The battle of the phone cameras has gone beyond megapixels.
Like Apple sticking to 8 megapixels in its iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, Samsung has not raised the resolution of its rear camera, beyond the Galaxy S5's 16 megapixels in progressing to the just-announced Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge (available April 10). Instead, Samsung has focused on two continued weak spots for all cameras — white balance and low-light performance — by using an infrared (IR) sensor for the former and a wider aperture for the latter. Both are direct attacks on the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus (which share the same rear camera).
If you’ve ever taken a photo indoors that comes out with a yellowish or orangey cast — and you almost certainly have — you've seen the challenge of white balance. In short, it's the camera's effort to render colors as your mind perceives them, without a tint of orange or blue, green or magenta. (It's easiest for cameras can do this if a white object is in the frame, hence the name.)
Though the iPhone 6 camera excels at most tasks, including color rendition, it sometimes hits a snag with white balance. For example, it sometimes turns red objects like apples and brown objects like stone a tad purplish, or renders skin tones pinkish. Samsung's Galaxy S5 already tended to beat the iPhone 6 on white balance, and the new S6 models aim to go further.
Samsung has taken a whole new approach with the new Galaxy S6 models. It uses the cameras' IR sensor – installed mainly to measure heart rate — in order to determine whether it is indoors, where colors tend toward the "warm" orange, or outdoors, where colors often appear a tad blue. (Sunlight is actually bluish, though our mind is accustomed to correcting for that.)
"The IR sensor understands the IR profile of different lighting environments and changes the white balance to match. The sensor can also recognize a mix of lighting conditions and help adapt accordingly," a Samsung representative told us.
Low-light boost: Larger aperture and image stabilization
Improved white balance is far from the only upgrade. The S6 cameras also feature a larger aperture (opening for light to enter). Samsung bumps the measurement from the f/2.2 of the Galaxy S5 (and iPhone 6) to f/1.9. This may look minor, but in the mathematics of apertures — in which smaller numbers denote more light gathering — this is a big change.
Going from f/2.2 to f/1.9 represents what photographers call three quarters a third of an f-stop, or increasing the light-gathering capability by a whopping 75 about 30 percent. That should be a boon for low-light shooting, which combined with better indoor white balance, could make the S6 line the ultimate dinner, disco and party cams. The promised start-up time of 0.7 seconds should also help with grabbing those surprise brilliant moments.
But there's more. The Galaxy S line finally gets the optical image stabilization that graces its cousin, the Galaxy Note 4 (see review), as well as the larger iPhone, the 6 Plus. By quickly nudging the camera lens to counteract movement from your jittery hands, OIS reduces motion blur on long-exposure shots – again, the kind you often have to take indoors. It won't do anything if your friends fidget, but it will keep the walls, furniture and any other stationary objects sharper.
New autofocus tracking could help with those folks, though. It allows you to designate the subject and keeps focus on the subject as it moves around in the frame (or as you move the camera). This works for photos as well as video - where it's probably most helpful.
Selfie boost, too
Samsung has also made a big upgrade to the front camera, boosting it from 2-MP to 5-MP and widening its aperture to f/1.9. It likewise promises crisper, brighter images, this time with you in the picture. Here it competes not so much with the iPhone 6's 1.2MP chip but more with HTC's flagship phone. The new One M9, also just announced, has an Ultra Pixel camera (likely with 4-MP resolution) with an f/2.0 aperture. But the one to beat is likely the wide, 13-megapixel selfie cam on the HTC Desire Eye.
The iPhone 6 is currently the big kahuna of cellphone cameras, and it's unclear if Samsung's new specs and features will unseat it. But the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge sure have a good chance.