Camera-phone shootout: LG G4 versus Samsung Galaxy S6

I’ve been around the smartphone world since the very beginning (2002, with the Nokia 7650) and have seen cameras improving dramatically year on year. And the LG G4 and Samsung Galaxy S6 (here in its Edge variant) each have the very latest camera hardware, itself a surprising leap up from 2014’s technology. Can this space improve any further, into 2016? Oh, quite possibly, there are still some tweaks left to add back in (cough, Xenon flash), but the performance here, in almost all light conditions, is astonishing. However, there’s one obvious question that needs answering – which (G4 or S6) smartphone camera is better?

In a sense, of course, the question, and this entire feature, is irrelevant, since the image quality is SO good that, at all normal viewing sizes, users won’t be able to tell the results apart. However, there are some characteristics worth noting, plus there are definite bragging rights for the overall winner.

[For those following my other writings, you may be wondering how these two camera-toting flagships stack up against the traditional camera champions with the ‘Nokia’ name on – the Lumia 1020 and 808 PureView? In short, the G4 and S6 even blow the two Nokias away for general imaging, though the latter do still have a slight edge in terms of zooming and that Xenon flash evening event use case.]

As it turns out, the overall specification of the G4 and S6 rear cameras are surprisingly similar, both 16MP and with a sensor size of 1/2.6″. The G4 has a larger aperture, at f/1.8, though the S6’s camera is only slightly smaller at f/1.9, while the G4 scores with the laser focussing and ‘colour spectrum sensor’, though as we’ll see below, this isn’t infallible. The specs are close enough, and the resolution certainly so, that I can compare 1:1 crops from the same photos taken with each smartphone and you’ll be able to spot any differences, where appropriate.

LG G4 and Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge

A few notes before diving into the images:

  • Both smartphone cameras were used on full ‘Auto’, i.e. how end users would shoot photos 99% of the time. Do note though that both camera interfaces allow complete control over things like ISO, white balance, exposure, etc. through a ‘Pro’ mode. In fact, almost everything a DSLR user would get to fiddle with – so any perceived deficiencies in imaging settings could be easily rectified. But testing has to be on full ‘auto’, of course, since there are millions of parameter combinations that would otherwise have to be compared!
  • Cropping in so that you can ‘see’ detail down at the pixel level is revealing, sure, but it’s also a little artificial. Bear in mind that out of 16 million pixels per photo, I’m only showing you central detail from around 240,000. Still sounds a lot, but in fact, it’s only 1/64th the size of each complete frame. So view the crops in context!

On then with the test scenes and 1:1 crops, I’ll comment on each as I go along:

Test 1: Landscape, sunny

In this case, down at the local golf club, with the clubhouse nicely lit up and with plenty of detail:

Test scene, overview

Here then are the 1:1 crops, firstly on the LG G4:

1:1 crop from full 16MP photo

And then the same framing 1:1 crop on the Galaxy S6 (/Edge):

1:1 crop from full 16MP photo

Great though the S6’s image was, the clarity and sharpness in the G4’s is astonishing. I might expect such sharpness in a downsampled image, perhaps at 5 Megapixels (for example), but to be this precise right for every one of the 16 million pixels is incredible. Bear in mind that, at the pixel level, we’re talking pixels taking it in turns across rows to either be Red, Blue or Green, and then software intelligently averages things out so that both detail and colour end up about right. With the miracle above.

I’m speechless. The G4 camera is right up there with the best DSLRs for shots like this. The S6 is close behind, but it is… behind, at least according to this test shot.

Test 2: Natural detail

One of the biggest tests of camera phones is how they handle nature – petals, leaves, grass, and so on. Here’s another test scene:

Overall scene

Here then are the 1:1 crops, firstly on the LG G4:

1:1 crop from full 16MP photo

And then the same framing 1:1 crop on the Galaxy S6 (/Edge):

1:1 crop from full 16MP photo

Now, the 1:1 pixel detail from the S6 is exactly what I’d expect to see from a 16MP camera module at this level – some smearing, some artefacts, some processing. This isn’t a criticism, it’s just how digital cameras work, especially when the detail is massive and the sensor relatively small (compared to DSLRs). However, the G4’s output is again astonishing. There’s magic sauce at work, I tell you, imaging alchemy. The LG G4’s detail is massive.

As an anecdote, I also did some zoom and raw detail tests today against the Lumia 1020’s physically much larger, 41MP sensor. And the G4 was quite comparable. How is this possible?

Time to move indoors, to a scene with much less light and more chance of digital noise and uncertainty.

Test 3: Indoors, low light

In this case, inside a local church, still with plenty of detail, as you can see in this overall scene:

Overall scene

Here then are the 1:1 crops, firstly on the LG G4:

1:1 crop from full 16MP photo

And then the same framing 1:1 crop on the Galaxy S6 (/Edge):

1:1 crop from full 16MP photo

Again the G4 camera manages to achieve more detail and less noise, under what are trying circumstances – low light, distant subject, etc. It’s as if LG’s camera engineers have managed to warp the laws of physics. Again, the S6’s camera is good, but not good enough to win out.

Test 4: Indoors, macro

Under a single 60W room light, so not that bright, but up close with some Sharpies:

Overall scene

Here then are the 1:1 crops, firstly on the LG G4:

1:1 crop from full 16MP photo

And then the same framing 1:1 crop on the Galaxy S6 (/Edge):

1:1 crop from full 16MP photo

Though you could argue that the G4’s photo is ‘warmer’ and with less noise, I’m actually going to plump for the Galaxy S6 camera here. The colours are more accurate – the Sharpie barrels should be grey and the tip top right of the crop is a red-brown, not the bright red shown by the G4. This is all a little odd, considering that it’s the G4 that has the ‘colour spectrum sensor’ and that it’s supposed to get colours right under all conditions, so perhaps just take it that the Galaxy S6 camera does especially well here, so a point in the other direction.

