An hour with the Galaxy S9 Plus reveals what the camera is all about

galaxy s9 Plus hands-on review back full
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The Samsung Galaxy S9 and the S9 Plus have cameras so unique, you won’t find anything similar on any other smartphone in the world. We’re not talking about the dual-camera system that adds a Portrait Mode-esque blur or optical zoom — we’re talking about the main 12-megapixel lens that can switch between f/1.5 and f/2.4 apertures.

We managed to get our hands on a Galaxy S9 Plus at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, and we took a few photos around the show area to get a better understanding of the camera, and how the mechanical aperture works. But before we dive into the photos, here’s a quick breakdown on aperture.

What is aperture?

As we explained in our Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus hands-on review, aperture is the hole in a camera that absorbs light. A bigger hole offers a wider aperture, which means it can take in more light. So a camera with an f/1.5 aperture, like the Galaxy S9, would be able to handle low-light photography relatively well because it’s capable of taking in more light than smartphones with f/1.6 or f/1.8 apertures. The lower the number the wider the aperture, and the f/1.5 aperture on the S9 is the widest available on a smartphone to date.

A photo taken by the f/2.4 aperture will be noticeably sharper.

So if the f/1.5 aperture is so great, what’s the point of the f/2.4 aperture also available on the 12-megapixel camera? The problem with hitting wider and wider apertures is photographs aren’t as crisp or sharp as they can be on a smaller aperture. A photo taken by the f/2.4 aperture will be noticeably sharper than a photo taken with the f/1.5 aperture, Samsung told Digital Trends. That’s why Samsung makes sure the default aperture is f/2.4, and the f/1.5 only kicks in when the camera detects a low-light environment.

The apertures on the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus are controlled by two circular plates that concentrate the amount of light going through based on the lighting in the environment. You can also head to the Pro mode in the camera to manually switch between both apertures. For the purposes of our test, we used the manual camera mode and took the same photo twice, but with each aperture.

Comparing apertures

This photo in a decently lit hall at Mobile World Congress shows exactly what the f/1.5 aperture will do. It’s important to note, the auto camera mode did not want to use the f/1.5 aperture because it thinks there’s enough light for the f/2.4 aperture. The f/1.5 aperture photo is brighter, perhaps a little too bright in some areas, while the f/2.4 aperture photo is dark.

We like the contrast and the color of the f/2.4 aperture, but it is indeed a tad dim. We’d still pick it over the f/1.5 aperture photo, because if you zoom in a little to any particular object, you can see what Samsung means about the loss in sharpness. Look at the Telefonica logo on the right — the f/2.4 photo is crisper.

Here’s a good example where the auto mode actually switched to the f/1.5 aperture. The f/2.4 photo is dark all around, and there’s detail lost if you look at some of the backpacks in the shot. The f/1.5 aperture illuminates those dark spots, and it’s likely the photo we’d share on social media.

As for sharpness — yes, the f/2,4 is much crisper. Take a look at the poles sticking out from the ceiling on the top left: There’s far more detail here.

Here’s yet another example detailing the loss in clarity on the f/1.5 lens. The camera app did not switch to f/1.5 here, because there’s plenty of light, and you can hardly see much of a difference between the two photos. Zoom in on various objects, though, and you’ll notice the f/2.4 is sharper.

We’ll be bringing you a low-light camera test very soon, and we can’t wait to see the difference between the two apertures in darker settings.

Live Focus

Most high-end smartphones with dual-camera systems have some type of Portrait Mode, where a blur is applied to the background of a subject to make them pop out. Apple popularized this with the iPhone 7 Plus, and many smartphone manufacturers have followed suit. Samsung introduced its version of this with the Galaxy Note 8, and the same features have now been ported to the Galaxy S9 Plus. It’s called Live Focus, and you won’t find it on the smaller Galaxy S9 because it doesn’t have dual cameras.

galaxy s9 plus camera samsung live focus sample 1
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

In Live Focus, the camera uses the secondary 12-megapixel telephoto lens (at f/2.4) to identify depth. You can adjust and see the level of blur behind a subject before you take a photo. In our Live Focus photo of Bugdroid on a swing, the Galaxy S9 Plus does a solid job, but there’s room for improvement.

The parts of the photo in focus are extremely sharp, but there are some parts where the blur is not consistent. Take a look at the man’s hair in between the leaves and Bugdroid’s arm. The blur here is not as strong as it is in the rest of the photo. The same can be said for the background directly behind Bugdroid’s body, between the ropes. The blur is weak and inconsistent with the blur everywhere else.

We’ve only taken a look at one photo, though, so we’ll have to do more testing to see if this inconsistency is rampant in Live Focus mode.

Super Slow Motion

Super Slow Motion is a new addition to Samsung’s smartphones, but the company isn’t the first to debut the technology — that’d be Sony. Essentially, the camera can shoot up to 960 frames per second, or about 32 times slower than real life.

Sony has a full year on Samsung with this technology, which is why its new Xperia XZ2 smartphone is capable of shooting super slow motion in 1080p quality. Samsung’s Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus are limited to 720p. You should be warned that Super Slow Motion does not work very well in most indoor conditions because the artificial lighting just flickers throughout the whole video. It also will look terrible in low-light conditions — this is true with Sony’s phones as well. For best results, go outside and take these videos in daylight.

There are two ways to take Super Slow Motion videos on the Galaxy S9: Manual and Auto. We preferred manually triggering the slow motion effect, because it provides greater control. Simply start the recording, and then tap the slow motion button that appears to the right of the shutter icon when the action is taking place. It will capture the moment in slow motion for a few seconds, and then the video will continue recording — you can tap the shutter icon up to 20 more times in a single video.

It can be tricky to get the moment right at first, and Samsung said it will take a little practice. What may be easier for most people is the auto mode. Here, just drag the box to the subject where you expect the action to happen, and press the record button. As soon as the box detects motion, it will automatically capture everything in slow motion. You’ll get a quick flash indicating the capture was successful. The auto mode also requires a bit of practice, and you need to make sure there really isn’t any movement happening in that box you don’t want or it will start capturing it all in slow motion.

The effect itself looks great, though we do wish 1080p resolution was available. What Samsung does better over Sony is the automatic GIFs generated with the slow-motion videos. You can choose between Reverse, Swing, and Loop GIFs and share them as a compressed file size on social media.

That’s a quick look at the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus’ camera features. We’ll be checking out how the phone works in low light, which is what the f/1.5 aperture is meant for — stay tuned!

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