Apple's new iPhone 8 series just hit the streets and the company says it has the best cameras ever on a phone (at least until the iPhone X comes out). Samsung fans may take offense, as the company claims its S8 и Note 8 cameras are, in fact, the best. Is one better than the other? Should you switch operating systems to get better images out of your constant companion? Is it worth it to get one of the bigger, pricier, dual-lens models? We ran extensive tests to help you decide.
Spoiler alert: There isn't a clear-cut winner in this battle. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, but both are among the absolute finest camera phones you can buy.
iPhone 8: New Sensors?
Apple states that the iPhone 8 Плус uses sensors that are physically larger than its predecessor. This may be true, but it doesn't show in the EXIF data. The main camera is a 28mm equivalent lens, with an actual focal length of 3.99mm and a fixed f/1.8 aperture.
I took a look at the x-ray photos that iFixit made of the main sensor module in the iPhone 7 and iPhone 8. They're different magnifications, so a direct comparison isn't possible without some resizing. I resized the two images to match as closely as possible in Photoshop, using the outline of the chassis as a guideline, and then overlaid the sensor modules over one another as best as possible. A back-and-forth viewing shows that, if there's a difference in size, it's extremely minor.
According to the EXIF data, the iPhone 8's main camera is still a 3.99mm f/1.8, the same as you get in the iPhone 7, and Apple's marketing information tells us that it's a six-element design, also the same as on the 7. Put the same lens on and get the same field of view and it's clear, the active imaging area is also the same.
That's also true with the 2x lens. It's a 6mm f/2.8. You'll notice that the math doesn't work out there for it to be a 2x. That's because the secondary sensor is smaller than the primary. The main lens uses a chip that's a 1/3-inch class (the same size Apple has used since the 5s) and the 2x sensor is a 1/3.6-inch design.
Samsung uses a 4.3mm f/1.7 lens for its wide-angle camera on the S8 and Note 8. The focal length is wider, but because the camera's main sensor is a larger 1/2.55-inch design, the field of view is wider, roughly 24mm in full-frame terms. Its second lens seems to be a little tighter than simply digitally zooming the main lens into its 2x position. That makes me think it's closer to 52mm in focal length, which would make its sensor a 1/3.6-inch design, the same as Apple's secondary imager. The lens itself is a 6mm f/2.4 optic.
Yes, Samsung's main camera has a wider aperture. But the difference between f/1.8 and f/1.7 is entirely academic. The difference in f-stops between the 2x lenses isn't negligible, but it's close. The one-third-stop difference means you'll capture the exposure at the same ISO at 1/30-second with the iPhone and 1/40-second with the Note 8. The real advantage the Note 8 holds is that its secondary lens is optically stabilized, while the 8 Plus is not—you'll need to step up to the forthcoming iPhone X to get dual stabilized lenses.
We run a standard array of lab tests on every камера we test, from compacts all the way up to medium format models. There's a test chart to evaluate image noise, and also take a look at how noise reduction effects detail, as well as a standard contrast-based resolution chart to see how crisp a lens is.
Smartphone cameras are a bit different than SLRs, not only because of the tiny lenses and sensors, but also because a lot of the voodoo that goes into their ability to make a photo is based on software. Плус, because you'll (likely) be posting your latest snapshot to Instagram, Фејсбук, Snapchat, or the like, image filters are liberally available and applied to photos to give them different looks.
So take lab tests for what they are: a pure as we can manage look at the camera's default output. They're not the be-all, end-all aggregator of what is good and what is bad, especially when you consider that your phone's camera app is simply the first step in a long journey that your images will travel on before they're seen by friends, family, and followers.
We chose to compare the iPhone 8 Plus with the Galaxy Note 8 for a couple of reasons. еден, each handset shares a lot of tech with its smaller sibling. Two, they've each got a dual-camera configuration, so they can do thing like capture images with a blurred background and also shoot photos with standard-angle field of view.
