Camera Shootout: Apple iPhone 7 Plus vs. Samsung Galaxy S7 vs. Google Pixel XL

Camera shootout: iPhone 7 Plus vs Samsung Galaxy S7 vs Google Pixel XL

Surely there are at least a few among you who’d go on and buy a phone primarily because it has a great camera. What’s the best camera in a smartphone you could ask for, presently? What are the things that make it the best?

Smartphone cameras have gotten better and better over the years, generally speaking. When you sit down and analyse their cameras, though, each of them seem to have their strengths and weaknesses (not unlike dedicated cameras). For some of you, the lack of 4K video may be a deal-breaker, in spite of excellent image quality. Some may yield better image quality than others but lack extremely useful features like image stabilisation in video. Or then they may yield excellent image quality but the process of taking a picture with it may be sluggish or counterintuitive. I’m sure even an excellent primary camera in combination with a poor selfie camera can be deal-breakers for some of you.

In our smartphone camera shootout this month, we have some of the most acclaimed contenders of recent times, each with a different forte. The iPhone 7 Plus, arguably the most talked about of the lot, has dual-cameras. This is something photographers will find especially useful, thanks to the two different focal lengths (35mm equivalent) of 28mm and 56mm on offer. In many cases, maybe even more so than the ultra-fast autofocus on the Samsung Galaxy S7, or the brilliant high-dynamic range capabilities of Google’s new Pixel XL. Nonetheless, the iPhone 7 Plus, the Samsung Galaxy S7, and the Google Pixel XL are all smartphones belonging to the premium segment, priced upwards of ₹50000, and have great cameras worthy of a thorough comparison, at the very least.

Let’s take a look at their key specifications in a little more detail before we take a look at how each of them fare.

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Apple iPhone 7 Plus

iPhone 7 Plus

The Apple iPhone 7 Plus has a 12-megapixel dual camera setup with wide-angle (28mm) and telephoto lens (56mm). Strangely, while the wide-angle camera with its F1.8 aperture features Optical Image Stabilisation, the telephoto 56mm lens with its relatively narrower F2.8 aperture lacks OIS. This has some not-so-positive implications with regards to its performance in low-light, and with regards to video.

It is strange how Apple chose to exclude OIS with its telephoto camera, given that the 56mm camera is definitely more prone to the effects of camera-shake while taking a photo or video with it. Also, the telephoto camera has a smaller 1/3.6-inch sensor in comparison to the 1/3-inch sensor that the 28mm wide-angle camera features. On paper, this means that the telephoto camera won’t yield image quality that is as good as its wide-angle camera.

The iPhone 7 Plus can record 4K video at 30fps. It allows for Full HD 1080p video recording at 30 or 60fps. Additionally, it supports recording 120fps slow-motion video at 1080p, and allows for 240fps video at 720p. The iPhone 7 Plus features a selfie camera with a 7-megapixel sensor and an F2.2 aperture. Its lens should give you a focal length equivalent of a 32mm on a full-frame (35mm equivalent) sensor.

Samsung Galaxy S7

Samsung Galaxy S7

The Galaxy S7’s primary camera has a 12-megapixel 1/2.5-inch sensor with a pixel size of 1.4 µm. Its lens has a focal length equivalent to a 26mm lens (35mm full-frame equivalent) and an aperture of F1.7. The Galaxy S7’s camera features Dual Pixel autofocus technology, wherein a phase-detection photodiode is embedded in each and every pixel on the camera sensor, enabling much faster and more accurate autofocus. While the technology itself isn’t new and has already been a feature on DSLR and mirrorless cameras, the S7 is the first smartphone to feature this technology. The camera also features Optical Image Stabilisation, which is a very useful feature to have, both for video and stills.

