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Cameras Compared: iPhone 4S vs the rest

Update: It seems that we have offended a few Nokia N8 enthusiasts out there with our findings. In pursuit of the truth, we want to set the record straight, and so we have a proposition for the N8 enthusiasts who’ve expressed their opinions about this post. We have a proposition for you. Is the Nokia N8 still the best camera phone out there? Let’s settle this once and for all. Head on over to after the jump for details.

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We’re just one week away from the launch of the iPhone 4S in Malaysia. Aside from an uprated processor that’s now dual-core and very chatty Siri, the biggest improvement on the new iPhone is its camera.

With a Sony-sourced 8MP backlit sensor and improved optics, Apple says the new camera on its latest iPhone offers performance that rivals most dedicated point-and-shoot cameras, but is this claim founded?

Naturally, we’re curious to find out ourselves if the camera on the iPhone 4S is as good as Apple claims it to be, and so we’ve assemble some of the best 8MP smartphone shooters we could get our hands on along with the 12MP Nokia N8 for good measure and went out on a photowalk; taking pictures and videos using these devices in various situations to find out which smartphone available in the market right now has the best camera overall.

We compare the iPhone 4S with the Samsung Galaxy Note, Galaxy S II, Motorola RAZR, Sony Ericsson Xperia ray and Nokia N8. Follow us to after the jump to see the sample shots and videos as well as our verdict on which smartphone has the best camera right now.

Note: In all tests, we left the cameras in “auto” mode.

Macro Shots

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We first test the macro performance of our devices to see how well the lens and the sensor work together to capture the best details possible. Out of the bat, it is clear that we are in very special company. The iPhone 4S, Galaxy Note and Galaxy S II impresses when it comes to capturing details even when compared to the 12MP Nokia N8. Leading the pack in this scenario is the Galaxy Note followed by the iPhone 4S with the Galaxy S II bring up the top three.

We’ve mentioned before that 8MP sensor on the stylish Motorola RAZR is a disappointment, and in this comparison the deficit is painfully evident. While the lens on the Motorola RAZR is capable of producing wonderful bokehs allowing us to go up really close to the subject for a nice macro shot, the sensor fails to impress producing very poor details amongst the very accomplished 8MP sensors in this comparison. In fact, even the 3.2MP sensor on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 outperforms the 8MP Motorola RAZR in virtually every aspect.

The Sony Ericsson Xperia ray, didn’t particularly stand out in this test producing mediocre shots at best. Pictures from the ray are also the most inaccurate in terms of colour reproduction.

Curiously, the Nokia N8 had tremendous difficulty getting a focus lock on the macro subject. This is consistent across a few other subjects we tried. In this test, the once leading Nokia N8 looks to be outclassed by the 8MP sensors from our top three devices. This proves that pixel count is just one aspect that makes a great camera, what is even more critical is sensor efficiency – that is, the sensor’s ability to make the most out of the light captured to produce the best picture. The iPhone 4S, Galaxy Note and Galaxy S II are fine examples how much of a difference an efficient sensor can make.

Source files:
Nokia N8
iPhone 4S
Samsung Galaxy Note
Motorola RAZR
Samsung Galaxy S II
Sony Ericsson Xperia ray

Natural Light

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Next, we move on to take pictures in natural light outdoors. Any good camera can take a decent picture with enough light, and so this test serves as a baseline for our sextuplet of smartphones. In theory, all these devices should perform well in this condition. On the flipside, if a device performs poorly here, chances are it will perform poorly in all the other tests as well.

The iPhone 4S is a clear leader in this instance. Whether its detail, colour reproduction or contrast management, the iPhone 4S impresses in every aspect. We can’t fault it and yes, its performance in this respect is comparable if not better than some dedicated cameras we’ve used.

The one device that can rival the iPhone 4S is the Galaxy Note but even the Note is not able to match the meticulous level of detail captured by the iPhone 4S, neither can the Note match the iPhone in colour reproduction and contrast management. Having said that, the Note is the best Android shooter in this test.

In the mid-pack we have the Galaxy S II and the Xperia ray. The S II wins in terms of detail but the Xperia ray produced a brighter, more vibrant picture that’s more pleasing to the eye. On the other hand, we see the Xperia ray over-saturating pictures as well. This results in inaccurate colour reproduction and contrast.

