Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ Camera Review by a Photographer

It has been a while since I last did a review of anything, so here comes a new smartphone camera review, this time the much hyped Samsung Galaxy Note 10+. In this article I will be emphasizing solely on the Note 10+'s camera performance, reviewing it from a photographer's perspective. There are many fantastic reviews of Samsung Note 10+ out there, but when it comes to the camera review I find most of them unsatisfactory - not enough meaningful sample images to show what the camera is capable of, and sometimes, the tech reviewers do not even know what they were talking about. So here I am, having a Samsung Note 10+ in hand for almost a week, shooting daily with it, I am sharing my experience using the camera on the smartphone, and some images that I have taken with it. 


The Samsung Note 10+ unit I had was on loan from Samsung Malaysia for reviewing purpose only and will be returned shortly after. I am not associated with Samsung Malaysia, and I was not paid or asked to do any part of this review. This is a user experience based review, and I am sharing my opinion from an active practicing photographer's view, hence bear in mind my findings will be subjective. I will not review anything else from the Note 10+ apart from the camera's performance and capabilities. All images were shot in JPEG and minor post-processing was performed (brightness, contrast, minor crop). 

The Samsung Note 10+ has 3 camera modules at the back of the smartphone:

ULTRA WIDE ANGLE CAMERA
16MP, F2.2, equivalent focal length of 12mm

MAIN CAMERA - WIDE ANGLE
12MP, F1.5 or F2.4, equivalent focal length of 26mm, with OIS

MEDIUM TELEPHOTO CAMERA
12MP, F2.1, equivalent focal length of 52mm, with OIS

Other notable features of the camera:
LIVE FOCUS - for fake bokeh rendering
PRO MODE - for full exposure control of shutter speed, ISO, etc
PHASE DETECT AF
DEDICATED NIGHT MODE

For full specification, please visit official product page here. 

I have been using the Note 10+ as my daily driver for the past several days, and I have taken some  shots with the camera during my daily commute. I also did a short shutter therapy session around downtown Kuala  Lumpur city area, testing it in various shooting conditions. 

Three camera modules, from top to bottom - Ultra Wide Angle 12mm, Standard Wide Angle 26mm and Medium telephoto 52m

Note 10+ is one sleek, gorgeous, sexy looking phone. The edge to edge screen coverage is insanely beautiful. 

There are additional depth sensors, but let's not get too technical. Sorry about the dusts in the photo, this was not a paid product shot.

WHAT I REALLY LIKED ABOUT NOTE 10+

1) INTERCHANGEABLE FOCAL LENGTHS 

I really like that there are three different cameras with individual lenses built in the Note 10+. I especially treasure the medium telephoto lens 52mm which has become my favourite go to focal length for most of my personal shoots, and those of you who know me will know how I love 50mm equivalent focal lengths for general photography. Shooting with the 52mm equivalent medium tele lens, the images came out proportionate with minimal distortion, and this will result in more flattering looking portrait shots. 

I personally am not a fan of ultra wide angle lens, but I admit the importance of having one, and how in certain situations, having one can make all the difference in the world. Shooting in tight spaces, or going low angle to create dramatic effect, the ultra wide angle was a huge welcome.  I would use the main camera 26mm more, and that itself is already wide enough for most of my day to day shooting needs. 

The incredible fact is that I could switch easily between cameras/lenses, with minimal effort, and yes, the different focal lengths can acquire different image outcome.  However, for best/optimal image quality, I highly recommend staying with the main 26mm wide angle camera, since this camera has F1.5 wide aperture option which will allow better photographs in dim lighting conditions. Also, the 12mm ultra wide angle lens exhibits soft corners and some noticeable chromatic aberration issue shooting in high contrast scenario. 

2) VERY GOOD IMAGE QUALITY

I generally am quite impressed with the image output from the Samsung Note 10+. Image come out crisp and detailed, with sufficient contrast, looking life-like and beautiful. The JPEG engine does a good job in preserving good amount of details. The white balance engine nails the color balance very efficiently, even in some challenging scenario, producing some very realistic looking color rendering. Skin tones look pleasing without being too washed out like what most smartphones tend to do, and generally the colors never looked too fake or "overcooked", which was a surprise coming from Samsung, and I must say, well done!

If you do pixel peep, there are traces of over-sharpening, and aggressive noise reduction when higher ISO (ISO200 and above) are used, but those are typical problems with most smartphones out there, so nothing to care too much about. I'd say Note 10+ produces some of the best looking images from a smartphone camera I have ever seen. 

Dynamic range is more of a hit and miss situation. The HDR kicks in to save the day, but often being too aggressive, pulling out too much details from highlight and shadow region, defeating the overall natural look that the JPEG engine was trying to maintain all along. I'd take a slightly less aggressive approach and just not use the HDR in most cases. But hey, if you are not in a rush, it may be wise to try to turn the HDR on and off, especially dealing with the sky, sometimes HDR works like a mircale rescuing the blown highlights. 

