My epic supercar superphone European road trip

I matched the Galaxy S9 Plus with an astonishing McLaren 570GT for a journey across Europe to see how well Samsung's latest flagship phone can photograph a once in a lifetime road trip.
Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Fast, muscular supercars. Sleek, sexy superphones. I had the chance to bring the two together in one epic road trip across Europe, and it was awesome.

The journey: 1,500km (about 930 miles) of road winding through snow and rain through Switzerland, Germany and France. 

The vehicle: a 2017 McLaren 570GT, a $220,000 supercar with killer good looks and a V8 engine that'll propel it from 0-60 mph in just 3.4 seconds.

The goal: To see how well the new Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus could capture the exhilaration -- and exhaustion -- of a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

Let's back up a bit. I had just finished attending back-to-back trade shows: Mobile World Congress in Spain and the Geneva Motor Show in Switzerland. The big story at MWC -- the world's largest mobile phone show -- was the debut of the Galaxy S9 and its larger sibling, the S9 Plus. Samsung's marketing for the phones was all about the camera, and the Plus one-ups its little brother with Samsung's second-ever dual rear camera. The S9 series are the first phones to automatically switch to a different aperture for better low-light photos. They've also got super slow-motion video and the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor. 

So, why not put the S9 Plus to the test in the wild: Could the phone take the place of my trusty DSLR, and shoot a magazine-style sports car photo spread?

What follows is my attempt to do just that. All of the photos in this story were taken and edited with the Galaxy S9 Plus as I put it and the 570GT through their paces on the journey from Geneva to London.

An early start

My trip started bright and early in Switzerland. I picked up the car (a loaner, obviously) from the heart of the city at 7 a.m., and after a brief tour of the main controls I was on the road, desperately trying to get out of Geneva before the morning rush hour hit. I hadn't even considered shooting with the phone at this point -- I was concerned only with handling the vast power of the car when I was bumper-to-bumper with other vehicles on Geneva's busy streets.

Before long I was out on the motorways and I quickly found a place to pull over and set up the phone. To help me film the trip on the S9, I'd brought a compact Manfrotto Pixi tripod, with a phone clip. It was small enough to simply stand on the small luggage shelf behind me, filming the road ahead through the windscreen.

The challenge was framing the shot properly. While you get a live view of the scene when you're in photo mode, as soon as you hit the video record button, that view zooms in dramatically. It makes it impossible to accurately frame your video before you start recording. As a result all of my video clips needed trimming at the beginning to cut out the time I spent reframing the shot.

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Climbing up this mountain in this car was just so much fun.

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The next problem occurred when I put my foot to the floor to accelerate onto the motorway. The sheer force of the massive V8 engine of the McLaren caused the little tripod to immediately topple over. I had to keep driving for 20 minutes until I could safely pull over and reset the camera. To avoid the same thing happening again, I moved the phone to my full-size Manfrotto tripod and extended its legs to wedge in the passenger footwell and the passenger seat, there was no room for it to wobble over while driving.

From there it was simply a case of settling down into the car and enjoying the journey. Taking the faster motorways meant I was able to relish the thrill of the car as I cut my way around multiple stunning snowcapped mountains. Eventually I pulled off the motorway and started to climb higher into the Alps. It was here that the car really came into its own, gripping tightly as I rounded an endless string of hairpin bends, shooting forwards like a bullet when I stamped on the accelerator when the road straightened out. With the windows open, the roar of that huge engine sounded amazing echoing off the sheer rock faces.

I kept a vague eye on the phone, pulling over every so often to restart recordings. I was shooting at 1080p HD resolution, rather than 4K and with 128GB of storage on the phone, I wasn't at all nervous about running out of space. I couldn't say the same about the battery, however. I filmed about 3 hours of mountain road with the screen brightness on max before I noticed the battery was down to just 5 percent. Time for the Mophie Powerstation XXL external battery.

With power no longer an issue, I carried on following the mountain road, winding higher and higher, snow drifts building up alarmingly on both sides of the road. Although the 570GT had all-weather tyres and traction control, it didn't stop the rear wheels sliding out on many of the corners of the snow-covered road. While powersliding around the snow-covered bends was immense fun, it all came to an abrupt halt when I found myself inadvertently queuing for... a train?

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Boarding the train. There's no room for error here.

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Train of terror

As it turned out, many of the high mountain passes in the Alps are closed during winter and instead, cars are loaded onto trains and driven right through the centre of the mountain to the other side. Unfortunately for me, I wasn't sure exactly where I was or where the train would take me, and I didn't have any phone signal to Google it. After trying and failing to get this information from the ticket booth -- their English wasn't great and my German was much worse -- I instead had to simply accept that I've paid 28 Euros for a train to take me somewhere and that maybe it was where I wanted to be.

