The Note 8 proved to be great return to form for one of Samsung’s best-loved productivity-focused lines. Yes, it was let down in a few areas — battery life being the main sore point — but the camera was most definitely not one of those. Is a camera improvement alone enough to justify an upgrade? Probably not, but if it were, is the camera exponentially better on the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 vs the Samsung Galaxy Note 8?

I’ve made this a multi-tiered test to get an indication of how each unit performs in similar settings. I also wanted to do my best to replicate normal end-user practice, so that does mean absolutely no Pro Mode usage. This also ensures that the Galaxy Note 8 can compete on a more even playing field — as it lacks a dual aperture.

I must also state that this might not be 100% representative of what you find with your device. These results are consistent with my own Note 8 and Note 9 devices —  and current software — therefore give an indication of what you might see when using either smartphone. Of course, some of these ‘results’ will be down to personal opinion, which is subjective at the end of the day. All of the images themselves are, in some cases, as mundane as possible in an attempt to represent the average use scenario — and to be fair we all can’t live in the most picturesque towns or cities…

Test One: Low Light

Let’s get this one out of the way early.

The dual aperture added to the Galaxy Note 9 should mean better low-light performance, but without using Pro Mode I’m reliant on the Note 9s camera software determining whether that aperture should be fully open at f/1.5. This isn’t relevant on the Note 8 — which has a max aperture of f/1.7 — and would arguably make this a completely unfair test. So, with that in mind and using only Auto Mode, I took my Note devices out into the darkened streets to see just how they both stack up in an everyday shooting scenario.

I’ve never once thought that the Note 8 produced a bad picture since owning it as my main device, the dual cameras are still superb, so it came as no surprise that the differences are reasonably subtle. The AI features of the Note 9 might have handled this somewhat better than I had originally expected — forgetting the slight issue with focus — it’s arguably more a color difference rather than a complete exposure difference with my shopfront picture.

That being said, I feel like the 8 has overcompensated somewhat by attempting to let more light in — likely by bumping the ISO up — whereas the Note 9 seems to have a more ‘stable’ look. Colors look deep and the street lighting is managed exceptionally. I appreciate the slightly fuzzy focus on the 8s image but the exposure in the fringes of the picture is a little off. Contrast that to how the shadows are managed by the newer unit and it becomes clear that the Note 9 is a few steps ahead of its older sibling.

Okay, so at first glance, that original comparison wasn’t quite conclusive. Then one closer inspection we could see that the Note 9 seemingly did a better job than the 8, but best two out of three, right?

I wanted to check out both cameras again with similar lighting conditions, especially a setting where shadow contrast was quite stark. In this situation the Note 8 has produced a stellar quality image, redeeming itself — or should that be me? — with a crystal clear Arcade that has all the attributes/hallmarks of a quality low-light picture. It’s hard to believe just how dark this shopping precinct actually is when you look at this end result.

The interior lighting should cause it no end of problems, whilst the shiny marble flooring is speckled for yet more difficult details to introduce. Yet, despite this, each and every pillar and shop front is clearly exposed and visible. I think towards the right side, the neon sign in the closest storefront is exceptionally well handled. You can see the details on the interior brick wall without light bleed of any sort. The curved glass ceiling and green railings are a little less impressive, introducing a slight amount of noise grain, but still retain an awful lot of detail.

Kind of expectedly, the Note 9 is able to allow just that little bit extra light in throughout the fringes and center of the image. This is no doubt thanks to the aperture and potentially the AI camera management system giving it a little boost over the slightly less advanced Note 8 lens, sensor and software. The soft blue curved glass ceiling is a perfect eggshell blue rendition, with the marble flooring having just a little extra light spread for a cleaner, clearer picture.

Both cameras have coped well, and if you’d taken them separately without comparing then I’m sure you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. The Note 9 has just edged this for me, but that doesn’t mean that it’s 100% perfect. I mentioned how well the Note 8 handled the storefront on the right side of the Arcade, well it’s a sore point for the Note 9. The internal neon sign is overexposed and therefore we lose some of the finer details behind the glass — so not all perfect.

It’s not completely conclusive, I’d personally say that I personally prefer the Note 9 pictures. For me, if I had to pick one phone up, then the Note 9 is quite clearly the slightly superior option in this scenario.

