When the Apple iPhone came out with, about, the third iteration it had a reasonably decent camera and sparked a whole sub-genre of photography called iPhoneography. Some big name photographers started taking, displaying and selling iPhone images. A whole host of apps were created to complement iPhoneography. As surprising as it sounds, not everyone has an iPhone nor does everyone want an iPhone. But for those who aren’t ‘Apple people’ you can get in on the game too. Android smartphones have cameras as well (so do Blackberry phones but in my experience, RIM’s implementation of cameras is pretty weak) and some are as good or better than what’s in the iPhone. I’m going to take a look a a new one on the market, the Samsung Galaxy SII.
This is the LTE (Long Term Evolution) version of the 4G SII that came out a few months ago. The LTE version is just new in Canada from Rogers as it begins to launch its LTE network. What follows is a review of this phone from the standpoint of a photographer. It won’t go into details on the actual phone or other functions but will concentrate on the camera/video aspects as well as using it as a ‘portable portfolio’.
Let’s start with a few specs. It’s got a 4.5″ screen, which is larger than that on the iPhone. The screen is a Super AMOLED Plus with 480×800 resolution. It’s got an 8MP camera with a 4/3 aspect ratio. For video, it can record in full 1080P.
The screen is quite bright and you’ll likely want to turn the brightness down. It’s also very sharp and has very good contrast. Colours are generally accurate but the colour temperature of the screen is on the cool side. Obviously this can’t be adjusted. But the brightness can.
For viewing photos, it’s actually sharper than my desktop monitor. When pulling up an image on screen, the full rez image is displayed in less than a second. It starts out slightly softened and then snaps into the sharpened image very quickly using the third party gallery app QuickPic. The phone does come with a pre-loaded gallery app but I prefer the QuickPic app. It displays the images in the order they’re named and in the order I set them up before loading onto the phone. The pre-loaded gallery app doesn’t seem to do so.
Turning the phone from the vertical to the horizontal to view images is a very quick transition.
In terms of image size, I’ve sized all the images I have on the phone to 1920 pixels on the long edge and allowed the short edge to be whatever it ends up as. The screen displays these HD images extremely well.
The 8MP camera has a lens focal length of about 4mm. I’m going to suggest that translates into about a 28 to 30mm angle of view equivalent on a 35mm camera. So it is a wide angle lens. There’s a 4X digital zoom but I’d advise not using it. Better to crop in an editing software. The aperture is a fixed f2.7. ISO speeds range from 40 to 800, although you can’t actually set an ISO below 100. To use those lower ISO settings you have to be in Auto ISO mode and then you take whatever you get. If the camera has the ability to use them, then making them available in the ISO menu would be the preferred option. It’d just be a firmware change from Samsung. Shutter speeds range from 1/15 second to 1/16000 second. So no GorillaMobile mounted slow shutter speed shots with this camera. There is a small LED flash next to the lens as well that also operates as a video light.
The number of settings available for the camera put it pretty much on par with, or exceeding, many of the compact point and shoot cameras on the market. Clicking the Cog icon in the upper left corner of the camera opens the main settings menu. Here is where you access the Flash menu (3 choices, On, Off & Auto), Shooting Mode (Single shot, Smile shot, Beauty, Panorama, Action shot & Cartoon), Scene Mode (None, Portrait, Landscape, Night, Sports, Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dawn, Fall Colour, Fireworks, Text, Candlelight & Backlight), Exposure Value (you can adjust exposure compensation in a range of +2 to -2), Focus Mode (Auto focus, Macro & Face Detection), Timer (Off, 2 sec, 5 sec & 10 sec), Effects (None, Negative, Greyscale, Sepia), Resolution (6 choices from full 3264×2448 down to 640×480), White Balance (Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Incandescent & Fluorescent), ISO (Auto, 100, 200, 400 & 800), Metering (Centre-weighted, Spot & Matrix), Anti Shake (yes it has an anti shake feature, On & Off)), Auto Contrast (On or Off), Guidelines (this puts a thirds grid on the screen, On or Off), Image Quality (Superfine, Fine & Normal), GPS Tagging (will geotag images using the GPS chip in the phone, On or Off), Shutter Sound (On or Off – it’s very annoying so Off is the advised choice), Storage (lets you choose where images will be stored, either in the onboard memory or an accessory microSD card) and Reset (resets all menus back to defaults).