To make matters worse, I was about to have the worst train journey I've ever had. 

It started poorly, as the rickety old train was only marginally wider than the car. As I was towards the front of the queue, I was one of the first to drive on to the train, and then all the way along it to the end. Parking sensors bleeping in terror, I crawled, inch by excruciating inch down the carriages, the rough metal train barriers threatening to gouge great lines in the expensive paintwork of the McLaren every second. But the unpleasantness was far from over.

The other thing I didn't realise is that the tunnel had no lighting. I found myself hurtling through the core of a mountain on a rickety train in the sort of utter pitch darkness that makes your eyes feel funny as they ache for even a speck of light. The thunder of the train echoed through the tunnel, giving a deafening soundtrack to an already terrifying experience, with no option but to sit and wait for it to end.

It is not a journey for claustrophobics.

After what felt like 2 hours, but was more realistically about 20 minutes, I was back in daylight and once the GPS caught up, I discovered I was at the Goppenstein station. It wasn't exactly on my route, but I wasn't far off and it didn't take long before I was at my first overnight stop in the Swiss town of Meiringen.

Following in Sherlock's footsteps

Famous for the Reichenbach Falls -- where Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis Moriarty had their final confrontation -- Meiringen is nestled in a valley, dwarfed by snow-capped alpine peaks. It seemed a great place to do my first photoshoot of the car and, with about an hour of usable daylight left, I drove around to find the best location.

That's no easy task. Not only do I need to find a spot that includes the beautiful mountains in the background, but the location must also have a great-looking area in the foreground in which the car can sit. Making things more difficult is that the car needs to be parked off the road, so as to not block traffic. As I was alone on the trip, there was no second driver who could quickly move the car out of the way in an emergency. Sure, I could find a random parking lot or some roadside lay-by, but rarely do those spots provide much opportunity for a good photograph.

I eventually found a location and over the next 20 minutes I walked around the car, looking for the best compositions that really showed it off in the dramatic beauty of its surroundings. I got down low for many shots as this angle gives any car a powerful, menacing look, which works perfectly for a high-performance car like the McLaren. 

I shot in auto mode on the S9 Plus, as it seemed to produce the best-looking results. I was impressed with its ability to keep the bright blue sky under control but still give plenty of detail in the darker areas of the scene. Even looking at the images on the phone's screen, I was impressed.

It made the whole shooting process notably easy too. Rather than having to dive into manual controls to change white balance, or exposure, I could simply trust that the camera would snap the best possible shot in the given conditions. It left me to focus purely on composition.

Using panorama mode, I was able to capture the whole hotel room in one image.

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Back at my hotel, I wanted to shoot my room, as it's great to give some behind-the-scenes colour on a road trip like this. Although the camera has a fairly wide-angle view, it wasn't wide enough to capture the whole room. A neat trick is to use the panorama mode, panning the phone around to capture the scene from one side to the other. I put the phone back on my tripod, in portrait orientation, providing a perfectly level pivot point that let me simply push the phone gently in a semicircle to capture the shot evenly.

Once I was happy with the results, it was straight to bed for a good night's sleep ahead of a 10-hour driving stint the next day.

Munching the miles

Day 2 would take me from the Swiss mountains, through the German Black Forest and onwards toward my next overnight stop in France. I had over 800 km (500 miles) to cover -- about 10 hours, according to Google Maps. That didn't leave me much time to stop and take photos, so I was on the lookout for any locations that don't require significant detours off my route.

I tried a few stopping points, each time getting out and looking for potentially interesting compositions, but each time I was left underwhelmed. I settled into the car to put the miles behind me, soundtracked by the awesome roar of that V8 engine.

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I was limited to only shooting in safe roadside lay-bys.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

This leg wasn't great for car photography, but it was one hell of a good drive. The smooth road cut across the German hillsides, curving gracefully past towns and through forests. All of which provided the most incredible setting in which to drive a supercar. So compelling, in fact, that I completely neglected to get any lunch.

I set the phone back up on the larger tripod, trying various filming angles to capture the amazing scenery as I cruised through. As well as a straight-on view, I tried sideways angles out of the passenger window and, using the second zoom lens, I filmed the wing mirror, getting a neat view of the mountains behind me as they steadily disappeared out of sight.

Many miles later, my eye was caught by a roadside logging station. I knew I had to pull up for some shots. The huge piles of immense tree trunks laid flat provided an opportunity for an arresting counterpoint: the ultimate on-road vehicle going off-road.

I switched back and forth into the zoomed-in view, trying to use the piles of logs as leading lines that draw the eye towards the car. The muted colours and subtle sunlight looked great, even on the phone's screen. Again, I made sure to walk around the area, moving the car around and even opening the doors to try to find the best angles. I even climbed high on to one of the stacks of logs to try an overhead angle. A few tweaks in the Snapseed photo-editing app and I was really pleased with this series of images.

