It's been a long time coming, but top-notch photography is finally making its way to Android phones.
Sure, we've had devices that are capable of taking decent photos for a while now. But recently, manufacturers have begun to make photography a primary focus of their phones -- and have actually managed to deliver consistently superb imaging experiences.
For example, Samsung raised the bar this April with its Galaxy S6. The phone's photo quality leaves previous devices in the dust, while its simple interface makes it almost impossible to get a bad-looking picture. Now LG is stepping up to the plate with its LG G4, a flagship phone about which the company has made some bold photography promises.
LG is devoting lots of marketing muscle to the G4's 16-megapixel camera and the technology that accompanies it: an F1.8 aperture lens, an enhanced level of optical image stabilization and a Color Spectrum Sensor system that's said to achieve greater color accuracy than what was previously possible.
That all sounds impressive enough, but let's be honest: When it comes to smartphone photography, most of us just want to know that we can snap a good-looking picture quickly and without much effort. So fancy technology or not, is the G4 up to the task?
I've carried an international version of the phone with me for several days to find out.
Using the G4 camera
First and foremost, the G4 definitely makes it easy to open its Camera app and capture a photo, which is often half the battle. The phone features a quick-launch shortcut in which you just double-tap the volume-down button on the back of the unit to launch the camera whenever the screen is off. It isn't the fastest quick-launch out there -- it typically takes about two seconds from the time I double-tap to the time the Camera app is open and ready to roll. However, it's certainly faster than turning on your phone's screen and fumbling around to find the right icon when you're in the midst of a photogenic moment.
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There are two quirks related to the shortcut that warrant mentioning. First, by default, the phone not only opens the Camera app every time you double-tap the volume-down key but also automatically takes a photo. Trust me: You'll want to disable that right away. While it sounds nice in theory, it doesn't give you any time to look through the viewfinder and properly frame or focus your photo. I ended up with lots of lovely pics of my feet.
Second, the shortcut doesn't work while the phone's screen is on -- so if you're in the midst of using your device and want to open the camera, you're out luck. This is a contrast to the camera shortcuts on devices like the Galaxy S6 and Moto X, and it's a bummer -- because there are plenty of times when you might have your screen on and still want quick access to the camera without having to look for an icon.
Once you get into the Camera app, though, the interface is fantastic. By default, the app uses an Auto mode that gives you a shutter button on the bottom (or side, depending on how you're holding the phone) and a small handful of options at the top (or alternate side). All you do is tap anywhere on the screen to set the focus (if you want to override the system's auto-focus choices) and then press the shutter button to capture a picture. You can manually activate HDR, too, though in theory it should automatically activate on its own when appropriate.
You can also opt to use an even more pared-down Simple mode, which turns the entire screen into a giant viewfinder and lets you simply tap anywhere on the display to simultaneously focus and snap a photo. You can pinch to zoom in or out -- and that's about it. If you're like most folks and don't plan to spend much time messing with settings, this mode is probably the way to go; capturing a photo can't get much easier. (The only caveat is that the mode appears to have no way to take a video -- a strange and unfortunate omission.)
And last but not least, if you're feeling particularly ambitious and know your way around camera configurations, you can switch the G4 into Manual mode -- which, like the manual modes on other Android phones, gives you complete control over advanced settings like white balance, focus, shutter speed and ISO. It also allows you to save photos in the editing-friendly RAW format, if you're a photo expert and want that kind of granular processing ability.
Regardless of which mode I used, I found shutter speed on the G4 to be generally pretty fast, though not instantaneous. In fact, it occasionally got perplexingly poky, like when the lighting wasn't great or I manually activated HDR. In those instances, a solid few seconds sometimes passed from when I pressed the shutter button to when the photo was actually captured, which made it hard to know when it was safe to move my phone without messing up the shot. But more often than not, it wasn't an issue.
By the way, if you ever feel like playing paparazzi, the G4 has the now-standard option in which you can hold down the shutter button (in anything but Simple mode) to take a series of rapid-style photos in close succession.
So how about the actual quality of the G4's images?
First, a series of close-up (sometimes called macro-style) and mid-distance shots. On the whole, the LG G4 does very well in this regard.
The G4 does admirably well with close images in bright outdoor conditions. This flower shot is crisp with bold, true-to-life colors and impressive detail. Even when zooming in and studying the full-resolution image closely, the amount of quality loss is minimal.
The G4's performance is respectable, if not exemplary, with macro-style shots in naturally lit indoor environments. You'll see a fair amount of quality loss if you look closely at the full-res version of this image, but for most common uses -- online sharing, printing and the likes -- the photo is perfectly fine.
Here's one taken outside on a partly cloudy day. A very solid image, and one that compares favorably to a similar shot I took (on a different day) with the Galaxy S6.
