Thursday, February 12, 2015

Manual Camera vs the Stock Camera/OEM Camera apps - Nexus 5/Nexus 6/Nexus 7/LG-G3/HTC M8

Test image captured with a Nexus 5, the stock camera app with HDR+ in a darker setting.

Yesterday I spent some time with a friend of mine, Nathaniel Bryan (Nate) that recently Jumped (see T-Mobile) to a Nexus 6. His tastes in smartphone cameras are pretty high coming from Nokia Lumia devices but as Windows Phone seems to be in a state of confusion and uncertainty at times, Android support won out over continued Windows Phone support. But the Nexus 6 camera wasn't to his liking so I recommended the Manual Camera app mentioned in the Philly Car Show post, to get more control and better quality photos out of the device. We ran some tests between smartphones yesterday with the Nexus 5 by LG and the Nexus 6 by Motorola. The results were interesting and telling in terms of quality and overall ease of use. The Nexus 6 has potential but it's hamstrung sometimes by the lack of OIS (Optical Image Stabilization) in video (although it is present for photos) and a camera sensor that doesn't always perform like a 13MP (Mega Pixel) sensor is expected to. The Nexus 6 is also unstable running Android 5.0 which is very strange. Nate's device is plagued by random reboots whereas my Nexus 5 runs perfectly under the same version of Android. 

*Android 5.0 supports RAW formats. Manual Camera can save photos captured as .jpgs and RAW format. I haven't been able to actually find the RAW files in the Android system. I've since contacted the developer to find out if I'm looking in the wrong place or if I'm misunderstanding how RAW implementation in Android 5.0 works. Once it's sorted, I'll update the info here.  

The Nexus 5 is over a year old so OIS for video isn't present there either, but similar to the Nexus 6, it is available for photos. The device actually performs better at times than the advertised 8MP camera inside it.  I've been using the Nexus 5 to capture photos and shoot video for nearly a year and a half. I know the device well and what it can do. The Nexus 6 is still fairly new and built by a different OEM, Motorola. But it shouldn't be THAT difficult to get a 13MP camera to perform well. But when the Nexus 6 camera does work, it's really good capturing detailed images with good color reproduction. The nuances of the camera in the device in combination with new camera APIs in Android 5.0 call for more exploration. Personally, I favor LG's Nexus 4 and Nexus 5 designs over Motorola's Nexus 6 design or even the ever popular Samsung Galaxy series. The Nexus 5 is a solid performer in general for a fantastic price ($350 new on Google Play, without a contract). But like most technology, the average users' photos aren't always a good indicator of this. Similar to how people seem to find amazing ways to capture the absolute worst photos with iPhones even though those devices have some of the best cameras available of any smartphone series. 

Below are a series of photos captured using Manual Camera with various settings and the stock Android 5.0 Camera using regular settings and HDR+. Unfortunately I didn't get any of my friend's photos captured during the test for this blog entry but I do have a number of photos from previous tests he conducted using a LG-G3 as well as earlier tests of the Nexus 6. 

*Please keep in mind, Nate's photos are compressed because they were originally sent through MMS for viewing purposes only. He's sending me the full resolution versions for the blog shortly. As soon as I receive them, I'll update the blog accordingly. 

This two images below are a Low-Light test (dark environment without using a flash), captured by Nate using a Nexus 6 with the stock camera app. The first image was captured normally, no HDR. Notice how dark it is and the level of noise in the image. The second image was captured using HDR+ with the same lighting within the room. The result is much brighter with less noise. Nokia, now Windows Phone Lumia series still has the best low light performance of any smartphone I've seen but Android devices can do the job in a pinch, although less impressive than Lumia devices. The second image is better, but I like the first image because it has an atmosphere that reminds me of med lab in Aliens.

Another low light test captured by Nate using the LG camera app and a LG-G3. 

City Hall captured by Nate using the LG camera app with a LG-G3.

This was captured with a friend's HTC M8 using the HTC camera app and manual focus.

