setting, the GS5 is able to depict the bench well. Lynn La/CNET

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HTC One M8: Unfortunately, the sky is overexposed in this shot. Lynn La/CNET

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Apple iPhone 5S: This device is able to handle the environment as well, and retained more details in the branches against the sky. Lynn La/CNET

3. Outdoor group shot

In this outdoor group shot, we liked how much the colors popped in the GS5 (notice the radiance of the blue and green sweaters). However, faces were overexposed. On the other hand, the One M8 underexposed the building in the background as well as Cnet Espanol editor Vanessa Hand Orellana's (top center) face. The iPhone 5S had the most even exposure and true-to-life skin tones, though we weren't too thrilled about how muted the colors were compared to the GS5's photo.

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Samsung Galaxy S5: The green and blue tops are the most vivid in this picture. Lynn La/CNET

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HTC One M8: The building in the back, as well as Vanessa's (top center) face are underexposed. Lynn La/CNET

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Apple iPhone 5S: Here, skin tones are the most accurate, and the lighting is more even. However, colors in general are muted when compared to the GS5. Lynn La/CNET

4. Inside the nursery

Once again, the sky in the GS5 is lighter than the others, however the green hues do standout positively. There is also a subtle tinge of purple in the One M8's nursery. Lastly, the sky's blue hue in the iPhone 5S photo is the most accurate through the netting and beyond.

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Samsung Galaxy S5: Compared to the others, the sky is lighter, but the green hues do pop. Lynn La/CNET

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HTC One M8: Near the center area, there's a subtle hue of purple overlaying the picture. Lynn La/CNET

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Apple iPhone 5S: Unlike the other two, this photo accurately depicts the sky's hue through the netting and beyond to the left. Lynn La/CNET

5. Hydrangeas for sale

All three photos show ample amount of details in the leaves and flower petals, though the One M8 came off darker than the rest. In addition, while the yellow accents in the hydrangeas to the left are more prominent in the iPhone 5S, the blueness of the flowers on the bottom left is more vibrant in the One M8.

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Samsung Galaxy S5: When compared to the two other shots, the purple flower petals appear paler. Lynn La/CNET

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HTC One M8: Though the center hydrangeas are dark, the bottom left group of petals have the most vibrant blues. Lynn La/CNET

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Apple iPhone 5S: The shades of purple here look the most nuanced and varied. Lynn La/CNET

6. Hydrangeas up close

In our closer crop shot, the hydrangeas looked the most vibrant with the One M8. However, there is a wider color variation with the iPhone 5S; the different gradation of purples look more distinct, whereas the GS5's petals look flat.

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Samsung Galaxy S5: Again, you can see how the petals in this shot look lighter when compared to the others. However, the flowers still look sharp close up. Lynn La/CNET

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HTC One M8: The flowers here are a darker, and don't look as crisp as the others. Lynn La/CNET

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Apple iPhone 5S: With this cropped photo, you can see how there is a greater variation of purple hues. Lynn La/CNET

7. Wait, let me Instagram this

In this #nomnomnom-worthy picture, the GS5's nachos were the obvious favorite. Despite the dim lighting, the camera was able to retain many details. Furthermore, exposure levels came off more even than the others.

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Samsung Galaxy S5: As our preferred picture of the bunch, the GS5 does an excellent job handling these nachos in low light. Lynn La/CNET

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HTC One M8: Though the whiteness of the plate is more true-to-life, the candle to the right is blown out. Lynn La/CNET

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Apple iPhone 5S: The plate in this photo is the darkest and most underexposed. Lynn La/CNET

8. A little mood lighting

Despite several takes, the One M8's camera included a lens flare with these candles. The GS5 and the iPhone 5S both did a good job with this shot, but we preferred the latter's ability to retain slightly more detail with the red glasses.

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Samsung Galaxy S5: Here, a few details in the glasses are lost, and the red looks overly saturated. Lynn La/CNET

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HTC One M8: Even after multiple trials, the One M8 always had a subtle lens flare with this photo. Lynn La/CNET

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Apple iPhone 5S: Here, you can see more details in the glasses compared to the others. Lynn La/CNET

9. Indoor group shot

With very low lighting and an indoor setting, we set up this picture to be a challenging shot for all the handsets. And while none did a spectacular job with this test, we liked the One M8's performance the most. True, it's a bit dimmer than the others, but its flash didn't blow out any of the faces and it looked the most natural.

