Galactic battle: How the Galaxy S9 Plus camera compares to Samsung predecessors

samsung galaxy s9 plus vs s8 note 8 s7 edge camera shootout header 2
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Samsung’s Galaxy S9 Plus fares extremely well in low-light camera tests, rivaling top contenders like the Google Pixel 2 and the iPhone X. But, how does it compare to previous Samsung Galaxy phones? Many people looking at the S9 Plus are likely upgrading from the phone’s predecessors, like the Galaxy S6, S7 Edge, and maybe even last year’s S8 and Note 8. In our latest camera shootout, we’re pitting Samsung’s newest phone against the Galaxy S8, Galaxy S7 Edge, and the Galaxy Note 8 to mark the differences in the camera, and to see if it’s worthy of an upgrade.

Check out our Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9 Plus reviews to learn more about the new phones themselves, as there’s a lot more new than just a re-imagined camera. What exactly is new with the S9’s camera? Read all about it in our guide explaining variable apertureIf you want to see more camera comparisons, check out our smartphone camera shootout series. Comment below to let us know what camera shootouts you want to see next!

Camera app

The S9 and S9 Plus’ camera apps are a departure from those in the Galaxy S7 Edge, S8, and Note 8. With previous generations, the camera app is quite similar. You swipe to the right to access different camera modes, and swipe to the left for filters. The Note 8 has dual cameras, so it offers a 2x optical zoom, and it also has a Live Focus mode, which adds a blur behind subjects (like Apple and Google’s Portrait Mode). The S7 Edge, S8, and Note 8 camera apps have a clean interface, and are very easy to use.

With the S9 and S9 Plus, all the different camera modes — including Live Focus on the S9 Plus — are now accessible by swiping left or right throughout the camera app, similar to the iPhone’s camera experience. You can customize the layout of these modes in the camera settings. To access filters, just tap the wand icon near the shutter icon. It’s just as easy to use, though we’ve repeatedly and accidentally swiped into another photo mode, which can be annoying when trying to quickly snap a photo.

In this comparison, we’re focusing specifically on the Galaxy S9 Plus. Both phones will take the same photos — though the Plus has the edge with the second camera offering Live Focus and 2x optical zoom. Note that we used Auto mode for all our photos, as that’s what most people use.

Plaça Espanya

We start with the Plaça Espanya in Barcelona.

The Note 8’s photo is a little blurry, which may be due to some shakiness when taking the photo. We’ve gone through several other photos (not seen here) with the other phones on this list of the same subject, and all showed some blur in one photo or another — from the Galaxy S7 Edge to the Galaxy S9 Plus. The Note 8 and the S9 Plus have dual optical image stabilization that should mitigate this, but we haven’t found it to be as useful as we’d like in low-light.

The Galaxy S7 Edge manages to produce a solid photo, but its biggest weakness is in color. The lighting is too red, producing a photo with a uniform and bland hue. Barring the blurry Note 8 photo, the S7 Edge’s image is also the least sharp. Zoom into the arches of the arena in the background, and you’ll see fuzzy details.

The S8 and Note 8 photos have similar color schemes, and the Galaxy S9 Plus’ photo is a tad more saturated. The S9 Plus photo is undoubtedly the sharpest, offering great detail even on the communication tower on the arena. We’re impressed at the detail the S8’s photo offers — it’s second to the S9 Plus, and we think the Note 8 would sit right here as well if the photo didn’t come out blurry.

Look at the sky on the S9 Plus photo, and you’ll see Samsung’s image processing in action thanks to the reduced noise. The other photos all show far grainier skies. Where the S9 Plus loses points is the uniform and unnatural yellow hue, kind of like how the red hue on the S7 Edge’s photo. The S8 and Note 8 seem to have a little more depth here, as the sky and arena don’t seem to be draped in incandescent light.

Verdict: The S9 Plus wins for its great photo details and noise reduction, but Samsung’s previous phones put up a valiant fight.

