Monday, March 19, 2018

Motorola G5S Plus Smartphone Camera Review

I have purchased a new phone, the Motorola G5S Plus and I have spent a weekend snapping away casually with the built in camera. The Moto G5S Plus replaces my Nokia 6 which I acquired in August last year, being a superior phone in every aspect, despite having the similar price tag. The photography enthusiast in me was curious about the dual camera module in the Moto G5S Plus, so I have spent quite a bit of time with it, shooting anything around me whenever I can. This blog entry is focused on the camera performance of the Motorola G5S Plus only, and I shall be sharing tonnes of sample images taken with the G5S Plus' camera.

Disclaimer: This is not a paid review. I am not associated with Motorola or Lenovo. I purchased the Moto G5S Plus from a local dealer shop and have done this review independently. Similarly to all my camera reviews, my review approach is user-experience based and may be subjective. Kindly take note that all images have been post-processed to taste.

I got myself the Blush Gold edition, with 4GB RAM/32GB storage option

Why switch from the Nokia 6 to the Moto G5S Plus? Honestly, there was nothing wrong with the Nokia 6, I was a happy user for the half year time I had it with me. However, putting the Nokia 6 side by side with the Moto G5S Plus, there is a significant improvement gap that justified the decision to jump over.

Despite both having very similar price point, the Moto G5S Plus uses Snapdragon 625 processor versus the Snapdragon 430 on the Nokia, which by itself is a noteworthy upgrade in terms of overall raw processing capability of the phone. The Moto G5S Plus also runs on 4GB RAM in comparison to the 3GB offering on the Nokia 6. From my experience with the Nokia 6, I did encounter performance issues from time to time, especially when multitasking, switching from app to app and also performing demanding tasks such as photo-editing while listening to high resolution music in the background. The more powerful processing and extra RAM in the Moto G5S Plus should be able to provide more efficient and smoother operations. It is a no-brainer that the Moto G5S Plus is a step up from what the Nokia can do.

Furthermore, there is fast charging in the Moto G5S Plus, which the Nokia 6 lacks. Both smartphones use similarly sized LCD screen at 5.5 inch, and everything else in terms of paper specifications is about the same. Except the camera: the Moto G5S Plus managed to squeeze in a dual camera module in contrast to single camera on the Nokia 6. A dual camera on a budget-friendly smartphone, that was enough to make me curious on how the camera performs.

For full product specifications of Moto G5S Plus, please visit the official product page here. 

Now lets talk about the camera on Moto G5S Plus.

There is not much information available online about the dual camera module on the Moto G5S Plus.

It is a dual camera module, having two similar lens and image sensor combo. After some digging around, I found out that the image sensors used in the Moto G5S Plus are  13MP Sony Exmor IMX258 modules, one full RGB color sensor, and another one just monochrome (black and white). The dual lenses were rated at F2 aperture each, being fixed at F2 wide open at all times (since there was no physical aperture control). I have no idea what the equivalent focal length is for the lens, but I am guessing it is somewhere close to 28mm equivalent in 35mm format. I am guessing that the camera works similarly like any other dual camera module out there (example, Huawei P and Mate series), where the monochrome module helps to support the image structure of the main color module.

How the cameras work is not particularly important to me, as a photographer, I am more interested in the results.

The default camera app supplied with the Moto G5S Plus does a decent job, providing all the crucial features such as HDR, burst shooting, limited manual control (ISO100-3200, white balance, exposure compensation -2EV to +2EV, manual focusing, shutter speed 1/4sec minimum to 1/6000sec maximum). There was no option to shoot RAW (DNG format), which was no surprise to me, as most budget smartphones do skimp on this. Shooting JPEG is fine as long as the JPEG processing is good enough. The camera app is generally responsive and I shall discuss about autofocus and shot to shot performance in the later part of this review.

I have also experimented with Google Camera ported over by installing an APK file for the Moto G5S Plus. I shall discuss the differences between the default camera app vs Google Camera.

 Google Camera HDR+ On, ISO130

Google Camera HDR+ On, ISO145

Default Camera App, HDR On, ISO100

Google Camera HDR+ On, ISO100

Default Camera App, ISO100

I was quite disappointed with the rendering from the default camera app. Images come out mushy and full of heavy noise reduction, even at very low ISO settings. The 13MP images looked more like a 3MP image after all the aggressive smoothening effect, and the artificial sharpening to gain back the loss sharpness made things worse. I have witnessed ugly sharpening halos around subjects, which is a sign of bad JPEG processing. Unfortunately there was no way to tone down the sharpening of the JPEG engine of the camera app, as there were no noise reduction options to tinker with. I was left frustrated with the initial results I captured with the Moto G5S Plus.

