The cameras in our Android phones have certainly gotten better than most would have expected.  The old standard of "it's a cell phone camera, it'll never be as good as a cheap point-and-shoot" is no longer valid.  The hardware is getting better, and the software is improving right alongside it, making the experience of using your phone as a camera enjoyable, and in the right hands, almost professional.  

The big news in Android last year on the camera front was the Samsung Galaxy S II's 8-megapixel rear shooter, and the Samsung Galaxy Nexus' "zero shutter lag" camera.  We decided that these two had to go head to head.  Hit the break to check it out.

The gear

In one corner, we've got the T-Mobile-branded Samsung Galaxy S II, and in the other we have the GSM Samsung Galaxy Nexus.  Now your Galaxy S II may not be T-Mobile branded, and you might be using the Verizon version of the Galaxy Nexus, but the camera hardware and software is the same as these two -- which means it's very good.

The "studio" is my office.  I've got 150 watts of 6500k compact florescent lighting in the overhead fixture, and a 36-inch square light tent was used with a 26 watt 5500k compact flouro lighting from the right, and a 6500k compact flouro lighting from the left.  This is the setup I use with my DSLR to take product pictures, and it's a pretty controlled environment.  For more information about what 5500k and 6500k means, have a look at Wikipedia.  The quick and dirty version is that 5500k lamps look like natural sunlight above or below the tropics, and 6500k lamps resemble the sun in the tropics at noon.  The higher the number, the more blue things look.

The phones were set to automatic everything, and held in my hands while leaning across (and on) a table to keep things steady.  For each phone, five pictures of each test were taken, and the best was chosen.  For the panorama shots, I swiveled in my chair.  Yes, this was as fun as it sounds.

If you're interested in the raw jpeg's that haven't been resized, grab them here.

The scene

Galaxy Nexus  Galaxy S II
Galaxy Nexus on the left, Galaxy S II on the right

Here you can see why we're interested in doing this.  As-is, out of the box, with no effects and everything automatic, you've got two great pictures.  I used items that most would be familiar with for these tests, and the colors, clarity, and focus looks great from both entries.  Even zoomed in (try it) they both look great, and it makes it hard to determine a winner from these shots.  But a bit closer inspection shows that the Galaxy S II does a better job showing the difference in the lighting color temperature, even with the big white area in the background to try to fool it.  Because of that. the Galaxy S II wins this round, but only by a nerd hair.  We're more than happy with either, but we have to have a winner.

Galaxy Nexus = 0

Galaxy S II = 1

With flash

Galaxy Nexus, with flash  Galaxy S II
Galaxy Nexus on the left, Galaxy S II on the right

The best way to ruin a decent picture-taking opportunity is to use your cell phone with its flash.  Superbright LEDs (that's a real model, look it up!) tend to wash everything out, and the software and optics in a cell phone just can't compensate for it very well.  While either one of these pictures would be just fine for sharing on Google+, neither are as good as the ones taken sans flash.  To choose a winner, I looked at how the Galaxy S II knocks the exposure value down to compensate for the bright flash, and makes the image dark.  I'd rather have the small areas of wash-out and a bright picture like the one taken with the Galaxy Nexus than one that's been manipulated to be too dark.  This round goes to the Galaxy Nexus.

Galaxy Nexus = 1

Galaxy S II = 1

Digital zoom

Galaxy Nexus  Galaxy S II
Galaxy Nexus on the left, Galaxy S II on the right

Both the Galaxy Nexus and the Galaxy S II have built-in digital zoom, and like using the flash, digital zooming is a great way to ruin a good picture.  Don't do it unless you have to.  Not heeding my own advice (we had to look) I zoomed in as far as possible with each phone and snapped some pics of the soup can.  While they look OK as a thumbnail, click them to see a bigger version.  Yeah, digital zoom sucks, and it sucks much more on the Galaxy Nexus.  Things look more grainy and washed out when you zoom in, and this is amplified with the Galaxy Nexus.  The Galaxy S II breaks the tie and wins this round.

