The newly-announced LG G4 is a great phone in its own right, but there's one particular part of it that stands head and shoulders above the rest -- its 16-megapixel, image stabilised, superbly capable rear camera. This is, in my opinion, the best camera on any smartphone that I've ever used.
Campbell Simpson travelled to Singapore as a guest of LG.
Before we start, a quick disclaimer: I know a lot of you will complain. That's fine. Yes, I know it doesn't zoom, it doesn't have massive pixels, it doesn't have super slow-motion video recording. For my money, the G4 has far and away the best Android phone camera, and in specific situations it can absolutely outperform the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus and the Nokia Lumia 1020 and its various camera-toting iterations from the Windows Phone ecosystem. It's definitely up there with the best of the best. Your mileage and opinion, though, may vary. You're entitled to that.
The new LG G4 is defined by its rear, centre-top=-mounted 16-megapixel camera sensor and f/1.8 lens setup -- it's really the only standout visual cue on a handset that is otherwise quite simple and understated, despite the stitched leather back and curved front screen. That sensor is flanked by a small single-LED flash and LG's colour spectrum sensor to the right, along with the infrared module that handles laser focusing to the left. The camera module even looks impressive; it's chunky, and the sensor is set relatively deep inside the module to accomodate that fast f/1.8 glass.
That colour spectrum sensor is an interesting inclusion; it's the first of its kind to appear in a smartphone and is a dedicated piece of hardware for determining the RGB values of light across a given scene and then applying that information to optimise a photo's automatic white balance. Whether it makes a huge improvement over the in-sensor white balance judging of other phones remains to be seen, but if nothing else it's a sign that LG wants the G4 to be a phone for photographers.
The G4's front camera is no less impressive in a technical sense, being an 8-megapixel f/2.0 snapper; that's a huge improvement from the 1.8- and 2-megapixel front cameras of last generation and even the 5-megapixel fronts of more recent phones. It's good, but it's the rear cam that stands out most. The amount of selfies you take may change your opinion on this matter.
LG has really gone all out with the G4's camera app, using all the features offered by Android 5.1 Lollipop, and the result is one of the most powerful and versatile shooting functions of any smartphone. If you want it to be, the G4's camera app is simple -- no grid lines or fancy beauty modes or anything, just tap to focus and fire the shutter. But if you don't want it to be, if you're the kind of person that likes tweaking their photos in VSCO and Instagram and the like, you will love the G4's manual camera mode.
From it, you can adjust white balance (on a colour temperature scale), ISO (from 50 upwards), shutter speed (everything down to 5 seconds) and can even preset a manual focus point from any of more than a dozen steps from macro to infinity. It's the manual focusing that most impresses, especially for close-up shooting, and it's genuinely easy to use if you've ever held a digital SLR before. Of course, even in the manual mode there's an auto-exposure lock if you want to concentrate on framing.
The manual camera mode might seem like a chore, but it's not -- you can still just tap the auto-exposure button if you want to, and the potentially most difficult feature, manual focusing, also has an automatic option if you find you're not getting the results you want. But it's having the ability to adjust shutter speed -- to either freeze fast motion or capture more light -- and adjust ISO -- to keep image noise down wherever possible -- that makes a huge difference. And you can take some genuinely great photos because of it.
Long exposure is not an area that I expected any smartphone to actually capture a half-decent photo, but it's actually possible. Here's the LG G4, secured in a cradle, shooting a 30-second exposure at ISO 50 of a tiny toy train with red and blue lights driving around on a track that looked a bit like a Lissajous curve. Here it is downsized to 1440p for the 'net:
The results you can get with manual mode look like this:
And here are some sample photos that LG says best show off the G4's capabilities:
It really is a great camera, as smartphone cameras go. If this is a sign of the kind of cameras we're going to see in smartphones from now onwards, then times are looking up.