Test 5: Extreme low light

Out in the road, it was almost completely dark, with just a faint glow left in the sky (to my naked eye), it was much dimmer than the photos make it look:

Overall scene

Here then are the 1:1 crops, firstly on the LG G4:

1:1 crop from full 16MP photo

And then the same framing 1:1 crop on the Galaxy S6 (/Edge):

1:1 crop from full 16MP photo

This comparison’s interesting in a number of ways. Remembering that I deliberately left both smartphone cameras on ‘Auto’, the G4 leapt in and used multi-shot HDR here. Which I wouldn’t normally associate with extreme low light shots, but then multi-shot attempts at improving low light performance have become possible now that these smartphones all have optical image stabilisation (OIS), so who knows what the S6 is also doing behind the scenes.

In any case, on full ‘auto’, both smartphone cameras do very well considering the extreme challenge here. Both produced a better result than my three year old Nokia 808 PureView, which has a sensor that’s four times larger. The S6’s image is dark, as it should be, and does a great job of smoothing out the inevitable digital noise. But the G4 eschews noise reduction in favour of squeezing in light and detail. Look at the illuminated window, for example, look at the car and other fine detail. Low noise or maximum detail is a necessary compromise under such extreme conditions, so let’s call this one a draw!

Verdict

With three distinct wins, one ‘draw’ and one loss, the LG G4 comes out of my five scene test here as the winner. Yes, the Galaxy S6 (and Edge) 16MP unit is terrific too, definitely the second best imaging powerhouse in the world for all purpose snapping, image quality, and so on. But the G4’s results are astonishing (I’ve put one of them from my tests up here, for you to download and analyse, should you feel inclined) and it has me rocked back on my heels – I never expected anything this good could exist housed within a standard smartphone body.

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  • Gavin Fabiani-Laymond

    Great comparison. With the S6 did you have auto HDR on, and if so did the natural shot move into HDR with the S6?

    • Tricky to tell. The S6 doesn’t seem to put ‘HDR’ at the end of the filename, like the G4 does.

      • Gavin Fabiani-Laymond

        Only way to tell is when taking the shot. With the S6 left on HDR Auto , top left on screen about 1cm in, when it is shooting in HDR it says HDR on in small letters. I noticed with the S6 that close up especially on HDR you got that post processed look. Still based on my own tests agree o the G4 been a better stills camera.

      • Martin Lane

        Please don’t tell me you don’t even know if you’re comparing HDR to Non HDR shots? Seriously? these are meant to be controlled tests.

        • Samsung makes it virtually impossible to tell. As Gavin says, the indicator is tiny, and otherwise it’s down to gut feel as to how the results look 😎

  • bcsc

    @Steve Litchfield, just out of curiosity, is your S6 tester an ISOCELL or Sony sensor?

    • How does one tell, for sure?

      • bcsc

        To find out your sensor type, go to Phone, dial *#34971539# , and tap on ISP VER CHECK.

        Those with ISOcell will see SLSI_S5K4E6_FIMC_IS

        Those with Sony will see SONY_IMX240_FIMC_IS

        • Looks like rear is Sony and the FFC is ISOCELL.

        • robinottawa

          I got an error msg. 🙁

  • Paul_Wb

    Excellent but we still want to see the comparison against 1020/930 or iphone 6 just to see how far is the competition behind…thanks Steve

    • Planning a 1020/930/iPhone 6/S6/G4 shootout soon…. 😎

      • Paul_Wb

        you finally bought your iPhone 6 🙂 i just cant seem to put my finger on it on how i tend to prefer using the 6 camera over the 6 plus despite the OIS..i feel the camera software is a bit buggy once the ois comes in…i own both but i use the 6 more and more…however my daily driver would certainly be the G4 once it launches

      • Ryo_Hazuki

        What about the Monster AKA Nokia 808 🙂 ??

  • WSP

    They are both fantastic. Truly amazing. That one barely edged out the other is not nearly as significant as how good they both are.

  • Jim Mski

    I just wish my G3 was as good and consistent as the G4, I guess I need and upgrade.

  • Martin Lane

    There is no magic here, the LG G4’s post processing is sharpening the images.

    There is no additional detail looking at the shots, if your on a Galaxy S6 just open photos or similar app and do it manually and you will get the a similar result.

    • robinottawa

      The reference to magic was not a good idea for sure. You have to know that Steve is a physics and data pro to get the irony, and many don’t. It is, in fact, meant to be hyperbole and I loved it, coming from someone so NOT into anything but data data data.

      • Yep, the ‘magic’ reference was to show that I’m dumbfounded how good the G4’s images are at the individual pixel level, way beyond what should be possible given Bayer filtering from a RGB pixel matrix.

  • Ashk

    i still don’t feel its s6 camera pics…you must be paid heavily to praise g4. i dnt think so these are true pictures boss

    • robinottawa

      My impression of Steve after 5 years following his work and his content that he’s probably the MOST honest, trustworthy reviewer, even if I disagree with his opinions some times. That makes you a troll, tossing accusations like that.

      • Ashk

        boy go n make babies with steve.

        • robinottawa

          Nice. Thanks for the proof.

          • Ashk

            and yes thats my opinion you give your opinion dont counter others. that is what this forum is all about.i have both the devices and yes i can say g4 is good or is better at times but these images doesnt look like s6’s.

          • robinottawa

            That wasn’t so hard was it? Thanks. No need to slag people for nothing.

          • Ashk

            ohh shut up you fag….

  • andrei

    if only you took the same pictures at the same place at the same time at the same angle…….and then compare…….bulll…

  • robinottawa

    The Sharpe cap IS the red one, not the brown one.