If you're a fan of small phones, and are trying to make the decision between an iPhone 8 or Galaxy S8, you can just ignore the test images and data from the 2x camera and look at what the single-lens model can do.
To test the iPhone we used the ProCam 5 app, a $5 download that supports full manual shutter and ISO control, as well as Raw image capture. It's also the only way you can be certain you're using the 2x lens when you want to—the standard camera app switches to a digitally zoomed view of the wide lens in dim light.
Apple has put Raw support into recent phones, but doesn't support it with its own software. The Note 8 shoots in Raw if you use the Pro mode in its standard camera app, but you can't use the 2x lens—it only works in Auto mode. And, like the iPhone, if you're using its app in auto mode you'll end up with a digitally zoomed shot at 2x in dim light.
The iPhone 8 has a base ISO setting of 20. When shooting in Pro mode, the lowest you can set the Note 8 is ISO 50. There is very little (if any) difference between ISO 20 and ISO 50 on the iPhone, so we'll start our comparison shots at ISO 50. Both settings are going to be used in bright, outdoor light.
The Note 8 shows a bit more contrast and color saturation than the iPhone 8 when shooting JPGs. A look at the Raw files shows that the Note's larger main sensor is capturing just a little more fine detail, visible in the foliage underneath the silo. In the real world, it's an essentially negligible difference. The extra sharpening delivered by the Samsung JPG engine delivers a slightly higher sharpness score (3,025 lines) than the iPhone's main camera (2,851 lines). But when you consider that both are outputting 12MP files that are destined for social networks, the difference is academic.
At ISO 100, the difference between the iPhone 8 and Note 8 main cameras is negligible. Raw images are very close as well, with the iPhone showing a little bit more contrast when processed in Lightroom CC with default settings applied.
The iPhone 8's JPG output shows a slight bit more detail at ISO 200 when compared with the Note 8. Lightroom does a bit better job removing color noise from the Note 8's DNG output, but otherwise the output is very close.
At ISO 400 the output remains close between the two phones. The Note shows a slight edge in detail, and slightly lower noise (1.1 percent) versus the iPhone's main camera (1.2 percent). Again, the iPhone shows more color noise in its DNG output, but we expect Adobe to improve its processing engine to eliminate it in the future. Aside from the false color, Raw image quality is neck and neck.
ISO 800 is the top manual setting supported by the Note 8's camera app. Its JPG output shows a little bit more detail than the iPhone's main camera, but both are quite blurred. Lightroom removes color noise from the Note's Raw output effectively, and while it's grainy it preserves detail not seen in the JPG. Color noise in the iPhone output wipes away a good amount of detail. We'll have to wait and see how much Adobe can improve its processing when it adds a custom profile for the new phone to Lightroom.
The iPhone can be set manually to ISO 1600 и 2000. (The ProCamera app lists the latter as ISO 2112, but the EXIF data says 2000. Someone on one of the development teams is a Rush fan.) You can't expect decent results from a tiny sensor at such a high ISO.
Samsung doesn't give you any ability to use the 2x camera when shooting in Pro mode, which means you can't shoot Raw using the 2x lens. Zooming applies digital zoom, which is an absolute head-scratcher. It also utilizes digital zoom in the automatic mode if light is low enough to push the 2x camera beyond ISO 200. Apple does the same thing in its standard camera app, although it has a higher threshold, switching to the primary camera at ISO 800. This was also the case with the iPhone 7 Плус.
At ISO 50 the Note 8's 2x lens has a noticeable edge in resolution when compared with the iPhone 8 Плус. I see some evidence of aggressive sharpening, but it's not egregious. Crisper results translate into a higher Imatest sharpness score as well, 3,655 lines for the Note versus 2,518 lines for the iPhone.
Image output is a lot closer around ISO 100. The Note 8 shows a little more detail, while the iPhone outputs a slightly darker image with more contrast. The Note still has an edge, but it's not a big one.