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I used these logs as leading lines, drawing the eye into the image and towards the car.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

My next stop was the Geroldsau waterfall, near the German-French border. I didn't intentionally seek it out, but I happened to see a sign on the roadside and simply had to take a look. I parked up and started walking down the trail and along the valley to my goal. As I walked further and further, the light started to drop noticeably and I was concerned I wouldn't be able to get there and back in time.

I had no phone signal, so I couldn't check how far the walk was, or if it was even worth trying to make it. I started jogging on the path to try and get there faster and eventually came to the waterfall. In all honesty, it was disappointing, not least because the main viewing spot had been roped off for safety reasons so I wasn't able to get a proper shot. Sullen and out of breath, I turned round to head back.

Using manual mode, I was able to slow down the shutter speed, creating a sense of motion by blurring the water.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

I did at least find a smaller waterfall on my way back where I was able to snag a neat shot with the phone. I crouched down low, balancing on a couple of rocks, to get the best angle for the phone. Shooting in manual mode, I was able to use a slow shutter speed in order to slightly blur the water, which really helps give a sense of motion. It wasn't Geroldsau, but it was a cool alternative.

Serious speed

After my disappointing hike, I decided it was time for some fun, so I headed to the autobahn. With no speed limits on many of Germany's highways, that's where a supercar like the 570GT can really come alive. I'd put the car in Sport mode, which made the acceleration that bit more responsive. When a clear section opened up ahead of me, I was able to slam the pedal to the floor, sending the car screaming forward and my stomach lurching backwards.

I decided enough was enough when I hit 165 mph -- somewhat short of the car's 203 mph top speed (or 265 and 327 kph, respectively). On a closed circuit perhaps I could have got closer, but on public roads when I have to be prepared for anyone to suddenly pull out into my lane, it simply wasn't safe to push it any further.

I'd had a voicemail earlier in the day from the owners of the hotel I was due to stay at that night. They both had the flu, so asked if I wouldn't mind making other arrangements. Not wanting to get the flu myself, I booked a different place nearer to Germany, helpfully cutting off about 3 hours of drive time. After a quick bite and a beer in my last-minute hotel, I fell into bed for a good rest before my final long drive home.

Champagne shenanigans

The first leg of my last day took me through the Champagne region of France, where I made straight for a boulangerie to buy some quiche and an apricot tart (both delicious). I've visited this area before so I knew just how stunningly beautiful it can be. I hadn't visited in March, however, and the combination of dense black clouds and driving rain meant that shooting conditions were terrible. Worse still, arriving out of the summer season meant the lovely champagne houses I passed were closed.

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Not exactly welcoming.

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I hoped to find some sort of luxurious champagne mansion to use as a backdrop for the car to provide a wonderful context for the area. The nearest I could find in the pouring rain was an outbuilding of the Moet & Chandon facility. It was perhaps better than nothing, but it wasn't the stunning vista or grand mansion I hoped to capture in what turned out to be my last photo location of the trip.

After cutting my losses in Champagne, I cranked up the music (some brutal metal from Periphery, interspersed with Taylor Swift) and headed directly for the Eurotunnel, stopping briefly at one of the larger wine warehouses in Calais for a box of France's finest.

I boarded the train -- a much wider carriage than the Swiss mountain train, so no fears of ruining the sides of the car -- and popped on a podcast to keep me entertained while the train took me under the Channel and back to England.

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A cracking camera, a tricky trip

There's no question the trip had been a hell of a lot of fun. Driving an insanely fast McLaren supercar through the Swiss Alps and across the continent is the sort of dream trip I never imagined getting to do. But the photography wasn't as easy as I'd hoped.

The Galaxy S9 Plus played its part extremely well. Its photos looked great, with spot-on exposures and white balance. Manual controls, too, helped me get more creative and the wide aperture mode helped capture as much light as possible when I was shooting in shady locations. The sheer power of the processor meant that editing in Snapseed every night was an absolute breeze.

The video quality looked mostly excellent, despite the frustrations in framing blind for the zoomed-in view.

The bigger problem for me was simply being alone. Having to find a safe place to park the car each time I wanted to shoot it meant I was extremely limited in the areas I could shoot in. Many opportunities I saw would have demanded a second driver, as it simply wouldn't have been safe to park the car, get out and shoot from a distance, leaving the car in the road.

I could have taken much more dynamic shots with someone else with me, and it would certainly have given me more flexibility to stretch the phone's skills. It's been a learning curve, but despite that, the Galaxy S9 Plus has helped me take some badass shots of an incredible machine in stunning locations. 

And that's all I wanted.