Camera: LG Continues The Trend

LG has largely stuck with what's familiar for the camera on the G3. The rear module is a 13-megapixel Sony Exmor RS IMX135 1/3.06" CMOS - the same sensor on the G2 with 1.12µm pixels - plus a 29mm-effective f/2.4 lens with optical image stabilization. LG could have upgraded to Sony's newer 13 MP sensor, the IMX214, but ultimately appears to have decided against it despite the increased quality it would have brought.

The front selfie camera is again a Sony sensor, this time the IMX208 1/6" 2.1-megapixel sensor with a wide f/2.0 lens. Both cameras are capable of 1080p/30 video recording, although the rear camera can record at 4K as well.

One obvious talking point from the G3's camera setup is the 'laser autofocus' system. Sitting next to the lens is a small blacked-out section dedicated to the laser autofocus array, although you might be disappointed to discover the lasers used don't use the visible light. Instead, a conic infrared beam is projected into the area to measure the depth of objects; data which is then used to assist with autofocus.

The use of this active laser depth-measuring autofocus system allows the G3 to focus quicker than any other smartphone. LG claims focus can be achieved in 276ms with laser autofocus, under the 300ms boasted by the Galaxy S5 and One M8, with greater accuracy in dark environments. When depth data is untrustworthy, the G3 switches to using traditional contrast detection autofocus, which is slower but still accurate.

I haven't done any testing to back up LG's claim that the autofocus system achieves focus in 276ms, simply because I don't have the tools to do so. However it's immediately obvious from using the camera that the G3 focuses faster than the HTC One or Samsung Galaxy S5, especially when switching focus between macro and wide shots.

The simple reason for the speed advantage is that the G3 doesn't need to 'hunt' for focus. When photographing an item up close, it knows how far the item is from the lens and can instantly position the focusing element at the correct distance. On a smartphone using contrast detection, it defaults to a certain focus distance, and then has to move up the focus range, testing each distance very briefly, until it arrives at what it believes is correct.

The speedy focus system easily gives the LG G3 the fastest time-to-capture of any flagship smartphone, including the time to open the camera app, focus, meter, and capture the image to storage. It's not a massive difference that annihilates the competition, but it's certainly noticeable.

Moving on to the actual quality of photos from the camera, and once again LG has been able to deliver in this department. Before the release of the G3 I would have classed the Galaxy S5's and Xperia Z2's Android smartphone cameras as the number one and two respectively, although in some departments the G3 could end up dethroning the Xperia Z2.

In strong lighting the G3 produces some excellent results, assisted by the camera application automatically selecting HDR mode where necessary. The sensor itself has decent dynamic range, but HDR mode gives it that extra boost that leaves photos looking even more detailed when there's contrasting areas in the shot.

The 13-megapixel sensor falls behind Sony and Samsung's 20 and 16 megapixel sensors respectively in terms of resolution, however that doesn't stop the G3 from producing crisp and well-detailed shots. Zooming in reveals some artefacts as a result of post-processing, though there's still plenty of room to reframe and crop images without noticing; you'll have to get down to a 100% crop before the artefacts become apparent.

By default the G3 will capture 10-megapixel shots with an aspect ratio of 16:9, so make sure you switch to capturing in 4:3 to get full use of the sensor. At its highest resolution setting, the device will capture 4160 x 3120 images, which at over four times 1080p looks great when you downscale or view on the handset's Quad HD display.

In sunlight and other generally good photography conditions, the G3 meters perfectly to deliver shots with vivid, realistic colors and perfect white balance. The Galaxy S5 has a slight edge in that its camera sensor is newer and better (wider dynamic range, higher resolution), and its lens is faster (f/2.2), but the G3 still captures some awesome photos.

When conditions get worse, such as indoors or rainy days, so do the G3's photos. Occasionally you can get a gem that defies the usual trend of disappointing indoor images from smartphone cameras. Mostly, though, images are a little dull for the conditions: lacking in color intensity compared to real life and tending towards being washed out, despite being sharp thanks to OIS and the software holding back on post-processing.

