It's time to really compare: just how good is the LG G4's camera?

LG's talking a big game about the quality of the LG G4's camera, and in the time we've been playing with it, it's certainly produced some impressive images. But it's also up against some impressive competition — smartphone cameras have never been better than they are today, and today they're really good. So we're pitting the LG G4 against the competition, namely the iPhone 6 and the Samsung Galaxy S6.

The cameras, by the numbers

But before we get to the photos, let's talk about these cameras for a bit. We picked these phones because they're both the two best-selling smartphones out there, and also the two that LG's explicitly targeting on almost all fronts with the G4. On paper the G4 and Galaxy S6 seem like they'd be close competitors, while the iPhone 6 seems like it should be hilariously outmatched. Here's what things look like on paper:

Category LG G4 Samsung Galaxy S6 Apple iPhone 6
Megapixels 16MP 16MP 8MP
Resolution 5312x2988 5312x2988 2448x3264
Aspect Ratio 16:9 16:9 4:3
Sensor Size 1/2.6" 1/3" 1/3"
Pixel Size 1.29 µm 1.12 µm 1.5µm
Aperture ƒ/1.8 ƒ/1.9 ƒ/2.2
Focal Length 28mm 28mm 29mm
Stabilization 3-axis OIS 2-axis OIS 2-axis OIS (6 Plus only)
Panorama Size 104MP 60MP 43MP
Flash LED LED Dual-LED
Additional Sensors Color Spectrum Sensor, Laser Auto Focus
Manual Controls Exposure Compensation, Focus, ISO, Shutter Speed, White Balance Exposure Compensation, Focus, ISO, White Balance
Image Formats JPG, RAW JPG JPG

A few notes on those raw numbers: the megapixel counts and resolutions only affect how large the image is, though larger images do zoom better. It's the focal length that determines how wide of a field is captured, and there the lower the number the wider the image (right around 28-30mm is the sweet spot for smartphone photography). The smaller the aperture number, the more light is let into the camera. A smaller aperture number also means a narrower depth of field — when taking a photo with a subject that's close to the lens, things that are further away will be blurred.

Sensor size and pixel size are the literal physical sizes of the light-sensing instruments behind the lens; a larger sensor can collect more light, and the larger the number, the larger the sensor. The sensor is where the resolution comes into the real world: that grid of millions of pixels has to be crammed onto that little plate. The more pixels you put on there, the smaller each pixel has to be. A larger pixel can collect more light, and thus can shoot handle low-light situations better. Conversely, a larger sensor can fit more pixels without sacrificing pixel size.

Below you'll find a gallery of photos taken with the LG G4, Samsung Galaxy S6, and the iPhone 6. None have been retouched — the only alteration you'll see is for size. All used the default camera app, and when shooting in auto mode all had Auto HDR enabled ("High Dynamic Range" HDR combines an over-exposed, properly-exposed, and under-exposed image into one to bring out details in the darks and lights that a single exposure cannot capture). For several of the night shots we did use Pro mode on the Galaxy S6 and Manual Mode on the G4.

The photos

It's a very close race between all three phones, and it was an interesting shooting experience using all three like this. When it comes to the interfaces, LG and Samsung have both caught up with Apple in ease of use when in straight auto mode: just point your camera at your subject, hit the shutter button, and 99.9% of the time you'll be satisfied with the result. The lack of a manual (or manual-ish) mode on the iPhone is most of the time not an issue, but there are times we would really want the option.

The iPhone 6 suffers with night shots, but makes up for it with great true-to-life photos.

The only spots where the iPhone 6 truly suffers are in rough nighttime photography (the iPhone 6 Plus has OIS, but the smaller iPhone 6 does not), the 100% crop (you can't zoom in as far and maintain detail), and in the width of the panorama. But for being a camera with a smaller sensor than the G4 and half the pixels to work with in comparison to the G4 and the Galaxy S6, it holds its own quite well with quality optics, excellent processing, and photos that looked truer to life, if frequently darker.

The Galaxy S6's ease of access — just double tap the home button to launch the camera, even from off — made for an enjoyable experience. The camera was always fast to launch and capture, though there was often a bit of annoying lag between photos if you wanted to shoot rapidly (but not on burst mode). The Galaxy S6 was a solid performer throughout. Our only real complaint comes in comparison to the LG G4, which offered a full manual mode with shutter speed adjustments that the Galaxy S6 currently does not.

The LG G4 focuses fast, takes sharp photos, and has a color spectrum sensor that tries to compensate to make photos that look more like how our eyes see.

The LG G4 offers two things the iPhone 6 and Galaxy S6 do not: laser auto focus and a color spectrum sensor. The laser auto focus uses, well, a laser to guide the auto focus system, bouncing an infrared beam off the scene to provide for sharper and faster focusing. The color spectrum sensor, on the other hand, measures the overall color of the light in the scene and attempts to adjust the image to compensate. Think of a space lit with an old yellow light — most cameras would produce a yellow-tinted photo, while the G4 would recognize that the lighting was yellow and adjust the image to produce something closer to what we saw with our eyes (our brains are generally very good at handling and adjusting for colored light).

Overall the G4 produced photos that were notably sharper than the Galaxy S6 or iPhone 6. When it came to nighttime photos shot in auto mode, the G4 tended to go brighter as well, often to the point of blowing out bright spots and adding too much detail to things like a hazy night sky. Daylight photos from the G4 were also generally brighter, but usually not to the detriment of the overall image. The G4 also had trouble focusing during our nighttime panoramas, but yet had no issue with standard nighttime photos.

So which one's the best?

In the vast majority of situations, you won't be disappointed with any of these three cameras. It's only when you want to zoom or play with manual controls that the iPhone's weaknesses come forth. Both the Galaxy S6 and the LG G4 perform admirably in nearly all situations, but sometimes it feels like the G4's color spectrum sensor is trying to compensate for lighting issues that aren't present — many of our nighttime city shots had a distinctly yellow cast to them that wasn't quite there in real life or with the other two competitors. But if you want comprehensive manual controls and the ability to shoot in RAW, you can't go wrong with the G4.

LG G4, iPhone 6, Samsung Galaxy S6 — you won't be disappointed with the camera on any of these phones.

There's one last thing to be said here: you can't make a comparison between the photographic capabilities of these devices until you're viewing them on the same display. Each has their own display technology: IPS LCD on the iPhone 6, IPS Quantum LCD on the LG G4, and Super AMOLED on the Galaxy S6. Each display offers a different viewing experience, with varying accuracies of brightness, contrast, and color saturation. LG claims that the DCI specification to which the LG G4 is held is more accurate, but that makes comparing a photo taken with a different phone side-by-side impossible until they're on the same display (we used a calibrated AOC monitor and a calibrated Retina MacBook Pro display for our comparisons).

If we had to pick one winner out of all of these, it'd be the Samsung Galaxy S6, with the LG G4 coming in a close second. And to be honest, the iPhone 6 isn't far behind that. They're all excellent cameras attached to good smartphones. LG, Samsung, and Apple all have put a focus on the quality of the images their cameras produce, and it really shows. You won't be disappointed by any, but the straightforward ease of use and reliable image quality of the Galaxy S6 were just enough to push it past the all-around amazing LG G4 camera.