Noted smartphone photographer Oliver Lang explores Samsung's Android-powered Galaxy Camera in this hands-on review. Our own Lars Rehm is also working on a review of the camera and sample gallery that we'll post on Connect soon.

Mobile photographer Oliver Lang puts his iPhone 4S, used for the shot above ... 
 ... up against the Samsung Galaxy Camera. Images by Oliver Lang.

I’ve been a mobile photographer for a number of years now. Shooting with a mobile device has changed how I use all my cameras, both film and also digital devices with higher quality sensors. Over the years I’ve developed specific processes for shooting and editing with a mobile phone. I have been invited to teach mobile photography at the Australian Centre for Photography, Art Gallery of New South Wales and also the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. In all my classes I try to emphasise mobile connectivity as a key factor in my growth as a photographer.

The connectivity of a mobile camera has allowed me to share photos with people from all over the world. Growing social photo sharing networks have exposed me to thousands of mobile photographs by others, which I’ve used as a source of photographic teaching -- both the good and the bad. The availability and convenience of the device has given me more opportunities and greater enthusiasm than I ever experienced when sharing images from a stand-alone computer. Devices that give you the freedom to shoot and share from any where at any time don’t have to be the best technical camera equipment; instead they need to be used in a way that gives you the best community experience possible.

Social media growth and mass adoption of mobile devices as “good enough” camera equipment has resulted in an influx of social and lifestyle photography online. Some have defined this as narcissism, but I see the sharing of real time social images as critical form of peer-to-peer currency. There remains potential for pure photographic experiences, beyond “selfie” or status update fodder. However, there is a definitive change in the nature of commonly used photographic devices, driven by the need to share a photo, or a photo of an experience. Even though I don’t photograph my food, my feet or some other banal object, I do shoot street, event, portrait and documentary photography with the purpose of sharing the image. My photography is about communication, and supported by the connectivity of the device. I shoot to share.

Mobile photographer Oliver Lang puts down his iPhone and picks up a Samsung Galaxy Camera.

Exploring the Samsung Galaxy Camera

Most recently, I’ve been shooting with the Samsung Galaxy Camera.

In a flash, this device has zoomed the point-and-shoot camera back into focus, and with a powerful 1.4GHz quad-core processor, Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) operating system and 3G/4G as well as Wi-Fi connectivity (depending upon your provider and geographical location), the camera sets a new standard for the “point-and-share” market. 

Real time photography plays an essential role in sharing via social media, and this camera takes the potential for “mobile” photography to a new level. For avid mobile photographers, it represents a new range of shooting options and photographic potential, with the same mobile access to the photography communities you’ve discovered through your mobile phone camera. But if you’re not convinced why a 16-megapixel camera with 21x optical zoom would also need an Android operating system, with all the potential editing and sharing applications that are available, then please, read on.

For years the point-and-share market has been dominated by the mobile phone camera. Smartphones have stayed on top thanks to ever-improving camera quality and the ability to edit and share personal images in real time using the same device used to take the photo. Being able to shoot and share images from anywhere at any time has revolutionised the role of photographs in society. Yet, despite the improved mobile phone camera quality over the last few major releases, the mobile phone has always lacked both a decent flash and optical zoom. The Samsung Galaxy Camera has both, and along with its powerful processor, Android 4.1 operating software and connectivity, it’s a powerful device for shooting and sharing.

Clown at the Glebe Fair in Sydney. Image by Oliver Lang, taken on the Samsung Galaxy Camera. 
Performer at the Glebe Fair in Sydney. Image by Oliver Lang, taken on the Samsung Galaxy Camera. 

Personal, real-time imagery makes up the majority of photography created and consumed today. Most of that imagery is limited or constrained by the technical capabilities of today’s most popular device for capturing images: the mobile phone camera. In fact, using a device with greater technical capability, such as a DSLR, is seen as cheating by many Instagram users. With Instagram, the evenness of the playing field is a key reason for its success. As social media is the dominant platform for self-expression today, it is reasonable to expect that point-and-share devices will continue to be popular photographic devices for a long time. Although there is no ability to make phone calls from the Samsung Galaxy Camera (unless using a data service like Skype) this is a device primed for today’s popular one-to-many visual communication methods. But without a phone connection will it be able to compete with the mobile phone camera?

Smartphone comparisons

Dedicated iPhone users will also be challenged to decide if the Galaxy Camera is worth the leap to a new operating system. (See Connect's guide to the Android operating system to learn more about it.) It’s worth noting that the level of photographic control in Android phones has lagged behind the iPhone. Only in later models (such as the Samsung Galaxy S3) have you been able to separately control and lock focus and exposure with apps like Camera FV-5. These controls have been available with numerous apps on iPhone for some time, which has helped make Apple’s model a favourite among mobile photographers. Could the photographic potential of Samsung’s Android-driven Galaxy Camera start a sea change?

Koala sleeps in Sydney. Image by Oliver Lang, taken on the Samsung Galaxy Camera. 

I've heard people say for years now that they will not need to buy a new compact camera because their mobile phone camera is "good enough" for their purposes. It will be interesting to see if the range of camera and mobile sharing functions offered by the Samsung Galaxy Camera will cause people to think twice about whether their mobile phone is the right camera after all.

