Camera Shoot-Out: iPhone 7 vs. Samsung Galaxy S7


The iPhone 7, reviewed here, has imaging that’s distinguished from that in the iPhone 6s by having a larger aperture and OIS, Optical Image Stabilisation, which should both significantly improve its low light photos. But how far does this spec bump take the iPhone 7 in the wider smartphone imaging world? I pitch it here, by popular demand, against the populist mass-market champion, the Samsung Galaxy S7, shot for shot, pixel for pixel.

* I should also add a small header note in that people will know my imaging comparisons from other sites and, in particular, that the much acclaimed Galaxy S7 isn’t actually top of the heap, in that it’s defeated in my tests by the Microsoft Lumia 950, but it’s fair to note that this is something of a niche device and OS (Windows 10 Mobile) in 2016 and to discount it here.

The comparison of the iPhone 7 and Galaxy S7 should be fairly straightforward, at least – the phones are the same size, form factor, and indeed camera resolution (12MP). The Galaxy S7 should outgun the iPhone 7 slightly in that it has a larger sensor (1/2.5″ versus 1/3″) and optics, but there shouldn’t be an awful lot in it, with both having OIS now and similar apertures.

Galaxy S7 and iPhone 7

In each case, I show the test shot from both the iPhone 7 and (by popular demand) the S7 as well, even though they won’t differ that much, followed by 1:1 crops from central areas from the iPhone 7 and then Galaxy S7 photos, to show the level of detail and artefacts (if any). Along with my commentary as we go, of course. I’m also going to score shots out of 10 as we go, in order to be able to arrive at a points total and an eventual winner.

Note that my tests mainly steer clear of generic ‘good light, easy subject’ shots, since any phone camera can handle these – what I’m looking for here is a phone camera that can go the extra mile.

Test 1: Lakeside, in sun

The closest I get to an easy shot, but by looking in detail with 1:1 crops, I still intend to be picky! Here’s the overall scene, as shot by the iPhone 7:

Lake scene

Now as shot by the Galaxy S7:

Test photo from the Galaxy S7

And here’s a central crop at 1:1 from the iPhone 7, followed immediately by the equivalent from the Galaxy S7:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop

The difference doesn’t surprise me at all – Samsung has traditionally been terrible at handling natural (greenery) detail – and the green used here is horrible, ditto the over-sharpening producing blotches where there’s supposed to be detail. In contrast, the iPhone makes an excellent fist at the greenery and it’s a much more natural scene overall.

Apple iPhone 7: 9 pts; Samsung Galaxy S7: 5 pts

Test 2: Indoor macro

Still quite an easy shot, in good shop lighting. Here’s the overall scene, as shot by the iPhone 7:

Watch scene

Now as shot by the Galaxy S7:

Test photo from the Galaxy S7

And here’s a central crop at 1:1 from the iPhone 7, followed immediately by the equivalent from the Galaxy S7:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop

To me eyes, the iPhone again does a better job of representing colours and detail – the Galaxy S7 makes such a mess of both. Although the iPhone gold watch was arguably a little too pale, the Samsung version is (to the same degree) far too saturated and gaudy, and there’s no contest when it comes to looking at small details, such as the numerals on the watch face. Oddly, the reflected colours of the hands were also different, but I’ll be kind to the both phones here and say that perhaps the slight difference in framing was to blame here. Still a big win for the iPhone again, I’m afraid.

Apple iPhone 7: 9 pts; Samsung Galaxy S7: 7 pts

Test 3: Distant detail

I couldn’t resist this one – a cat was staring at me, around 30 metres away. Never mind zoom, I’ll come to that below – in this case I was more interested in raw detail resolved by the 12MP sensors. Here’s the overall scene, as shot by the iPhone 7:

Cat scene

And as shot by the Galaxy S7:

Test photo from the Galaxy S7

And here’s a central crop at 1:1 from the iPhone 7, followed immediately by the equivalent from the Galaxy S7:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop

Slightly more even here, perhaps – the S7 does a slightly better job of reproducing the cat, but the iPhone again does much better with the grass, even though it wasn’t the main subject here. The iPhone’s grass LOOKS like grass, while the Galaxy S7’s grass looks like astroturf of some kind…

Apple iPhone 7: 9 pts; Samsung Galaxy S7: 8 pts

Test 4: Night time

Time to get really, really tough, let’s try a handheld scene in dead of night with no natural light that will really exercise the OIS in each phone camera. Here’s the overall scene, as shot by the iPhone 7:

Night scene

Now as shot by the Galaxy S7:

Test photo from the Galaxy S7

And here’s a central crop at 1:1 from the iPhone 7, followed immediately by the equivalent from the Galaxy S7:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop

The Galaxy S7 fares much better here, the over-sharpening actually helps in tough conditions, see the door, window and car detail, for example. Samsung’s processing is clearly right on the edge though, and there are more digital noise artefacts. A very slight win for the S7.

