Whether it’s robots or smartphones, AI or premium audio products, Japan has always been at the forefront of any conversation about technology. We recently spent several weeks in Tokyo discovering not only what some of the biggest names in new tech are creating, but also taking advantage of the exciting location to test out the best smartphone cameras, and discover the charm of its popular tech-tourism destinations. Make sure to check out other entries in our series “Modern Japan.”
Many of us will only ever use a smartphone, not a DSLR, to take pictures on vacation. That means smartphone cameras need to offer high-quality images, be easy to use, fast to react, and ideally feature-packed. In the second half of 2017, Samsung released the Galaxy Note 8, and Apple brought us the iPhone 8 Plus. Two phones from two giant rival companies, both with highly capable dual-lens cameras.
We took hundreds of pictures with each phone
We carried them both on our recent trip to Japan, and took hundreds of pictures with each phone, ready to put them both under the microscope to see which one captured the best pictures. Through rain and shine, neither phone missed a beat, and they both performed superbly. But one did manage to stand out against the other.
A word about size and software
We’re not talking about photo size here, we talking about the size of phone. The Apple iPhone 8 Plus has a 5.5-inch screen and a relatively large body, but it’s nothing compared to the 6.3-inch Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and its massive, elongated body. The Note 8 is a real handful, and it’s almost impossible to take pictures with one hand, while the iPhone 8 Plus is more manageable. Neither are dainty; but if you’ve got small hands, or often take quick snaps while one hand is filled with a child/bag/umbrella/gifts; then make sure you try the Note 8 out before buying it. If it’s too large, the iPhone 8 Plus may work better for you.
Both camera apps are simple to use, and the features are easy to access with a few swipes and taps. Samsung’s most recent user interface is far better than older versions, and has caught up with the wonderful simplicity of Apple’s camera. It’s the ability to swipe from the lockscreen on either phone and get straight into the camera app we found most useful. In our test we only used the standard, pre-installed camera apps, rather than any third-party apps downloadable from an app store.
Out in the rain
Not every vacation is going to be a sun-soaked extravaganza of tanning, beaches, and palm trees. In Tokyo, we had some rainy days, but that didn’t stop us exploring or reaching for a camera when the situation called for it. This meant lighting was hardly ideal, and cloudy skies can ruin what would be a super photo when the sun is out. But if the camera is good, you can still capture some great pictures.
The iPhone 8 Plus wins in our first shot
The iPhone 8 Plus wins in our first shot. At the Kanda Shrine in Akihabara, where the rain was pelting down at the time, the iPhone took the best shot of the two cameras. Look at the clouds. The Galaxy Note 8 struggles to capture the sky and it appears washed out for the majority, while the iPhone is far more realistic. Look at the board in the bottom left — it’s white in the iPhone’s photo, but more grey on the Note 8, and there is far less detail in the shadows around it, especially next to the paper lantern.
For such a rainy day, the iPhone’s photo is far more lively, while the Note 8’s color and contrast is less dynamic, producing a far more dreary and lifeless picture. Zoom in on the Note 8’s photo and you can actually see the raindrops, while the iPhone 8 Plus didn’t capture them, despite being taken just moment apart. Rain happens, but we’re still on vacation, so any pictures we take will contain memories and we still want them to be good.
In the sun, and at night
When the sun comes out in Tokyo, it’s often in a cloudless sky, just like these shots of the Tokyo Tower. Both were taken with the 2x optical zoom option on each phone. It’s a close race, and both pictures are great. The iPhone 8 Plus captured the more realistic photo, with darker shadows, a more natural and realistic red; and when you look closely it also shows the cabling attached to the tower better than the Note 8’s photo.
The Note 8 handles the darker spots very differently, revealing a lot more detail than the iPhone 8 Plus, but at the expense of realism. The red metal is brighter, with greater contrast than the iPhone’s picture. We prefer the iPhone 8 Plus’ approach here, but we’re happy with either picture.
But something very interesting happened when we went back to take the same photo after dark on the same day. Tokyo Tower is very brightly lit at night, and presents a considerable challenge for a smartphone — a very bright thing against a very dark background. While other photos so far could split opinion, these nighttime shots are unlikely to: The Note 8 takes the far superior shot. The iPhone 8 Plus sets the scene better with the trees and a less blue-tinged night sky; but the Note 8 brings out the detail in the Tokyo Tower, which is what we want to see in the photo.