The camera can record 2160p video at 30fps, Full HD 1080p video at 60fps, and slow-motion 240fps video at 720p. The phone’s secondary camera has a 5-megapixel 1/4.1-inch sensor with a pixel size of 1.34 µm. It has an F1.7 aperture and a focal length equivalent to a 22mm lens on a full-frame (35mm equivalent) sensor. It is also the only smartphone among its competitors to feature a front-facing camera that can record 1440p QHD video recording.

Google Pixel XL

Google Pixel XL

The Google Pixel XL’s primary camera has a 12.3-megapixel sensor and an F2.0 aperture. Its 1/2.3-inch sensor has larger-than-competition 1.55 µm sized pixels, which on paper, should help it yield better picture quality than both the S7 and the iPhone 7 Plus. Also, the F2.0 aperture is narrower than the F1.8 (wide-angle camera) offered by the iPhone 7 Plus, and the F1.7 offered by the Galaxy S7. In theory, this means that the Pixel XL’s sensor may not get as much light as the Galaxy S7’s sensor or the iPhone 7 Plus’ sensor. The effect of this while shooting in low-light may just be all too significant. The Pixel XL features phase detection autofocus + laser detection autofocus.

Like the other contenders, the Pixel XL too offers 4K video at 30fps. It allows you to record Full HD 1080p video at 30fps, 60fps, or 120fps, and has a 240fps slow-motion video mode which records at a 720p video resolution. The Google Pixel XL’s selfie camera sports an 8-megapixel sensor and an F2.4 aperture. Its 1/3.2-inch sensor with a 1.4µm pixel size has the greatest resolution of the three. What it lacks is a front-facing flash. Both the iPhone 7 Plus and the Galaxy S7 briefly brighten up the screen while taking a selfie.

Software Performance: App Design, Speed, and Ease Of Use

iPhone 7 Plus camera app
Apple iPhone 7 Plus native camera app

While all three native camera apps are fast, the Samsung Galaxy S7 has an advantage over its competition, in part due to its quick autofocus, which when used with the double-tap camera launcher, allows for faster operability in general. The Pixel XL is also remarkably fast at autofocus, although it is second to the S7.

Both the iPhone 7 Plus and the Pixel XL, although capable of shooting RAW files, won’t let you do so using the default camera application. You’ll have to download third-party applications to make the most of their cameras.

Samsung Galaxy S7 camera app
Samsung Galaxy S7 native camera app

Samsung’s camera app allows for greater manual control than both the iPhone 7 Plus and the Google Pixel XL. Although simple and easy to use, I’d rate the iPhone 7 Plus’ app as the worst of the three apps. Simple things like choosing the image quality you want to work with require you to go into the camera’s settings which are outside of the camera application. You have to exit the application to alter settings.

Another irritant was the inability to switch between the two cameras in low-light. When using the native camera app, the iPhone 7 Plus frequently made use of digital zoom (especially in low-light) as opposed to actually switching to the telephoto camera when trying to do so. Simply covering one of the two cameras with a finger when you choose between the 1x and 2x options will let you understand better how the two cameras work. Sure, you can override this using a third party application, but since we’re talking about the native camera app here, this is particularly annoying. The iPhone 7 Plus’ camera app was also slower in comparison to the others in switching between the various modes offered.

Google Pixel XL camera app
Google Pixel XL native camera app

The Pixel XL loses points for its Auto HDR setting, which is enabled by default whenever you open up the camera app, besides the complete lack of any manual control.

[Scores: Apple iPhone 7 Plus: 7/10 | Samsung Galaxy S7: 8/10 | Google Pixel XL: 7.5/10]

Image Quality: Daylight

iPhone 7 Plus Daylight sample image
Apple iPhone 7 Plus Sample Image (Daylight)
Samsung Galaxy S7 Daylight sample image
Samsung Galaxy S7 Sample Image (Daylight)
Google Pixel XL Daylight sample image
Google Pixel XL Sample Image (Daylight)

Daylight 100% crop

[Scores: Apple iPhone 7 Plus: 7/10 | Samsung Galaxy S7: 7.5/10 | Google Pixel XL: 8/10]

In daylight, the Pixel XL yields marginally more detail in the metered area, and thanks to a greater overall dynamic range, also in the highlights. The iPhone 7 Plus yields colours that are more neutral and accurate than both the S7 and the Pixel XL in just about every scenario, although, on more than one occasion, there was a smudging of detail, which the Pixel XL seemed to pick up on with relative ease.