Test Two: Close/Mid Focus

Most of us will take photos of objects and subjects within a few feet of ourselves, so in this mini-test, I wanted to see how both cameras coped with a slightly closer focus distance — note that I’m not doing macro photography here. I tend to take pictures from far away, or within a foot or so — mainly landscapes or what I’m currently eating/drinking.

This also gives me the opportunity to see how the Note 9s Scene Optimizer works with a real-world photo situation.

With this picture of my Cortado — a mini milky coffee — you’re going to see some quite different results with both cameras. Firstly, the Note 8 does an impressive job, this image was taken from about 7 inches away, and there is a whole heap of detail. It’s really well lit, there’s some nice soft bokeh and overall it’s a nice warm yellow color. I really think it suits the coffee! The background retains plenty of detail without standing out against the main subject for a fantastic end result.

There’s a real contrast with the updated Note 9 camera, especially with the color and overall sharpness of the picture produced. Without comparison, this is a crisp, somewhat cold blue image that captures a whole lot of extra detail. The wood grain is very defined, as is the text and coffee foam, whilst the seating area retains a heck of a lot of definition.

Visually I prefer the 8s picture, it’s not quite as sharp from the edge of the table, but the warmer tone and very light bokeh effect make the image stand out. The Note 9 isn’t awful per se, it just looks cold and uninviting. The fairy lights in the background make it seem somewhat flatter. That being said, I think the coffee actually looks better in the Note 9s rendition.

For visual appeal and overall aesthetics, I’d say that I definitely prefer the Note 8 in this particular test, albeit producing a slightly inaccurate color representation. Again, this isn’t conclusive, but it does show that there are some differences here with how both cameras are handling the very same scenario.

The lighting was very good in the mall coffee shop seating area, so how about we see how the focus is in a slightly more controlled, but ultimately more testing environment — my office workstation.

This stuffed toy duck placed against the backdrop of my PC desk looks reasonably acceptable in the image produced by the Note 8. The lighting can be tricky in this scenario, as I’m sure the camera struggled with the highlights and contrast of both the screen in the background and the toy in the foreground. Luckily the phone has done an okay job, with the fabric retaining detail and the color is nicely balanced up close.

In the background, there’s a decent amount of soft focus or bokeh, but overall the picture isn’t exposed perfectly. It feels a little underexposed and a little on the darker side, but that could be remedied in Photoshop or photo editing software.

Conversely, the Note 9, whilst slightly sharper, exhibits problems with overexposure on the main subject. Yes, the fabric is very detailed with no noise, but it’s a shade or two lighter than it should be given the lighting. In the background, you can see a little more bokeh, but there is a distinct increase in noise. That means whilst the main subject is well focused, the backdrop is not how it should look.

I’m actually slightly disappointed with the Note 9 in this example scenario. I expected it to do a much better job than it has, that being said, I didn’t expect massive amounts of difference between the two devices. Overall it’s a tough one, but the Note 8 — in my opinion — has done another great job and actually just edges the Note 9.

Test Three: Color Reproduction

Color reproduction is important, Samsung rightly gets accused of making colors pop in the camera hardware they produce. But have they toned that up since the Note 8 has been released?

When on the bus I released that there was a lot of good color to see and compare, so I whipped out both phones and took the best picture I could with each device. Bear in mind this is the middle of the day, there are internal lights and plenty of windows to let in light. As you can see, the Galaxy Note 8 has produced a bit of a dark and dingy image, with the seat dominating the left side of the image exhibiting a kind of strange pink hue.

The amount of light within the bus seating area should be enough to illuminate the entire cabin, but the Note 8 seemingly struggles with this exact scenario. The colors, therefore, look darker, the yellow being a little deeper as are the pink handles at the back of each chair. Overall it’s not terrible, it’s just disappointing given the reality of the setting.

Taken seconds later, the Note 9 is clearly able to let in more light and therefore all of the color definition remains intact. This results in perfect yellow steps, the handles and the bus stop buttons are clearly defined in red and pink. Looking through the middle of the walkway you can see the floor and the ceiling are aptly exposed, resulting in accurate gray color representation.

Simply put: The Note 9 produces a much better picture.

I couldn’t have had less control over a scene than this of a shopping mall, and you’ll be able to tell straight away that the Note 8 manages to cram in plenty of detail into the entire picture, but without that trademark color-pop we see reasonably often. I’m thinking that this might be down the slightly overcast sky you’ll notice through the glass ceiling, but there are some real dingy colors here again. Oddly, the stone flooring — on the bottom floor —  was the first minor issue I noticed due to it being much lighter and sun-bleached in person.