Galaxy Nexus = 1

Galaxy S II = 2

Zoom detail

Galaxy Nexus  Galaxy S II
Galaxy Nexus on the left, Galaxy S II on the right

What's worse than using the zoom on your Android phone's camera?  Using the zoom then getting really close to grab a close-up.  Neither one of these looks particularly good, but the Galaxy S II is the clear winner.  It's sharper, less grainy and has far less noise.

Galaxy Nexus = 1

Galaxy S II = 3


Galaxy Nexus
Galaxy Nexus

Galaxy S II
Galaxy S II

While panorama shots are mostly a gimmick, they are a very cool gimmick and pano-mode is available on both the phone's were testing here.  Taking a panorama of the city or the mountains from 500 yards away is one thing, but we wanted to get up close and make it harder.  There's not a lot of detail in either picture, but there's not really supposed to be -- the file sizes get shrunk and you lose a lot of the picture data during compression.  That's just how the panorama software on both phones works.  

This one's really a wash, because when dealing with small objects up-close you see every stitching defect.  Look at the Band-Aid box and the right side of the tent in the picture taken with the Galaxy Nexus, and look at the Sprint Hero box and soup can in the picture taken with the Galaxy S II.  I'm picking a winner on ease-of-use, and the Galaxy Nexus gave me less errors while taking the panorama shots in the tight confines of a light tent.  It gets the nod here, but we're not giving any points to either one.  This one was just a fun throw-away.

Galaxy Nexus = 1

Galaxy S II = 3

Front-facing camera

Galaxy Nexus  Galaxy S II
Galaxy Nexus on the left, Galaxy S II on the right

You shouldn't expect too much from the front facing camera on any Android phone.  they're just there for video chatting and conferencing, not for MySpace quality portraits.  But because video chat is something that's finally caught on, it's an important category.  Both pictures are clear enough, and show as much detail as we should expect from the lower quality sensors, but there's one big difference -- The Galaxy S II corrects the white balance under the bright white lights a bit too much.  That healthy glow you see in the picture on the right isn't very accurate -- I'm a nerd who has no color to my skin in winter.  The Galaxy Nexus shows me in all my pale, geeky glory, so it gets the point here.

Galaxy Nexus = 2

Galaxy S II = 3



Samsung Galaxy Nexus:

Youtube link for mobile viewing

Samsung Galaxy S II:

Youtube link for mobile viewing

Both the Galaxy Nexus and the Galaxy S II shoot great video at 1080p.  Both also jitter a lot if you're not holding things steady, but that happens with most phone cameras while shooting in HD mode.  This was another tough one to judge, because both videos look pretty damn good.

In the end, the Galaxy S II is the winner, for two reasons.  One is the same we saw at the beginning; the color is rendered more accurately, and the left side of the can was  more yellow than the right because of the different lamps used.    While the Galaxy Nexus offers digital zoom while shooting in 1080p (and does a fine job), it also takes a bit longer to focus while zooming or moving around.  Since I have to pick a winner, the Galaxy S II get's the point.

Galaxy Nexus = 2

Galaxy S II = 4

Wrapping it up


Before the comments about "change the settings" or "use a custom white balance" arrive, that's not the point of this showdown.  If you're the type who digs into camera settings and knows just what to adjust based on conditions, this article wasn't for you.  Most users (ourselves included) just want to pull our phone out of our pocket, point it at the subject, and take a good picture.  That being said, let's continue.

The clear winner here is anyone using one of these two great phones.  There's nothing about either that makes it a bad choice, camera performance included.  But when we get down to the brass tacks, the Galaxy S II out performs the Galaxy Nexus in more ways when talking about the camera, as well as the most important test -- point and click.  Go back to the first comparison shots, and the way the Galaxy S II duplicates the light and shadows, and the level of detail it still offers is pretty hard to beat.  If you're buying an Android phone strictly for the camera, go buy the Galaxy S II and you won't be disappointed.  


Reader comments

Android camera showdown: Samsung Galaxy Nexus vs. Samsung Galaxy S II


Jerry... You ought to try the Amaze 4G. T-Mobile claims it has the best camera on any phone they sell. One thing for sure, it is the best camera on any Android phone I have had to date.

I wonder how many people are going to immediately assume it is because of the lower megapixel count on the galaxy nexus...