The iPhone output takes a hit at ISO 200. The Note 8 does a little bit better, with more fine detail visible, but again, you'll need to look at photos on a pixel level to really spot the difference.
The Note 8's 2x camera drops out of the race at ISO 400. We see increased noise with the iPhone 8 Plus here, further blurring output, but it's still better than what you'd get with a digital zoom applied to an ISO 200 image from the 28mm lens—remember that the secondary lens doesn't gather as much light as the primary.
You'll need to use a third-party app to shoot with the 2x lens at ISO 800 on the iPhone. Detail is wiped away, although with some enhancements to its Raw processing for the phone, I'd expect that you can get slightly better results from processing the DNG.
The story is about the same at ISO 1250, the top setting which the iPhone's 2x lens can be used. Fine detail is blurred, so expect textures to be waxy when shooting JPGs. Color noise is a big issue with the current Raw conversion.
We ran the same batch of tests last year using the iPhone 7 Плус, iPhone 6s, and Galaxy S7. We weren't using a manual camera app for the 7 Plus at that time, but it does look like there's some slight improvement in high ISO image quality with the new iPhone 8 model. How much of this is hardware and how much is image processing is in question. Apple's marketing will have you believe that it's night and day; it's not. If you own a 7, or even a 6s, the improvements in still imaging performance are marginal. The iPhone 8 is a huge step forward if you're still using an iPhone 6, and if you opt for the Plus model, the dual camera is a benefit over any single-lens phone.
The Note 8 and S8's main camera is a bigger upgrade over the imager found in the Galaxy S7. At lower settings we see photos that aren't so aggressively over-sharpened, and at higher ISOs we see less noise reduction applied to JPGs. It's a win-win for Samsung on that front.
The iPhone 8 и 8 Plus can save images in two formats—HEIC or JPG. We shot everything using HEIC, but the phone converts those images to JPG when transferring via AirDrop, Dropbox, or email. Since HEIC isn't supported on the desktop tools we use for image analysis, we looked at the JPG conversions. HEIC's big advantage is more efficient, effective image compression. I also looked at test images on the iPhone's screen and compared them with what I was seeing on my desktop workstation; I was unable to discern the difference.
In the Real World
Lab tests are great if you like looking at test images and numbers. They're useful to tell you how something works, and what it's strengths and weaknesses are, and in extreme situations, a little bit of extra performance can help you get an image that you might not otherwise.
In bright light, you shouldn't expect to see much difference between the iPhone 8, Galaxy S8, or Note 8. But while the Note 8 ended up showing a bit more detail at higher ISOs in our lab tests, I was disappointed to see how it handled shooting a typical scene on a city street at night. The iPhone's main camera (left) does a better job pulling in highlights in bright signage, and while the streetlights are blown out, they don't show the same type of flare as you get with the Note 8's main camera. Both were shot with automatic exposure. Samsung has a general tendency to overexpose a scene by a little bit, which gives images a brighter feel by default.
We see the same type of flare from the Note in another side-by-side test shot, below. Again, the iPhone is on the left and the Note on the right. Also we should remember how bright the main lenses are; the iPhone is using ISO 100 for both shots, while the Samsung uses ISO 400 for the first and ISO 200 for the second. If you're the type of phone photographer who uses manual settings, you can work to ensure that the nighttime street shots aren't as bright by adjusting the exposure manually, though we expect that the vast majority of smartphone photographers to rely on automatic exposure.
Both camera apps let you adjust exposure without having to delve into manual settings. Tap to focus on the iPhone and there's an exposure slider to the right of the focus box. Do the same on the Note and it's at the bottom of your frame. You'll want to learn to use them to dial in brightness to get the most out of your smartphone camera. You can turn a boring, brightly lit shot into something moody and shadowy by lowering exposure, and get better shots of subjects that are in shadow with a strong backlight by using the slider to brighten your image.