Apple iPhone 7: 8 pts; Samsung Galaxy S7: 9 pts

Test 5: Exposure and zoom(!)

Perhaps one of the ultimate tests of a phone camera – snapping a back-lit stained glass window in a dark church, here at about 15 metres because of a barrier (I couldn’t get closer, so I decided to try a little digital zoom on each phone, to frame the stained glass detail better. In both cases I also had to use the on-screen exposure adjustment control to stop the window from being ‘blown out’. Here’s the overall scene, as shot by the iPhone 7:

Stained glass zoom scene

Now as shot by the Galaxy S7:

Test photo from the Galaxy S7

And here’s a central crop at 1:1 from the iPhone 7, followed immediately by the equivalent from the Galaxy S7:

1:1 crop from zoomed image
stained-s7-cropped

Samsung’s image processing is more optimised for lines and objects, plus Samsung are past masters at ‘interpolative’ digital zoom (they mastered it in the Note 4 generation, for the record), so I’m not surprised to see Samsung’s image having more contrast and more impact. Having said that, the iPhone does very well too and there’s just as much genuine detail – the snap just hasn’t been enhanced as much. (It’s worth noting that the iPhone 7 Plus, with its 2x telephoto lens, probably wouldn’t have done any better because the light levels were low overall and the Camera app would have stuck with the main 1x lens and OIS.)

Apple iPhone 7: 8 pts; Samsung Galaxy S7: 9 pts

Test 6: Extreme macro

Trying to get as close as I could (around 5cm) with each smartphone camera without losing focus. Here’s the overall scene, as shot by the iPhone 7:

Tomato scene

Now as shot by the Galaxy S7:

Test photo from the Galaxy S7

And here’s a central crop at 1:1 from the iPhone 7, followed immediately by the equivalent from the Galaxy S7:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop

Samsung’s sharpening becomes something of a bone of contention when looking at shots like this. At first glance, there’s more detail in the Galaxy S7 shot, but gaze at it for more than a few seconds at 1:1 and you realise that there’s too much detail, i.e. it’s made up. In contrast, I much prefer the more arty, gentler detail in the iPhone 7 photo. Looking at the overall photo, the Galaxy S7 does get an extra point for more of a ‘bokeh’ shallow depth of field, thanks to the larger lens and sensor, but it’s not enough to stop the iPhone winning by a nose.

Apple iPhone 7: 10 pts; Samsung Galaxy S7: 9 pts

Verdict

(I’ve now included the ‘full frame’ shots for both phones, as per the comments below, though I still maintain that, apart from the shot of the watch, there’s little to be gained from seeing these at 600 pixel blog resolution. Sigh….)

I have, in fairness, been hard on both phone cameras – I’ve hammered them with scenarios that really push the boundaries of what the tech is capable of and I’ve also been looking at the details, at the raw pixels in the 12MP images. For 90% of people 90% of the time, both phone cameras will do a fine job, viewing the snaps on the phone screen, for example. However, for the wannabe photographers out there, those who really want to know which camera phone is ‘best’ for image quality then there’s no doubting the winner here. Adding up the points gives us:

  1. Apple iPhone 7 – 53/60 pts
  2. Samsung Galaxy S7 – 47/60 pts

Without the OIS and with smaller aperture, i.e. running at the level of the iPhone 6s, the two phone cameras would have come out roughly level overall. But with the iPhone 7’s much more competitive aperture and with OIS built in, it draws ahead. And, as usual, the Apple phone camera is notable for more natural images, for exemplary image processing.

The obvious conclusion is that the iPhone 7 is now the ‘best’ camera phone in the world, though I’d point to that header note at the top of this article if I wanted to be picky. But then this would be countered with the iPhone 7 Plus, not tested in this particular feature, which would score extra points in good light for even more detail, thanks to the 2x zoom, plus it would open up new use cases altogether.

Does the iPhone 7 camera have a weakness? Well, moving humans in low light is still an issue, the ‘quad LED’ flash isn’t as bright as I’d have expected, but Apple may well tweak things in software to reduce exposure time and raise ISO, which would be the way to go at parties and evening events.

Comments welcome – in contrast to just about every other mobile site in the world, I’m distinctly ‘down’ on Samsung’s image processing, as you can tell above, and I’d most definitely rather have the iPhone 7 in my pocket when it comes to taking great photos.

PS. In case you’re put off by my use of downsamples, crops and WordPress compression above, I’ve put most of the relevant JPGs in a zip file here, which you’re welcome to grab and analyse.

You may also like to check

➤  iPhone 7 Plus Review: Jack of All Trades And… Master of Them All

➤  iPhone 7 Review: Close to Perfection

(Thanks to Clove for helping with the review Galaxy S7 at short notice.)

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Related Topics: Camera, Featured, iPhone 7, iPhone 7 Plus