Note8 Live Focus vs iPhone Portrait Mode

A deep dive on the dual cameras in Samsung’s new super premium phone

This deeper dive is a supplement to the all-around review I also published on Samsung’s new Galaxy Note8 this morning, and it focuses exclusively on the dual cameras and how the Live Focus depth effect mode compares to the Portrait / Depth Effect mode on the iPhone 7 Plus. See my earlier review of the iPhone 7 Plus here, and my review of the Portrait Mode beta here.

By way of background, I take a ton of pictures on my phone, and so the camera is always one of the things I care about most on any new phone I test. As such, I spent quite a bit of time playing around with the Live Focus mode in particular, but also the other features of the dual cameras on the Note8. The obvious phone to compare it to — at least for now — is the iPhone 7 Plus, by far the biggest-selling current phone out there with dual cameras and somewhat similar photo-taking features.

Likely timing of Samsung Note8 and new iPhone launches

However, it’s worth noting that a week from today, Apple will announce new iPhone hardware which will almost certainly include updates to the Portrait Mode feature enabled by new camera hardware and new software. That will happen three days before the Note8 hits US retail stores, and the iPhone will likely be on sale on the 22nd, just a week later. So for the next year the Note8 will be competing not against the iPhone 7 Plus but its successor and the new premium phone that comes above it in the Apple lineup. So this review and comparison comes with an expiration date. I’ll do a review of the new iPhones and their cameras when I get my hands on them, and link to that piece from here when it goes live.

General camera performance

Let’s kick things off with general camera performance on these two phones. In that department, the comparisons are pretty much par for the course when comparing iPhones and Samsung smartphones: both now take very good pictures in good light, and many of the differences are both subtle and subjective. In other words, there are differences, but which you like better may well end up being a matter of taste.

More saturation by default on the Note8

Samsung devices have always erred on the side of more color saturation, and the Note8 is no exception here: the pictures you take with this phone come out with more vivid colors, which of course look particularly nice on the bright screen. The degree to which this is the case varies quite a bit – in some photos, it’s very noticeable, while in others it’s barely discernible. There are some side by side comparisons of photos taken without using any of the special features below (in each case, the photos should enlarge if you click on them):

Note8 (left) and iPhone 7 Plus (right)
Note8 (left) and iPhone 7 Plus (right)
5x digital zoom: Note8 (left) and iPhone 7 Plus (right)
Note8 (left) and iPhone 7 Plus (right)
Note8 (left) and iPhone 7 Plus (right)
High-contrast scene: Note8 (left) and iPhone 7 Plus (right)

At the end of the day, both phones take phenomenal pictures – all the results are crisp, the light is well balanced, and you get photos that would provide a great record of a memorable day, or a nice snapshot or two to share on social media. You wouldn’t go wrong with either of these smartphones as the camera you always have with you.

Optical zoom works well on both, digital has limits

Both phones come with two cameras, one of which offers 2x optical zoom relative to the other, so that’s the next feature worth looking at. I used a particular scene to test both the optical and digital zoom on both cameras, zooming in first optically and then digitally from 1x all the way to 10x. Again, you’ll note the differences in saturation and also color cast. The Note8 pictures look more vivid, but don’t look as much like the original scene as the pictures from the iPhone 7 Plus, which in turn look perfectly natural and plenty vivid if viewed by themselves, but look drab next to those from the Note8. This is where the subjectivity comes in. See below pictures at 1x, 2x optical zoom, and 5x and 10x digital zoom:

1x performance: Note8 (left) and iPhone 7 Plus (right)
1x optical zoom (secondary camera): Note8 (left) and iPhone 7 Plus (right)
5x digital zoom: Note8 (left) and iPhone 7 Plus (right)
10x digital zoom: Note8 (left) and iPhone 7 Plus (right)

As you can see, the optical zoom performs very well on both phones. The Note8 boasts image stabilization on both cameras, and so in lower light conditions camera shake might be less noticeable on that phone than on the iPhone at higher zoom levels, but in these pictures, taken in the middle of the day, it’s not really an issue. The image quality is broadly similar between the phones, and the predictable reality is that the further you zoom in digitally, the worse the results are. I could see a 10x zoom being useful as the only way to fill a frame with a distant object (perhaps a flying bird or little Suzie at the school play as shot from the back row of the auditorium) but it’s never going to be the basis for a high quality picture on any device.

Live Focus vs Portrait Mode: Subtle Differences

I’d argue the headline feature on the new dual-camera setup on the Note8 is Live Focus, which allows the user to blur the background in a photo in much the same way as Apple’s Portrait Mode / Depth Effect. The big difference, though, is that Apple’s feature is all-or-nothing, while Samsung’s allows the user to determine the degree of blur both before and after the picture is taken. Portrait Mode on the iPhone is one of my favorite features in recent memory – it’s totally changed how I think about the quality of my iPhone photography, especially as regards taking pictures of my kids.

I used the feature on lots of different subjects, from relatively simple ones to more challenging ones with regard to determining depth of field, and you can see the detailed results below. In pretty much every case, the picture from the Note8 is on the left, and the picture from the iPhone 7 Plus is on the right. For the sake of privacy, I’ve excluded pictures of people here. Worth mentioning here too: I let the Note8 take all the Live Focus pictures shown below on the default setting, which is around 2/3 of its maximum blur setting. In the next section, I’ll talk through adjustments to this.