I decided to install Google Camera, in hopes of getting better results. It made a whole world of difference!

At lower ISO settings (below ISO400) images from the Google Camera (with or without HDR+ setting) came out full of details with adequate resolution for web use. Noise reduction was well implemented without smudging useful details off, and the sharpening was not aggressively applied. However, I would say that the effective resolution quality observed would be somewhere between 6MP to 8MP, instead of the full 13MP of the image sensor. The size limitation of the 1/3 inch sensor is showing here, being stretched to the limit.

Enabling the HDR+ on the Google Camera helps in salvaging difficult high contrast shooting scenarios. Typically, a backlit shot, or images with plenty of heavy shadow and highlight within a frame are well balanced out with the HDR+. I am impressed that the HDR setting did not try to over-compensate the look by turning it into a full blown painterly look, instead it tries very hard to maintain the natural appearance of the original image. Whatever Google is cooking up with the HDR+ in their Pixel smartphones, I am definitely amazed and hope that other manufacturers will follow suit.

Default Camera App, ISO100

Google Camera, HDR+ On, ISO100

Google Camera, HDR+ On, ISO100

Google Camera, HDR+ On, ISO100

Google Camera, HDR+ On, ISO100

Default Camera App, ISO100

The autofocus on both the default camera app and the Google Camera was slow. It was not as fast as I have hoped for, but not being too slow that it is useless. The AF takes about half a second to lock. Capturing the image also takes time, and shutter lag will cause misses of important moments. This is not the camera suitable for moving subjects, or fast action shots. I must also clarify that in every smartphone cameras that I have reviewed before, AF was never fast, and shutter lag has always been a persistent problem.

I particularly enjoy the uber convenient gesture of twisting the phone twice to activate the camera, which can be a life-saver when an unexpected photo opportunity happens. However, that quick camera activation is negated by slow AF and shutter lag, which I seriously hope any camera manufacturer can solve. Come on, it is 2018 already, after so many iterations of smartphone imaging, I would expect almost instantaneous camera performance!

The color balance was on the cooler side, hence I added some warmth and boosted contrast in my post-processing. The Moto G5S Plus gets the white balance right most of the time. I am generally happy with the color rendering, as what I can expect from a smartphone camera.

Default Camera App, ISO100

 Default Camera App, ISO160

 Default Camera App, ISO131

 Default Camera App, ISO100

Google Camera HDR+ On, ISO173

Default Camera App, ISO100

I did bring the Moto G5S Plus out for a quick street shooting session at my usual street hunting grounds. To overcome the shutter lag and slow AF, I used the burst sequential shooting. I am not too sure how many frames per second the burst was able to do (no thanks to the lack of information on this online, hello Moto, do a better product page please?) but the burst shooting helped me get the exact moment that I need for my shot.

The close up shooting of the Moto G5S Plus is quite good. I could get close enough for some decent close up shooting, for some pseudo-macro effect. Getting in close also allows some creative composition and framing, which can be useful since there is only so much a smartphone camera can do.

There are issues such as chromatic aberration, corner softness, barrel distortion as well as vigneting, but this is a budget smartphone, and I am not expecting perfect scores from any of those technical flaw controls. Truthfully, there was nothing I cannot tolerate, and the Moto G5S Plus produced good enough results on the whole.

I guess the biggest drawback using a smartphone, whether I was street shooting or doing a close up shooting on a plate of food on the table, was the fact that the lens was forever stuck at wide angle. It is not easy to work with wide angle, and wide angle does not work for all kinds of shots. Especially when it comes to shooting people, I would prefer narrower angle of view, something like 35mm or preferably 50mm. The perspective distortion on the wide angle coverage is just too substantial to deal with, and no amount of correction can compensate for an unnatural looking distorted image.

Default Camera App, ISO138

Google Camera, HDR+ On, ISO497

 Google Camera, HDR+ On, ISO140

 Google Camera, HDR+ On, ISO215

 Google Camera, HDR+ On, ISO585

Google Camera, HDR+ On, ISO612

Low light performance, as anticipated, is rather poor, but for what a budget smartphone can do, I do think it is sufficient. I do not expect smartphone users (non photographers) to pixel peep and complain about excessive noise, and even when they do, most of the time they don't even know what they are seeing or complaining about. Everyone is quick to jump into negative comments, but are you sure you know what you were saying?