52mm lens, ISO50

52mm lens, ISO50

12mm lens, ISO50

52mm lens with live focus, ISO40


26mm, ISO200

52mm lens with Live Focus, ISO640

52mm, ISO50


3) FAST & RELIABLE AUTOFOCUS

Perhaps another surprise was how well the AF on Note 10+ performed. When I was on the street, with the smartphone being on standby, as I saw something was happening, I switched on the camera, framed my subject immediately, made a quick tap on the screen for AF point selection, and BOOM. I nailed the shot, again and again! This was truly something impressive coming from a smartphone camera, as I have tested many smartphone cameras before (even some flagships) the AF was always lagging behind, sometimes taking a second or more to lock focus. Of course I am not expecting similar performance in low light condition, but even in very dim light, I could still find the AF locking on target quite effectively, and the slight delay was tolerable. If you are a street photographer and you intend to do some street shooting, the Note 10+ is a good consideration. 

4) GOOD LOW LIGHT SHOOTING

The Samsung Note 10+ does perform admirably when it comes to less than favorable lighting environment. Two important features that helped in low light shooting - image stabilization and also F1.5 wide aperture. Having image stabilization helps greatly in reducing camera shake and the F1.5 aperture, perhaps one of the brightest in the market helps in gathering as much light as possible without boosting the ISO numbers unnecessarily high. 

I find the images from low light shooting to be good, but I must also admit that high ISO noise reduction kicked in and there is smearing of details if we pixel-peep. Not a big issue, as general consumers would prefer working with smooth, non-noisy looking image, and that is fine, as this is what the Note 10+ is targeted toward. 

Note 10+ has a night mode, which I am less thrilled to talk about. The night mode, on paper, does extremely well in capturing bright, well exposed, and almost HDR looking images for dark scenes. However, the camera also selects dangerously low shutter speeds (as low as 1/3 second in some situation) and this was almost impossible to hand-hold. I also suspect that the Night mode takes multiple images successively to be composited into a single image to reduce noise, having slow shutter, to hold the camera steady for a duration of time, that combination is not very practical. 

Bear in mind that image stabilization is not available for ultra wide angle camera, the 12mm, so extra care is to be taken when shooting with ultra wide angle in extremely dark lighting. 

Having said that, I did come  home with a lot of night street images of KL that I really like. 

5) PRO MODE & LIVE FOCUS
I like the fact that I have full access to manual controls over the advanced settings such as shutter speed, ISO, white balance, etc in the Note 10+, though I have not used them much at this point. Having control is important to any photographer, and there will be situations when the automatic mode will fail, and the smartphone is not smart enough, and intervention from the photographer is necessary to get the shots. 

The Live Focus does a very convincing job in creating artifical bokeh, simulating blurred background that look somewhat real. It may be able to fool most average smartphone users who are non photographers, or have not used prime lenses or dealing with shallow depth of field on a daily basis, but hey, I like where this computational photography thing is going. I can clearly see this feature being added into a dedicated camera soon. And at the pace of the advancement, maybe one day we don't even need to shoot with large image sensors to achieve completely realistic looking bokeh. 



26mm lens, ISO800

26mm lens, ISO200

26mm lens, ISO500

52mm lens, ISO250

26mm lens, ISO320

26mm lens, ISO100, NIGHT MODE

26mm, ISO500


WHAT I HOPE NOTE 10+ WAS BETTER AT

Before I dive into my minor complains about the Note 10+'s camera, I must say that I am nick picking here and most of these complains may not even apply to average smartphone users. However, these issues, as tiny and harmless as they may sound, have affected my overall shooting experience and some even caused me to miss crucial shots. I am commenting using the photogapher's voice in me. 

1) LIVE VIEW NOT SMOOTH

This may come as a surprise to many - how can this be, Samsung is the largest manufacturer in the world! Their super AMOLED screen is the best in class! No really, the screen is fabulous, I have no beef with that. However, when the camera is activated, the live view is not smooth. First of all, there is a slight delay, not big enough delay to be annoying, but it is there and noticeable when shooting. I have been dealing with professional level photography equipment that has delay as little as 5 milliseconds, that is almost instantaneous. The lag on the Note 10+'s screen was probably like 0.1 or 0.2 second, but it was bad enough as if you are watching a YouTube video with slightly off-sync audio. It may not affect 95% of shooting scenarios, dealing with non moving objects, but for very quick action shots, this can be a problem. This is counter-intuitive to the blazing fast AF and shot to shot performance of Note 10+. 