Food

We all love taking photos of our food, but often times mood lighting in restaurants isn’t adequate enough to light up these shots. That’s still evident here, as all these photos are relatively dark (the S7 Edge photo isn’t the same as the other three, we admit, but it’s close). The S7 Edge and S9 Plus photos shine here for detail, and the S8 and Note 8 photos aren’t as sharp. The S9 Plus does a great job with color correction, as the plate is accurately white. The S8, S7 Edge, and Note 8 all make the whole photo very yellow (with slightly redder tones on the S7).

Verdict: While the meal itself was delicious, it’s tough for any camera to make it look appetizing. The Galaxy S9 Plus’ color accuracy and solid details come the closest, so it takes the win again.

Garden

We peeked our phones through a fence to to capture this interior garden that was decently-lit. It’s an easy win for the Galaxy S9 Plus, thanks to good color, great detail, and it brings out a lot more of the archways closer to the foreground than the other cameras. The Note 8 and S8 photos are incredibly similar, though the Note 8 is a little blurry, likely due to slight movement (or perhaps even wind). They both light up the garden well, but the color is much cooler than what it was in reality. The right side of the photo is completely dark, unlike the S9’s photo, where you can see some more brickwork. We think the detail between the S8 and the S9 photos is almost equal, but the S9 Plus trumps both.

Verdict: Galaxy S9 Plus. We finally see the S7 Edge dip in quality drastically here. The whole photo is completely red, the details are fuzzy, and the surrounding archways are completely dark.

Arches

The arches on the Barcelona Cathedral are just about the only part of the building that’s lit up at night. All these phones do a decent job of bringing out the archway’s surrounding, though it’s evident the S7 Edge is the weakest here. Zoom into the statues on the arches, however, and it’s impressive at the detail these phones can capture. The S7 Edge does a solid job, but its angels aren’t as sharp as those on the Note 8 and S8. The S9 Plus photo is indeed detailed, but it’s a little fuzzy once you zoom all the way in. We love the colors offered by the S9 Plus photo here though, as it’s accurately whiter than the rest, while still retaining a slightly warm ambiance. That’s not to say the yellower tones on the Note 8 and S8 photos are bad, but they do dull the photo’s atmosphere. All these cameras do a great job of not overexposing the statues at the bottom of the archway too much.

Verdict: These photos are all impressive, but the S9 Plus gets the win yet again for its color balance. However, we do think the Note 8 offers the best detail here.

Barcelona Cathedral

It’s astounding how well these phones have captured the Barcelona Cathedral and the surrounding scene. Even the Galaxy S7 Edge’s photo here is impressive, considering how little light the sensor had to work with. While these are all shareable photos, zoom in and it’s easier to spot a few differences. The sky, namely, looks fantastic in the Galaxy S9 Plus photo. The clouds were moving fast, and the S9 Plus photo makes it look incredibly lifelike, with very little noise. It’s also surprising how little noise there is in the S7 Edge photo’s sky — whereas there’s plenty of noise on the S8 and Note 8 photos.

The S9 Plus offers the best blacks with great contrast, giving the cathedral a lot of depth. It also has rich, warm tone that’s very close to the tones in the S8 and Note 8 photos. The S7 Edge loses out here as the whole photo looks a little washed out with muted colors. We do prefer the archway on the S7 Edge and the S9 Plus here, though, as they look the most detailed; they’re a little blurry on the Note 8 and S8 photos.

Verdict: We like the S9 Plus photo here, but the S8 and Note 8 do come very close behind.

