Tested: The Galaxy S6 is one of the best camera phones ever

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Credit: Florence Ion
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We have a lot to say about the new Samsung Galaxy S6. For one, I can’t get over the fact that it kind of looks like an iPhone—my Macworld colleagues certainly agree—and two, it’s obvious Samsung put a lot more effort into this phone than the past few generations of its flagship Galaxy family.

We talked about the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge quite a bit in our initial hands-on with the devices at Mobile World Congress. One of its standout new features is its new camera hardware. Rather than simply increase the megapixels and tout a higher number, Samsung worked meticulously on this year’s camera to ensure it outperformed its predecessors. 

Thus far, we’ve only had about a day with the phone, so instead of rushing a half-assed review, we took the Galaxy S6 out for a spin on the streets of San Francisco to focus on testing out its new camera capabilities. Whatever Samsung did to its camera software really worked, because this is seriously one of the best camera phones I’ve ever used. 

In the lab

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Our first lab test, under bright studio lights.

I took the Galaxy S6 to the photo lab to begin testing its photo-taking capabilities. I was astonished at how much Samsung actually improved its camera. It’s not just clever advertising.

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A test shot taken last year on the Galaxy S5.

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The same test shot taken this year on the Galaxy S6.

The Galaxy S5’s “ghosting” effect seems to have been effectively reduced in the Galaxy S6. This is not only a boon for those who do serious photo editing with their smartphone, but it’s also a testament to the fact that Samsung did right by its users in equipping the Galaxy S6 with a camera that takes in more light, rather than simply upping the megapixels.

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The Galaxy S5 (left) performed abysmally in our low-light test compared to this year’s Galaxy S6 (right). 

Low light performance has increased exponentially between the Galaxy S5 and Galaxy S6. The end result is no longer grainy and almost indecipherable, though I’ve honestly yet to take the Galaxy S6 into a bar setting to really test its low-light chops. Check back in the review next week for that particular low-light, real life test.

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If you like to take photos of things up close, you’ll be fine with the Galaxy S6.

For a while there, I could barely believe the Galaxy S III, Galaxy S4, or Galaxy S5 had Macro abilities because of how frustrating they were to use. Taking Macro shots on the Galaxy S6 is much more stress-free. I still have to hold the lens at a bit of a distance to allow the camera to focus, but it’s more akin to using a 50mm lens on an DSLR. 

Indoors, the Galaxy S6 camera was inconsistent, though that’s to be expected considering the lighting in our building is a bit inconsistent, too. There are some rooms that are brightly lit by windows, while others have fluorescent lights, and still others utilize spot lights. That said, the Galaxy S6 was better at adjusting to the different lighting situations through the building than other smartphones, and it was consistently quick when choosing the mode in which to shoot. The live HDR preview certainly helped in some cases, too.

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The Bay Bridge, shot with the Galaxy S6.

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“HELLO BOAT! ARE YOU ALONE OUT THERE? DO YOU REQUIRE ASSISTANCE?”

Outdoors, the Galaxy S6 produced a myriad of stunning shots. In fact, it inspired so much confidence in me, that I posted photos directly to Instagram with the hashtag #nofilter. I hardly ever do that because I’m usually too embarrassed by the quality of the photos I take with whatever Android hardware I have in hand. (This exact reason is also why I switched to the iPhone for six short months in 2012. Seriously.)

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A stop sign. 

In our initial look at the Galaxy S6, Samsung said that it did a lot of tweaking to the camera sensor’s focus abilities. It definitely shows: I tapped the screen to focus in on the stop sign you see above, and afterwards the app instantly brightened just that area of the stop sign. It was previously too dark to see it in the shade.

Galaxy S6 versus the iPhone 6 Plus

This is always a fun way to do things: Like the Giants and Dodgers, Samsung’s feud with Apple’s iPhone goes back what seems like eons. With all the talk about how much Samsung’s improved the camera sensor on the Galaxy S6, I figured I’d put the two to a head-to-head to really see the differences.

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The bright light test, with the studio lights turned all the way up.

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The low light test, with just a dim floor lamp on in the back of the room. 

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The low light test with the flash on. Notice how the Galaxy S6’s photo is a bit warmer, while the iPhone’s is a bit whiter, but a little blown out.

The Galaxy S6 has one of the best front-facing cameras on the market right now. It’s 5-megapixels, with a very wide F1.9 aperture—the same as the Galaxy S6’s rear-facing 16-megapixel camera sensor—and offers auto real-time HDR capabilities.

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The selfie test. I actually like the way the Galaxy S6 made me look. My hair doesn’t look as dull as it does on the right.

I’m going to be honest here: I liked the photos taken with the iPhone 6 Plus just a bit more. You can’t see why with the lab tests, however, so let me show you what kind of photos both the iPhone 6 Plus and Galaxy S6 took out in the real world.

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The iPhone’s photo is bluer, while the Galaxy S6 tends to fade out a bit the higher up you go in the sky.

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There is more light leak from the Galaxy S6 than there is from the iPhone 6 Plus.

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I actually like both of these equally, though I’d go with the Galaxy S6’s result for posting to Instagram because it shows a bit more contrast.

Overall, the iPhone 6 Plus and Galaxy S6 are nearly on par as far as photo performance goes, with the Galaxy S6 skewing toward a deeper contrast in some cases. It still has that annoying issue with light leak, however, which is something that’s plagued Samsung’s smartphones in the past. 

All this anecdotal evidence is good news for Android fans, though: if you want an iPhone-like camera experience, you can get it with the Galaxy S6. (That’s good news for anyone trying to leave Apple’s ecosystem, too!)

Software

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The Galaxy S6’s camera interface. 

Samsung hasn’t always had the most user friendly camera apps, though it seriously toned things down from all the buttons and switches it tacked on to the viewfinder in the Galaxy S5 camera app.

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Hmm...Does this button layout look familiar to you?

The Galaxy S6’s Camera app, on the other hand, is just right, though it borrows some of its tricks form HTC’s interface. When you tap to switch Modes, the camera interface shows eight different options. They’re all self explanatory, but this particular motif also greatly resembles what HTC introduced last year in Sense 6’s camera interface.

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Plenty of options for pros. 

Despite the copycat button layout, the Galaxy S6’s Camera app is bundled with a myriad of neat features. There’s a Pro mode that lets you adjust every facet of the photo all right there on the screen. There’s also a Slow motion and Fast motion mode for filming neat Instagram productions, as well as a Quick launch option you can engage by simply double pressing the Home button to launch the camera app—even if the screen is off or you're in another app. This is absolutely perfect for selfies.

Final thoughts

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The Galaxy S6’s Panorama mode.

There are still a few things I need to test out. First, I still need to play around with the phone’s video capabilities. It’s certainly quick and its stabilization abilities are impressive, but I want to spend a little more time with the slow- and fast-motion effects. I also want to test out the Galaxy S6’s manual controls. I’m curious to see how accurate they are, and whether I can get the same kind of performance out of it that I get from my Canon DSLR.

I’ll have more on the Galaxy S6’s camera capabilities next week, after I’ve had some time to really use Samsung’s new flagship out in the wild. However, I can honestly say with conviction, that this is one of the best camera phones I’ve ever used. 

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