Furthermore, the refresh rate of the screen during camera's live view is also poorer than expected. By default during normal smartphone operations, the refresh rate was something at 60Hz, that is not the case with the camera's live view. Quickly panning the screen around or moving the camera facing left to right, the live view appeared jerky and looked a little blurred. This is difficult for me to explain here, but you may find the example of this issue demonstrated in the video on YouTube. Note 10+ is a flagship level smartphone, featuring high end powerful processor chip, and I would expect the display to be crystal clear, lag free, and perfectly smooth.

2) SHUTTER LAG

I know I have just mentioned  how fast the AF and general shot to shot performance of the camera is, but there is a noticeable shutter lag. Shutter lag is the short delay between the press of the shutter button to the capture of the image. The shorter the delay, the better the response of the camera, and the higher chance of hitting the critical split second moment shot will be. AF was spot on fast, Note 10+ acquires focus very rapidly, but as the shutter button is touched, you can see about a bit less than half a second delay (0.3 second maybe) until the shot is captured. This should not be an issue if we are used to the timing of the shutter lag and can predict before hand how the camera will capture the image at each release of the shutter, but it would still be great to have almost instantaneous response from Note 10+. I know I may sound a bit ridiculous for expecting this level of performance from a smartphone, but we can always dream for better performing camera right? To me, nothing matters more than being able to nail the shot, so shutter lag is a crucial factor to improve on.

3) LIMITATIONS ON PRO MODE

I have praised Note 10+  for having extensive manual controls, but there are limitations to those controls which I wish could have been better.

Firstly, the ISO was limited at 800 at the highest setting.  For any camera in 2019, I would expect at least ISO3200 or 6400. I understand perfectly the conservative approach in restricting the high ISO  numbers, so that we don't get noisy looking image. Here is the truth - I'd rather get a noisy image, but free from camera shake or motion blur than having a clean, no noise image but blurred because shutter speed is not fast enough. You can clean up a high ISO image, it may look bad, but the content is there, the subject is there, the story is there, it is still a photograph. If the image is blurred beyond salvation without the help of high ISO, it cannot be rescued no matter what we do with too much blurring! Give us the high ISO!

Secondly, the shutter speed was limited to 10 second longest. I wish it stretches to about 30 seconds or beyond, maybe 60 seconds to allow us more creative control and freedom. Since the 26mm wide angle lens has bright aperture of F1.5, I'd imagine this would be perfect to shoot the night sky, maybe a milky way shot! I need the shutter speed to be at 20-30 seconds, and maybe ISO at 1600 to 3200! Unfortunately the ISO was stuck at 800 and shutter speed at 10 seconds now.

I also believe these limitations are software imposed, and can be made available!

12mm, ISO50

52mm, ISO50

52mm, ISO50

12mm, ISO50

26mm, ISO50

12mm, ISO400

26mm, ISO160


I strongly believe that smartphone photography is not the future, it is NOW. Smartphone camera is overtaking the popularity of traditional, dedicated camera use, and for most cases, the performance and quality for smartphone cameras today are more than adequate for average day to day use. I am glad to see the large manufacturers pushing the boundaries of smartphone imaging and I am sure more exciting things will come very soon.

Where does the Samsung Note 10+ sit in the world of photography in general? I'd place it at the spot of an advanced compact camera level. The ability to switch camera/lenses was a huge plus, multiplying the use and capability of the smartphone camera several folds. The camera's fast and reliable AF are already so good that I can trust the smartphone to do some serious street photography. I only wish it was not somewhat crippled by a live view that was not exactly smooth and lag-free, but that was just me nick-picking and on the whole the performance of the Note 10+ camera is commendable. Image quality was respectable, with great out of the camera results, good JPEG files with pleasing white balance and overall color reproduction. Combining all these factors with advanced control features like PRO mode, and ability to simulate fake bokeh background, in the hands of a capable photographer, he can fulfill most of the general shooting needs with just the Samsung Note 10+.

How then can the smartphone camera match a true professional camera? The image sensor size and lens used need to be larger, much larger. I know the overall design concept of smartphones is going to be slimmer, smaller, more compact.  I am also certain, if someone fits a much larger sensor size and high quality optics in a thicker, heavier smartphone body, yet somehow make it compact enough to carry around, that would be a killer camera phone. Who knows, maybe some day that will happen. At this moment, the only limiting factor to improve the smartphone camera further is the tiny image sensor size. There is only so much you can do with a small sensor, you cannot beat the laws of physics.

Having said that, I am also a photographer, and my wishes may not be representative of the general public. For most people, the Samsung Note 10+ has camera capabilities that may not even be fully utilized.

26mm, ISO320

26mm, ISOI00, NIGHT MODE

12mm, ISO320


My conclusion? The Samsung Note 10+ did better than my initial expectations, and I enjoyed myself tremendously using the camera and doing shutter therapy with it. To me, a photographer, I would be happy using it as my daily driver, and the camera fits my go to quick snapshot camera that can cover a wide variety of situations.

Do you have a Samsung Note 10 or Note 10+? Do share your experience using the camera. I would love to hear from you!

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