Image quality: Daylight (HDR)

iPhone 7 Plus Daylight HDR
Apple iPhone 7 Plus Sample Image (Daylight HDR)

The default AutoHDR setting on the Pixel XL is annoying, more so since it occasionally overdoes the HDR effect in pictures. Each time you open up the application, the AutoHDR is at work, and if you don’t remember to turn it off, the results won’t always be pleasing.

Samsung Galaxy S7 Daylight HDR
Samsung Galaxy S7 Sample Image (Daylight HDR)
Google Pixel XL Daylight HDR
Google Pixel XL Sample Image (Daylight HDR)

Daylight HDR 100% crop

On the iPhone 7 Plus, image quality is notably poorer whenever digital zoom is used. Which is just about always in low-light, when you’re shooting with the telephoto camera. Although it still yields more than acceptable quality in daylight, it doesn’t do just as well in low-light. Even when you override the digital zoom and actually make use of the telephoto camera, there is a notable difference in image quality. The telephoto camera on the iPhone 7 Plus very clearly yields poorer image quality than its wide-angle camera.

[Scores: Apple iPhone 7 Plus: 7/10 | Samsung Galaxy S7: 7.5/10 | Google Pixel XL: 8/10]

Image quality: Low light

iPhone 7 Plus Low Light
Apple iPhone 7 Plus Sample Image (Low light)
Samsung Galaxy S7 Low light
Samsung Galaxy S7 Image Sample (Low light)
Google Pixel XL Low light
Google Pixel XL Sample Image (Low light)

Low light 100% crop

In low-light, even though there was some excessive colour saturation, the S7 consistently yielded more detail and less noise. Photos shot with the iPhone 7 Plus were softer in comparison. With the AutoHDR feature switched on, however, as it is by default in the Pixel XL, photos shot in low-light may exhibit more dynamic range than on the iPhone 7 Plus and the Galaxy S7, but the photos have a lot more visible noise. Even with the HDR mode switched off, photos shot with the Google Pixel XL had more visible noise. The lack of OIS also makes it difficult to get a steady shot with the Pixel XL.

Low light sample Click here for high resolution.

[Scores: Apple iPhone 7 Plus: 7/10 | Samsung Galaxy S7: 8/10 | Google Pixel XL: 6.5/10]

Image quality: While Using LED Flash

With Flash

Click here for high resolution.

Thanks to AutoHDR, for once, the Pixel XL yielded the most pleasing result, when the flash was fired. Take a look at the pictures above. The Pixel XL yields the most detail in areas outside of the flash’s reach, without overexposing the surrounding areas. Even without the HDR feature switched off, the Pixel XL yielded the most pleasing result of the three cameras.

[Scores: Apple iPhone 7 Plus: 6/10 | Samsung Galaxy S7: 6.5/10 | Google Pixel XL: 7/10]

Image quality: Selfie camera

Front Cameras

Click here for high resolution.

The iPhone 7 Plus’ selfie camera has a narrower field of view than the Pixel XL and the Galaxy S7. The S7’s selfie mode is versatile. It incorporates a beauty mode which cleans up blemishes on your skin, for example. Another feature lets you minimise the effect of distortion owing to the wide-angle lens. The Galaxy S7 fared the best with regards to dynamic range, and the selfies show greater colour accuracy as well. The Pixel XL, with its 8-megapixel front camera yields greater resolution, and comes in a close second.

