Galaxy S5 and Nexus 5 cameras

See if Samsung's latest can beat out Google's 6-month old entry

Every time a new phone is released touting drastically improved camera hardware and software, we naturally jump at the opportunity to put it through its paces. We've done just that with the Galaxy S5, and it's clear that the phone can produce some great shots in the right conditions. Sometimes the best way to see how a phone's camera performs is to put it head-to-head with another familiar device, and we've done that twice now with the Galaxy S5 versus the iPhone 5s and the HTC One M8.

Those are the latest leading flagships from Apple and HTC, so what about Google? The Nexus 5 at $349 unlocked has more than a handful of owners out there very impressed with the camera prowess of the latest phone from Google, and I tend to think it's camera has gotten a bad rap over the half-year since it was launched. It's time for a good 'ol fashioned camera comparison, folks, this time between the Galaxy S5 and the Nexus 5. Let's shed some light on this comparison and see which one picks up the highest marks.

Testing method

Dual phone tripod mount

In order to get the most accurate representation of what these cameras are capable of, we've enlisted some specialized hardware. I strapped the phones into mounts that place them directly next to each other on a platform with the camera sensors mere inches apart, and placed that mount onto a stable camera tripod. I went to a variety of scenes, placing the tripod down and then taking two pictures with each camera — one in "auto" mode, and once again in HDR mode. Where applicable, I used tap-to-focus to get the best shot from each camera. I then selected the better of the shots on each camera — whether its HDR or not — and compared them head-to-head for each scene.

I then took both phones around in my pocket and simply pulled them out and shot freehand. This is far less scientific as there are more factors at play here, such as hand shake, wind (when outside) and slightly different composition. But this is more like real life — we very rarely have tripods with smartphone adapters on them with us at all times, and in many ways if a smartphone can't produce good shots when held in your hands, there's little point to it having a camera at all. Again, there's a mix of HDR and standard pictures here — I just put the best picture from each on display.

While the Galaxy S5 takes 16MP photos in a 16:9 aspect ratio by default, for ease of comparison I set the phone to shoot 12MP 4:3 photos because the Nexus 5 has no option other than 4:3. (It's either that or shoot at 16MP and crop manually, and I think that gives an unfair shake to the Galaxy S5.) I used the stock camera app on the Galaxy S5, and the latest update of Google Camera on the Nexus 5. You may also notice that the Galaxy S5 pictures seem a bit "zoomed in" compared to the Nexus 5 — this is simply because it has a longer focal length, which shoots a slightly narrower field of view than the Nexus 5.

Daylight

When you're trying to show off the absolute maximum quality of photos that a camera can produce, you set it up in the best conditions possible. And particularly when we're talking about smartphone cameras, the sensor and lens size really lend themselves to photography in great lighting. Our first comparison between the Galaxy S5 and Nexus 5 cameras comes in good lighting conditions.

Tripod-mounted daylight pictures

From top to bottom in each set: Galaxy S5, Nexus 5.

Galaxy S5 daylight tripod sample 1Nexus 5 daylight tripod sample 1

Galaxy S5 daylight tripod sample 2Nexus 5 daylight tripod sample 2

Galaxy S5 daylight tripod sample 3Nexus 5 daylight tripod sample 3

Galaxy S5 daylight tripod sample 4Nexus 5 daylight tripod sample 4

Galaxy S5 daylight tripod sample 5Nexus 5 daylight tripod sample 5

Galaxy S5 daylight tripod sample 6Nexus 5 daylight tripod sample 6

Galaxy S5 daylight tripod sample 8Nexus 5 daylight tripod sample 8

Galaxy S5 daylight tripod sample 9Nexus 5 daylight tripod sample 9

Galaxy S5 daylight tripod sample 10Nexus 5 daylight tripod sample 10

Based on the samples here and my experience overall, under perfect conditions on a tripod the Galaxy S5 bests the Nexus 5 in just about every scene, with the one exception of the green pipe mounted in the wall (second photo set). The Galaxy S5 regularly produces brighter pictures in both auto and HDR mode, while the Nexus 5 often needs HDR+ simply to keep up and take "normal" looking pictures by comparison. Sharpness is about on-par, but the GS5 produces a better range of colors that were on the whole more accurate than the Nexus 5 as well. The Galaxy S5's white balance was often much more accurate, while the Nexus 5 tended to produce warmer images than the actual scene.

If there's one knock on the Galaxy S5 here it's that the camera often produces images that are a step or two too bright, making things unrealistic even in auto mode. Now that's a better problem to have than images being too dark, as the Nexus 5 is prone to doing, and I prefer having bright images that you can edit to be darker than vice-versa. While you could say the Nexus 5's darker scenes often produce more "realistic" photos that are simpler and not as punchy, the shots just aren't as appealing as the Galaxy S5's on any given picture.

I've been able to take some pretty wonderful pictures with the Nexus 5 in my time using it, and any of the above images from the phone would be more than acceptable to anyone's eyes when not compared directly to another camera. But it's clear the minimum and maximum quality of the Galaxy S5 under perfect conditions are just higher. Not only does the camera have more megapixels to work with (even cropped to 4:3), it has a solid several months ahead of the Nexus 5 in terms of camera hardware and software development.