Then we have the purple banner on each of the railings over the two floors, all wrong, way too deep and should be much closer to pink than deep purple. There is a lady in an orange dress on the left side of the image, the Note 8 makes this look much closer to a deep red than the lighter color it actually was. I’m not unhappy with this picture by any stretch, it’s just that the colors are all a shade or two darker than they should be.

Contrast the same viewing position and picture with the Note 9 and you begin to see these subtle color exposure differences. The bleached stone floor looks exactly how it should, as does the white spinning wheel down there too. The far bridge underside was also a pure white, the Note 9 does a great job handling that too. I mentioned the lady in her orange dress mainly as the Note 9 proves that this was the case.

That added ability to open the aperture and let in a little extra light means that the Note 9 is recreating colors just a tiny bit more accurately than that of the Note 8. A slim victory, but a victory nonetheless for the Note 9 in the color reproduction test.

Test Four: Mixed lighting

I didn’t really know how else to really push both cameras within real-world settings for comparative purposes, but then quickly realised that we all will take pictures in locations with mixed lighting conditions. This made me think of one of the stores with possibly the most attention paid to lighting detail, the Apple Store.

Often the entrance to an Apple Store is a big glass front that opens up to let light in, and my local Apple Store is no different, the internal lighting is a mixture of spot and soft lighting to really highlight the products on display. With that in mind, I whipped out my Note 8 and decided to take a picture of the iOS competition as close to the entrance as possible.

The Note 8 actually really didn’t do as good a job as I had hoped. That desk should have a great deal of wood grain and the lighting should be prominently illuminating Apple’s prime products — something that it hasn’t seemed to pick up.

The lighting seems softer in places, which gives this a filter like look, the end result is rather peculiar. That being said, each iPhone display has been well handled as you can clearly see what is on each screen — I turned one off to give some contrast to those turned on. Without this context, I’m sure most wouldn’t bat an eyelid at this picture, but having taken the image I know what I saw and what the camera has produced are two slightly different results.

You can see just how much better the Note 9 has handled these lighting nuances, with the desk showing all that wood grain detail. The spotlighting is more pronounced in each portion of the table too, with the being more light in the areas where Apple have placed each device. That being said the centre iPhone 8 Plus has a slightly overexposed display. I’d say that the Note 9 produces a slightly cool image, but I really like it.

Conclusive as that was, I was intrigued with the lighting in the Apple Store full stop. So across the side wall, I saw the brand new MacBook, iPhone X and iPad Pro waiting for me to inspect closer. I wasn’t there to spend money on expensive trinkets, instead, I thought this would be yet another good way to see how both Note models handle mixed lighting — naturally.

The Note 8 does a great job of Apple’s flagship tech and that includes the brushed Aluminum wall covering that bounces light into the centre of the store. That MacBook is the Space Gray variant, it’s a little light with the spotlight but overall it looks good. There’s some good handling of the angled shadows, which as you’ll notice shows the various light bounce. I only have one direct criticism of this image and that is the desk again — there is no wood grain. I think the 8 seems to struggle with maintaining image definition when there is unpredictable lighting.

To be honest, the Note 9 seems to produce an almost identical image at first glance, but take a slightly closer look and you see that the shadows are slightly darker and the color is incrementally less washed out. That’s not me saying that the Note 8 produced something washed out, far from it, it’s just the colors and shadows are pumped up a little bit yet again. For me, the biggest reason this is an objectively better image is the increase in definition of the wood grain on the desk. You lose no detail here like with last years handset, maybe this is the scene optimizer at work?

Conclusion

I didn’t expect both handsets to be very different and I feel that whilst there are some nuanced differences — from my tests at least — we are only seeing yet more incremental improvements I lauded in the full review of the Note 9. No, these dual aperture features probably aren’t enough to warrant a full upgrade from Note 8 to Note 9, but it’s interesting to see that Samsung is making changes even if they aren’t immediately noticeable without a closer look.

I’d love to hear what you think, sure, there are some flaws in testing a camera in this method but I wanted to try my best to replicate how we use our smartphone cameras in ‘real’ everyday life. Let’s start a discussion in the comments section below as to what you think is the best and let me know if you’d like to see any specific camera comparisons — I’ll try my best to make some of these happen in future.

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