So you're saying the GSII has a better image sensor as well? I'd probably agree. It's definitely not the software, because it takes way better pictures using Camera Zoom. Samsung totally gimped the Nexus camera.

Yep. My GS2 isn't quite as good as my Canon point and shoot but its good enough to use to take all my pics on demand.

I disagree with your "With Flash" category conclusion. The GNex looks washed out compared to the GII. Much better looking pic on the right.

I'm not much of a camera person (much to my parents chagrin who always want pictures of the grand-children), but I have to say, the Nexus shot with the flash is awful in my eyes, the S II looks pretty good to me. But of course the problem here is this is also rather subjective, and we all have different opinions (though anybody with the opinion the iDont is better is plain wrong:-)

Any chance you can do some really low light shots, thinking about which to upgrade to but many times when im out its really dark and wondered which would be better

I second that motion...I have the Droid X with it's "awesome" (note the sarcasm) 8 megapixel camera and have been extremely disappointing with its sensor. The low-light pictures it takes are horrible! I am due for an upgrade and really want to hold off until something (non iPhone) comes out with a decent sensor...

Seconded. I had a Galaxy Nexus and the low light shots were horrid; the completely black areas were pixelated (grey and black), and everything was grainy. It was so unacceptable that I returned the phone. My Thunderbolt takes better low light pictures.

I'd like to disagree there based on my opinion. I had the TBolt for around 6-8 months or so and the low-light pics it took were rotten. The GNex isn't much better but in my instance the GNex takes better low light pics than my TBolt ever did.

Am I the only one that disagrees? In the first shot they look the same but in the rest, the GSII looks muted and dark. Even the flash shot, the Nexus doesn't looked 'washed out', it looks like a picture taken with flash.
The FF camera isn't as important to me but even there, the GSII makes Jerry look like he has a skin condition.

I shoot with a Nikon D80. Trust me, the GNex looks washed out. And it's pretty bad. You can brighten up a photo that's a little dark in post production. But when it's that washed out, you have a lot more difficulty cleaning it up.

You can also set just about all of these cameras to always over/under expose if you find every shot coming off too dark/washed out.

Saves a lot of work in "post production", which in reality doesn't get done with phone cameras too much, they tend to be used in shot-n-share mode.

I really enjoy the video/audio quality on my Atrix. I shoot little videos at electronic music events and it blows away anything my friends shoot (iPhones and Android included). These are low light events with lots of fast movie lights and really loud music and my phone does great. Also the audio doesn't make the distorted blurt sounds from the bass.

I agree with you , The Atrix's camera is a underrated

Regarding the pictures ,

Im not a professional photographer , or even near than , but I take allot of Car pictures (My house is between Lamborghini\Bentley\Lotus dealership , Wiseman\Spyker\koenigsegg dealership & Ferrari\Maserati dealership. & Im a car fan more than a phone fan)

But the pictures I take are good enough for me & perfectly fine for HD wallpapers (I set the Camera at 3.8 MB widescreen , No Flash & The Rest is Auto)

Regarding the Videos ,
Even though the Atrix takes only 720p videos , Its more than an amazing
For example , I shot a video at night while driving at 80 Mph. No believed the video is shot with a Camera phone , even when I played it in a 42" Full HD Samsung TV
It captured everything & I mean everything

My wife has the Atrix, and I've been pleasantly surprised on the quality of photos and videos it takes. I would still turn to my SGSII SR, but the Atrix can hold its own.

Jerry's completely wrong about the flash picture. Blown-out details are impossible to fix after the fact. The information is simply gone. An under-exposed picture can be brightened in Photoshop after the fact if necessary.

Plus, isn't the idea of a flash to simply illuminate under-lit subjects and not to give that bright over-exposed glow that is the signature of so many cell phone cameras? In other words, if done right, it should be like a good haircut; not noticeable.

compare the displays and there is no comparison. the SG2 display resolution is absolutely atrocious.

Which point is that? This is a CAMERA discussion. Go take your DISPLAY discussion elsewhere and feel free to jam it wherever you jam it to get your giggles. No one's impressed.

