I accidentally took most of a year off from blogging. It wasn’t intentional, but a global pandemic, your wife unexpectedly changing her job, and an unplanned move, etc., will do that to you. It occurred to me that I had some unfinished business as I had started reviewing my gently used Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus mobile phone I purchased last year and then never followed up with a second review.
So here it is.
As before. I’m not going to get heavily into technical details, but mainly talk about how I use this day-to-day as a fairly experienced fine-art, landscape photographer. If you want to know the nitty gritty about the unit, check this page at GSM Arena. Main things to know: The wide angle camera has a 77 degree field of view and is 12 MP. The ultra-wide camera has an amazing 123 degree field of view that’s hard to keep your finger/thumb out of with a 16 MP resolution. There is a third “telephoto” camera with a 45 degree field of view and it also has a 12 MP resolution. It has a problematic “live view” fake bokeh mode that was renamed to “portrait” in a recent update as it mostly works well with faces. The ISO ranges from 50 to 3200 at the top end, which looks vile. If you need more info than this, go to Samsung’s site.
This phone can produce RAW images. So what?
RAW images are large and contain a lot of data that goes beyond the dynamic range of what your monitor can display. You can use this extra data to pull back clouds blown out to pure white or get details back out of shadows. JPEGs are a much smaller, compressed file format. It’s the default format the S10+ saves images to in order to not chew up your storage. Once that extra info has been discarded, it’s gone and your highlights stay blown and shadows stay dark. That’s why I wanted to have this capability. It turns out that I don’t use it much because of how good the HDR mode is on this camera.
RAW images are saved in Adobe’s open DNG (Digital Negative) format. I know this because I’ve produced maybe ten of them and infrequently processed them. Here are the limitations.
- The native camera software won’t access the ultra-wide camera (you know, the good one, in pro mode which is where you take RAW photos. You can only save to DNG for the wide and tele cameras, not the one you’d want to do it with most, the ultra-wide.
- Don’t bother trying Adobe Lightroom if you have an Adobe subscription, it doesn’t access the ultra-wide lens on the S10 Plus, either. It does on the S20, which is something of a middle-finger to S10 owners. As usual, Adobe doesn’t answer support emails from paying customers. Asshats.
- I purchased a third party app for around $5 which does capture in RAW format. The app is called Manual Camera dSLR Pro. It can save images from the ultra-wide camera in DNG format.
The truth of the matter is, the standard camera software on the S10+ is very easy and pleasant to use. Its built-in processing is pretty darn good, and the HDR has turned out to be excellent. So much so that over the past year I’ve just become complacent with using the built-in camera to produce JPEGs. The prints I’ve coughed out on my Epson inkjet look just fine at the standard viewing distance, you’ll only notice issues if you’re an inch away from them. Anyone an inch away is another fussy photographer, and, honestly, your life will be much better if you tell the pixel peeping preeners to just arse off and keep their distance from you. These are the folk who will stop photography from being fun if you let them.
Long story short, after all that effort I went to in order to produce RAW images, I didn’t. Shooting in RAW was even one of my reasons for upgrading to the S10+. Call me whatever names you want here, I have it coming.
About that HDR…
It’s really good. Not perfect, but much better than I had hoped for from a mobile phone camera. Its better than the built-in HDR on my much more expensive Canon 5Ds body, to be honest. I use it a lot. It seems to intelligently toggle on and off as needed without me having to think about it or worry about it.
Don’t bother trying to shoot with direct sun visible in your images, it won’t work. If you have direct sun you get a big, blown out, white blob. It’s more than the in-camera processing can handle. On a dSLR you can stop down so the aperture blades give you that nice star effect around the blown out sun. That’s not possible on the S10+, all you get is white blob. You’ll need to find a way to obscure it. If the sun is slightly occluded by clouds like in Dusk by Riverbank above, go for it. If you don’t have the benefit of clouds or overcast, park the sun mostly behind a tree trunk, branch, or other object like I did in Tree Along Irrigation Canal at the top.
When it comes to blown out clouds, those are unavoidable in midday if you’re using the native camera app and finalizing as JPEGs. You’ll want to try to limit the higher contrast sky shots to around the golden hour. This is a problem common to more expensive dSLRs as well. Something to be aware of. I try my best to mask it when processing after, like in the panorama below.
For those willing to, or who remember to shoot in RAW using either the built-in app or a third-party a manual camera app when going ultra-wide, it is possible to pull some blown highlights back from the DNG file produced by the S10+. You won’t be able to recover a blown highlight like you can on a dSLR with a better sensor, but it beats what the in-phone software is capable of cramming into a limited JPEG file if you really want that sky to turn out. You’ll be happy with the JPEG most of the time, but it’s nice to have the RAW option when you need it.
Wide angle goodness.
The S10+ wide-angle lens is the equivalent of a 12mm lens on a 35mm film camera or a full-frame dSLR like my Canon 5D bodies. It does an amazing job of keeping everything nearly in focus from front to rear, even at full aperture of ƒ/2.2 (it stops down to ƒ/2.4). The quality drops off slightly in the corners, but no worse than on my Sigma 12-24mm lens that cost me 3x what the S10+ did. I use the wide-angle on my phone relentlessly. It is, in my opinion, the biggest reason to own this device.