The Motorola RAZR is once again a disappointment, producing a picture with no likeable traits. While it captured details slightly better than the Xperia ray, overall the RAZR produced a picture that looks dull and washed out. Another pain-point we have with the Motorola RAZR is the lens angle. As can be seen, the lens on the RAZR has a much narrower angle compared to the rest, this presents it with another disadvantage on top of the numerous that the device already has.

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Source files:
Nokia N8
iPhone 4S
Samsung Galaxy Note
Motorola RAZR
Samsung Galaxy S II
Sony Ericsson Xperia ray

High Contrast

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In this test we present the cameras a challenging condition where the right metering is required to produce a decent picture. The built-in HDR feature on the iPhone 4S is designed to handle such situations but we left this disabled because we have left all the other devices in “auto” mode.

Once again, the iPhone 4S and Galaxy Note are clear winners. In this instance, both devices produce comparable detail, perhaps the Note edges the iPhone 4S slightly. In this challenging situation, the iPhone 4S attempts to produce a balanced picture to the exposures in both the dark and bright areas. It does this rather well but the trade-off of this is a slight loss in detail and this is where the Galaxy Note outshines the iPhone 4S.

The Galaxy S II and the Xperia ray once again make the mid-pack with both devices matching each other closely in every aspect with the ray producing a richer more vibrant colour compared to the S II. The ray manages contrast in this challenging situation much better than the S II as well but we note that there are fringing in the detail from the pictures taken using the ray but we’re probably nit-picking here.

At this point we can see that the Motorola RAZR has established a pattern. Its camera performance is sub-par against the rest of the 8MP sensors here and this is consistent throughout this whole shootout.

This test also makes the Nokia N8 irrelevant. Despite having the highest pixel count in the test, the N8 is unable to compete with the of 8MP sensor in this test.

Source files:
Nokia N8
iPhone 4S
Samsung Galaxy Note
Motorola RAZR
Samsung Galaxy S II
Sony Ericsson Xperia ray

Outdoor

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This scenario differs from the earlier natural lighting test as we present the devices with a backlit landscape to see how each would handle another challenging situation.

As with the previous tests, the results are similar. The iPhone 4S and Galaxy Note are exemplary in almost every situation, including this one. However in this instance, the Note edges the iPhone 4S in colour reproduction resulting in a more vibrant and pleasing picture with brighter whites and more defined blues as can be in the background.

The Galaxy S II fared well here as well producing an image that is just as good as its bigger stable mate – the Galaxy Note. The Xperia ray takes fourth spot with its backlit Exmor R sensor over-compensating for the dark foreground resulting in a washed-out and less than desirable picture.

At the tail-end, the Motorola RAZR continues its streak of disappointment with another dismal performance.

Source files:
Nokia N8
iPhone 4S
Samsung Galaxy Note
Motorola RAZR
Samsung Galaxy S II
Sony Ericsson Xperia ray

Indoor

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Finally, we take the devices indoors to see how the set performs in optimal indoor lighting, low indoor lighting and very poor indoor lighting conditions. First up we look at samples taken under optimal indoor lighting.

In this instance the Samsung Galaxy Note emerges as the clear winner maintaining the same level of detail seen in previous pictures and also an accurate white balance to ensure pleasing colour reproduction – aspects where the, usually stellar, iPhones 4S struggles to match.

The Galaxy Note’s strong traits are evident in the Galaxy S II as well which results in the S II outperforming the Xperia ray in all aspects.

With the Motorola RAZR, things remain the same, pictures still come out below average when compared with the rest of the devices here, the Nokia N8 on the other hand put-up a good effort producing a picture with an acceptable degree of detail that’s noticeably higher than the iPhone 4S.

Source files:
Nokia N8
iPhone 4S
Samsung Galaxy Note
Motorola RAZR
Samsung Galaxy S II
Sony Ericsson Xperia ray

Indoor Low Light

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In this situation, the iPhone 4S comes back to the top by some margin. Once again we see the iPhone competing and even outperforming dedicated point-and-shoot cameras and it is in this situation where being exceptional really matters for a camera, and the iPhone 4S is simply unbeatable here. Thanks to the back-lit image sensor, the relatively low noise level is astounding as well. Even the Galaxy Note has a hard time in matching the level of detail produced by the iPhone 4S. Side by side, you can see how much more refined the image taken from the iPhone 4S is. We are truly impressed by this.

Interestingly, the one device that does come close to the iPhone 4S in this situation is the Sony Ericsson Xperia ray. We attribute this partly to the common image sensor that the two devices share but as you can see the superior optics and image processing software on the iPhone 4S makes all the difference.