AFAIK this was a comparison of cameras not which phone is better. No need to get defensive for the G-Nex.

The FIRST thing everyone says when they look at my SGS2 is "how @#$%^& terrible is that resolution, $%^&!"

I cry myself to sleep every night knowing the display is pure shit. I lament at my decision to get one.


Everyone I show my Epic Touch to says "Wow! That looks awesome!" I guess you hang out with some picky bitches with weird taste or something.

I personally can't stand the camera on my S2 because the shutter is too slow and the pictures are too dark. You can compensate for the darkness but not the shutter speed. I would take a point and shoot over the S2 camera any day.

While I am not a big Apple fan, the camera on the iPhone 4S is a lot better for shutter speed and to tell you the truth, I enjoyed the camera more on my previous Bold 9900 (landscape shots only as no good auto focus though).

Maybe I am more demanding as my primary photo gear is an SLR but the S2 just doesn't cut it as it is so slow, it is basically unusable (for me) so all I use it for is quick shots of things in stores to remind me about something to buy.

Ever tried replacing the camera app? It's not an iphone, so you're allowed to do that. The speed and color issues are both software related. When I use Camera Zoom it blows the living shit out of the iphone 4S.

Camera Zoom is on sale right now, so I spent the 3 bucks.
It has some nice controls and options. Also presents an interesting collection of effects and shooting modes, but it really can't make up for a poor quality camera.

Many of the options don't actually work, unless your hardware actually supports it, but it will go ahead and fail without telling you it can't offer the capability.

Things that fail:
Voice activation fails (takes photo without waiting for sound), white balance adjustments are horrible, Macro really does not work correctly, it trys a close focus, but give no clue how close that might be.

Things that work nice are stable shot, burst mode, collage, and all of the post processing thing (gimmicky stuff mostly) work well. I especially like the control layout, and on-screen composition grid.

I'll use it on my Acer A500, because it needs all the help it can get.

I have the GNex and my GF has the Epic 4G Touch... there's really no comparison. The GS2 pretty much blows away the Nexus. The only times our pictures come out similar is in optimum lighting, otherwise the GS2 just takes better shots.

It has nothing to do with the megapixles, and everything to do with the sensor. I do like taking 4 shots for every one of hers though.

Heh... yeah, but if all 4 of those shots look worse, I'll take the 1 good one... But you're completely correct on the rest of your post. (Assuming you really DO have a girlfriend... :D )

Dam galaxy nexus got dogged out in this show-off smh... This kinda changed my mine on waiting for sprints nexus lls .... I'll stick with my EVO 3D as much as I HATE it

The GNex has a better camera than the 3D... Just sayin.... Miriam Joire is probably the biggest camera whore in the universe when it comes to smartphones, and she def. likes her camera more than the 3D's...

Let's be honest here. As good as cameras may have gotten on cell phones, they're still years behind those on camera. For one, they lack a real flash. These LED Flashes are pathetic. I will continue to take my p&s canon with me when I go places I may want pictures, but the cellphone camera does get used from time to time when I don't have a real camera with me.

Well I wouldn't say years behind. Cellular manufacturers are really starting to give their flagship smartphones the camera sensors & software to compete with at least point and shoot digital cameras. Certainly that's what Sony and Samsung are doing,sharing tech between their digital camera and mobile divisions.

Only if Sprint was releasing an ICS and LTE version of the Galaxy SII, I'd be jumping on that...

Instead all they have for an LTE option (so far)is the Galaxy Nexus....

Nexus demands a recount!

Seriously, though. Why not add the panorama point? It might not be the best camera, but at least give Sexy Nexy a fair count. :)

I guess the SGN deserves a point for the 'zero shutter-lag'. It’s a nice feature to have, since many times I miss on a very precious moment when the camera shutter on my phone responds a second or 2 late.

I have mild cerebral palsy and got the galaxy nexus, the instant shutter is so nice. i had the droid x and the tbolt and i'd often have to take 3 or 4 pictures to get one that wasn't motion blurred from my twitches. the quality is more than fine for me, if i wanted great pictures i'd get a dslr.

