Camera: Superb In Sunlight

Camera-wise, the Samsung Galaxy S5 is an incremental upgrade on the Galaxy S4, moving from a 13- to 16-megapixel sensor. The hardware in question is Samsung’s S5K2P2XX CMOS with ISOCELL technology, which sees Samsung returning to using in-house camera sensors rather than Sony’s Exmor RS sensors, which were what we saw on the Galaxy Note 3 and Galaxy S4.

The S5K2P2XX is a 16-megapixel 1/2.6” sensor with an aspect ratio of 16:9, a capture resolution of 5312 x 2988, and a pixel size of 1.12 µm. The shift from 13 MP to 16 MP is essentially just to fill out the extra resolution needed to make photos natively 16:9: shots taken with the Galaxy S5 have nearly the same pixel height as the 4:3-aspect-ratio S4, although the S5’s shots are 1000 pixels wider.

The Galaxy S5 sticks with relatively small pixels, which may hamper low-light photography when comparing to other smartphones with larger pixels in their sensors, such as the HTC One M8 and iPhone 5s. Samsung claims some of this advantage is offset by the ISOCELL technology used in the S5’s CMOS, which reduces crosstalk between pixels by 30% compared to conventional BSI sensors.

The lens used on the S5 is 4.8mm in length, which equates to a 35mm-effective focal length of 31mm, and has an aperture of f/2.2. There’s no optical image stabilization (OIS) in the Galaxy S5, nor is the lens as wide open as I’ve seen, both of which will have an effect on possible shutter speeds.

The front-facing camera is 2-megapixels in size, and features the same 1.12 µm pixels thanks to a tiny 1/7.3” sensor. It captures 16:9 1080p (1920 x 1080) images through a lens with an f/2.0 aperture.

The Galaxy S5’s camera brings no surprises to the table in terms of image quality. Like the Galaxy S4 and Galaxy Note 3, the unit performs extremely well in strong lighting, but isn’t quite as good when it comes to cloudy days, indoor photography and low-light situations.

When the conditions are right, you can get some truly spectacular shots out of the Galaxy S5’s 16-megapixel camera. Color reproduction is exemplary, dynamic range is perhaps the best I’ve seen on a smartphone camera, while images are reasonably crisp looking at full-resolution detail. At low ISOs, there doesn’t appear to be a ton of post-processing, which means images are usually free of nasty artefacts.

The high resolution images produced by the camera mean that there’s room for zooming and cropping, while original shots downscaled to 1080p have a superb level of sharpness and detail. When using the S5 for macro photography, you can generally get great results, although bokeh isn’t great from the f/2.2 lens as is typical for a smartphone.

Throughout my time testing the Galaxy S5’s camera, I noticed some interesting behaviour when the camera is shooting in automatic mode. In good lighting conditions, an ISO as low as 40 is used with a shutter speed as fast as it likes. Once it reaches ISO 50, the shutter speed starts getting slower the worse the light is, until it reaches 1/33 of a second; only after it reaches ISO 50 and 1/33s does it start to boost the ISO, regardless of whether you’ve turned on the image stabilizer feature or not.

ISO 50 is obviously less grainy and preserves more detail than higher ISOs, but there are some lighting conditions where 1/33s shutter speeds just don’t cut it. For example, if it’s a cloudy day and you’re trying to photograph a moving object like some gently rustling leaves, the automatic 1/33s shutter speed choice will mean you’re getting a blurry photo, despite higher ISOs being available. One way to avoid this is by overriding automatic ISO with a selection of your choice, but I’d prefer to see better setting selection on the software’s part.

The actual quality of the photos in moderate lighting conditions are fairly good. There’s an appropriate, lifelike amount of color saturation despite less than ideal conditions, and ISOs in the 100-400 range are serviceable through a decent lack of grain. Anything above ISO 400 and post-processing becomes an issue, where the Galaxy S5 tries to reduce grain which in turn noticeably reduces image quality.

The aforementioned image stabilizer is an interesting implementation in that it’s only active when the Galaxy S5 detects poor lighting, such as when you’re in a dark room or you’re shooting at night. In these situations, it takes significantly longer than usual to take a photo as it appears to be taking a burst capture during which it selects and keeps the least blurry shot.