Similar to the way the Galaxy S5 operates, the G3's camera software will start by using ISO 50, and then will lower the shutter speed progressively down to 1/17s as conditions get darker. Only after it hits this shutter speed will higher ISOs get used, up until a point where it also starts using slower shutter speeds. Unlike the GS5, which could barely handle shooting at 1/33s, the inclusion of OIS makes 1/17s a perfectly viable shutter speed to use.

The LG G3 specifically adjusts its camera settings to ensure that photos even in the lowest light are never blurry. Occasionally you'll take a photo in near-pitch-black conditions that's very grainy and highly post-processed, but it's still crisp enough that detail can be seen. Ideally I'd like a slightly longer shutter speed used as I feel the OIS could compensate well with a steady hand, similar to how the Lumia 1520 operates.

That said you can get some decent photos out of the G3 in low light. An f/2.4 lens and 1.12µm pixels aren't a great combination for night time photography, and that's where OIS assists greatly. Image brightness is usually better than the Xperia Z2 or Galaxy S5 in the dark, and always less blurry. The two-tone LED flash is good for those times where it's simply too dark, although I tend to use it sparingly.

Even though the G3 is a good performer in dark conditions, the HTC One M8 and some of Nokia's Lumia smartphones blow it out of the water, as their use of larger pixels and wider lenses leads to an advantage of a stop or more.

LG has gone back to basics with the G3's camera application, which is great for end users who may have found the G2's app too packed with options. Unfortunately there's no longer a way to adjust ISO or exposure - or any other advanced settings for that matter - so if you were after more control than just standard auto mode, you'll have to download a third-party camera app.

Comparison of cameras in good artificial lighting conditions. Click to compare 100% crops.

There are just four standard shooting modes included in the camera app: the standard auto mode; panorama; dual shot, which takes a picture-in-picture using the front and back cameras simultaneously; and "magic focus". Since the launch of the HTC One M8, every major smartphone has attempted to recreate the effect of changing focus after the photo has been taken, and magic focus is what LG brings to the table in the G3.

Thanks to the One M8's depth sensor, the handset has a near-perfect implementation of the effect without needing a light field camera. The G3 does a pretty good job in that it takes a burst shot at different focal points, allowing you to select a focus distance, or area in the photo to bring into focus, after the image is captured.

Comparison of cameras with the lights off. Click for a larger look.

The end result is decent and doesn't require any simulated bokeh, although as the bokeh from the f/2.4 lens isn't strong or particularly pleasing, you don't achieve the blurred-out background effect that other smartphones provide. It does, however, give a much better end result than the Xperia Z2 or Galaxy S5, with those smartphones often failing to accurately guess the edges of the foreground subject, resulting in sloppy fake focus effects.

As for video recording, there are only two main options to play with: standard 30 frames per second recording at up to 4K resolution (3840 x 2160), and 120 frames per second recording at 720p for slow motion footage. For some reason LG decided to remove 1080p/60 recording and HDR video, perhaps because they were seldom used and 1080p/60 in particular is hard to share without sending the raw file.

4K video is recorded as 30 Mbps H.264, which is oddly a much lower bitrate than 4K recording on the Galaxy S5 (48 Mbps) and Xperia Z2 (55 Mbps). Regardless, the quality is very good from the G3's Ultra HD video, with strong colors and overall quality essentially the same as still images. Audio is also good from the G3's multiple microphones.

Oddly, with 720p slow motion video, the video produced is only saved as a 120 frames per second file at 26.6 Mbps, whereas most other handsets will set playback at 30 or 24 FPS to give the slow motion effect. This means on your PC you won't see get a 'slow motion' video unless you change the playback frame rate in post, although by default the Videos app on the G3 will slow the video down.

Quality from slow motion videos isn't fantastic, but the frame rate is most important. If you'd like to download a sample, you can do so here.