I never got the hype about the galaxy nexus. I played a it to within one compared it to my skyrocket and the skyrocket beats it like into everything. Camera, hardware is both good. Specs also are better on the skyrocket. Why so crazy about galaxy nexus? Not events removable memory fail. Well I guess it is the only option Verizon costumers have when it comes together new Samsung Android phones that are close to the new galaxy S2 line. Poor Verizon suckas. Yeah the nexus has stock Android and gets updated the fastest but big deal since with root it doesn't matter with other phones? Skyrocket will has ics Roms and gets updated. That's why you're root. Just because of faster updates and stock Android is not a reason to consider or even buying this over the better galaxy S2 series phones specially not the skyrocket or epic touch or tmobile version? All those are better. End of story. Nexus phones aren't good anymore. The only good nexus was the first nexus. The skyrocket deserves way more to be a nexus phone. Fact.

I can't completely disagree with you when it comes to your comparison to the Skyrocket simply because I have never even remotely expressed interest in any phone that comes out for AT&T. I am in love with my Nexus. I used to root my phones to have all the latest and greatest but you always have something that you sacrifice (some will choose to disagree, but every time I have rooted I had some performance issue). I have learned that with the Nexus, none of that is needed and it handles all of my needs in a way that no other phone has. Few of come close, but for once I am completely satisfied. The speed, design, screen, camera, battery, etc. etc.

Do people actually use removable memory anymore with everything being cloud-based? I think this feature will become obsolete on all phones and this is just the beginning.

Having a device that comes with stock Android and has absolutely zero bloatware or carrier crap forced onto the phone IS a reason to buy the phone over the Galaxy S2.

If the Skyrocket deserved to be a Nexus phone it would have been branded as a Nexus phone but it wasn't. Fact.

I have a hard time deciding if you are ripping on the Galaxy Nexus simply because it hasn't been released to AT&T, or you are just jealous of Verizon customers.

"Do people actually use removable memory anymore with everything being cloud-based? I think this feature will become obsolete on all phones and this is just the beginning."

Yes. I have all my media on my 32GB SD card. Cloud storage is cool but with data caps and coverage area issues, it cannot completely replace having local stored media.

My SGS2 has 16GB internal storage + my 32GB SDHC card for a total of 48GB. 48 is bigger than 32.

Either because I am in Europe and could care less abortion att or Verizon. Just saying specs and camera wise the galactic nexus is not better than the skyrocket. And ever since Samsung took over nexus it just basically isn't that great. Everytime Samsungs Galaxy line seems to be better. Nexus S wasn't better as the epic or infuse and stuff. Seems Samsung keeps there galaxy line superior to their galaxy line.

""Specs also are better on the skyrocket""

Not really, it's pretty simple. OMAP4 is certainly better than the Snapdragon S3 in the Skyrocket, and while SA+ is nice, WVGA is way old for 2012. HD resolution is the norm now and qHD should be the bare minimum.

The memory is a personal choice preference. It has 32GB included, no one seems to dramatically complain. If it only had 16, maybe I'd get it. Drag and drop to change or use the cloud if you have THAT much.

The only thing I can see the Skyrocket claiming is a better camera.

BS! It doesnt beat my SE4GT! My gf has the ip4S (poor soul) and my camera is better. Ip4s has a much improved camera than previous but ITS NOT BETTER THAN THE EPIC 4G TOUCH. SORRY

Unfortunately, there's just no way around it, iPhone 4 and 4S both do rings around any currently released Android hardware in terms of photo quality. I use an old Nexus S, and yes the GSII camera is quite good. I am lucky to be able to test out photo capability on new devices when they release, so I always take a few test photos with various devices, upload them to computer and compare side by side. As much as I am glad we are seeing better sensors and lenses on android, at this time, no one does total photo quality and color accuracy like Apple does. Excited to see what GSIII and Nokia devices can introduce.

We have anecdotal reports that the GS2 is better and and a few that say the opposite. I'll call it a wash.

I am very surprised that a good cellular phone hasn't been added to a great pocket style camera. Add all the bells and whistles and you would have one instant best seller.

Very nice lab test -- I'd be curious to see some real-world results, especially backlit scenes, low light... the kinds of shots that really show the difference between cell cameras and point-and-shoots.