If you look at the above image in full-quality (click to embiggen it), you’ll see that the sharpness is quite good, with almost no vignetting in the corners. Being a sealed unit you don’t have to worry about dust spotting your images. The sun was behind the church with light overcast, so the in-camera processing handled the HDR processing just fine. There’s a touch of haloing around the buildings, but it’s not as bad as it sometimes can be from this unit in more extreme lighting (it can be fixed in Photoshop). The worst issue is the in camera noise removal processing is a touch aggressive and has a bad habit of smearing fine detail such as the texture in the individual bricks and in the grass. That being said, this looked just fine as a twenty inch print at a normal viewing distance. Not perfect, not dSLR quality, but good enough. Especially when you stack it up as a $500 mobile phone camera against a dSLR body and lens combo to do the same that would cost at least $2,500.
All images produced by the camera on all three of the lenses are in a 4:3 aspect ratio. While the camera app offers to let you choose different ratios, it’s just cropping away the extra before finalizing the file. I’ve learned to leave it set at 4:3 so I alway have the option to change the crop later if I want to.
The generally high quality and ease of use of the built-in ultra-wide 12mm equivalent lens is how the S10+ stealthily became my most used landscape shooting camera over the past year. It’s always in my pocket and it almost always lets me walk away with a usable shot (if the sun is in the right place). It’s the killer, super-portable, landscape camera.
Just right at night!
No, this is not the equal of an APS-C sized sensor or full-frame sensor-based dSLR. Not, it’s not as good as some other phones. It IS better than not getting any shot at all because how many times do you see a shot you need and you don’t have your camera bag, tripod, and manual cable release with you? Only about 95% of the time. A less than perfect night shot beats the ass off of not getting a night shot at all.
The wide apertures common to the tiny camera lenses in mobile phones make hand-holding possible for shots you’d never try with a dSLR. The Samsung let me take on a Christmas light photography project I just couldn’t have done as easily with dSLRs, especially with temperatures dipping as low as -35C, which is hell on the lubrication used for manual shutters and reflex assemblies.
I bought myself a nice little carbon fibre tripod and special aluminum tripod head for the S10+ to aid with night photography last June, but they’re still packed away downstairs as it turned out that I haven’t needed them yet. The camera just produces one good shot after another hand-held. I haven’t felt the pressure or the need to pull out the extra kit. Maybe at some point this year.
The bottom line for night shooting is that, while the results are sometimes a bit cartoonish looking, I come away with a lot of shots with my S10+ that I simply would have missed because it’s impractical to carry my full rig everywhere, especially when I’m on a 5km or longer walk. (I enjoy going walking after dark, okay? Okay.) Carrying that much gear is not only impractical, but actually painful now that I’ve entered my fifties. My S10+ is a great camera to have in my pocket after the sun sets.
Fake bokeh, real confusion.
The main shortcoming of mobile phone cameras was their outstanding depth-of-field. The tiny distance between the lens and sensor means that nearly everything is in focus in most images for non-macro shots (it’s a matter of physics). Selective focus was just not available for separating an in-focus subject from the background by blurring it, which is an essential element of photographic composition. The only way to give you that blur back involves the use of multiple cameras to give the camera lenses “depth perception” and software tomfoolery to add a gaussian blur to things the camera decides are in the background. Unfortunately, the software on all cameras can get this very wrong, which produces unintentionally hilarious results.
Getting that fake blur or bokeh in your shots involves using the live view mode or portrait mode or whatever the heck Samsung is calling it now. It is a bit of a bugger to use. Sometimes the results are reliable, sometimes they’re not. Remember that it’s not a real depth-of-field effect, but an added blur that is the result of a “best guess” by the camera’s software. It can produce remarkable screwups like putting my daughter’s arm badly out of focus when it’s obvious it shouldn’t have. However, when it does work, it works well.
I need to remember to not stand more than five feet away from whatever I’m shooting, and that there can’t be any movement in the subject if it’s not a person. The software is obviously designed to recognize faces and is confused by things like trees and bushes, which are what I’m more wont to photograph. I find that it’s important to double-check the shot before I leave the scene to make sure the software didn’t guess wrong so I can try again if it’s a shot I really want. It is nice when it works right.
The bottom line…
I am very pleased with my purchase of the Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus last spring. It has exceeded my expectations in almost every department. I certainly didn’t count on it becoming my primary camera for doing landscape work, but it did. This doesn’t mean that I’m going to be selling off Canon camera bodies and my lens system any time soon, but it does mean that I’m getting a lot more shots I simply wouldn’t have because I just don’t carry a dSLR everywhere I go. It’s letting me do more photography than ever. It’s also challenging me to be a better photographer and to think more about the images I’m capturing and the stories they tell. Best of all, it has reinvigorated my passion for the craft and gotten me pumped up about dusting off and using my other camera gear again.
The S10+ has been a win for me in all the ways that count. For those interested, they’re still available for sale new and used at good prices and I’d heartily recommend one to other passionate photographers. It will help you take your photography up a notch, as well as do a lot more of it.
August 30, 2021 update:
Thanks to some raging, redneck cock in a speedboat, my kayak got flipped by wake while I was on Chestermere Lake and my poor Samsung Galaxy S10+ now sleeps with the fishes. It’s replacement is the Samsung Galaxy S21+ 5G. Same number of cameras, comparable specs, slightly sharper images, improved night shooting, and the fake bokeh is a touch more reliable.