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Samsung Galaxy S5: Skin tones in this picture look cold and pale. Lynn La/CNET

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HTC One M8: Despite being a bit darker than the other two, we prefer this picture's more natural hues. Lynn La/CNET

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Apple iPhone 5S: While you can see the flash reflecting on the faces, the 5S manages to do a good job in this low light setting. Lynn La/CNET

10. Let's go to the movies

In this indoor shot, you can see how much the One M8 blew out the white pillars on either side of the picture, as well as the lights located in the middle. On the other hand, the other two phones did a satisfactory job. Furthermore, the pillar on the right in the GS5's shot looked better exposed than the iPhone 5S'.

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Samsung Galaxy S5: We like the range of color contrast in this photo and the whiteness of the columns are true-to-life. Lynn La/CNET

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HTC One M8: Once again, the One M8 blows out the whites and casts a strange blue hue against the pillars. Lynn La/CNET

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Apple iPhone 5S: Compared to the GS5, the white pillars comes off a bit underexposed. Lynn La/CNET

11. A closer look

Cropping into the golden arc at the movies, you can see the details lost with the One M8. Colors are more vivid with the GS5's shot, and when compared to the iPhone 5S, there's slightly less digital artifacts.

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Samsung Galaxy S5: Compared to the iPhone 5S, the colors are slightly more contrasted, and the stripes in the bucket of popcorn look smoother. Lynn La/CNET

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HTC One M8: The lights here are washed out, and the golden arc is the most muted. Lynn La/CNET

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Apple iPhone 5S: Though this photo is satisfactory, you can see there's slightly more digital noise when compared to the GS5. Lynn La/CNET

12. Time to boop that nose

I got as close to my dog as I could without losing focus, and all photos were taken at the same distance. Using touch focus on his nose (though still in automatic mode without any sort of "macro zoom" setting), I wanted to see how much detail I could capture. While the iPhone 5S had the most overexposed photo out of the three, it gave the most detail. On the other hand, the GS5 showed more color variation, and the shade of fur was more accurate in this picture.

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Samsung Galaxy S5: While I preferred the tone and temperature of this picture the most, the nose comes off too dark. Lynn La/CNET

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HTC One M8: This camera does a better job than the GS5 at exposing the nose, but not by much. Lynn La/CNET

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Apple iPhone 5S: Though the fur on the dog's head is blown out, the nose is focused and nicely exposed. Lynn La/CNET

13. Trickle-down effect

In an attempt to capture moving water, I got up close and personal with this fountain. While the One M8 is overexposed compared to the rest, we preferred it since the water droplets look the most crisp and sharp than the other two.

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Samsung Galaxy S5: The exposure levels in this picture are appropriate, but the water comes off looking blurred. Lynn La/CNET

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HTC One M8: While this photo is a bit overexposed, the water droplets are the clearest here. Lynn La/CNET

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Apple iPhone 5S: While not as focused as the One M8, this picture slightly edges out the GS5 in terms of the water's clarity. Lynn La/CNET

14. Inside the photographer's studio

In our standard studio shot, all phones had their flashes turned on. The GS5's flash cast an unattractive blue hue over the white background. On the other hand, both the One M8 and the iPhone 5S' flashes were more subtle. The former came off a bit underexposed, while in the latter you can see the iPhone's flash near the center of the picture.

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Samsung Galaxy S5: Compared to the others, you can see how the GS5's flash casts a harsh light against the white background. Josh Miller/CNET

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HTC One M8: The One M8's flash is turned on for this picture, but fortunately, you can't even notice its reflection. Josh Miller/CNET

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Apple iPhone 5S: In the center of the photo you can notice the subtle flash, but the objects are more well-lit compared to the One M8. Josh Miller/CNET

15. But last, let me take a selfie

In these (bonus!) front-facing camera photos, we compared the GS5's 2-megapixel shooter with the One M8's 5-megapixel and the iPhone 5S' 1.2-megapixel cameras. Though it cast a blue hue against the white wall, the One M8 took the sharpest photo by far and was our favorite. And while the iPhone 5S' picture overexposed the background, the portrait was brighter compared to the GS5's.

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Samsung Galaxy S5: The GS5 took the dimmest selfie compared to the others. Lynn La/CNET

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HTC One M8: Despite some oddball blue hues in the white background, this picture's solid focus made it the clear winner. Lynn La/CNET

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Apple iPhone 5S: Though a bit overexposed, the 5S still did a good job with this portrait. Lynn La/CNET

 

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