Taking pictures on a sunny day with either phone resulted in some wonderful pictures, filled with stunning color and sparkling detail. Choosing a winner is almost pointless, because the results from both are so great. Looking up at the high-rise buildings in Roppongi Hills, the iPhone gives a truer, more accurate image based on the color of the sky, and the shades of the building itself in the center of the image. The Note 8 punches up the contrast for the sky, and brings out the green of the trees to the side, but loses detail on the building.
Looking down over Shinjuku city, both cameras pick out the varied colors, the bright sky, and the darker street area really well. There’s great scale here, and it’s impossible to choose between them. We feel this is a picture representative of those many will take — a good street scene capturing local everyday life — and are pleased both do such a great job.
It’s a little less equal in the picture taken in the Nezu Museum gardens, where the iPhone’s automatic HDR mode captures the blue sky, natural greenery, and the reflections in the water wonderfully. It’s a beautiful picture straight off the camera. The Note 8 washes out the sky, but does manage to bring out more detail on the boat’s shadowy areas; although the roof’s patina is lost. Also, look closely at the river bank to see the earthy tones mixed with natural stone on the iPhone, missing from the Note 8.
Live Focus vs. Portrait
We dedicated an entire camera test session to how the iPhone 8 Plus and Note 8 compare with the background-blurring Portrait and Live Focus modes, when we visited a hedgehog cafe. They both approach the subject differently, so naturally you get very different results. These two shots of Ema — wooden plaques decorated with wishes found in Japanese temples — illustrates what happens. The iPhone likes to get in close, while the Note 8 is happier at a distance. Both look great here, in our opinion.
Night time, and panorama
We’d already seen evidence the Note 8 was the superior night time camera. A night shot taken along a busy road in Azabu-Juban, where car headlights, street lamps, buildings, and a cloudy sky challenged the two phones. It’s the Note 8 we prefer. There’s more detail, less blur, and despite the slightly less accurate sky, it’s an image with real emotion. It’s an ordinary street in Tokyo, so to inject some feeling into a picture like this highlights how good the Samsung camera is in this type of situation.
The Note 8’s win here was sealed in Odaiba, where four images of the Rainbow Bridge made us glad we had the Galaxy Note 8 with us. None of these pictures were shot using a tripod, just standing — in the rain and wind — like regular people overlooking the scene. While both cameras capture the clouds and reflection from the bridge’s lights well — a typhoon was actually brewing overhead, lending considerable drama — it’s the Note 8 that manages this superbly. The angry, bruised color scheme was very much what we were seeing. The bridge lighting, and that of the boats, is handled far better. Also, the water is more natural looking. We really love the Galaxy Note 8’s picture here.
It’s a breathtaking spot, and a panorama seemed appropriate. Unsurprisingly given the conditions, neither is a great picture, but we know which one we prefer. Further explanation seems unnecessary, as the Galaxy Note 8 easily beats the iPhone.
No-one is going to be disappointed carrying either of these smartphones and taking pictures when the chance comes along; but we did turn to the Galaxy Note 8 more than the iPhone during our trip. Although we often preferred the iPhone 8 Plus’ photos for their natural look, if the light was bad, the Note 8 was considerably better. Live Focus mode was more versatile, and the monster 6.3-inch display made viewing them a pleasure. We didn’t edit any of these pictures after taking them, and the Note 8’s shortcomings could easily be fixed, making it the better all-rounder, which is exactly what we want if it’s the only camera in our pocket.
It’s also only under direct comparison that any Note 8 or iPhone picture differences become obvious. When viewed alone — as most of us usually do — they’re all pictures we’d be happy to share.
A further takeaway from this test is how the success of the Galaxy Note 8’s camera gives us very high hopes for the Galaxy S9, which we’re hoping will improve on the Galaxy S8’s camera. Fitting an even better version of the Note 8’s camera into a smaller, more manageable phone is a tantalising prospect. For now, the Galaxy Note 8 is the Samsung phone to buy for photo superiority, and it just nudges aside arch rival Apple in our direct comparison too.