21x zoom lens

If you’re a mobile photographer and have so far taken and edited your images with a smartphone, the 21x zoom lens is arguably the most obvious reason for you to consider the Galaxy Camera. At 23mm to 486mm (35mm equivalent) its zoom range is comparable to what you’d find on the latest generation of compact long-zoom cameras, such as the Panasonic Lumix ZS30/TZ40 or Samsung’s own WB800F.

The Galaxy Camera's zoom lens offers a 35mm equivalent zoom range of 23-486mm (21x).

At 23mm equivalent, the lens' wide-angle end is noticeably wider than most current smartphones (the Nokia Lumia 920 is the widest at 26mm, the Galaxy S3 is approximately 30mm and the iPhone 5 35mm).

While a wider lens can be useful in many shooting situations, the long reach of the Galaxy Camera's zoom lens is its real advantage over smartphones and their fixed focal-length lenses. Most smartphones offer a 4 or 5 times digital zoom, but the impact on image quality is pretty much prohibitive.

23mm equivalent wideangle
483mm maximum telephoto setting

Current smartphones might not be far off digital compact cameras in terms of image quality at their 'native' focal length, but there is simply no substitute for optical zoom. The Galaxy Camera allows you to take pictures of distant scenes that would be impossible to capture with a smartphone and opens your mobile photography up to totally new possibilities.

The samples below illustrate the image quality differences between the Galaxy Camera and a smartphone, a Samsung Galaxy S3 in this case. There are minor differences in exposure and the Galaxy Camera is wider at the wide end than the S3's fixed focal length lens. Its 16MP sensor also offers a larger magnification than the S3's 8MP equivalent, but it's obvious that while at the wide end the images are pretty close in terms of pixel-level detail at the 4x zoom setting (which is the S3's and most other smartphones' maximum digital zoom setting), the difference is much more pronounced.

Samsung Galaxy Camera - wide-angle 23mm
Samsung Galaxy S3 - wide-angle 29mm
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100% crop
Samsung Galaxy Camera - 4x optical zoom
Samsung Galaxy S3 - 4x digital zoom
100% crop
100% crop

At the 4x digital zoom setting the S3's image turns into a pixelated mess while the Galaxy Camera delivers pixel-level image quality that is roughly on the same level as at wide-angle. Of course the Galaxy Camera's zoom doesn't stop at the 4x setting and you can zoom in much further up to 21x.

However, while the Galaxy Camera's zoom lens offers a lot of reach in a tiny package, even Samsung is not capable of bending the rules of physics. The lens' small dimensions mean that as soon as you start zooming in, the maximum aperture gets smaller and smaller. F2.8 at the wide angle setting is good to work with, but F5.9 at the tele end means you'll have to crank the ISO up a lot to capture a shake-free image, despite the Galaxy Camera's very good optical image stabilization.

That said, the Samsung is in this respect actually slightly better than some of the conventional long-zomm competitors. The Canon SX260HS offers a maximum aperture of F6.8 at the long end of its lens, and the Panasonic TZ20 is not much better at F6.4. The table below details how the Samsung Galaxy Camera's maximum aperture changes with the zoom factor.

Focal length in mm 35mm equiv. in mm Max. Aperture
4.1-4.9  23-27  F2.8
5.0-6.1  28-33  F2.9
6.7-7.4  34-41  F3
7.5-9.1  42-50  F3.2
9.2-11.3  51-62  F3.4
11.4-13.8  63-77  F3.6
13.9-16.4  78-91  F3.8
16.5-20.2  92-112  F3.9
20.3-25.1  113-140  F4
25.2-30.7  141-171  F4.2
30.8-38.5  172-215  F4.5
38.6-46.6  216-261  F4.8
46.7-56.9  262-318  F5.1
57-73.2  319-410  F5.5
73.3-86  411-482  F5.8
 86.1  483  F5.9

Subject isolation is a function of subject distance, focal length and the actual size of the aperture. A larger sensor requires longer focal lengths and this usually also means larger apertures -- meaning you can blur the background of an image more. This is particularly useful for creating appealing portrait images but can be a creative tool in all types of photography.