[Scores:  Apple iPhone 7 Plus: 7/10 | Samsung Galaxy S7: 8/10 | Google Pixel XL: 7/10]

Video Recording Quality

I honestly had little to complain with regards to video quality. All three phones yield very good video quality. Comparing videos over YouTube isn’t a great idea, as it compresses your video files a bit, even with the 4K footage. With 4K video recorded in broad daylight, picking one phone over the others just isn’t easy. In low-light, and while shooting indoors, however, it seems like the Galaxy S7 leads the pack, with the least noise in its output. In terms of colour reproduction, however, it was second to the iPhone 7 Plus which yielded the most accurate colours. The sound quality recorded with the Galaxy S7 was also the best of the lot.

While the S7 has Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS), the iPhone 7 Plus features OIS only on its wide-angle camera. Its omission on the telephoto camera seems rather strange given that the effects of camera shake are more pronounced in pictures (or video) shot with telephoto lenses as opposed to wide-angle lenses. That said, both the iPhone 7 Plus and the Galaxy S7 get an extra point for having OIS, and this feature is quite useful both with stills and video. The Pixel XL lacks OIS but makes use of digital image stabilisation when recording video.

While recording video, both the S7 and the iPhone 7 Plus don’t handle any sudden changes in brightness as well as the Pixel XL does. The Samsung Galaxy S7 won’t let you record any slow-motion video at 1080p, unlike both the iPhone 7 Plus and the Google Pixel XL, which have a 120fps mode at 1080p. The Galaxy S7 only allows you to record 240fps slow motion video at 720p. Both the iPhone 7 Plus and the Pixel XL have an edge over the Galaxy S7 here. At the 720p resolution, the video quality yielded by all three phones are comparable.

[Scores: Apple iPhone 7 Plus: 7/10 | Samsung Galaxy S7: 8/10 | Google Pixel XL: 6.5/10]

Portrait mode/lens blur

iPhone 7 Plus Portrait mode
iPhone 7 Plus Portrait mode

The iPhone 7 Plus’ Portrait mode is certainly impressive when it works well. Since it is in beta, we can possibly expect this mode to get better. I should point out to you that the depth effect in the portrait mode only mimics the effect of opening up the aperture. It doesn’t let in more light. The blurs are post-processed, and do not compare to what can be achieved with a DSLR and a fast lens. It does a decent job with people portraits, but if you try and shoot other subjects, you’ll notice inconsistencies in the photos.

Lens blur comparisonThe Pixel XL’s Lens Blur mode simply doesn’t do as good a job. Even the process of shooting in this mode is complicated, in that you have to twist the camera upwards each time you click a photo using the Lens blur mode. The S7 lacks this mode. The iPhone 7 Plus also does a much better job at stitching panoramas than both the other phones, and does so without any significant inconsistencies in exposure.

Verdict: Who’s the final winner?

As I mentioned earlier, all three phones have their strengths and weaknesses. The iPhone 7 Plus’ biggest strength is the additional telephoto camera, no doubt. There are several scenarios where the two cameras can be used to good effect. Street photographers will appreciate the two focal lengths made available. I can’t help but wish the dual camera setup was implemented better though, and would yield image quality comparable to the wide-angle camera at least. The lack of OIS on the telephoto camera is another factor I cannot seem to wrap my head around!

The Google Pixel XL’s biggest feature is HDR, which I’ve found to be a hit or miss affair, for the most part. Its low-light performance isn’t the best in class, and the phone also loses points for having a very mediocre native camera app. I’ve had the least number of complaints with the Galaxy S7. My biggest gripe was the slightly excessive colour saturation and a somewhat artificial sharpness, both of which I’m not entirely comfortable with.

That said, I think using an alternative camera application would enable you to work around its limitations. The same can perhaps be said of Google Pixel XL’s native camera app. I simply cannot extol the virtues of the Galaxy S7’s class-leading autofocus enough. That, along with better-than-competition image quality in low-light is what makes it the best all-rounder and the winner of this shootout.


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