There are 4 hotkeys along the top or side of the camera that can be assigned to any of the menu selections. This is done via the Edit Shortcuts option by pressing, dragging and dropping the menu item to the hotkey location.
The camera has a quasi-half press focus mode. Press and hold the shutter release (the camera icon) and the camera will focus but won’t take the picture. Release the shutter button and the image is captured. This allows you to focus and recompose if you’d like. A virtual toggle to one side of the shutter button lets you switch between still and video capture. On the opposite side of the shutter button is a thumbnail of the last image captured which allows you to open the viewer and review captured images. You can mark for deletion or move to another folder from the viewer through the menu invoked with the menu key on the bezel of the phone.
By default, the focus point is in the centre of the screen and is denoted by the 4 corners of a box. Touching anywhere on the screen will move the focus point to that position. The camera uses the LED flash as a focus aid in lower light levels. After taking the shot, the focus point moves back to the default position in the middle of the screen.
One real quirk of the camera is the numbering system. The first 8 digits are the date in yyyymmdd followed by a 6 digit numeric identifier, but that 6 digit number isn’t sequential. One shot numbered as 20111111_082731 is followed by 20111111_082749 and followed by 20111111_082812. It really is a strange sequence and as yet I haven’t been able to determine how it’s derived. Addendum (12/27/11) – the last six digits of the image number represent the time the image was taken in hhmmss format.
Another thing to watch out for is the position of the camera on the back of the phone. The lens is positioned very close to the top edge of the phone. Given the wide angle of view it’s very easy to get a finger into the shot. Or to get some other bit of unwanted detritus into the shot. You’ll need to be careful in how you hold the phone in landscape mode to make sure you don’t get a finger sneaking into the frame. It would have been better if the camera lens had been placed further away from the edge or if the lens/flash arrangement were turned 90 degrees.
When you select some of the presets, other of the adjustable options are locked out. This makes sense. Selecting a preset should lock in some settings. There are a couple that don’t seem to make as much sense though. When you invoke one of the Scene settings (e.g., Landscape, Sunset) the Anti-Shake option is locked out and set to Off. Similarly, if you move out of Auto ISO to select a specific ISO setting, Anti-Shake is locked out and set to Off. Anti-Shake is a fairly good feature to have and making it available at all times would be a good idea. This, again, is a fairly simple firmware change.
How’s it all work? Pretty darn well in the right situations.
As can be expected from a camera with such a small sensor, the brightness range or dynamic range of the sensor isn’t overly wide. At best, I’d estimate it at about 6 1/2 stops to maybe 7 stops at the lowest ISO of 40. As the ISO settings move higher, noise begins to detract from useable dynamic range. To test this, I created a 10 1/2 stop, 21 segment step wedge. It was shot under diffuse light from a distance of about 2 feet. I then estimated the dynamic range based on how many segments could be discerned before noise became too intrusive. The results are below.
The 4 1/2 stops at ISO 800 may be a little generous. My estimate of about 6 stops for ISO 100 seems reasonable when we look at the image below. This was taken under diffuse, indirect light. The small rapids are right on the verge of being overexposed and there’s no full black shadow in the shot. I’m estimating it contains about 7 stops of brightness.
Next I looked at the lens. I created a block chart that would show a few things. It shows barrel or pincushion distortion, light falloff centre to corner and sharpness falloff centre to corner. The first image below shows that there is some barrel distortion. That’s to be expected in a wide angle lens but it’s really not any more than some fairly expensive DSLR lenses on the market. What’s really nice though is that there’s really no dropoff in brightness from centre to corner. This chart was shot from a distance of about 2 feet, just close enough to fill the frame. But as we’ll see later with some in the field shots, corner brightness is very good.
Now we’ll look at each ISO setting for centre and corner sharpness. These are 100% crops with no sharpening applied except for what may be done in the camera.
