Saturday, 6 May 2017

Tigerlily's camera - what the new Samsung Galaxy S8+'s photos are like

Modern phones have all but replaced the little cameras that people sometimes used. Even if 'compact', those cameras were bulky, and might be noticeably heavy as well. They certainly weren't chic. They were generally a nuisance to carry and a fiddle to use. And the results might not, in unskillful hands, be worth the trouble of carrying them around.

To be sure, enthusiast photographers (like myself) would invest in superior and very capable cameras, which, for their small size, would produce excellent results. I have owned a long string of compact cameras like that. They have been small enough to pop in my bags. And carrying them has never been a waste of time, because I see interesting and arresting things to shoot everywhere I go. And I take pictures at home all the time too. I take so many each week - indeed every single day - that I must always have a camera with me.

But, of course, if I wasn't seeing shots all the time, my camera would just be an unnecessary weight in my bag. And I'd probably leave it home. As most people would.

But the advent of mobile phones with built-in cameras has completely changed the game. Mobile phone ownership is getting close to universal. Nowadays anybody can take a picture, as casually as may be, with every hope of getting a decent shot that - because it was taken with a phone - can instantly be sent to family and friends as part of the whole social network thing. The phone makers have made casual photography easy, rewarding, and a lot of fun.

And yet, hitherto, I haven't myself done much with my mobile phones. For me, three problems have got in the way:

1. Image quality
The image quality of phone cameras hasn't been good until quite recently. If the pictures are off-colour and lacking in detail, you do tend to give up and use a proper camera instead. I tried out each of the cameras on my previous phones, with mixed results. The earliest of these was the Nokia E71 I bought in 2009. It turned out pictures with inaccurate colours and not much resolution. Shots like these...

On the whole the Nokia camera did not deliver, and a proper compact camera was a far more appealing prospect.

That was in 2009. Each successive phone has done better. My Samsung Galaxy S5 from 2014 (the one now being replaced in 2017 by my S8+) could turn out shots like these:

What a difference a few years make! Much better colours and detail; and subtler tonality all round. But then, even with the S5, two further issues made me reluctant to use a mobile phone for photography:

2. Tricky handling
Flat rectangular slabs - which is what modern touchscreen smartphones are - can't be gripped securely: the latest metal-and-glass phones are thin fragile slivers of technology that you'd definitely not want to drop! You can't use these phones in situations where they might be knocked out of your hand. They also lack the external physical controls (such as buttons, dials and levers) that so much add to the usability and fast handling of 'proper' cameras.

Modern smartphones do have in their favour (a) light weight and easy portability; and (b) a large bright screen on which to compose the picture. And the right case and clever software can both help with keeping hold and taking a great shot.

3. Getting the shots off the camera, for processing on the laptop
Only an enthusiast who takes a lot of shots (and wants to tweak them all subtly) is concerned with this. Ordinary mortals rough-edit their much fewer pictures on the camera, and store them either there or up in the cloud. But when caravanning the cloud is often inaccessible, and if I have taken two hundred shots in one day, getting all those off the phone for careful editing on the laptop is a real problem!

In the past it's been insurmountable - unless I connect a USB cable between phone and laptop, and cut-and-paste them across. But would the cable socket on the phone stand up to constant use? Bluetooth remains far too slow.

But things have improved. I have noticed that, given a good 4G signal, it doesn't take forever to upload a batch of (say) fifteen phone shots to Dropbox, and then download them from there onto the laptop. It's even faster when using Wi-Fi. So, for a limited number of shots, it is nowadays feasible to shoot them on the phone but process them on the laptop.

So much for what past camera phones were like. What can Tigerlily do? Is she going to supersede my Panasonic LX100 camera?

My answer: I am greatly impressed, and I think that for many shots Tigerlily will indeed now become my main camera. Not for everything. Not for the kind of shot that requires a large sensor for particularly detailed and subtle rendering. Nor for telephoto shots. But for most shots of nearby subjects - and provided there are not too many of them to get off the phone - Tigerlily will now be the convenient and sensible choice.

Let's do some comparisons.

Remember throughout that while Tigerlily's camera and the Panasonic camera both have about the same number of pixels, the Panasonic's are larger and are better targets for the incoming light rays. In other words, more photons make it onto the Panasonic's sensor, and therefore it always has the potential to produce a superior result. But the difference is remarkably small. Take these shots of an omlette I cooked the other evening. The Panasonic first, then Tigerlily:

This was under flourescent light. Barely any difference - even when I got close-ups side-by-side on the laptop screen. Panasonic left, Tigerlily right:

Some days back, I went to the remote hamlet of Up Marden, deep in the West Sussex South Downs. There's a simple church there. It was a cloudy afternoon, and within the hour the weather degenerated into heavy rain. The light was iffy. Here's myself, taken with the Panasonic:

And here are three similar shots taken with Tigerlily - using her front lens, the one used for selfies, which has only eight mega-pixels, and not the twelve that her main rear lens has:

I hadn't at that point quite got the hang of selfies with Tigerlily! Still, to my mind the results using her are just as good as the Panasonic's. Tigerlily has rendered the blue-green 'aqua' colour of my jacket more faithfully - the Panasonic's result is too blue. In general, I'd say that Tigerlily produces more faithful colour-rendition right across the board. If you ramp up the magnification, you can detect a little smoothing of skin detail on my face in Tigerlily's output, but you see this only if you indulge in unreasonably close scrutiny.