This image below was captured yesterday using my Nexus 5 with the Manual Camera app. I adjusted the White Balance, F-stop and Focal Depth before taking the shot. I also used manual focus on the headphones. 

This is the second image I captured using Manual Camera on the Nexus 5. I adjusted the White Balance even further as well as the F-stop and I made changes to the ISO. I used auto focus to test the results against the previous image that was manually focused.

This image was captured using the Nexus 5 with Manual Camera. This is one of the first images I captured using the app. I only adjusted the White Balance and F-stop with this image in combination with a manual focus.

This is the second take. I adjusted the F-stop and White Balance even more so. The result is a softer, darker image. This particular building was hard to photograph because it was overcast and the street is narrow stopping me from getting the angle I wanted. I'm still experimenting with "best practices" for given situations while using Manual Camera.

This is a Macro test using the Nexus 5 with HDR+ with the stock camera app. I'm still having problems with these types of shots mainly because the subject usually moves before I can get a good shot or I use Macro to get the shot at such a distance but lose clarity and sharpness in the process. 

During a discussion with Nate about smartphone camera technology, I took this photo from my apartment using the stock camera app with a -1 F-stop on my Nexus 5. I set manual focus outside of the window to blur the blinds and better control the depth of field.

This image was captured using HDR+ with the same manual focus. Although the clarity is good, the scene is a bit too bright for me losing some of the richness of color of the original image which you can see in the grass and brick work of the buildings. Some prefer this image to the original though as HDR and its effects are very popular.

This is a "from the hip" shot of my friend Rayya's dog, Cara. She wasn't feeling well coming fresh from the vet and she was cold. Rayya had to carry her like a baby because Cara was too weak to walk. I pulled out my Nexus 5 and shot using full auto settings. Even though the pup was sick, Cara can be like a cat. If she thinks she'll get a belly rub, she becomes very animated, very fast.

This image and the one beneath it were captured with a Nexus 7 2013 using the stock camera app, 0 F-stop, manual focus. Tablets generally don't have good cameras. The Nexus 7's camera is basically the same 5MP camera that was in the Galaxy Nexus.

Our smartphone cameras are becoming more capable with each passing year. Even if a device has a less than stellar camera, with a bit of patience, practice and the right camera app, good results can still be achieved. I like texture and tone in my photographs so I tend to go one stop down and favor unique lighting and atmosphere. Nate is a big fan of ease of use, detail, clarity and superior Low Light performance. We all have our preferences in how we want to capture a scene and how we want it to look. The key is to find the best combination of hardware and software to suit your needs. Sometimes you have to ignore the specs and simply go with what you see in the results. 

I like the Nexus 5 because it gives good results for a great price. The Nexus 6 is good but a bit unstable (also while being more expensive, almost twice the price of the Nexus 5). The camera is better than the Nexus 5's camera but a bit inconsistent at times. 

The Nexus 7 2013 is only an option in a pinch. Otherwise, I wouldn't use it. It can capture a decent photo but sometimes, it's too much work to get a workable shot. I spent a lot of time using the Galaxy Nexus camera, a very similar camera to the Nexus 7, but it always felt like a purposefully stripped down camera as not to outshine the soon to be released Samsung Galaxy S3 which was due to launch a few months after the Galaxy Nexus. Don't even think about shooting video of any kind with the Nexus 7. 

The LG-G3's camera is excellent. Easy to use, fast shutter speed and good low light performance. The G3 is one of the top 5 smartphones released in 2014 and it shows in part due to the camera. If I could have bought a G3 with stock Android on it for a better price, that would be my device of choice today. 

A lot of people dislike the HTC M8's camera but it can give great results as seen in a number of Android Photography Communities on Google+. HTC uses a unique method in capturing photos that allow for high levels of detail with only a 4MP camera, called UltraPixel. I like the results of the M8 camera but many did not. As a result, HTC will use a standard camera in the M8 successor but the front facing camera will be a UltraPixel camera part. As I update my devices, I'll also update the photo test with Nate and anyone else who desires to join in and share their work. It's a great way to see how the technology and our skills evolve.

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