What we see here is typically what we’d expect to see. Sharpness is greatest in the centre and falls off toward the corners. As the ISO is increased, the falloff toward the corners is greater. In particular, note how clean the ISO 40 shot is compared to even the ISO 100 shot. By ISO 400, there is a fairly marked drop in centre sharpness and at ISO 800, the lines between the blocks are very fuzzy. All in all, this camera performs well at the lower ISO settings.
The next thing to look at is White Balance. This camera has an Auto WB setting as well as the presets mentioned above. Auto WB works well for most cameras in what we might call the middle range of lighting colour temperatures. As the colour temperature of the light moves to the very warm end (e.g. tungsten) or the very cool end (e.g., fluorescent) the AWB function begins to not work as well and some fairly strong colour casts can be introduced, particularly with artificial light sources. We may want the cool look of shadow or the warm look of sunset but with artificial light, we generally want an accurate white balance. My garage has one light source that’s a very cool fluorescent and a second light source that has very warm incandescent lights. I used this to test the Auto White Balance of the camera and compare it to the respective presets.
On the left in each of the next two images is the AutoWB and on the right is the preset.
In the images with the fluorescent light source, the Auto setting produced a bit of a green tint. This isn’t unexpected but it’s not extreme. The preset may actually be a bit too cool (blue) but it’s probably preferable to the Auto. With the incandescent light, the differences are much smaller. The Auto setting produces perhaps a very sligthly more red/warm result but it really is neglibible. The Incandescent preset gives us what we’d expect in terms of a colour balance. It may still be a bit too warm but it’s definitely not objectionable. Overall, the Auto settings do surprisingly well in these two extreme situations.
The last thing I wanted to look at with the lens was chromatic aberration. This is a problem for many lenses. Is it here?
No, it isn’t. This is a situation where CA would definitely show it if were an issue. This shot exhibits none along the transitions between the sky and the trees. It could be due in part to the processing of the image in the camera. Whatever the reason, it’s an extremely positive result.
As mentioned above, the camera does have a small LED light that serves as a focus aid in low light and as a flash. As should be expected, coverage is pretty weak with significant falloff. The flash really shouldn’t be relied on for much. The first shot below was taken from a distance of about 4 feet, the second from about 1 foot in an otherwise darkened room.
From 4 feet, the flash lights up the centre of the piece of art hanging on the wall and shows you the hint of parts of the frame but the falloff is significant. On the 1 foot shot, the falloff is also extreme and only lights the centre of the shot. As we’ll see when we look at the macro setting next, the colour balance of the flash is quite cool too. The shot from 1 foot above is blurred because I was inside the range of focus for normal shooting. To get this shot in focus, you’d need to switch to Macro mode.
When putting the camera into Macro focus mode, you’re able to take shots from a distance of about 1 foot or so down to about 4 inches. Beyond about 1 foot, the camera won’t lock focus and take a shot. The first shot below is taken in Macro mode from about 1 foot with the flash turned on. The second is from the same distance with the flash off.
We see the falloff of the flash in the first shot but also the very cool colour balance of the flashed shot. In the second shot, lit just by window light, the colour balance is much more accurate and, obviously the exposure much more even. The next image is at the close focus distance of about 4 inches.
In the field, Macro mode gives a bit of a blurred background to help isolate the subject. You can adjust the angle of the camera to get more or less of the subject in focus and the result does appear live on the screen so it’s a good preview.
We already looked at the one shot taken in ‘real’ conditions with the creek shot above. The shot below was taken in very similar light with the camera in the Fall Colours setting. This is an unedited version straight out of the camera.
This is a very good starting point. It’s not overly contrasty, allowing a bit of room to work on it. Exposure is well controlled and the colours are already fairly good. The next version is after a bit of tweaking in Lightroom.
To get to this result I applied a small amount of sharpening, adjusted exposure down slightly and applied a bit of highlight recovery, boosted colour vibrance, applied a slightly warmer white balance and a small curve adjustment to add a bit more contrast. I’m quite happy with this. It looks good on the computer screen. How does it look in a print?