The Nokia N8 performed well in this situation with good noise management and decent level of detail but again, next to the iPhone 4S, everything else just looks second rate.

Source files:
Nokia N8
iPhone 4S
Samsung Galaxy Note
Motorola RAZR
Samsung Galaxy S II
Sony Ericsson Xperia ray

Indoor Very Low Light

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And we’ve come to the final set of sample shots. This is also the most challenging of all situations in which we tested the six devices where incandescent lighting offers less than ideal illumination – a situation that is guaranteed to challenge any image sensor no matter how good.

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Once again, the iPhone 4S triumphs.

While the white balance is slightly off, the iPhone 4S manages the challenging low-light condition very well, maintaining a good degree of brightness and clarity. The depth in detail is pretty good as too.

But that is not to say that the others did not do well. The Galaxy Note, Nokia N8 and Galaxy S II held their own in this situation. Although we concede that the pictures from this trio can’t quite match what the iPhone 4S can muster, they are by all means still acceptable considering the poor lighting.

The Xperia ray’s Exmor R sensor failed to impress in this situation resulting in inaccurate colour reproduction that proves to be a consistent issue with the device. The level of detail is not as good as well, so too is the noise that’s evident in the picture taken using the Xperia ray.

Source files:
Nokia N8
iPhone 4S
Samsung Galaxy Note
Motorola RAZR
Samsung Galaxy S II
Sony Ericsson Xperia ray

Video Samples
Outdoors

Indoors

Low Light Indoors

What about the video recording capabilities of these devices?

By now, we think you should be able to predict which smartphone records the best video. It is not a surprise that the iPhone 4S is a standout. So too is the Galaxy Note, but the video quality on the Note is not quite on par with what the iPhone 4S is capable of producing.

Predictably as well, the Galaxy S II leads the best of the rest while the Motorola RAZR finds a comfortable spot at the bottom end of this comparison. The Nokia N8 deserves a notable mention here as it produced a pretty decent quality video considering the high bar set by the iPhone 4S and the Galaxy Note.

Camera UI Usability
Nokia N8
Picture

Video

iPhone 4S
Picture

Video

Samsung Galaxy Note / Galaxy S II
Picture

Video

Motorola RAZR
Picture

Video

Sony Ercisson Xperia ray
Picture

Video

With regards to usability, the iPhone 4S is the easiest phone to use with almost all of the changeable parameters on the camera controlled automatically by the OS. The user only has access to the flash and HDR settings. Even then, it is just to toggle these settings on and off.

The two Samsung Galaxy devices offer a wide range of user changeable settings and strike a good balance between ease of use and offering a high degree of manual controls to the user. These controls are easily and quickly accessible too. The same can be said for the Motorola RAZR but its settings parameters are not as extensive, though we’re not sure if playing around with the settings will make much of a difference considering the poor performance of the camera on the Motorola RAZR.

While accessing the camera settings in the Sony Ericsson Xperia ray is easy enough, we don’t like the “touch screen to take a picture” method used by the device. In the Xperia ray there is no on-screen shutter button, this is perhaps due to the small screen size. As a result, you take a picture by tapping on the screen. This is counter intuitive and almost the opposite of the other devices that we use because you usually tap the screen to focus and then tap the on-screen shutter button to take a picture. With the Xperia ray, even after using the device for quite some time, we still find ourselves accidentally taking a picture when all we wanted to do was to focus.

The worst among the lot is the Nokia N8. While the N8 offers a considerable amount of user customisable camera settings they are haphazardly located throughout camera interface making it almost pointless to even attempt to go into the settings to change anything. It is so frustrating that we usually don’t even bother changing anything on the Nokia N8 camera settings.

At the end of the day

At the beginning of this test we set out to find out if the camera on the iPhone 4S is indeed better than a dedicated point-and-shoot, as Apple claims it to be. As it turns out, those claims are valid.

Overall, the camera on the iPhone 4S is exceptional. It is without a doubt, one of the best camera’s we’ve used on a mobile phone.

But the iPhone 4S is not without its contenders.

In the Android camp, we have the Samsung Galaxy Note which we have no qualms in giving the distinction of being the best camera on an Android device right now. The performance margin between the iPhone 4S and the Galaxy Note is not that big either. Both devices have their strong and weak points. Either way, you will be satisfied using either device as cameras.

Does the camera on the iPhone 4S then warrant an upgrade for iPhone 4 users?

Taking pictures using mobile phones has become pretty much of a staple nowadays. If you enjoy taking pictures and sharing them on your Twitter feed or Facebook page, then naturally you’d want the best camera you can afford so that the people you are sharing the pictures with can enjoy the moment as well.

