Note8 Live Focus vs iPhone Portrait Mode

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

Jan Dawson
Sep 5, 2017 · 11 min read
Likely timing of Samsung Note8 and new iPhone launches

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)

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)

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.

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

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.

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.

Beyond Devices

A blog about consumer technology from Jan Dawson and Jackdaw Research. Original home at www.beyonddevic.es. Jan Dawson is an analyst and consultant who helps consumer technology companies understand market trends and devise strategies for success.

Jan Dawson

Written by

Director, Research & Insights, Vivint Smart Home. Previously, Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw Research.

Beyond Devices

A blog about consumer technology from Jan Dawson and Jackdaw Research. Original home at www.beyonddevic.es. Jan Dawson is an analyst and consultant who helps consumer technology companies understand market trends and devise strategies for success.