Unlike Apple’s iPhone or Nokia’s Lumia series, Samsung’s Galaxy line has never been consistently lauded for its camera performance. While Samsung has proved itself capable of delivering great photos with niche devices like those of the Zoom family, that performance hasn’t always bled over to its mainstream offerings. April’s Galaxy S5 brought excellent daytime shooting (at the expense of authentic colors) but suffered in low light – and last year’s Galaxy Note 3 added wobbly handling and an odd viewfinder to those deficiencies (anyone remember Golf Shot?).
Samsung’s Note brand has always served as an opportunity for the company to showcase the very best hardware it’s capable of building, and this year’s installment is no exception. The Galaxy Note 4 packs an optically stabilized 16MP camera whose sensor, according to IT168, bears Sony branding: it’s apparently the IMX240, with a 1/2.6″ sensor size and a pixel size of 1.1 microns. That’s right in line with the ISOCELL shooter in the Galaxy S5, but the new camera brings a host of changes too – most of them for the better.
Galaxy Note 4 camera samples: daylight
The biggest change in the Note 4’s camera versus the S5’s is in color saturation. Gone are the overblown, super-vibrant colors of the S5, replaced with more authentic tones. Personally, I find this a little disappointing –slightly oversaturated colors are a weakness of mine– but photographers will be pleased with the change, and photos still look stunning on the Note 4’s QHD Super AMOLED display. The difference can be seen especially clearly in red tones; the Note 4 doesn’t overstate them as some of its predecessors did, resulting in more accurate photos in indoor settings where lighting is often on the warm side.
The Note 4 is also faster to focus than some earlier Samsung phones, and its interface has been reworked to make it simpler to use (once you customize it enough to eliminate the need for the wall of toggles hiding behind the settings hamburger on the lower left). We’d still like a hardware shutter release, though: while the volume keys or heart-rate sensor can be used to trigger the camera, neither offers the half-press-to-focus functionality or the satisfying springy click of a dedicated shutter key … and it’s not as if Samsung is hurting for space on the Note 4’s ample chassis.
Galaxy Note 4 camera samples: HDR
Since at least as far back as the Galaxy S III, Samsung has done a great job pulling light from the shadows in photos featuring both bright and dark areas, a technique called “High Dynamic Range” by non-photographers such as myself. Smartphones don’t always pull off the HDR effect well, with some devices’ attempts resulting in unsightly or ethereal halos around subjects in the frame. As with most mobile devices, the Note 4 suffers from slight color washout in HDR mode, but the tradeoff –actually being able to see detail in the shadows– is more than worth it.
Galaxy Note 4 camera samples: low light
Samsung’s software stabilization worked fairly well in its earlier smartphones, as can be seen in our recent Galaxy Note 4 vs Galaxy S5 comparison video. But achieving good results using that setting often meant holding the phone still for a very long capture time, and getting solid focus was often a big challenge.
The inclusion of optical image stabilization means Samsung’s camera now floats inside a self-correcting frame, with vibrations and hand-shakes corrected for using either magnets or tiny motors. The added stability allows for faster autofocus and longer exposure times in near-darkness, and while the results still fall short of the very best low-light smartphone cameras, they’re much more impressive than what Samsung has managed in the past. With the Note 4, the company finally has a low-light shooter we can recommend to folks who take most of their photos in dim bars or clubs.
Galaxy Note 4 camera samples: selfies
In a world where the concept of the “selfie phone” has been embraced by more than a few manufacturers, Samsung has upped its narcissistic game with the Note 4. The 3.7MP front-facing camera isn’t as sharp as many selfie shooters these days, but its f/1.9 aperture lens is wide enough to capture more of the scene than some smartphones. Additionally, Samsung has bundled in a panoramic selfie mode, though the extra steps necessary to take a photo in this mode aren’t always worth the facial distortion that results.
More impressive to me is the rear-cam selfie mode, which uses facial recognition along with audio and haptic cues to guide your hand into capturing a nice self-portrait using all 16 of the primary camera’s megapixels. Given a little patience, this mode works surprisingly well.
Galaxy Note 4 camera sample: video
The Note 4’s optical stabilization plays a bigger part than just making low-light photos brighter and easier to capture; it also makes video footage much smoother, both in the viewfinder and the final product. The default 30fps shooting mode is a little choppy with fast pans, but there are various settings available to increase the frame rate, and the stability combined with the camera’s rapid self-correction in exposure and white balance make it a pleasure to shoot with. My only complaint is the audio’s tendency to peak in ultra-loud environments like the Placebo concert captured in the sample below, but few smartphones (again, Lumias excepted) would hold up to acoustics that challenging … and in every other situation, the three-microphone audio system results in perfectly acceptable sound.
For all the ink spilled here, I’ve still got more to say about the Galaxy Note 4 camera. For added commentary and photo/video samples not seen here, be sure to check out the review and comparisons linked below. If you’re looking for a succinct summation of my thoughts, though, peep this: Zoom aside, the Note 4 packs the best camera Samsung’s ever made. And it’s the first Samsung camera in a very long time that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to someone who needs excellent low-light performance. Those are significant accomplishments for a brand that looks poised to defy expectations in its return from the brink of boring, and I’m excited to see what’s next.
Looking for more Galaxy Note 4 coverage from Pocketnow? Look no further than Galaxy Note 4 vs Galaxy S5, Galaxy Note 4 vs iPhone 6 Plus, and of course our full Galaxy Note 4 review. Need to give the eyeballs a rest? Tune in for our special-edition Galaxy Note 4 episode of the Pocketnow Weekly podcast, featuring Engadget’s Brad Molen and Greenbot’s Florence Ion!