Tripod-mounted daylight winner: Galaxy S5

Freehand shooting daylight pictures

From top to bottom in each set: Galaxy S5, Nexus 5.

Galaxy S5 daylight handheld sample 1Nexus 5 daylight handheld sample 1

Galaxy S5 daylight handheld sample 2Nexus 5 daylight handheld sample 2

Galaxy S5 daylight handheld sample 3Nexus 5 daylight handheld sample 3

Galaxy S5 daylight handheld sample 4Nexus 5 daylight handheld sample 4

Galaxy S5 daylight handheld sample 5Nexus 5 daylight handheld sample 5

Galaxy S5 daylight handheld sample 6Nexus 5 daylight handheld sample 6

Galaxy S5 daylight handheld sample 7Nexus 5 daylight handheld sample 7

Galaxy S5 daylight handheld sample 8Nexus 5 daylight handheld sample 8

Galaxy S5 daylight handheld sample 9Nexus 5 daylight handheld sample 9

Galaxy S5 daylight handheld sample 10Nexus 5 daylight handheld sample 10

In the daytime when the phones come off the tripod things get a little closer together in terms of quality. Simply taking each one out of my pocket and snapping a picture, the Galaxy S5 again took consistently brighter pictures than the Nexus 5, but it seemed to go overboard with colors, contrast and brightness even more so when handheld. Although the HDR mode captures very quickly, I still seemed to often get sharper pictures out of automatic mode on the GS5.

The Nexus 5 offered up more realistic looking pictures again compared to the Galaxy S5, and while they were a couple steps too dark in some cases they were consistently good — likely due to the inclusion of OIS (Optical Image Stabilization) on the camera. The white balance of the Nexus 5 shots seemed to be the same handheld as on a tripod — pictures tended to be a little too warm. You can easily fix the brightness problem with using a +1 manual exposure control and making use of tap-to-focus, so long as you're okay stepping away from HDR+ mode.

Which pictures you like between the two when shot handheld comes down to the style you prefer, really. With the exception of the first and sixth pictures in the set, I think the Nexus 5 is comparable or better than the Galaxy S5 in each of the pictures. The Galaxy S5 provides brighter, more vibrant colors even without HDR, but often goes overboard with the contrast and brightness. The Nexus 5 will give you realistic shots at the expense of often being slightly darker and warmer. Walking around in the sun and taking pictures I can say I was pleased with the results from both.

Freehand daylight winner: Tie

Low light

While these daylight shots show off some impressive camera prowess, a large portion of what we use smartphone cameras for involves taking pictures in less than ideal lighting conditions. It's unfortunate then that these scenes are also where phones with incredibly small camera sensors really come up short compared to even your average $99 point-and-shoot camera. It's an area where even the latest and greatest phones struggle — let's see how the Galaxy S5 and Nexus 5 do when the lights go down.

Tripod-mounted low light pictures

From top to bottom in each set: Galaxy S5, Nexus 5.

Galaxy S5 low light tripod sample 1Nexus 5 low light tripod sample 1

Galaxy S5 low light tripod sample 2Nexus 5 low light tripod sample 2

Galaxy S5 low light tripod sample 3Nexus 5 low light tripod sample 3

Galaxy S5 low light tripod sample 4Nexus 5 low light tripod sample 4

Galaxy S5 low light tripod sample 5Nexus 5 low light tripod sample 5

Galaxy S5 low light tripod sample 6Nexus 5 low light tripod sample 6

Galaxy S5 low light tripod sample 7Nexus 5 low light tripod sample 7

Galaxy S5 low light tripod sample 8Nexus 5 low light tripod sample 8

Galaxy S5 low light tripod sample 9Nexus 5 low light tripod sample 9

The results from these cameras are generally reversed once the sun starts to go down. Taking pictures in relatively low light, around 7pm to 8pm, even on a tripod the Galaxy S5 quickly deteriorated to lots of noise and blur in each of its shots. Interestingly, almost all of the "best" shots I picked from the GS5 were in automatic mode rather than HDR, as HDR seemed to introduce even more noise and weird discoloration in dark scenes. Samsung's phone bested the Nexus 5 in just a couple of the selected low light scenes, but even then it wasn't by much.

The Nexus 5, by contrast, was smooth and far less noisy than the Galaxy S5 in nearly every low light shot, with better shot-to-shot consistency overall. Also in contrast to the GS5, the Nexus 5's best shots were primarily in HDR+ mode, with only one or two automatic shots making the cut as the better of the two from the phone. White balance was far more accurate in these low light shots than in the daytime, and it should also be said that it never produced an overtly blurry photo which can't be said of the Galaxy S5 in these scenes.

The last four shots in this low light section are in dim light indoors late at night, and this is where the Nexus 5 completely runs away with things. None of the Galaxy S5's HDR shots were picked as they looked like they were taken with a 4MP camera from 2005, and the Nexus 5 took drastically better photos in each and every scene. It isn't even close in these situations.