Even more intriguing is how shots taken using the stabilizer are brighter and less grainy than their unstabilized counterparts, while remaining reasonably blur-free. It seems the feature actually uses a longer shutter speed and lower ISO, and the results are acceptable as far as I’m concerned. Obviously photos would be better with OIS and larger pixels, and the S5 is hopeless at capturing moving objects in low-light conditions, but it’s better than I’ve seen from past Samsung handsets.

However there’s no doubting that taking photos at night with the S5 produces clearly worse results than its rivals that are geared towards low-light photography. The S5 needs to use higher ISOs, and the prevalence of quality-reducing post-processing is something the image stabilizer cannot fix.

As has been the case with past models, the Samsung Galaxy S5 comes with a fantastic HDR mode. Thanks to improvements on the software, camera and SoC side, HDR mode is now quicker than ever, while its quality is just as good. Detail hidden in shadows is brought to life using HDR mode, and I achieved less ghosting than in the past when shooting moving objects.

Alongside HDR mode, Samsung has included a new feature called Selective Focus, which attempts to replicate the depth features of HTC’s Duo Camera. When you have a subject that is under 50cm from the camera, in this mode the S5 will take two images, one with focus on the subject, and one with focus on the background. Through a combination of depth detection and simulated bokeh, it gives the appearance of DSRL-like depth-of-field.

Except that it doesn’t work as well as you’d like. For one, it doesn’t work well with moving objects as the camera has to take two images, and secondly, the depth of field calculations are usually in some way wrong, giving strange and obviously fake results. For example the image above has pleasant simulated bokeh, but it abruptly stops half way down the fence line.

In the Gallery app you can go back and change the focus to one of three presets: near, far or pan (where everything is in focus); but it lacks the flexibility, accuracy and overall quality of HTC’s two-camera solution.

The Galaxy S5 doesn’t have the fantastic manual mode of the HTC One M8 or Nokia Lumia smartphones, but it does have a decent array of settings to play with. Everything from the metering mode to white balance and effects can be adjusted through the one panel, and there are several other shooting modes to play with. Samsung has actually reduced and condensed the shooting modes available (thankfully), with many being amalgamated into the Shot & More mode that utilizes burst photography.

Samsung has made a big deal about focusing and shutter times in the Galaxy S5’s camera, and I’m happy to report that the S5 is very quick at both of those tasks. It’s noticeably quicker at focusing in particular when comparing to other flagship handsets, although it’s roughly on-par with the HTC One M8.

The Galaxy S5 is capable of recording videos at a maximum resolution of 3840 x 2160 (4K Ultra HD) at 30 frames per second, which delivers fantastic results. Each frame looks just as good as a still image when you downscale to a 1080p display, while full resolution is surprisingly well detailed, with accurate colors and great dynamic range.

Recording in 4K requires a lot of storage space, with Samsung using high-profile H.264 at 48 Mbps. As a result, the 52 second sample video above is 303 MB in size, so watch out when shooting in this mode. Standard 1080p30 is encoded in 17 Mbps, which is a lower than the 20 Mbps maximum we’ve seen used on other devices, while 1080p60 is shot at 28 Mbps.

HDR video is possible on the Galaxy S5, and results are fantastic thanks to the near-real-time HDR mode that significantly reduces ghosting. Even when panning or filming moving objects, it’s hard to spot HDR-typical motion blur, making it a great choice in high-contrast scenes.

If you want to see a sample of 1080p60, labelled as “Smooth Motion” on the handset, you can download one here. It’s best to record in this mode when you’re capturing fast-moving items such as cars, people or sports, but be aware that it uses more space and is downsampled to 30 FPS when uploaded to popular services such as YouTube.

Other recording modes include Fast Motion (essentially a time lapse) and Slow Motion, the latter of which shoots at 720p120 at 12 Mbps. The S5 allows you to record at either 2x, 4x or 8x slower than real life, although choosing 8x slower just means playback is reduced to 15 frames per second rather than 30. There’s nothing ground-breaking about this Slow Motion mode, but quality is passable.