14 Dec 2016

Photography Experiment: The iPhone 7 Plus Is a Better Camera than the Nexus 5x

Let's compare the iPhone 7 Plus with the Nexus 5x to see how they perform on several different types of scenes. Unless otherwise stated, photos are taken with the default camera app on each phone, with HDR auto, which is the default.

Scene 1: Landscape

To start with, here's a landscape scene, first the iPhone photo:



(Right-click each photo to open them in a new tab, so that you can compare them)

... and then the Nexus:



The iPhone solidly beats the Nexus, which is somehow so dark as to be a bad photo. The colors of the trees and grass are better in the iPhone photo.

Both phones have the same amount of detail in this photo. Neither gets the color balance quite right — the walls of the low-rise building at the center-left of the photo look orange in the iPhone photo, and pink in the Nexus photo, while, in reality, their color is in between these two.

The iPhone photo is better on the whole.

Scene 2: High Dynamic Range

Let's now try a scene that has a very high dynamic range, with the sun in the frame, or at the edge of it.

Here's the photo from the iPhone:



The iPhone chose to activate HDR, and I'd turned on the option to also save a non-HDR version. Here it is:



 Here's the photo from the Nexus:



The iPhone HDR photo looks odd. The trees on both sides of the road have become a dark, unnatural shade of green:



... compared to the non-HDR photo:



... and the Nexus:



I'm publishing these crops not to say that I pixel-peep — I don't. Everything I'm pointing out was visible when I looked at the photo full-screen on my 5k iMac. I'm publishing the crops only so that you can easily see what I'm pointing out.

The playground at the center of the frame looks dark in the HDR photo:



... when it's reasonably lit in real life, and in the non-HDR photo:



... and (to some extent) in the Nexus photo:



The iPhone HDR photo is bad in the same way that HDR photos tend to be. I never noticed this problem earlier with HDR photos taken by Camera.app (the default iPhone camera app). If anything, those almost always had too mild a HDR effect, so mild as to be ineffective. This is a problem with tone-mapping, which HDR apps usually use: it's either ineffective or looks odd [1].

The iPhone photo without HDR is better. The difference in light levels between the bright and dark parts of the photo is no longer exaggerated.

But the Nexus photo is the best of the lot. The trees are a more natural, lighter shade of green:



... as compared to the iPhone (by which I mean the non-HDR iPhone photo, from now on in this section):



The trees are also much sharper.

The iPhone photo also looks devoid of color, while the Nexus photo retains the yellow look of the scene to the naked eye.

The apartments at the back are much clearer:



... than in the iPhone photo:



The Nexus photo seems a little more sharpened (in software) compared to the iPhone photo, which I generally don't like, because I prefer photos to be as true to the original as possible. Except when it means that things are clearer, or detail is visible, in which case the sharpened result is actually a better representation of reality, as with the Nexus, which I like. In fact, the iPhone crop looks like something from a crappy old phone from many years ago.

The Nexus photo is clear, while the iPhone one seems to have a haze throughout. I don't know if that's a problem with the iPhone, or smog in the air, in which case I prefer the iPhone's natural rendition, as opposed to artificially cleaning it up to make it look good. Look at the road in the foreground, specifically, at the wall on its far end. It seems to have better detail in the Nexus shot — the bricks are clearer.

On the other hand, the Nexus photo suffers from a lot of noise. Look at the bottom-left of the photo, of the driveway within the apartment I've photographed this from. And at the right end of the road, in front of the other apartment:



The iPhone has far less noise:



... though at the expense of significant detail. Look at the power cables at the top-right of each crop, and you'll see the difference. This seems to be result of overdone noise-reduction in the iPhone. I can't pick one here — I dislike the Nexus's noisy photo, but I also dislike the iPhone's muddy look.

Scene 3: Optical Zoom

Here's a photo from the iPhone at 2x zoom:



... and here's one from the Nexus, cropped:



There's lots more detail in the iPhone photo, as you can expect, with its 2x camera. The photo is also much brighter and more true to life, rather than dark and depressing as with the Nexus.

Scene 4: Garden

All the previous scenes have been landscapes, so I picked a scene from my garden, where the subject is much closer (not infinity). The iPhone again activated HDR mode, so we have the HDR photo:


The non-HDR photo:


And the Nexus photo:


As usual, the Nexus photo is dark and gloomy. Both iPhone photos beat it.

