Samsung Galaxy S9 Camera Review: Best In The Business?

Damien McFerran

19/04/2018 – 11:54am

Damien takes a deeper look at the Samsung Galaxy S9 camera in order to find out if it is as revolutionary as Samsung claims…

It’s pretty clear that phone makers are running out of things to improve in smartphones.

Big innovations like fast charging, fingerprint scanners, water resistance, 18:9 displays and contactless payments have been and gone, and it’s becoming harder and harder to come up with unique ideas that capture the hearts and minds of consumers and encourage them to upgrade their expensive handset on a regular basis.

That’s certainly the case with the Galaxy S9, which – despite being an amazing phone with plenty of power, an amazing display and great software – doesn’t really do a lot that’s new and different.

Samsung Galaxy S9 Camera Specs

This year, Samsung has decided to focus (no pun intended) its attention on the camera, an element of the smartphone which most people use on a regular basis. If there’s an area in which you can score big gains over the your rivals, it’s here.

The big news this year is that the main, optically-stabilised 12-megapixel snapper has a variable aperture system which reads a scene for lighting and toggles mechanically between f/2.4 and f/1.5.

This means that for low-light shots, the wider f/1.5 aperture is used, as this allows more light to enter the lens. The entire process is automatic, but you can manually select the aperture you want using the phone’s surprisingly robust Pro shooting mode. 

Samsung has made this feature the main thrust of its promotional campaign for the S9 range, and with good reason; when shooting in dimly-lit locations the wider aperture makes the world of difference.

Samsung Galaxy S9 Camera Low-Light Performance 

We’ve been repeatedly impressed by the S9’s ability to capture images in dark environments without any degradation in image quality or noticeable image noise.

In terms of innovation, this variable aperture system is definitely fresh and new; if you’re an experienced snapper you can use the Pro mode and deploy the f/1.5 aperture in other situations to achieve stunning visual effects.

The only thing that makes us think this could be a dead end is that phones like the Google Pixel 2 can capture images that are almost as good in low light, yet they don’t use a variable aperture. 

Handling this kind of thing is software rather than hardware is obviously cheaper, and if similar results can be gained this way, we may not see many other manufacturers adopt Samsung’s technique.

Having said that, the Korean firm’s approach does feel the best, because it isn’t using software to gain these results – what’s in play here is photography 101, just like in a real camera.

Samsung Galaxy S9 Camera Aperture Settings

In fact, the variable aperture system is based on the behaviour of the human eye – and that’s about as authentic as technology gets.

Outside of the variable aperture, Samsung has also blessed the main 12-megapixel snapper with stacked memory, so the phone can actually take multiple images at once and pull them together to present you with the best one.

Shooting with the f/2.4 aperture in bright conditions is excellent, but we couldn’t say it was any better than what we’ve seen on other flagship phones, such as the iPhone X.

Samsung appears to employ quite an aggressive compression algorithm, and this can result in images that look slightly overexposed.

Super slow-motion recording is the other ace in the hole that Samsung has this year, but unlike the variable aperture, this feels like a pointless gimmick.

Firstly, video is limited to 720p resolution and the f/1.5 aperture can’t be deployed during recording – so if you’re in a darkened room, videos usually look terrible.

Secondly, you can’t record at will; footage is limited to 0.3 second bursts (which, at 960 fps, obviously lasts longer when played back).

Samsung Galaxy S9 Camera Features


The camera can either automatically look for motion in the frame and activate slow-motion for you, or you can manually select the moment you want it to happen.

It’s impressive when you get it right, but the low-res recording and effort required to actually get it to function properly mean it’s perhaps something Samsung will need to return to in the coming months to improve.

On the Galaxy S9 Plus, you also get a second 12-megapixel telephoto camera which works with the main sensor to create impressive bokeh effects. “Live Focus” allows you to adjust the background blur even after you’ve taken the shot, which is a really neat party trick.

It’s also nice to have that x2 optical zoom on hand when you need it, but it’s annoying that such functions are arbitrarily reserved for the more expensive (and larger) S9 device.

There’s no reason why a second camera couldn’t be factored into the standard S9 – but then Samsung would have a harder time selling the Plus model, we guess.

All in all, the Galaxy S9 has one of the best photographic setups money can buy right now, but it’s not quite as groundbreaking as Samsung would have you believe.

The variable aperture shows that the South Korean firm is committed to coming up with its own unique ideas, but while the results are impressive when compared to the competition, we suspect most other handset makers will opt to use software tricks to boost the low-light performance of their smartphones, as is the case with the Pixel 2.

Thanks to Mobile Fun for providing the Galaxy S9 used in this feature.

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