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Smartphone Imaging: a Year with the Samsung S4

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From the Shore of Herron Pond (Samsung Galaxy G4)

 

My opinions may have changed, but not the fact that I’m right.”

― Ashleigh Brilliant

It has been roughly a year since I published my experiences with my Galaxy S4, both as a smartphone, and as a camera. At the time, I concluded that the phone was an extraordinarily powerful tool, but that the camera was well… OK.

Deep inside I considered smartphone photography to be of limited value, useful for documentation of accident scenes, scanning those bar codes for price checking, and the occasional snapshot, but certainly not for serious landscape photography. I would scoff at all those silly people snapping away with their I Phones when I, the esteemed photographer, carried a camera bag chock full of prime lenses to use on my X Pro 1.

For the last article on this topic, I printed several 11 x 14” prints from images that were carefully shot, only to find the results uninspiring, with mushy details and elevated noise levels. So the S4 camera was relegated to shooting pictures of newly purchased “toys” that I could show to interested co enthusiasts, devices for which I needed replacement parts, and upholstery fabrics that I need to match in the furniture store.

Specials (Samsung Galaxy G4)

But every 6 weeks or so, as the seasons evolved, I needed a new home screen image. As I am an E.P. (see above), it wouldn’t do to have just any old image on the screen; it had to be something as artful as possible. So I would take the opportunity when it arose and carefully shoot a scene evocative of the current season. After all, the phone’s images do look gorgeous on the Samsung’s small but high resolution display.

Cell phones make lousy camera bodies. They’re hard to hold steady, harder still when your trying to hit the little icon on the screen that trips the shutter, or moves the focus. I have had to resort to using structures, trees, and cars, as props to reduce camera shake.

Too Much Snow (Samsung Galaxy S4)

About 6 months ago I dropped the Galaxy on my driveway. Even though it was enclosed in a protective case, it hit on the one vulnerable spot and cracked the screen. I had insurance, so I sent it back after I received a replacement phone.

The new phone was different. The battery life for instance, with the exact same set up, was much improved. And maybe it was my imagination, but the images seemed crisper with better detail. I continued to use the camera as I had before but perhaps with a little more enthusiasm.

Dinner on Mirror Lake (Samsung Galaxy G4)

 

Frost on my Window (Samsung Galaxy G4)

Here I must confess to you that in unboxing and assembling the new phone, I noticed a subtle clear plastic coating on the lens, which I removed. I don’t remember that detail with the old phone. Perhaps I missed it.

 

Given this, I drew some of the better images into Photoshop to assess their quality as well as other factors such as dynamic range, and highlight and shadow recovery.

An April Walk on Rails to Trails (Samsung Galaxy S4)

The Galaxy jpgs are slightly cumbersome to work with. After connecting the phone to the computer with a USB cable, I can navigate to the Micro SD card in Adobe Bridge, and find the files. For some reason, Adobe doesn’t recognize them as image files until I cut and paste them into a file on the C drive. Then they display with previews. Weird.

Current images compared to images from my first Galaxy, seem more detailed. Opened in Adobe Camera Raw, they are modestly malleable in terms of highlight and shadow, perhaps comparable to contact cameras but certainly not up to the level of a competent larger sensor such as the one in my Sony RX 100. Still in all, they are not the worst files that I have ever worked with; perhaps comparable to enthusiast compacts such as the Panasonic LX cameras of the late 2000’s which is to say, not too bad.

Water Lilly at Ice Ponds (Samsung Galaxy S4)

Prints look a bit better now. If carefully shot, they are usable to 11 x 14” with careful post production, sharpening, and noise reduction.

It’s nice to know that in a pinch, as long as you take your time, the Galaxy S4 (and probably the newer S5) can create a useful image file with some potential for serious use.

I’m not planning to give up my cameras just yet. But my enthusiasm for capturing home screen images has increased significantly.

 

Images from this article can be better viewed at my Smug Mug site.



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