Of the two iPhone photos, the one without HDR has a brighter foreground, which is the most important part of the photo, at the cost of blowing out the sky. I'll still take the HDR photo for its better balance, but I wish the foreground was as bright in the HDR photo as in the non-HDR one. This is the problem with HDR, that it makes the bright parts of the scene dull, taking away the energy in the scene.

Both iPhone photos suffer from too yellow a color-balance, while the Nexus photo is perhaps too bluish.

Scene 5: Macro

Here's a photo from the iPhone:


And from the Nexus:


The Nexus's photo is blurry and nowhere as good as the iPhone's. Both cameras were held the same distance from the flower. Maybe the Nexus has a higher minimum focus distance. In that case, the screen didn't do a good job of telling me what it is. With both phones, I started by holding the phone very close to the flower, resulting in a blurry photo, and slowly moved the phones away until the preview became crisp. I then took the photo. The Nexus still took a blurry photo, while the iPhone took a crisp, focused photo.

Scene 6: Indoor

Here's the iPhone photo:


And the Nexus:

As usual, the Nexus photo is dim, but it has the more accurate color balance. It's a dull, overcast day, and the light isn't yellow as the iPhone would have you believe.

The Nexus photo is crisper and has more detail, while the iPhone's is a little blurred. You can see it especially in the dark granite accent on the wall at the extreme left. Both use similar shutter speeds — 1/60s on the Nexus, and 1/35s on the iPhone — so that shouldn't have been a major factor. The iPhone photo is also noisier, which shouldn't be the case given the longer exposure (even accounting for the brighter exposure).

I think I like the Nexus photo more, since it got many more things right, and that it's not too dim compared to the iPhone photo.

Scene 7: Panorama

Here's a panorama from the iPhone:


And here's one from the Nexus:


The Nexus, as usual, makes everything dark. The white balance is more accurate in the Nexus photo — it was indeed a gloomy, overcast day — but that's less important than getting the brightness right, which the Nexus failed.

The Nexus also offers an excellent photo sphere mode that looks like Google Street View — it's an immersive environment, and you can stand up, hold up your phone, and point it in different directions, left and right, up and down to see what's there:


Click the photo and swipe or drag to explore the scene. If that doesn't work, click here.

If you find rendering glitches there, keep in mind that I'm using a third-party web site to share the photosphere. It seems to render better on the Nexus, using Google's software.

The photosphere is much more immersive. I felt like I was there. It's a better and more emotional experience than the iPhone's static panorama, which I look at flat on a 2D screen.

The Nexus solidly beats the iPhone for this scene.

Scene 8: Portrait / Lens Blur Scene

The iPhone 7 Plus has a portrait mode that blurs the background to make the subject stand out, and so does the Nexus, with the name of lens blur. I didn't have a human volunteer for this test, so I chose a post. Here's the iPhone photo:



And here's the Nexus photo:



The Nexus photo is a complete mess. The subject is also blurred, in addition to the background, which shouldn't have happened. Some of the foliage immediately to the left of the post is also blurred, as is the railing running from the left to the bottom-right corner, ruining the depth effect. In addition, the railing is blurred, creates a fake miniature effect. Which, in addition to not being desired, interacts with the blur effect, messing both up.

The Nexus photo is a complete disappointment, a gimmick. I also had a bad experience when I tried out lens blur when it came out in 2014. Google shouldn't have shipped it if it's so bad.

If you're wondering why the framing is different, I tried to take the iPhone photo from the same position as the Nexus, but the iPhone insisted I move closer, so I did.

Scene 9: Live Photo

The iPhone supports live photos, which are photos with a few seconds of video shot before and after. They're presented as a photo that, when you 3D touch (press hard), comes to life. It's a beautiful effect, something different from a photo and different from a video. It's in between both.

Unfortunately, live photos can't natively be shared on the web, so I had to settle for a Youtube video:



Play it at its highest resolution to appreciate it. Not at Youtube's default resolution which, depending on your bandwidth, makes it look like a blurry, low-quality video. Live Photos are high-quality.

Scene 10: UHD Video

In the rest of this comparison, I'll focus on video, first Ultra HD. The iPhone 7 Plus supports this format. The Nexus 5x doesn't. It claims to, and it captures the UHD video, but it sometimes fails to save it because it runs out of memory and the camera process crashes before it can. I'm amazed that Google shipped such shoddy software. In any case, the iPhone is the only contender:


Everything is good about this video. Stabilisation is good, especially at the beginning where I walk, and when I pan, the panning is smooth. The colors and contrast are natural, rather than pumped up and looking odd. The grass is an accurate and pleasant shade of green, and the flowers, an accurate and pleasant pink. Detail is good, as it should be in a UHD video.