I was facing a pair of SAS graves. I shot those next. First, the Panasonic, then Tigerlily:

Tigerlily's version is cooler, but that reflects the sort of day it was, and the kind of light found in this shady spot. Now look at this laptop-screen close-up comparison of the left-hand grave with blue flowers. Panasonic left, Tigerlily right:

Click on it to enlarge further. It's clear that Samsung has tweaked the software to enhance all edges, and in particular recognise and make very clear all letters and numbers. Tigerlily is going to be the better device for photo-copying documents of all kinds. This will of course be at the expense of subtlety, and at high magnifications you can easily see the classic sharpening 'halo' next to each edge. But for most purposes I'd rather have clear detail in my pictures, and not blurry lines.

Last night, at dusk, I stood in my back garden and took pictures looking into my lounge. The Panasonic, then Tigerlily:

Despite the low light level, Tigerlily has, taking the scene overall, produced better, more accurate colours. The seat under the window is green, not blue. Now the close-up laptop-screen comparison, and you'll notice how Tigerlily makes all the detail much clearer - look for instance at the birds on those plates, and the clock, barometer and framed photo in the hall (visible through the doorway). Panasonic left, Tigerlily right:

Hmm. Tigerlily's increasing the contrast and/or strong sharpening has washed-out the colour rendition somewhat. On the other hand, the extra detail in her picture gives you better information on what lies within my lounge.

Finally the Michelin road atlas test! It's an atlas from 2000, and for years I've used it for controlled lens tests, most often with a tripod. Always this page of the lower Seine, west of Rouen. These shots were hand-held in today's morning light. First the Panasonic, then Tigerlily:

And here are two different laptop screen comparisons. Panasonic left, Tigerlily right:

So very similar! I really don't know which is 'better'. Once again, the Panasonic produces a warmer rendition, which is actually down to my deliberate tweaking of the white balance. I could do much the same to Tigerlily's rendition if I wanted to. But I'm not going to: I rather like the 'cleaner' result.

Tigerlily has taken some very decent shots - and in some cases, cracking shots - in indifferent light. These, for example:

I have tried her out in telephoto mode. It wasn't a success. Digital zooms never produce nice pictures, only mushy detail. It's best then to regard Tigerlily as a fixed focal length machine, and use my legs to zoom in and out with. Or call in the Panasonic. 

So what do I do now? 

Let's make a list of reasons to love using Tigerlily for much of my everyday photography:

# It's one device. Tigerlily does so much else. Her camera integrates with all of that.
# Her camera is easy-to-use, and has a particularly large and bright screen for composition. 
# She produces great pictures in most kinds of light - the right colours, with very good detail in them.
# The pictures are easily (though not necessarily very quickly) transferable to the laptop for proper editing, using Dropbox, a USB cable, or a variety of other methods.
# Her camera has no mechanical controls - it's all done with screen taps and slides. There's nothing to wear out. 
# Samsung will undoubtedly refine the software, and make the camera perform even better.
# If I leave the Panasonic at home, my bag is noticeably lighter and emptier!

And reasons not to use her for everything:

# Her telephoto shots are unsuccessful. Too much degradation of the image.
# Her camera hasn't got a large sensor, so there's a limit on how good her tones and colours can be even at her normal focal length. 

I've already gone out twice with only Tigerlily in my bag, and I've not yet felt that I've made a big mistake doing so. I've therefore decided to leave the Panasonic home for a couple of weeks, as an experiment, just to see what issues arise. For instance, I know I can't operate Tigerlily's camera one-handed. If a common situation arises where that matters, then it will be a reason not to relegate the Panasonic to Fiona's boot. I can easily carry both devices, and may have to.


  1. A fascinating and informative post, Lucy. You are going through the same thought process as I did, now that I have a 13M pixel camera and Sony camera technology at my fingertips. Like you, I've been deliberately leaving my old camera at home and seeing how I get on. Yes, the lack of optical zoom is a problem, but the 'unzoomed' picture quality is excellent, even in difficult lighting conditions. Moreover, I'm finding it a real bonus to have the camera and tOS map on the same device when out walking. Switching between the two is just so easy on the latest versions of Android.

  2. Mine has a maximum of 12M pixels, in 4:3 picture format. It's less for 16:9, 3:2, or 1:1. I consider that your Sony has the edge.

    What strikes me is that nothing has changed as regards seeing the picture in the first place, and composition. So a phone is in these respects just another type of camera, and the photographer's eye for a shot, and ability to take it successfully with the equipment to hand, remain paramount.

    It's not at all about whether it's 'wrong' or 'too easy' or 'unprofessional' to use a phone instead of an advanced compact or full-frame SLR. It's horses for courses. Besides, I've seen articles explaining how professional photographers carry on shooting once they have packed their 'real' equipment away - and get relaxed and informal shots they wouldn't otherwise secure. People respond differently when they see you're using a mere phone, regarded basically as a fun-time device that nobody should take very seriously. Except that it can, very clearly, produce publishable results.

    I'm already getting a lot more from using Tigerlily, compared to my previous phones. As you say, they have become perfect walking companions. (We'll have a friendly shoot-out later this year, in the Forest!)



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