I think anything below ISO400, in terms of noise control is acceptable. I would not push it, but I will use higher ISO with no hesitation.

Here is an advice from a photographer to casual smartphone camera users: high ISO noise is bad, yes, but it is better to get the important shot, though with high ISO noise than to lose the opportunity. Some moments come only once in a lifetime, if you have the camera in hand and you can capture it, why bother about all the technicalities? A photograph is still a photograph, regardless of the amount of noise in it  Shoot first, worry about the technicalities later. If your shot is the only one available out there, it is still going to be a damned good shot.

I did try to use the "depth effect" or "lens blur" feature, to complete failure. I was not satisfied with any of the images to write anything good about it. I would avoid using any of those effects.

Google Camera, HDR+ On, ISO115

 Google Camera, HDR+ On, ISO479

 Google Camera, HDR+ On, ISO1240

Google Camera, HDR+ On, ISO870

Here is my take-away from reviewing the camera on the Motorola G5S Plus:

What works:
- Beautiful images with good amount of resolution when using Google Camera
- Works well for casual shooting
- HDR+ on Google Camera helps improve dynamic range
- Decent overall performance, tolerable lags (shutter lag, slow AF), but overall smooth and efficient

What I do not like:
- poor JPEG rendering by default camera app with too much noise reduction and sharpening
- the "lens blur/depth effect" is useless
- generally slow AF and noticeable shutter lag, not for moving subjects

If you want to get the best out of the Motorola G5S Plus camera, install the Google Camera on it. Trust me, the JPEG images from the Google Camera is significantly better than what the default app can deliver. While the camera is not fast, I do think for most casual shooting scenarios, the G5S Plus is good enough to get the shot. I did like the image output from my brief shooting over the weekend with the Moto G5S Plus, and I found them perfectly useable for web displays, as evidently shown here in this blog.

I did enjoy using the Motorola G5S Plus, and I believe that is what matters the most. For the budget-friendly price, I think this could probably be one of the best camera offerings in a smartphone.

I acknowledge there are far more capable smartphone cameras out there, but these high-end smartphones are also more expensive, and may not be something I can afford, or willing to spend my hard-earned money on.

If you are now using a Motorola G5S Plus (or have owned one) please do share your experience with it. Also I would love to hear your thoughts on smartphone photography in general.

Motorola G5S Plus is available from B&H here. 
Please follow me on my Facebook Page and also my Instagram. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

I Like Colorful Things

I see the world in full, vivid, explosive array of colors. I celebrate the beauty of vibrant and joyful mixture of different colors around us. My images have always been overly bright instead of dark and more often very colorful in nature. Therefore, when I found a wall painted in rainbow colors, I just could not help but to pose for a portrait shot of myself. Special thanks to Matti Sulanto who helped shoot this image, I love it so much!

All images and video by Matti Sulanto. Used with permission. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Sushi Teriyaki Chicken Burger at Third Wave, Nexus Bangsar South

Sometimes, I am adventurous enough to try unusual food just for the kicks of it. Sushi burger is not exactly something new, the fusion between Asian and Western food is quite common these days. However, not many places can get the fusion right and the mutated food usually ends up disastrous and nothing like the original counterparts. Nonetheless, the best part of living is being able to eat, and daring to try different food is part of the fun that keeps the game interesting.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Guest Post by Matti Sulanto: PSPJ 30th Anniversary Exhibition Launch

Note from Robin: I was unable to attend the official launch of PSPJ's 30th Anniversary Exhibition Launch yesterday (10th March 2018). I sought out help from my friend, Matti Sulanto, to cover the event and have the article published here. This is my first time featuring a guest blogger! Special thanks to Matti for doing this and I owe you a huge one. 

All images in this blog entry by Matti Sulanto. Used with permission

Photographic Society of Petaling Jaya is having their 30th anniversary photo exhibition, titled ”Malaysia: My Home, My Country”, right now at Malaysia Tourism Centre (MATIC) in Kuala Lumpur. I was invited to the opening ceremony of the show and I must say I was quite enthusiastic to see how a Malaysian photo society works and the kind of images they exhibit. I know some local photographers and their work, but was still keen to see the work of 60 photographers featured.

The former Deputy Education Minister Dato´ Hon Choon Kim spoke at the opening ceremony.