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Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus Camera review

Galaxy S9+ in Lilac Purple, Midnight Black, Titanium Gray, Coral Blue, Sunrise Gold and Burgundy Red

Summary

Samsung’s improvements to its latest flagship work as promised, but don’t feel like features that you’d miss by not upgrading. Still, thanks to blazing performance, solid cameras and long battery life, the Galaxy S9+ continues to uphold the S series’ reputation for excellence.

Cameras

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let's start with what's new. This year's updates revolve around the cameras. The S9 and S9+ are by and large the same phone, barring size, memory and the fact that the Plus has two rear cameras while the regular S9 just has one. The S9+ (which I spent the bulk of my time with) is also the first Galaxy S phone to sport a pair of cameras on its back, which adds features like Live Focus and Dual Capture.
The setup here is basically the same as on the Note 8, with a wide-angle primary camera and a telephoto partner for close-ups. The regular S9 doesn't have this hardware, but it can still add artificial depth of field to your shots via Samsung's Selective Focus software, which isn't a shabby alternative. The difference between portraits shot with the two isn't big enough that you should shell out for the Plus just for the camera. You're really just missing the Dual Capture tool (which snaps both wide-angle and close-up shots simultaneously) and the ability to frame your shots more tightly with the telephoto lens.
For those who like shooting on auto and letting the phone do the thinking, this means you can get brighter shots at night or in dark rooms. You'll sometimes find details blown out at f/1.5, but in general, the larger aperture is good at letting you capture what otherwise might have been a dim, noisy mess. Focus can get a bit soft at f/1.5 compared to at f/2.4, but to the untrained eye, the difference is negligible.
The new, wider aperture is now the largest available on a smartphone and gives those who prefer manual control more room to work with. You can then tweak things like ISO or shutter speed to avoid noise and motion-blur. Those who have the skill or patience to tweak those levels should consider shooting primarily in Pro mode. Samsung added dedicated RAM to the S9's image sensors to process multiframe noise-reduction more quickly. I easily fired shot after shot in the dark, and the S9+ never slowed down, unless I was testing its ability to keep up by hitting the button nonstop like a deranged shutterbug. The pictures also turned out relatively clear, although details like building edges are often muddy. You'll only really notice those artifacts when you zoom up close. Because of these small blemishes, though, pictures from the Pixel 2 and iPhone X generally appear crisper than the S9's.The most interesting of Samsung's new camera features is Dual Aperture, which is available on both S9s (only in the wide-angle option on the Plus). This supposedly mimics the way the human eye works. When you're in a dark environment, the lens opens up to a wide aperture of f/1.5 to let in more light, just like our irises do. If the scene is bright enough, the camera defaults to f/2.4, which offers more clarity. In Pro mode, you can decide which to use, but you can't pick f-stops in between.
Something that the S9s do that the Pixels and iPhone can't do yet is shoot super-slo-mo at 960 frames per second. For the most part, people don't need such a high framerate -- the 240 fps on the previous generation is perfectly adequate for scampering pets or skateboarding tricks. And as fun as the 960 fps clips are, trying to record them requires some finesse.
You can use auto mode, which switches to slo-mo when it detects motion in a particular area of the frame. This means you'll have to aim your phone just right, which is fine for orchestrated setups like throwing peanut M&Ms into a friend's mouth or popping a firecracker. But for unpredictable subjects, it's less likely to work.
You can also manually trigger slo-mo, which lets you press a button to capture up to six 0.2-second bursts in extreme-slo-mo during an ongoing recording. This method is slightly easier to control, but it still requires you to predict when something worth slowing down is going to happen.
I had the same complaint when Sony introduced this feature in the Xperia XZ Premium last year, but neither company has implemented a reliable way to record ultra-high-frame-rate video. Which begs the question: Is this feature really useful? Probably not, but still, it's there if you want to show it off.
Just note that, as is usually the case with footage at such high shutter speeds, you'll need a ton of light to capture anything that looks remotely decent. Most of the clips I recorded indoors or in anything less than bright daylight looked kind of janky.
On the whole, the additions to the S9s don't give the new flagships a significant edge over the competition or their predecessors. But the new tricks don't take away from the already-solid cameras that have won the S series much acclaim over the years, either.