The iPhone and Galaxy both focus extremely quickly, and the main lens is stabilized on both models. The secondary lens of Note is stabilized, but the iPhone 8 Plus's 2x optic is not. If you think you'll be using it a lot, especially for video, and are an iOS user, consider waiting for the iPhone X, which has dual stabilized rear lenses.
Both the iPhone and Samsung flagship models record video at 4K quality. But the iPhone lets you select the frame rate—24, 30, and 60fps capture options are available. The Galaxy S8 and Note S8 are locked in to shooting at 30fps at 4K, but can push to 60fps at 1080p. (The iPhone can do that too.) To change video settings with the Note 8 you'll use the camera app, which make sense. To change resolution or frame rate with the iPhone, you must dive into your main Settings app and find the camera page. It's confusing and doesn't let you vary the look of your video with the ease that I'd prefer.
That makes the iPhone a bit more versatile for folks who like the different looks that varying the video frame rate can do. You can shoot at 24fps for a cinematic look, at 30fps to match traditional video, and 60fps for that ultra-smooth fast-action look. And because it does all three at 4K, you have liberal room to crop down to 1080p to get a tighter field of view while maintaining stabilization. The iPhone also supports 1080p slow-motion footage, captured at 120fps or 240fps for one-quarter or one-fifth playback speed, something that the Note 8 and Galaxy S8 don't do.
The iPhone 8's wide-angle camera has the best stabilization of the bunch. Video is effectively smoothed, so there's no jitter, and it looks quite natural—all at 4K. The Note 8 has dual stabilized lenses, and while they aren't jumpy and jittery, you can see the frame shake as you take steps while walking, an effect absent in the 8 Plus' wide camera. The 8 Plus is definitely using some digital stabilization to steady its 2x lens footage so it's not jittery, but it's not as smooth as any of the optical options, and you can see some unnatural motion that's a result of the digital stabilization.
In addition to standard video capture, the iPhone will auto-edit videos on demand, highlighting photos and moments from a certain time period. I tried it out. It made some weird choices. It mixed up a few portraits of staff members with lots of images from our camera test scene, and omitted everything I shot in the botanical gardens. I guess it likes people and test charts more than flowers. If you use your phone to take more typical photos, it'll hopefully do a better job.
The iPhone also shoots what Apple calls Live Photos. They're a mix of a second or so of video leading up to your shot, followed by the image itself. It's a neat concept—Nikon did a similar thing with its failed series of Nikon 1 mirrorless cameras. But if you don't see yourself sharing these types of clips you might want to turn the feature off, as it takes up more space than a standard photo.
Dual Lens Features
If you're shopping for an iPhone 8 or Galaxy S8, you can disregard this section. We're going to talk about what the dual lenses in the 8 Plus and Note 8 bring to the table. In addition to a tighter field of view when shooting photos, they both use depth information delivered by the cameras to map scenes and simulate the out-of-focus blur, also known as bokeh, associated with wide aperture lenses and big image sensors.
They do it a bit differently. Apple doesn't let you adjust the amount of background blur, while Samsung does, but iPhone 8 Plus owners have specialized lighting effects that can be applied to images, whereas you don't get that with the Note 8.
On the iPhone it's called Portrait Mode, although it works when holding the phone in landscape orientation and you certainly aren't limited to photographing people. Samsung calls its version Live Focus. Both require you to be a few feet away from your subject to work, and both allow for adjustments to the image and effect after capture—think of it as a Lytro камера, but with much better image quality.
For my first batch of test shots I wanted to photograph a person, and PCMag features guru Chandra Steele volunteered. I did my best to match up framing and lighting with both phones, as well as with a Canon EOS 5DS R with the latest Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens attached. The SLR shot ended up being at 66mm at f/2.8. The results are above. You'll notice that the shots aren't labeled. See if you can tell the difference between the phones and pro SLR.