Tripod-mounted low light winner: Nexus 5

Handheld shooting low light pictures

From top to bottom in each set: Galaxy S5, Nexus 5.

Galaxy S5 low light handheld sample 1Nexus 5 low light handheld sample 1

Galaxy S5 low light handheld sample 2Nexus 5 low light handheld sample 2

Galaxy S5 low light handheld sample 3Nexus 5 low light handheld sample 3

Galaxy S5 low light handheld sample 4Nexus 5 low light handheld sample 4

Galaxy S5 low light handheld sample 5Nexus 5 low light handheld sample 5

Galaxy S5 low light handheld sample 6Nexus 5 low light handheld sample 6

Galaxy S5 low light handheld sample 7Nexus 5 low light handheld sample 7

Let's be honest — neither phone does a fantastic job when shooting handheld in dark situations. That being said, the Galaxy S5 really shows its weakness in these situations. Whether its outdoors or inside (though indoor seemed to be the worst), the GS5 just doesn't seem to be able to figure out what to do in lower light. It will often focus incorrectly or just leave the shutter open too long in order to try and brighten the photo, in either case causing an intolerable amount of blur in the picture. Whether it was in automatic or HDR mode didn't seem matter when it came to brightness or grain — every photo was exceptionally noisy in low light. The poor man's version of OIS, called "picture stabilization" mode, seemed to help in some situations but hurt in others — proving that there's really no substitute for true hardware OIS.

The Nexus 5 does a bit better in these low light and indoor situations, but relies heavily on its HDR+ mode to provide smooth and well-lit shots. Unlike the GS5 it has the ability to use a longer shutter speed and HDR+ to take a better picture because it has OIS, and it really shows its worth in these kinds of pictures. As long as there isn't a lot of movement (a requirement for the GS5 as well) and you use HDR+, you'll get some acceptable results. Of the two phones, the Nexus 5 is the one that will take low light pictures that look good on anything more than a 5-inch phone screen.

While you definitely won't be trusting either one of these to take dedicated camera-quality shots in low light, I'd take the Nexus 5 in a heartbeat if these were the two choices to take a picture.

Handheld low light winner: Nexus 5


Software

Nexus 5 Camera UI Galaxy S5 Camera UI

If you've spent any amount of time with these phones, you can tell there's a big difference in the way the camera software was designed. While Samsung has definitely taken a step in the right direction with its previously-bloated camera software, things are still a bit jumbled and confusing. Hitting the settings button in the interface reveals several options that aren't entirely clear what they do, and you can really get in and tweak things (whether it's a good idea or not). When it comes to actually taking pictures, the software is very responsive, with incredibly fast autofocus and capture times. HDR capture was so fast it's almost indistinguishable from automatic mode.

Google Camera on the Nexus 5, on the other hand, is almost too simple. Even once you dive into the settings to enable manual exposure controls and grid lines, there are very few shooting options when using Google's software. The new animation for HDR+ helps remind you to keep steady, and in the latest software version the auto focus and shot-to-shot speed have both been notably improved. If you don't need lots of tweaks and manual controls (most people definitely don't), you won't be missing much by choosing the Google photography suite.

As a point of comparison, I also chose to install the Google Camera app on the Galaxy S5 to see how it changed the experience. Other than the ability to take Photo Spheres, panoramas and Lens Blur shots as Google intended it, I found no difference in the quality of photos — you just get the simpler capturing interface and a drastically longer capture speed when taking HDR photos. Because it is unable to access the camera hardware in the same way as Samsung's own camera app is, there's something to be said for keeping to the stock app for the best possible photo quality.

Drawing final conclusions

Dual phone tripod mount

After dozens of pictures, special camera rigs and lots of testing, we have some final results to look at. Diving in, the Galaxy S5 comes out on top when the conditions are right and you're taking pictures during the day. How big the GS5's lead is to your eyes depends on what kind of pictures you're drawn to — be it the GS5's punchy colors or Nexus 5's lifelike representations — but it's clear Samsung's offering has an overall higher quality of photos to offer.

When the amount of available light goes down, the table is turned completely. The Nexus 5 takes the lead in just about every low light situation, and unanimously wins when shooting in those situations without a tripod. The inclusion of OIS on the camera and a far superior HDR+ mode mean you'll get bright, grain-free shots even in tough photo conditions. The Galaxy S5 comes up short with an HDR mode that tries to do too much at night, and a picture stabilization mode that doesn't do a whole lot.

The software choices are a bit closer than in years past, and really come down to your personal preference. Samsung's camera suite is unmatched with the number of available features and tweaks, and on the Nexus 5's side Google Camera is simple and efficient for just getting good pictures without the frills.

So which one do you pick? Really, there's far more than just camera performance that should make up your mind on a phone — and there are a whole lot of differences to be noticed between the Galaxy S5 and Nexus 5. But if you're purely looking for a phone to take pictures, the choice simply comes down to what scenes you shoot in most — Galaxy S5 blazes the trail during the day, and the Nexus 5 shines brightest at night.


For a closer look at all of the photos used in this comparison, you can head to the Android Central Google+ page and view each photo in full resolution.