How good is the camera on the Samsung Galaxy S4?

When Samsung first introduced the Galaxy S4—at an event I'm sure many of us would just as soon like to forget—the company put a lot of emphasis on the camera features as opposed to image quality. Sure, you can record sound while snapping photos with the phone's 13-megapixel shooter, but how do those pictures actually look?

To answer this question, we turned to TechHive's lab for help. With the assistance of our lab technicians, we pitted the Galaxy S4 camera against the competition—the Apple iPhone 5, the Nokia Lumia 920, the HTC One, and the Samsung Galaxy S3—to see how the phone held up. The results were interesting, to say the least, and indicate that there may be more to the Galaxy S4's camera apart from its laundry list of shooting modes.

Note: These comparison images are 400-by-300-pixel crops of the full-size photos at 100 percent zoom. Links to the original images are below. The images were taken with the HTC One before it got a camera update.

(For more on the Galaxy S4, check out our full review.)

Daytime cityscape

Clockwise (from the top left): Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One, Nokia Lumia 920, and Apple iPhone 5
Full-sized photos: Galaxy S4 | HTC One | iPhone 5 | Galaxy S3 | Lumia 920

Cityscapes are great for testing out how a camera handles a busy environment. With so much going on in the photo, an inferior camera often can't process the close lines and difference in distances.

The Galaxy S4, Galaxy S3, and iPhone 5 did an admirable job in this test, though ultimately the Lumia 920 took home the prize. The Lumia did a better job at capturing the colors in the shot and didn't have as much digital noise around the bridge as the other smartphones. The iPhone 5 and Galaxy S4 tied for second place, followed by the Galaxy S3 in third, while the HTC One finished at the end of the pack.

Low-light portrait (without flash)

Clockwise (from the top left): Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One, Nokia Lumia 920, and Galaxy S3
Full-sized photos: Galaxy S4 | HTC One | iPhone 5 | Galaxy S3 | Lumia 920

Many smartphones (and even some point-and-shoot cameras) struggle when it comes to taking photos in areas with low light. And in these situations, having a larger sensor—not more megapixels—can mean the difference between a clear shot and a black photo.

The Galaxy S3 completely failed this test, while the Galaxy S4 captured an impressively clear image with very little noise or color distortion. The Lumia 920 also came out looking clear, though the photo had a very bluish cast to it. The HTC One's UltraPixels didn't seem to help much in keeping our subject from looking like a reanimated corpse, but the photo wasn't as grainy as the one we got out of the iPhone 5.

Low-light portrait (with flash)

Clockwise (from the top left): Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One, Nokia Lumia 920, and Apple iPhone 5
Full-sized photos: Galaxy S4 | HTC One | iPhone 5 | Galaxy S3 | Lumia 920

So taking photos in dark environments usually results in some bad-looking images, but what if you turn on the flash? Most smartphones these days come with flash capabilities, though the results are often less than spectacular; subjects tend to show up blown out or, worse, like Kermit the Frog.

Unfortunately, this test lacked a clear winner. The HTC One made our subject look like a cardboard cutout, and the photo taken with the Lumia 920 looks like it was pulled from someone's Instagram feed, filters and all. The iPhone 5, Galaxy S3, and Galaxy S4 fully illuminated the scene to varying degrees, but the Galaxy phones—particularly the Galaxy S4—seemed to do a better job at bringing out the features on our subject's face.

Macro (full sun, with bright colors)

Clockwise (from the top left): Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One, Nokia Lumia 920, and Apple iPhone 5
Full-sized photos: Galaxy S4 | HTC One | iPhone 5 | Galaxy S3 | Lumia 920

This test was even harder to judge—not because the photos were bad, but rather the opposite problem—most of them came out looking like something we'd frame and put up in the house. Pretty much all high-end smartphones can take a decent macro photo, but very few are capable of capturing images with the clarity and colors you'd get from a stand-alone camera.

The HTC One was our favorite the last time we ran this test, but the photo it produced this time around looked washed out. The Lumia 920 did a good job with the finer details of the flower, however the leaves in the image came out looking more blue than green.

The petals in the image produced by the Galaxy S3 were a little too vibrant for our tastes, but the photo still looked good. The photos taken with the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S4 were by far the most balanced of the bunch with the highest color accuracy and the greatest amount of detail.

Portrait (full sun)

Clockwise (from the top left): Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One, Nokia Lumia 920, and Apple iPhone 5
Full-sized photos: Galaxy S4 | HTC One | iPhone 5 | Galaxy S3 | Lumia 920

For this test we had our model, Leonard, pose for us outside to see how well the phones would perform with, among other things, skin tones when taking pictures under the bright sun.

The iPhone 5 held its own, beating out both the Galaxy S3 and HTC One when it came to contrast. The HTC One's photo also had a strange cast to it that left our subject looking unnatural. Both the Lumia 920 and Galaxy S4 did an excellent job at handling skin tones, however we have to give a slight nod to the Galaxy S4 for producing less noise around our subject.

Bottom line

As the above images show, the camera on the Samsung Galaxy S4 is nothing to scoff at: The phone can more than hold its own against the current crop of smartphones when it comes to taking photos in nearly any setting. The iPhone and Lumia still outclass it, in some respects, but it's safe to say that the Galaxy S4 camera is an adequate step up from the camera in last year's Galaxy S3. Coupled with its wide variety of shooting modes, the Galaxy S4 is a good choice for people looking for more functionality than what's offered on the Nokia and Apple handsets.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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