Running from left to right, we have the Note 8, the Canon, and finally the iPhone. Despite it being a windy day, the Note 8 managed not to do anything awful to Chandra's hair in the depth-mapping process and delivers, to my eye, the look that's most similar to a pro SLR and f/2.8 zoom lens. The wood railing behind our subject isn't quite as blurred in the Galaxy shot, but the building in the background is blurred with aplomb. The field of view is slightly different with the Note 8, despite all three shots being captured from the same position with a similar pose. That's because the Note's main camera is a little bit wider than the iPhone's.
The iPhone didn't do a good job with Chandra's hair. The top of her head is slightly cut off, and there's a more noticeable cutout at the camera left side of her head. Why? A close look at the images (below) tells the tale. The iPhone's algorithm is getting thrown off by some individual hairs at the top of the head, as well as bit of the building behind Chandra that isn't fully illuminated by the setting sun. The image on the far left is the non-portrait iPhone shot (you can toggle the effect after an image has been captured), with the iPhone's Natural Light portrait shot in the middle, и, for comparison, the Note 8's take on the portrait on the right.
That's not to say that Samsung's algorithm is perfect; it can definitely get tricked up. But at press time, it appears to have a bit of an edge when it comes to mapping humans. I also took both phones to brunch, followed by a trip to the New York Botanical Gardens, to see how their bokeh modes handled two popular Instagram subjects—food and flowers.
When it comes to eggs benedict, both phones do an admirable, Instagram-worthy job. The iPhone underexposes a bit in shady lighting, but that's something you can easily fix after the fact, it's not significantly dim. It handles this background well, with soft, feathered blur, and I don't see any problems with the mapping of the subject itself. The Note 8 doesn't deliver as much blur, even at its most extreme setting, but out-of-focus highlights are pretty good, they just don't have the same feathered look as you get with the iPhone.
At the gardens I nabbed shots with both phones that would fool veteran photographers at Instagram sizes. Both did an excellent job mapping a lotus that was part of an outdoor water garden exhibit. But when it came to shooting a bird-of-paradise, the iPhone managed to get the proper amount of background blur, while the Note 8 shows a bit too much in focus behind the flower, even with the blur set to its maximum level.
I'm thinking the wider wide-angle lens is in play here. For this particular image, shot indoors under skylights, Samsung's colors are warmer and more pleasing to the eye, but again, it's easy to warm a photo to taste, either using the iOS Photos app or the editing software of your choosing.
Both phones failed big time when it came to capturing a swirling fiddlehead fern plant. The Note 8 struggled to map it and I only managed a couple of blurry shots that were the camera's attempt at blurring the background (the wide-angle shots, which the Note 8 also saves, are sharply focused). The iPhone picked up on certain parts of the plant, but did a poor job of deciding what should be in focus and what is blurred.
Right now, both phones have plusses and minuses when it comes to bokeh simulation. The iPhone 8 Plus sometimes struggles mapping hair when photographing people, while the Note 8 steps up and does a solid job. But for other shots, especially those when the background is not far off in the distance, the iPhone draws the out-of-focus area with a blurrier, more pleasing feathered look. Both fail the fiddlehead fern test, but let's be honest, it's a weirdly shaped plant. Because the portrait effect relies so heavily on software processing, there's a good chance we'll see improvements in both camps as software updates roll out from Apple and Samsung.
Remember that with both phones, shooting for shallow depth of field isn't the most candid process. It takes longer to focus and map a scene than it does with a single lens, so if you want to get photos of your toddler running around that look like they were shot with a big-sensor camera, you'll still need to get a camera with a big sensor. Point-and-shoots with 1-inch sensors, like the Sony RX100 III, do this quite well and fit in your pocket, and there are a wealth of options in the mirrorless and SLR world if you're willing to deal with a larger interchangeable lens model.
iPhone-Only: Portrait Lighting
Let's talk about the marquee addition to the iPhone's portrait mode, absent completely from the Samsung side of the fence. Portrait Lighting, still in beta, is exclusive to the iPhone 8 Plus at this time, though it will also be included in the forthcoming iPhone X. The tool adds a new dimension to your portrait shots, allowing you to change the lighting on your subject's face, or spotlight them against a black background, the latter with tuned modes for color or black-and-white photography.