I printed three versions of this image. The first was printed to 12×16 at 200 ppi with no uprezzing. This print loses a fair bit of detail. In particular, the leaves on the ground above and below the log are very soft and lacking in detail. Next I printed a 10×13 (native 245 ppi) and uprezzed to 360. This second print was much better. Uprezzing to the native resolution of the printer produced significantly better detail. Of note was the fact that the detail in the leaves on the ground was markedly better. Lastly I printed another 12×16 uprezzed to 360 ppi. This is a much more significant interpolation of the image file. Frankly, I was a bit surprised how well it held up. There really was very little difference between the uprezzed 10″ print and the uprezzed 12″ print. Would I put either of these up for sale? You know what, I’m not sure yet. Probably not, but it’s not a slam dunk by any means. And as I mentioned at the top of the article, there are well regarded photographers who are selling camera phone images. I think in many cases they’re selling highly stylised images that have been worked on with some of the funky editing programs available but selling them nonetheless.
What conclusions can be drawn from this and where do we go from here? In terms of conclusions, this little camera in the Galaxy S II LTE is definitely very capable in the right conditions. It can produce some very, very good images and those images can be used to produce some very nice, small prints. The geotagging feature is very nice. Images can be shared directly to a variety of social networking sites depending on what apps you have installed. One thing to note is that images taken with the camera aren’t tagged with any colour profile. As a result, direct sharing on the web may result in the colours not being quite what they could be. For the best image to share, it’d be better to tag the image with the sRGB colour profile in an image editor. This isn’t going to be a big issue for most people using the phone; however. As far as where we go from here, there’s really little doubt that with the quality of some of the cameras in smart phones today, smartphoneography is here to stay. Will quality improve in the future? Not sure. More pixels isn’t the answer. Better lenses? Maybe, but the lens in this particular camera is already quite good. I think there’s little question that this camera performs as well or better than many of the small point & shoots available on the market and has more user adjustable options than many of those too. I’d have no qualms about using this as a P&S substitute and lessening the number of things being carried around by one. As mentioned above, I’m still a bit on the fence as to whether I’d sell prints made from this camera.
Should you rush out and buy this phone just for the camera? No, of course not. But if you’re in the market for a new phone, if you take photos with your current phone and you’re not locked into the Apple world then this phone/camera is worthy of consideration. With my previous Blackberry, I didn’t carry it with me all the time. Given the quality of this camera, ease of use of the touchscreen and other features of the phone (I found a coffee shop very quickly and easily in an unfamiliar area recently with Google Maps), I can see myself carrying this phone a lot more. Add to that the quality of the screen, the nice gallery app I’ve added and the ability to use it as a ‘pocket portfolio’ and it makes sense to carry it more. One last thing to keep in mind. Unlike with typical cameras, you’re putting your hands all over the lens of this one. Cleaning it off from time to time with a soft cloth will help keep the pictures you take; with this or any similar camera, clean and crisp. Grease-smeared abstracts can be nice, but not all the time. 🙂
I haven’t shown images from all the various shooting modes and picture settings (e.g., Panorama, Landscape). If you’d like to see some of those, leave a comment and I’ll post some of those too.
One final remark about the functionality I’ll make is with regard to transferring images to and from the computer. With this phone, a utility called Kies Air is used. This application makes use of a wireless network connection to transfer files. None of the available software on the Samsung site will work. This is most definitely a less than optimal manner of transferring files. Not everyone has a wireless network in their home or office. Wireless networks are slower than USB connections, particularly in the upstream direction. It would be far preferable if a hardwired connection were able to be used with the other software Samsung has available. That said, it is possible to mount the phone as a USB mass storage device and transfer files via drag and drop. I have been able to mount the phone a couple times and transfer files this way but I’ve also had a couple of situations where the connection didn’t seem to work properly and was unable to move files. A reboot of the phone and the computer didn’t solve the problem on those occasions. It’s unclear why it worked some times but not others. It baffled Samsung support as well. There haven’t been any issues in this regard over the last several days, so it may have just been a one-time quirk.
As far as using the camera, I’d suggest keeping it in Auto ISO so that you can take full advantage of the lower ISO settings and the Anti-Shake. If Samsung were to update the firmware to address this, then selecting specific ISO settings would be possible. AutoWB works well in most situations but switching it to either fluorescent or incandescent for those lighting extremes will produce a bit better result.
I’ll cover the video aspects of the phone in a Part II in the coming week or so. Stay tuned!