I found only minor problems — when I pull away from the macro shot of the dewdrop, the phone takes a couple of seconds to focus. When I pan right to left (from 45 to 53 seconds in the video), the video is a bit jerky, with things jerking from left to right and back. You can see this in the vertical metal rods at the railing at the far end of the garden, and the pillars around the sitting area.

These are minor problems, probably caused more by my inexperience at shooting UHD video, and video in general. Maybe I should've panned more slowly.

Scene 11: 1080p Video

The Nexus 5x does support 1080p video, but even here it falls short of the iPhone 7 Plus, by capturing it only at 30 FPS rather than 60. Here's an iPhone video:



And here's a Nexus video:



The Nexus video isn't stabilised, which makes the beginning of the video, where I walk to the garden, jerky and uncomfortable to watch . The iPhone's "cinematic image stabilisation" has a jello effect that makes me queasy, but it's still better than the Nexus.

Even when I pan from right to left, at 35-40 seconds into the video, it's super smooth on the iPhone, and jerky on the Nexus. At the end of the video, when I stop panning, the iPhone smoothly stops, with a deceleration, while the Nexus does so abruptly. That's an impressive detail the iPhone got right, much better than I could. This is technology at its best, doing the things it can do best, to free me to focus on the other, creative aspects of videography.

The Nexus video has too much saturation and contrast artificially applied to it, which makes it look awkward and unnatural. The grass is too green, and too dark, and the whole garden is dark and depressing. The iPhone's video is much more pleasant.

You can see that the Nexus is unable to focus on the dewdrop at close range, while the iPhone can.

The iPhone also shoots 1080p at 60FPS, compared to the Nexus's 30. That difference isn't noticeable in the above videos, given everything else that's different — stabilisation, contrast and focus. To illustrate the difference the frame rate makes, keeping everything else the same, I took two videos on the iPhone, at 1080p. Here's the 60FPS version:


And here's the 30FPS version:

Notice that movement is smoother in the 60FPS version. Especially when the motorists are close to the camera. The difference is subtle, and you may not be able to notice it if you're looking for it, unless you look closely. But the 60FPS video is natural, realistic and lifelike, one step closer to making you feel you're there.

All said and done, the iPhone's video is much better than the Nexus's. There's no contest, at all.

Scene 12: Video Zoom

The iPhone's 2x optical zoom is available when you're taking a video. Here it is, for a UHD video:



And for a 1080p video:



The zoom is abrupt and unsettling. Apple should've made it zoom slowly and smoothly. When recording video, it's generally a bad idea to make abrupt transitions, whether in zoom, panning, or in others way. Do it slowly.

Scene 13: Slomo at 120 FPS

Both cameras capture slomo video at 120 FPS, but the iPhone at 1080p, and the Nexus at only 720p.

Here's the iPhone video:



And here's the Nexus one:



Strangely, the iPhone video starts mis-focused and blurry, and stays that way till several seconds into the video, I give up and tap the biker to tell the phone to focus on him. (A second video I took didn't exhibit this problem.) This alone makes the Nexus video better.

The Nexus video has too much saturation and contrast. The video looks awkward and unnatural.

The iPhone video has slightly more detail, because of its 1080p resolution, better than the Nexus's 720p.

The iPhone starts at normal speed, then slows down, and at the end, speeds up again. By contrast, the Nexus video plays at the same speed throughout.

In any case, the iPhone's misfocus causes it to lose this comparison.

Scene 14: Slomo at 240 FPS

The iPhone also supports slomo at 240 FPS. Notice how slower things are. You can see a cyclist make multiple rapid adjustments to the handlebars to retain his balance. You get to see things that you don't see everyday because they happen so fast for our eye to notice. This is like a behind the scenes look at motion itself. It's almost magical:



The Nexus doesn't support slomo at 240 FPS.

Scene 15: Timelapse

This comparison is different from all the above, in that it requires a tripod. After all, most smartphone photography (even most photography) is done handheld. The iPhone has a timelapse mode, which the Nexus doesn't, so here's the iPhone video:





Conclusion

The iPhone 7 Plus is the better camera. It produces great photos in most situations.

On the other hand, the Nexus 5x is temperamental — it takes excellent photos in a few situations, but often messes up something or the other. We don't want tools that work sometimes; we want tools that work every time, like the iPhone.

Even when the iPhone falls short of the Nexus, it falls short just by a bit. Whreeas, when the Nexus falls short, it falls short significantly.

[1] An alternative to tone-mapping is exposure fusion, which generates natural-looking results.

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