This year, Samsung is running with an iterative refresh of its minimal-bezel flagship smartphones, with the headlining feature being a revamped camera module. Not only does the Galaxy S9’s camera sport the lowest f-stop we’ve seen on a smartphone to date, it is first with a variable aperture, with the ability to mechanically switch between f/1.5 and f/2.4. It certainly sounds cool, but does the feature actually add any value? That’s what this Synopsis aims to find out.
Over the past week, we’ve pitted Samsung’s new shooter against what it’s replacing – the fixed aperture f/1.7 sensor on the Note 8. Three things we were interested to find out in this analysis were:
- How much better in low-light is f/1.5 vs f/1.7?
- Is there an advantage of shooting at f/2.4 vs the older fixed f/1.7?
- Does the more shallow depth of field given by the lower f/1.5 aperture eliminate the need of Portrait mode (or “Live Focus” in Samsung’s lingo)?
It’s important to note that apart from the aperture differences (that is, the size of len’s “pupil” – the smaller the f-stop number, the bigger the opening), the lens specs are the same. So they both have 12 MP capture resolution, 26mm focal length, and 1.4 µm pixel sizes.
Differences between all three aperture numbers
The first comparison we’re presenting is the difference of the same image with the three different apertures: f/1.5 and f/2.4 on the Galaxy S9 and f/1.7 on the Note 8. This will cover a couple areas of interest, such as how much better is f/1.5 vs the older f/1.7, and what’s the effect of a larger f/2.4 number?
This comparison was a little difficult to accomplish, because we only have control of the aperture in Manual mode, not Auto. But for everything to be consistent, we needed to shoot in Auto mode. Suffice to say, it took a lot of shooting in different conditions in hopes that we could catch the camera in an indecisive state. Here are the best results we’ve captured.
So far we’re seeing minimal differences. Some of the expected results are there, like more Bokeh on f/1.5 and more sharpness around the subjects (deeper depth of field) at f/2.4.
But something we’re noticing is that the f/2.4 shots are brighter than we’d expect. It’s the brightest shot in a couple of the sets. We’re wondering if Samsung has incorporated some extra exposure. We’ll examine this more in the next section.
Closer look at f/2.4 (S9) vs f/1.7 (Note 8)
The S9’s aperture can go wider than the Note 8, but you’ll actually be shooting at f/2.4 most of the time. Samsung has the camera default to f/2.4, and open to f/1.5 only when light is low (below 100 lux).
Shooting at f/2.4 vs f/1.7 isn’t a disadvantage when lighting is ideal. However, you get less of the Bokeh effect (blurring of the background and subject isolation) as the f-stop goes higher, and that can be a bad thing depending on what the photographer wants.
So there’s some interesting results here. In many cases, the Galaxy S9 at f/2.4 resulted in brighter captures than the Note 8. We believe that it’s due to more aggressive HDR processing, as it’s more prevalent in higher dynamic range situations. In easier lighting cases, like the last two pairs, the differences weren’t that noticeable. It will ultimately be the user’s preference, but we think that in many of these comparisons, the colors and contrast from the Note 8 look better. The S9’s reproduction can look washed-out and less dramatic in comparison.
In close-ups, you can also tell more sharpness around the subject with the S9, as expected. The boundaries are softer with the Note 8. Again, this comes down to user preference. We wish that Samsung included a setting to choose what you want the default aperture to be – maybe in the future.
Closer look at f/1.5 (S9) vs f/1.7 (Note 8)
The real advantage of Samsung’s new camera module should show in low-light situations. We should also be able to notice a shallower depth of field in close-up shots.
Overall, the S9’s camera open all the way is like a brighter version of the Note 8’s camera, which is what we expected to see. The difference between f/1.5 and f/1.7 is certainly more in low-light performance than it is in depth of field. In our lowest-light examples, the f/1.5 image achieved more sharpness and clarity. However, in the couple of close-up shots we did, the Bokeh wasn’t much different. Nonetheless, we’ll still see how the f/1.5 shots compare to the Note 8’s Live Focus (Portrait-like) mode.
Galaxy S9 f/1.5 Bokeh vs Note 8 Live Focus Bokeh
“Live Focus” mode debuted with the Note 8, which uses its dual camera setup to conjure a cropped in, shallow Portrait shot not otherwise obtainable without a more capable camera (unless you have some clever post-processing trickery like on the Google Pixel 2). But a lower f-stop should be able to produce the same result. So here, we look at how Bokeh from the S9’s low f/1.5 aperture compares to what Live Focus does.
We’re not convinced the f/1.5 camera can yet replace the Portrait feature. They’re two different animals right now. Firstly, the cropped in field of view of Live Focus puts the subject more in focus, whereas the standard angle is a lot wider (making it difficult to do a proper shot comparison). Also, Live Focus blurs the background a lot more, making the shot a lot more dramatic and properly Portrait-like. Maybe next time.
It’s hard to say if Samsung’s new variable aperture camera system is better or not, and that’s not good for a smartphone that banks so much on its camera innovation. The improvement to care about is the drop from f/1.7 to f/1.5, as it noticeably performs better in low-light. But increasing the aperture size isn’t any different than what smartphones have been doing. Shooting at f/2.4 makes more a subject sharper, but that may not necessarily be desired. And Samsung needs to fix its overexposure, because in those cases, we prefer the Note 8‘s shooter. One thing’s for sure, if you’ve got an S8 or Note 8, don’t sweat this upgrade. What you got is just fine.
*Note that even though the Note 8 is more comparable with the Plus version of the S9, it doesn’t matter for this comparison. The secondary, telephoto camera on the S9 Plus is the same 2x zoom f/2.4 module on the Note 8. The difference is the primary camera, which the S9 and S9 Plus share.