Oh, and maybe some of that Sony EXMOR sensor love, once they start shipping. :-)

I have had the Bionic, iPhone 4 and the HTC Evo 4G all in 2011. I now have the Galaxy Nexus. The camera, in my opinion, beats them all. The speed and quality of the pics isn't like anything I have had on a phone. Maybe it isn't quite as good as the S II but it is still a great camera. I don't believe subpar should be used when describing it because it is anything but subpar.

For me, Zero shutter lag is much more important than a picture grading out as a 10 with one phone, and as an 8-9 with the other. I take pictures with my phone when I'm on the go. If I'm going somewhere specifically to take pictures, I take my camera with me. When I'm on the go, I use my phone for pictures, and that often means fast, quick shots of something happening at a moment's notice. What good is it to have the chance to take a marginally-better picture, if you miss the moment in the first place?

It's mention the zero-lag shutter in the intro, but it doesn't find its way into the grading anywhere? This is my fourth Android phone, and the *first* one where I'll actually use the camera, solely due to this function. When I'm shooting with my camera phone, the number-one issue is quickness...9 out of 10 I'm going to be shooting candids, and waiting a second or three for the shutter to snap is completely unacceptable. I appreciate that the lighting on the soup can came out ever so slightly better with the SII, but how often will I be shooting a professionally-lighted still life with my phone? Perhaps the DSLR would be a better choice.

For taking a quick shot of the kids, or of friends at a party, or any of the other places where a phone's camera is typically used, there's no other choice...the GNex is the best I've ever seen.

I'd just like to say... finally a comparison of an orange versus an orange...
I'd like to get a Sprint Nexuswhen it comes out, but also I think maybe it would be wise to just wait til October-ish to see what the Galaxy S III has to offer, assuming it will come...

Went on a trip recently - perfect opportunity to test out the SGS2's camera and also try out a few camera apps from the market. I must say, I'm really pleased with the results. So much so, that I'm considering buying a portable tripod, zoom lens and a macro lens! What impressed me the most was that it was able to shoot pictures taken from a moving car @ 100kmph, *without* any blur! You can check some of the sample pics I uploaded here:

Great work Jerry

This is an excellent comparison & it really help us the unprofessionals (Or the Camera Noobs)

One thing though , I though the Sony Ercisson Xperia line had the best cameras in Android phones !

Some of HTC's recent phones have ZSL cameras, it even got backported thru kernel tweaks and newer camera apks to phones like the EVO 3D. ZSL is just a software trick, the camera's basically taking one shot after another in the background and when you tap the shutter it just grabs one from the buffer... It can lead to some focus errors at times but it's a neat trick.

you missed a point for the Nexus under Panorama. it should be 4-3.

Thanks for the comparison though. I am really disappointed they did not put a better camera in the Nexus. I really wanted a true Google phone, but I need a good camera.

I'm completely happy with my gnex, it takes as good of photos as any other cell phone if you take your time, and there are plenty of apps out there that make the gnex cam amazing.

I think some of you are missing the point. This is about, taking out your phone, taking a picture (zero shutter lag is great)...and there ya go. No post photo editing. I want a camera I can take out and take a pic and send it, post it, save it for later. Seriously if you have a D80, use that for pics you really need "great" quality. Its a phone, not a camera. What are you guys doing with these pics? I send mine to my friends and post them. My Gnex takes great pics for what its made for, could it be better, sure, but gets the job done without complaints

I certainly saw that coming. Though I had hoped that the camera on the Nexus coyld be as good as the iPhone 4 despite the 5MP, I heard it and I experienced it myself - the camera on the Nexus couldn't be considered good at all, especially the image stabilization. (I actually didn't expect much, I just needed a camera better than my old feature phone.) Samsung seems to have not taken this part of the hardware seriously.
I do have to add though, the zero shutter lag is quite useful sometimes.

Nice. Well, the quality of the cameras on both phones are excellent, especially since there are cameras on phones.

It would be nice to get info on the GNEX with standard indoor lighting. I have heard it takes lousy low light pictures but I do not have a reference for comparison.