New York

Our next comparison moves away from the dark streets of Barcelona and into New York during the day. These photos are very difficult to discern from one another. The S9 Plus manages to stand out for a slightly less blue sky, which is more accurate to what we saw in real life. The other phones seem to pump up the blue. However, the S9 Plus is the only blurry photo. It’s tough to see, but zoom into the water tower towards the left of the photo. The S9 Plus is the only one of the lot that’s ever-so-slightly blurry. Again, it’s not immediately noticeable, but there’s no reason the photo should be blurry in these lighting conditions — and we were very still when taking all these photos. The S7 Edge’s photos have a little more contrast, so the brickwork on the buildings are slightly more defined, which we think looks better.

Verdict: We’re surprisingly giving the win to the Galaxy S7 Edge here. The sky isn’t as blue as the S8 and the Note 8, which gives it a more realistic look, and it’s impressively the sharpest photo. We’re not sure why the S9 Plus photo is a little blurry, but it would take the win if it wasn’t because it has the most accurate-looking sky, and also has the same defined brickwork we see on the S7 Edge.

2x optical zoom

Here we can see the dual-camera system in action on the Galaxy S9 Plus and the Galaxy Note 8. These phones have a second lens that offer 2x optical zoom. That means it’s not digitally zooming in the photo, which hampers the image quality. We’ve zoomed in close to multiple parts of the photo, and we’re having a difficult time deciding a winner for details. Both photos are sharp. The differences are in color — the Note 8 is a little more saturated. While we think the sky in the Note 8 photo is too blue, we do think it does a better job accurately showing off the colors of the buildings. The S9 Plus photo has a more realistically blue sky, but it pares down the color in the rest of the photo in its attempt to white balance everything. The small, white building in the left corner of both photos, for example, should be beige instead of white. The Note 8’s photo is a tad more accurate.

Verdict: These photos are very similar, but we like the Note 8’s results here.

Portrait

The most important task we rely on our smartphone cameras for is capturing photos of our friends and family, so it’s important to see how well these phones can capture portraits. In this test, we’re mostly happy with all the results. The Galaxy S7 Edge shows the same reddish hue we’ve seen in previous photos — it works relatively well, though it’s not as realistic. It’s certainly better than the greenish tint in the Galaxy S8’s result, the photo we like the least. The Note 8 photo sits somewhere in between: It’s not as red and not as green, but there’s a nice warm tone. These three phones show off the same amount of detail. It’s solid, but take a look at the Galaxy S9 Plus’ results and you’ll see a stronger overall photo. There’s plenty of rich detail when you zoom in, and the colors are accurate — the subject isn’t as warm as in the Note 8 photo.

Verdict: The Galaxy S9 Plus wins this round, but the Note 8 and the S7 Edge sit close behind.

Portrait with Live Focus

Both the Galaxy S9 Plus and the Note 8 use the second camera for a mode called Live Focus. Like Apple and Google’s Portrait Mode, it adds a blur behind a subject, creating a cool bokeh effect that places an emphasis on the person or object. The detail in both these photos are similar, though the S9 Plus photo doesn’t look as grainy. The S9 Plus also does a better job with the blur, as the strands of hair at the top of the head are blurred a little, because they are further back from the subject’s face. The Note 8 photo makes it all visible, but if you look at the strand of hair on the right shoulder (left from the viewing perspective), a strand is missing — yet it’s visible on the S9 Plus photo. The Note 8 also cranks up the saturation in this photo, adding a warmer skin tone as well as pumping up the colors on the blouse — even the blurred background has a warm hue.

Verdict: The S9 Plus photo is closer to reality thanks to its white balance, and the less grain makes it the overall stronger photo. It takes the win.

Conclusion

Overall, the Galaxy S9 Plus has the most wins and took the shots we liked the most. A lot of these choices are subjective, though, and you may come to a different conclusion than us. The S9 Plus’ camera shines the most in low light, and we think it’s worth the upgrade on that point alone. Live Focus has also improved over the Note 8, and we think the second camera is worth splurging for over the smaller S9. It’s evident though, that you may not see major changes in some lighting scenarios, particularly in the daytime — even compared with the Galaxy S7 Edge’s camera.

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