Also, if you take important pictures, we don’t mean pictures of food or funny things that you submit to the “Only in Malaysia” Facebook page, but pictures of memorable moments of your life or videos of your first child or your first kiss, then you’d want these moments to be cherished and remembered forever in the best possible way. If pictures and video mean this much to you, then yes, the iPhone 4S is worth the upgrade, not just from the iPhone 4 but from any phone.

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What about the rest?

With the exception of the Motorola RAZR, the other devices we tested here are decent enough cameras in their own right. In most instances they won’t disappoint. But the problem is the iPhone 4S has set such a high bar that you can’t help but ask, “why can’t the camera on my phone be just as good?”

A reply to the N8 enthusiasts who disagree with our findings:
Our 8MP camera comparison post has inadvertently struck a chord with a number of Nokia N8 enthusiasts who feel that we have inaccurately represented the imaging prowess of their favourite device.

Firstly, let’s just clear the air, we started this test NOT to prove that the Nokia N8 is a poor camera phone. We clearly outlined our use case scenario when embarking on this test. We wanted to find out if the iPhone 4S is just as good a dedicated point and shoot and if there were any other smartphones out there that could claim the same.

With this in mind, we set out with to take pictures as a normal user would with their smartphones – take out from pocket, aim at subject, focus, snap. To make it fair and interesting, we took pictures in situations that where we felt would be challenging for the cameras.

At the conception and planning stage of this test, we did contemplate on whether we should also consider finding the optimal settings for each device in a given lighting situation. At the end we didn’t include this in the test 1) because with six devices and numerous situations and locations, it would just be too time consuming and more importantly 2) because we felt this didn’t fit into the typical user case scenario.

Most users will just take their phones out and start snapping away. We felt that the only setting a typical user would change would probably switch the flash on or off and if we’re perfectly honest, perhaps changing the focus mode from infinity to macro once in a while, and essentially, that’s pretty much it.

Looking at the comments from the passionate Nokia N8 community, perhaps in hindsight we should’ve also presented our recommended optimal settings for each scenario for each camera to see how good they can be when properly set up.

But then again, that would present a conundrum that has long plagued photogs. Do you setup a camera to take the perfect shot or do you leave the camera in auto mode to capture the spontaneity of the moment? Sometimes it depends on the user, sometimes it depends on the subject but most of the time, the answer lies in the camera itself.

With DSLRs where all major controls are easily and quickly accessible in a flash, then perhaps having the camera perfectly setup to adapt to changing conditions would be ideal but for a simple smartphone, you will agree that accessing the settings is most of the time not an option.

Also, let’s not forget we have in numerous posts, acknowledge the N8 as an imaging powerhouse but as we have mentioned in this article, with the advent of better, more efficient sensors and optics, the N8’s advantage has been diminished making a 12MP sensor irrelevant when there are 8MP sensors that are just as good, if not better.

But we know that this is unacceptable for Nokia N8 faithful and we are perfectly fine with that. After all, you are entitled to disagree with our conclusions, that is your opinion, but please do not force your opinions onto us or those who disagree with you.

And because we put emphasis on facts more than anything else at SoyaCincau.com, we’re putting out a challenge to the N8 enthusiasts that have expressed their views in the comments section of this post. We would like to invite you to come with us and visit the various locations where we’ve taken our test shots for this article and, together with us, re-take the pictures with the Nokia N8 optimally set up. At the same time, we will come with you and bring the five other devices in this test and do the same. You can also help us find the optimal settings for these devices.

Also, to make this as fair and unbiased as possible, we are open to your suggestions on the best locations and scenarios to test a smartphone camera’s performance. Is the Nokia N8 still king of the smartphone cameras? Let’s test these devices together and get this over with once and for all.

As always, they are rules to be observed:
1. No externals lens or filters allowed
2. No post processing, on or off camera
3. No tripods or stands
4. No artificial lighting
5. Cameras must take subject in same lighting condition

So that’s pretty much it. Please don’t take this as a “we’re right and you’re wrong” thing. It is absolutely not that. What we are looking for here are facts, definitive facts, and we’re completely ok if in pursuit of these facts we must stand corrected. We can live with that.

So Nokia N8 enthusiasts, if you’re game, please let us know. We’re free most weekends. We’re opening this challenge until January 16, 2012. Email us at soyacincau[at]gmail[dot]com and let’s get this show on the road!