Consistency is the key challenge with the G4's camera.
The difference HDR makes
HDR (High-dynamic-range imaging) adjusts the range of light to dark in photos in an attempt to make an image look like it was processed by a human eye rather than by, well, a processor.
This is especially useful in high-contrast scenes, such as brightly lit landscapes or low-light environments. By default, in Auto mode, the LG G4's HDR feature should kick in automatically when appropriate.
An example of the G4's light-sky struggles. This photo is okay but nothing special; the camera probably should have activated HDR. It didn't. (You can see how the Galaxy S6 camera handled a similar shot with much better results for comparison.)
If you compare these two shots, you can see a clear difference between non-HDR and HDR photographs. In the top photo, the lack of auto-HDR activation had a negative impact on the image's composition. The bottom photo was shot after I activated HDR manually -- and look at that sky!
However, most smartphone users aren't going to take the time to fiddle with the settings. (And on top of that, an identical shot I took immediately after this one turned out significantly worse.) It's frustrating that the Auto mode often doesn't deliver.
In the right setting and with a little bit of work, though -- manually activating HDR here, yet again, and trying a few shots until I got a good one -- the G4 can absolutely capture some fantastic-looking photos.
The LG G4 vs. a "real" camera
It's been said that the best camera is the one you have with you -- and so, even if you're a professional photographer, a decent smartphone camera is better than nothing when there's a photo to snap. But is it good enough so that you can leave the camera at home more often?
In order to test this, I took a few photos with both the LG G4 and the Olympus OM-D E-M10, a favorably reviewed midrange mirrorless camera. The results were fairly predictable -- I didn't really expect the G4 to come up to the standards of a "real" camera -- but I thought they were still interesting.
The top shot of brightly colored algae on a lake, taken by the LG G4, looks decent. But when you compare it to the same shot (bottom) taken with automatic settings on the Olympus, you can see that the G4 failed to pick up some of the vibrancy of the green hues in the scene.
The same applies to the two photographs of a forest scene below. The photo on top is the G4's version and at bottom is the same image taken on the Olympus OM-D E-M10 moments later. All things in perspective, of course: Considering that we're talking about a smartphone shooter alongside an $800 camera, the G4's image really isn't half-bad.
Dealing with movement and low light
Two of the most difficult types of photos to capture are moving objects and low-light environments. Under those conditions, even the best smartphone camera can falter.
Capturing moving objects with the G4 can be pretty iffy. I took four photos of this stunning subject in a gently swinging baby chair. This was the clearest shot; the others had even more motion blur.
In moderate low light -- at night, with just a small pink lamp on the wall overhead -- the G4 does okay. Its photos look a little grainy, but there's still a reasonable amount of detail and the image is usable, if not stellar.
In even dimmer low light -- at nighttime, with only a single soft lamp across the room -- the G4 starts to struggle. It still manages to deliver an image in which I can make out the subject, but the quality is pretty poor. (In fact, it's possible that someone unfamiliar with the photo may not be able to make out any details at all, especially when the image is shrunk down to fit this article page.)
The above photo, meanwhile, was taken in a garage with a single covered window. The G4's image isn't awful -- it captures a little detail, while many smartphones would have delivered a useless black rectangle in the same conditions -- but like the previous image, this one is barely passable. (You'll be able to make out more detail if you click through to the hi-res version.) I had much better luck with the Galaxy S6 in low light, as you can see in images similar to this one and to the baby shot above (both taken on different days but with comparable conditions).
And when you compare the G4 to our "real" camera standard, you can see how much of a difference there is in low-light capability from one device to the next.
Last but not least, a quick look at the G4's Manual mode shooting and RAW image capabilities. The top photo was taken in the G4's Auto mode. The second is the same exact scene captured as a RAW file in the phone's Manual mode and with some intentionally aggressive post-capture processing.
The bottom image is not the kind of image you're going to get from the phone with ease, nor is it meant to look entirely natural -- but it is an example of the types of transformations the camera's advanced functionality can enable, if you want to take the time to mess with it.
The LG G4 has a very capable camera; there's no question about that. It's just not entirely consistent. For users who take the time to tinker, even a little, the G4 can deliver some wonderful-looking photos. For folks just looking to point and shoot, though -- arguably the majority of smartphone owners -- it's going to be a crap-shoot as to whether the G4 comes through with a gorgeous image or a so-so snapshot on any given occasion.
To be fair, it's always possible that LG could refine its imaging software between now and the time the phone launches in the States; we've certainly seen that kind of thing happen before. I won't be doing a full review of the phone until the U.S.-specific models arrive (currently scheduled for late May to early June), so if anything does evolve with the camera setup in that time, I'll be sure to address that in my review and update this page accordingly.