Depth effect on relatively simple subject: Note8 (left) and iPhone 7 Plus (right)
Depth effect on slightly more complex subject: Note8 (left) and iPhone 7 Plus (right)

Right away here, you see the key difference between the iPhone’s Portrait Mode and Note8’s Live Focus mode on the default setting: the iPhone is more aggressive at blurring the background starting very close behind the subject, while on its default setting the Note8 is more subtle in blurring the background. For a picture of a person, this is perfect because you want clear separation between them and the background, but for a more complex subject like the second set of flower pictures above, you might want a subtler break to avoid some of the artifacts you can see if you look closely at the bottom right of the iPhone picture, where objects almost seem to be floating. Portrait Mode is in these cases arguably a little too aggressive, sometimes creating an unnatural look with subjects other than people.

I took the next pair of pictures in rather lower light, because both phones sometimes struggle to take blurred-background pictures in these conditions. Both managed fine, but you can see that the Note8 focused on elements of the picture further back in the frame than the iPhone did. That’s partly because the minimum distance from the subject is greater on the Note8 than on the iPhone. Both phones are pretty finicky when it comes to optimal distance — the iPhone will tell you that you need to be within eight feet of your subject, while the Note8 will complain if you’re not at least four feet away, but both work within a similarly narrow range, with the iPhone’s feature effective at slightly closer distances than the Note8.

Lower-light depth effect: Note8 (left) and iPhone 7 Plus (right)
Close-up tilted subject for depth effect: Note8 (left) and iPhone 7 Plus (right)
Note8 (left) and iPhone 7 Plus (right)
Note8 (left) and iPhone 7 Plus (right)

That last pair of pictures – of the horses — is the closest you’ll find here to picturs of people. And you’ll see the same saturation differences as we saw earlier with landscapes. But you’ll also notice that the picture from the Note8 has some wonkiness on the barbed wire fence that passes in front of the horse. The portion that’s directly in front of the horse is in focus, while the portion that’s in front of the background is blurred, even though the wire remains an equal distance from the camera. There’s a little of this in the iPhone picture too, though it’s not as pronounced. These features are amazingly effective in the right settings, but they still get tripped up on both devices in more challenging conditions.

The next few shots offer a slightly different perspective, in more ways than one. The grass and gravel shots show how the blur kicks in over distance with a subject that moves gradually away from the viewer. I’ve added in alternative versions of the Note8 pictures below the comparison shots so you can see how the blur can be changed after the fact on the phone.

Note8 (left) and iPhone 7 Plus (right)

Here, you can see very clearly the difference in approach between the Note8 at its default Live Focus setting and the iPhone 7 Plus in Portrait Mode. The Note8 is more subtle in its gradation of blur at its default setting, and you can make out more details on the house in the background, while the iPhone cuts off the sharpness pretty aggressively after the first foot or two, blurring the background much more.

Default blur (left), Max blur (center), No blur (right)

The three shots above show the default setting (on the left), the most aggressive blur setting (center), and no blur at all (right), all produced from the same original image after the fact. The maximum blur image in the center is more like the one the iPhone produced, suggesting that the iPhone’s Portrait Mode operates at more or less the same level as the Note8’s maximum blur.

Note8 (left) and iPhone 7 Plus (right)
Default blur (left), Max blur (center), No blur (right)

You see much the same effects here as in the grass shots, with the iPhone cutting focus more aggressively after a shorter distance, and the Note8 in its default setting being more gradual and subtle. Again, though, the lower set of three images, with the maximum blur in the middle, shows that the Note8 behaves very similarly to the iPhone when in this mode.

Conclusions on Live Focus

For the most part, I tend to be very happy with the iPhone’s Portrait Mode, especially when shooting people. It’s usually very effective at separating the subject from the background in ways that seem natural and make for good, DSLR-like photos. I also like the way it handles pictures of flowers and other subjects for the most part, and I rarely get any artifacts or other weirdness. As such, when I heard about the Note8’s Live Focus mode and the ability to flex the focus, I was skeptical that I’d find it useful, because I’ve never felt the desire to adjust the focus. But spending some time with the Note8 and its adjustable Live Focus makes me realize that in some cases I might benefit from being able to adjust the aggressiveness of the background blur, especially with complex subjects.

It’s worth noting that Apple calls its feature Portrait Mode, and as such it’s clearly aimed mostly at taking pictures of people and not other subjects, which reflects its strengths and weaknesses. And it’s also worth noting that we’re still basically in version one of the feature, and it’s entirely possible that it makes some significant advances with the hardware and software in the new phones announced next week. In the meantime, though, the Note8 feels like the first really compelling instantiation of a similar feature on a flagship Android phone (certainly better than last year’s Pixel), and in some cases a step ahead of its equivalent on the iPhone.

One thing to mention here: another feature that makes use of the dual cameras is dual capture, which takes one picture with each lens rather than forcing you to choose just one. That sounds nice on paper, but I found that I never actually felt the need to use it.

Final thoughts

Overall, the cameras in the Note8 are very good, as all the cameras on the last couple of years’ Samsung flagships have been. The same certainly can’t be said for all of the current Android flagships — cameras continue to be a weak point on most Androids relative to the iPhone—but Samsung is now on par with the iPhone in photography, and now even with regard to blurred-background photography. At least for now.

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