The Samsung Galaxy S4's rear camera captures 13MP images, the front equivalent has 2MP. Dual Camera mode allows for capturing images with both cameras simultaneously.

As smartphones continue to eat away at the role of point-and-shoot cameras, it only makes sense that with its new flagship Galaxy S4 smartphone, Samsung looks to close the gap between the two categories more than ever. The camera's hardware gets a boost, but more critically, the camera app gets a complete overhaul on the S4, with a new interface and more complex scene modes that take advantage of that new hardware.

Dual Camera

The rear-facing camera carries 13 megapixels, up from 8 megapixels on the S3. And the front-facing camera is 2 megapixels, bringing the S4 into the new competitive norm for top-of-the-line smartphones. Samsung also adds the ability to record with the front and rear cameras simultaneously. 

Called Dual Shot mode, you can capture either a video or still image simply by tapping on the camera icon, and then you can insert a smaller-sized image of yourself into the primary image (or, for that matter, switch it around again so the rear-facing camera appears in the smaller window if you want). The square, smaller size image can be wrapped inside in eight containers and effects: stamp, instant pic, heart shape, window, cubism, fisheye, split and oval blur. This mode worked well enough, and during video chats you could even draw on the screen and the other person would see it.

 In Dual Camera mode you can place the front camera image on the 'main' image and ...
 ... select from various 'frame' types. The size is also adjustable.

Ultimately, though, you should expect to be constrained by the angle you're shooting from. For example, if you're shooting something parallel to you, and you hold the phone level with your face, the front-facing camera should pick you up well enough. But if you're going off-angle, or doing something more creative, don't count on this feature working so well.

Samsung won't be alone in offering some level of shooting with both cameras: The same day as Samsung announced the S4, LG announced it would be introducing dual camera shooting to its Optimus G Pro phone via a comprehensive software update in April. Until we see that in action, we can't say how it compares, but the mere fact that Samsung's Korean arch rival is moving forward with a similar feature ups the ante competitively.

Shooting Modes

The S4 grows its selection of shooting modes to 11, among them such now-common standards as HDR, Night, Panorama and Sports. Four are new to the S4: Sound & Shot, Eraser, Drama and Cinema Photo.

Sound & Shot is one of the more interesting; with this option, the phone automatically records voice for nine seconds while you take the shot. If you change this to manual mode, you can control how long you speak for -- and the recording happens after you take the picture. The catch here is that the resulting image with file can only be viewed on a Samsung Galaxy S4. A product manager from Samsung told us that there should be an upgrade for some older devices, but he couldn't specify when or which devices might gain support for the resulting proprietary Samsung image. The same product manager also noted that all devices after the S4 would support this new format.

The Eraser mode takes a number of frames of the same scene, and then can automatically remove someone who walked into the picture, for example. The Drama mode takes up to 100 shots within four seconds, and saves just one picture as a composite image. You can't use this feature while zoomed in, though. One frustration with both of these modes is that it appears you have very little additional manual control; for example, Samsung chooses which of the 100 shots to composite together into one. This could be cool -- especially for sports and action -- but it remains to be seen how well it works.

The Galaxy S4 offers 11 shooting modes including some entirely new to the S4.
Drama mode takes up to 100 shots within four seconds, and saves just one picture as a composite image. 

Unfortunately, the tight quarters of the demo area at Samsung's launch event restricted our ability to determine how well these features worked. The Drama mode is clearly intended for objects in the distance; trying to replicate movement in a more macro environment using my scissoring fingers resulted in a message saying the mode could not work because the subject was too big. Go figure.

One noteworthy point: When using these special modes, the Samsung product manager said that there's no reduction in image quality. Oftentimes, with burst modes on a smartphone, the phone degrades image quality in favor of the faster shooting speed.

We'll mention Cinema Photo mode, but even the product manager we spoke with didn't have much detail to offer. It appeared to capture a moving image similar to the Cinemagrams in Windows 8 phones, but which format was being used was unclear.

Camera Interface

In revisiting its interface, Samsung both streamlined, and complicated, its camera settings. The interface is lighter and more transparent -- now a row of pop-up icons appear on top of the screen, as opposed to a heavier bar as on the S3. But if you want to change some options, like ISO, you have to dig into the menu, which may be annoying when you're trying to get the shot. The settings for video and still images are now under tabs within the settings menu, as opposed to be only available from the video camera, or only available from the audio camera.

The camera interface has a fairly conventional layout with shutter button and vodeo/stills switch on the right and a range of settings along the top edge.

At least, unlike on the Galaxy Note II, when you change ISO and then leave the camera app, the app remembers your last setting. That's especially important now that access to ISO is another layer deep. Beyond that, the interface is generally cleaner looking, and it gives access to a fair number of manual controls not usually found on a smartphone. Sadly, Samsung didn't introduce the more visual and camera-like interface found on the Galaxy Camera, which is also powered by Android Jelly Bean.

Aside from my observation about some features being a bit more buried than you might like, it's hard to gauge how usable and functional the new interface will be in the real world. Look out for our full review of the device after its release.

For many advanced camera settings on the S4 ...
... you'll have to dive deep into the menu.

One thing we can say: We wish Samsung had allowed the option to turn the power button into a physical shutter button. You can still use the volume rocker to zoom in and out, but given all of the other personalizations Samsung allows, it's just odd that Samsung won't let you turn the power button in a shutter button.

Gallery

Another big feature Samsung talked up was its Story Album app. This app automatically creates albums of your pictures, basing its choices on the date and the environment of the images. You have a little creative control, but mostly this is an automated process, so tweakers need not apply. You can choose the album name and cover, and add captions to pictures. And if you want a hard copy to share, you can send your album to Blurb's book printing service.

With its different size covers the Samsung TouchWiz Gallery app looks a little different to the stock Android version. 

In addition to tweaking the design of the camera app itself, Samsung also changed up the front face of the Gallery app, as seen in the image above. Image thumbnails looked sharp and crisp and the layout is varied. I found it a little hard to read the album titles, but I appreciated the effort Samsung put in to make this a better feature. As with everything else about the photography-specific options on the S4, we'll weigh in with more detail once we get our hands on a review unit.