Camera and Video Quality
Unsurprisingly, Samsung has repurposed the Galaxy S4’s camera module for the Galaxy Note 3. What you’re getting is a 13-megapixel Sony Exmor RS IMX135 backside illuminated 1/3.06” CMOS sensor, featuring 1.12 μm pixels, plus a 31mm (effective) f/2.2 lens module. There’s no optical image stabilization (OIS), which definitely affects low-light images, and the rear camera is paired with a 2-megapixel front-facing unit.
In good lighting conditions, results from the Note 3’s camera are fantastic, with solid color reproduction, accurate white balance and reasonably good dynamic range. Looking at full-resolution crops reveal images are quite sharp, if slightly over-processed, and usually without grain. The f/2.2 lens can focus close enough that macro-style images are possible, however bokeh is merely average, so don’t expect amazing results.
Where conditions become less ideal (indoors, cloudy days, artificial lighting), the Note 3 is still a reasonable performer. Colors remain quite accurate although slightly less vibrant; sometimes images can be washed out, but usually contrast is good enough. As far as smartphones go, the Note 3’s camera in moderate lighting conditions is one of the better ones I’ve used, but still not perfect.
Samsung has made some tweaks to the way the camera software functions in lower levels of light to compensate for the lack of optical image stabilization. When you capture an image in poor lighting, a dialog appears saying “Processing”. While I’m not absolutely sure what is going on behind the scenes, I believe a burst shot is being taken, with software automatically selecting (and then enhancing and post-processing) the sharpest image afterwards.
The tweaked software appears to work quite well, with most images I took in lower light being quite sharp, despite the lack of OIS and sensor’s small pixels. However it’s clear that a high ISO is being used, masked with quite severe noise reduction that significantly reduces the effective resolution of the image. You don’t have to view full-resolution images to see the quality reduction in low light, especially in black areas where artifacts are immediately apparent.
Adding in OIS in a future model would allow the camera software to use a slower shutter speed and lower ISO, resulting in better images akin to the Nokia’s high-end Lumia devices.
By default, the Galaxy Note 3 shoots 9-megapixel cropped 16:9 images (which form the majority of samples in this section), but you can expand this to full 13-megapixel 4:3 images in the camera settings. The 16:9 images fill the screen when you’re viewing them later, but if you want the extra resolution at the top and bottom, it’s best to switch over to 4:3.
Like the Galaxy S4, there are a wide range of camera features within the application to explore. Many of these features rely on burst mode: Best Photo allows you to select one image from a burst shot; Best Face takes five photos and stiches in the best faces; Drama takes a burst shot of a moving subject and merges the images; Eraser can remove moving objects from the background of an image; and Golf takes a quick burst of a golf swing.
Animated Photo is a photo mode where you can create cool still/moving hybrid GIF images, and Sound & Shot adds a short snippet of sound to an image. There are two panorama modes – Panorama and Surround Shot (aka. Photo Sphere) – which are quite easy to use, plus there’s a range of effects/filters you can apply in real time to photographs you take.
Many of these shooting modes are good for one-off cool images, but mostly you’ll be shooting in the automatic mode, or the fantastic Rich Tone (HDR) mode. High dynamic range (HDR) images are composite photos of the one scene at multiple exposures, and the Galaxy Note 3 has one of the best HDR modes I’ve seen. If you’re taking a photo of a scene with lots of contrast or shadows, the HDR mode will take an image with far greater amounts of visible detail than the standard Auto mode, making it the perfect shooting mode for when you can’t get the exposure quite right.
The Galaxy Note 3 has the best set of video recording features I’ve seen in a smartphone, packing up to 3840p30 (4K Ultra HD) recording for the first time, using the Snapdragon 800’s full set of encoding features.
Recording at Ultra HD is limited to the Snapdragon model, but at 48 Mbps High-profile H.264 and a resolution of 3840 x 2160, the results are fantastic. Especially when downscaling the video to 1080p, the clarity that you gain from filming in Ultra HD, even if limited to five minutes of shooting with massive file sizes, is awesome. Color reproduction is similar to what you get from still photos, and audio quality is also very good.
If you don’t want to film in Ultra HD, or you have purchased the Exynos model, the Galaxy Note 3 also supports shooting 60 frames per second 1080p video, similar to the LG G2. Filming in this mode, labelled Smooth Motion in the settings, delivers stutter-free videos, although sharing them in full quality becomes tricky when sites like YouTube only support up to 30 FPS videos.
Two other modes include Fast Motion, similar to time lapse video recording, and Slow Motion. I always find slow motion recording incredibly fun and compelling, and the Galaxy Note 3 supports up to 120 frames per second at 720p. The quality of each frame recorded in slow motion is not as good as you’ll get when recording at 720p30, but it’s nevertheless an interesting feature to play around with. If you want to go slower than 120 FPS, the Note does support recording at 8x slower than real life (240 FPS), but playback is only at 15 FPS.