The noticeable differences in feel between the Samsung Galaxy Camera and a similar sized mobile phone include a dedicated finger grip and the raised shutter button. The finger grip is appreciated, and the wrist strap (included with the model provided) provides added security when holding in one hand. A comparable grip is only available for mobile phones with the addition of a case. The Galaxy Camera grip allows access to the zoom control and shutter button with the same hand, and with a free thumb you can freely access the main icons on the display screen to help change shooting modes easily with one hand. When you rotate the device to review images, the camera lens makes a nice finger hold and feels comfortable.

Street portrait at the Glebe Fair in Sydney. Image by Oliver Lang, taken on the Samsung Galaxy Camera. 

When you first turn on the Samsung Galaxy Camera it may feel slower than another compact camera as the device is booting the Android 4.1 operating system. The device opens directly into the dedicated camera mode, a standalone camera application similar to the native camera app in a smartphone. At any time you can select the Home icon and be taken directly to the Android screen to access all applications and widgets. Whenever you leave the camera mode for the Android home screen, the camera will close the lens for comfortable handling. The initial shooting mode selected is Auto, although after you have changed it to another setting it will usually remember that mode the next time it opens. Occasionally it defaulted to f2.8 when I had closed it at f8, but the settings are displayed on the screen for you to check. Selecting Mode gives you quick access to three shooting options of Auto, Smart or Expert. I’ve tested most of the Smart functions and they’ll certainly suit general needs for certain situations, including Night, Action Freeze, Rich Tone and others.  I’ve usually gone straight for the full control over ISO, exposure and aperture in the manual setting under Expert mode.

In Expert mode, you can select ISO, exposure and aperture settings.

The lens offers 21x optical zoom, which is so far beyond anything offered on a mobile phone camera that there is simply no comparison. I’m really excited by the zoom as I’ve seen countless mobile images with horrible noise created by the digital zoom of smartphones. At full zoom, I found the camera must be held steady to frame accurately, and this is where the large display screen helps.

The touch screen covers the back of the camera, with no protruding or recessed buttons or dials. The large 4.8-inch display does help to compose images. The onscreen icons are large and responsive to touch.  In Expert mode the screen displays ISO, aperture and exposure for adjustment in a screen overlay that looks somewhat like a manual camera lens. I found this animated overlay frustratingly slow and tacky.  The real potential in any Android device is in the development of third-party applications that can capitalise on the hardware capabilities of the device and create alternate user interfaces. I’ve always preferred third-party applications on my smartphone which offer more control when shooting with a mobile phone.

Excited Emu in Sydney. Image by Oliver Lang, taken on the Samsung Galaxy Camera. 

A camera with apps

Many photography apps for Android will work with the Galaxy Camera, though these are not specifically designed for this device. Some functionality won’t work properly, and none are yet available that aim to take advantage of the device’s zoom lens, flash and high resolution output. I don’t expect  applications targeted toward the Galaxy Camera to appear overnight, but I’m hopeful for one that allows faster and more accurate photographic control, while harnessing the device’s best features.

To get the most from the Samsung Galaxy Camera, you should explore the large range of free and paid applications available for the Android operating platform. Both the Google Play store and Amazon Appstore for Android offer large dedicated photography application categories.

Many of the photography apps you can install will allow you to edit your image, but it’s important to note that many applications will not save an edited image at maximum resolution (3456x4608). To check that the saved image is the same resolution as the original, review the application settings or the image properties. Smaller resolution images may not be as nice to view as full resolution on a larger screen, and printing sizes and quality will also be limited. One of my favorite photo editors is Snapseed, recently released for Android.

As you experiment with third-party apps on the Galaxy Camera, be wary of those that open in camera mode. Camera mode on a mobile phone can easily be closed down, but on the Galaxy Camera, the lens will open and need to again close before you can edit or share an image. To avoid this unnecessary opening and closing of the lens, you can send an image directly to an application from the photo album; this avoids any unnecessary opening and closing of the camera lens.

Sydney favourite the Lorikeet Image by Oliver Lang, taken on the Samsung Galaxy Camera. 

Conclusion

The rise of the smartphone camera has spawned a global mobile photography community whose members share a passion for participative, photographic creativity. These communities share tips and tricks for shooting and editing images using an array of photo editing applications via numerous social networks, blogs and other outlets. As more photos are shared from the Galaxy Camera and devices like it I believe that we’ll see more communities appear around the apps, technical capabilities and limitations of this new genre of connected cameras, and I hope app developers will respond in turn.

The Samsung Galaxy Camera is not the first Android back-ended camera, but it is certainly the best fusion of a point-and-shoot camera and Android operating system that I've seen. This new type of camera may beg the question: is this the end of smartphone mobile photography? My simple answer is no, mobile photography just has some new options. For me, the basic principles remain the same: it’s the use of a singular device with the capability for shooting, editing and sharing photography in real time. And the Samsung Galaxy Camera fits that description perfectly.

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Oliver Lang's (@oggsie) mobile phone images have been show in exhibitions and press both locally and in Europe. He currently teaches mobile photography courses at the Australian Centre for Photography. He is exploring the growth of participatory photography and the innovations that the connected culture of mobile photography is driving.