The default setting, Natural, is what we've seen before in the 7 Плус. The updated A11 processor in the new iPhone models adds some new lighting effects. You also get Studio Light, which promises to keep your subject's face brightly lit, and Contour Light, which promises to deliver images with shadows, highlights, and lowlights. I found these effects to be pretty subtly different; but if you look closely you can see what each is doing. The iPhone lets us create multiple looks from a single shot, so I took one image of Chandra and applied each lighting effect.
The Natural effect looks pretty good to start, but the shot was taken as the sun was low on the horizon, so the light was pretty soft to begin with. There are distinct shadows visible, however, especially where the hair shadows the face.
Switching to the Studio look brightens those shadows, painting both of our model's eyes brightly. It's almost as if I had an assistant standing next to me holding a reflector for better illumination.
The Contour look is pretty close to Natural here. There's still some shadow on the eye under the hair, but it's been lifted slightly. Skin seems a little softened, and the highlight on the nose is brighter than it is with the Natural look. With more stark lighting to start, I imagine the effect would be more pronounced.
Stage Light, in both its color and monochrome forms, is instantly recognizable. The background is gone, along with some of Chandra's hair and the ruffles on the shoulders of her dress, unfortunately. Shadows are lifted, like in Studio, and we get a little bit more brightness in highlights, like you'd expect from Contour.
If Apple is able to improve its mapping methods to deliver a more consistent out-of-focus effect, it has something here with the lighting effects. It's deadly easy to switch between looks, even after you've taken a shot, so you get the one you want, and after that you can edit more using your favorite app.
If you're one of the (seemingly) few individuals who are agnostic when it comes to preference between Android and iOS, and are choosing your phone based solely on camera performance and capability, you'll want to narrow your search to one of the dual-camera models. They give you more versatility when capturing images, as the shallow depth of field options deliver a look that you associate with a much larger, dedicated camera.
The iPhone 8 Plus has its strengths—its autoexposure tends to be better, especially in mixed lighting, and it we didn't see any extreme flare around bright lights when shooting night scenes like we did with the Note 8. It also tends to deliver photos with a shallower depth of field, offers more frame rate options for 4K video, and shoots slow-motion 1080p video.
The Note 8 does a better job with portraits of people, and keeps up with the iPhone for other subjects. When I tried the two side by side, they ran into similar problems with tricky subjects. The Note 8's secondary camera is optically stabilized, so video shot with it is steadier, which isn't the case with the iPhone 8 Плус. But the iPhone's wide-angle camera offers better stabilization than Samsung's.
If you don't want a big phone, and you don't want to wait or spend the money for the iPhone X (which promises to deliver as good or better overall performance than the 8 Plus), you'll likely be shopping for an iPhone 8 or Galaxy S8, both of which use the same main camera as their larger siblings.
The S8's main camera delivers photos that are slightly wider in angle, albeit sometimes over-sharpened when shooting JPGs. This means that photos shot at low ISOs show a little more pop than you get from the iPhone 8, but as the sensitivity ramps up the two phones deliver more similar results. It's not until ISO 800 that the Note 8 shows a very slight advantage.
Indeed, what you get from the iPhone 8 and S8's main lenses, from a still-capture perspective, are so close that it really should come down to what other phone features you like better, and which operating platform you prefer. If you want significantly better images, stop shooting with your phone and buy a camera. Compact models with 1-inch sensors will run circles around a smartphone in pure image quality, and if you think you'll use a bigger camera with regularity, you can opt for a mirrorless model или SLR with interchangeable lenses.