Like many consumer digicams the Galaxy Camera comes with a 1/2.3"-type image sensor which, when used with realistic focal lengths and aperures, can't blur the background to a significant degree, so don't expect to capture any DSLR-style portraits. That said, at the very long end of the zoom lens you can generate at least some background blur. It's nowhere near a DSLR with a fast prime lens, but it's much better than any smartphone.

When shooting at the long end of the lens and at close distance to the subject (approximately 10 feet in this case) it is possible to create a useful amount of background blur.

While the lens provides a very flexible zoom range and swift operation, the image quality is less than stellar. It's not the sharpest across the frame to start with and gets even softer towards the edge of the frame. This is more pronounced at wider focal lengths than at the tele end, which suggests the lens' impressive range is being enabled by digitally correcting a lens with significant distortion. In combination with the Galaxy Camera's mushy JPEG rendering, this doesn't make for stellar pixel-level detail. We will look more closely at image quality on the Performance and Image Quality pages of this review. 

HDR mode

For some reason Samsung has decided to label the Galaxy Camera's HDR mode 'Rich Tone,' but it does exactly what most HDR modes have done since they first appeared on digital cameras. It takes three images with different exposures in quick succession and combines them to one High Dynamic Range image. Both the standard and HDR exposure are saved in the camera roll. The sample below shows the standard exposure on the left and the HDR picture on the right.

Standard exposure
HDR (Rich Tone) image
100% crop - Highlight area
100% crop - Highlight area
100% crop - Shadow area
100% crop - Shadow area

As you can see, the HDR exposure has a slightly 'flatter' appearance but shows more detail in the highlight areas of the scene. The sky in the HDR picture is blue while in the standard exposure it has blown out to pure white. The shadow areas in the frame are slightly lifted, revealing some extra detail (but mainly noise). HDR mode works best with relatively static scenes such as the one in the sample above. With moving subjects in the frame you often end up with a 'ghosting' effect in the image.

Night shot

The Galaxy Camera doesn't offer any control over noise reduction, but there is a Night mode that takes three frames in rapid succession and combines them into one, averaging out the noise and thus creating a cleaner image. This is supposed to help in hand-held shooting and does a reasonably good job. To shoot the night scene below hand-held at a manageable shutter-speed we had to set the ISO to a maximum 3200 which results in a lot of noise and noise reduction artifacts in the plain-colored areas of the frame.

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P-Mode, ISO 3200, 1/15th sec
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In the samples above the Night mode image is visible cleaner. It also contains almost no low-contrast detail at all but the same is true for the ISO 3200 exposure. As a bonus, edge contrast is pretty good as the shutter speeds of the invidual frames can be faster, reducing the likelihood of blur when shooting handheld.

Like all the 'Smart modes,' the downside of Night mode is that you don't have any manual control over the exposure at all, not even exposure compensation can be applied.

Panorama mode

The Galaxy Camera's camera app also includes a Panorama Smart Mode which works in a very similar way to the panorama modes we have seen on many compact cameras before.  

Once you've set the app to Panorama mode and press the shutter button you can pan the camera in any direction and hold it vertically or horizontally to create a panorama picture. As you are panning, the app draws a frame around the area captured in the last image which allows you to align your framing with the next shot pretty easily.

With static scenes the panorama stitching works reasonably well but the app sometimes struggles with blending exposures as visible in the sky in the sample above. 
In scenes with moving subjects, such as the spectators at this game, the stitching algorithm gets confused, resulting in stitching errors and ghosting effects.
At apprixmately 6000 x 600 pixels the horizontal panorama's image size and detail aren't at all that impressive.

The app creates an approximately 180-degree panorama but the images are stitched at a reduced size, resulting in panoramic images that are approximately 3000 pixels wide when shooting vertically and close to 6000 pixels wide when shooting in landscape orientation.

Similar to what we've seen on the Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphone, panoramas of static subjects are usually nicely rendered but pretty often show at least minor stitching errors. As we have observed with panoroma modes on may cameras and devices, things become more problematic once there are moving subjects in the scene. This can result in 'ghosting effects' and/or the same subject appearing multiple times in the image.