Samsung Galaxy S5 Brings Selective Refocus to Android

Lytro-like capability highlights the S5's mobile photography prowess.

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At the 2014 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Samsung today unveiled its latest flagship Galaxy S5 handset. Photography has become a huge selling point for smartphones, and the Galaxy S5 is no different than the competition in that regard. In addition to packing a brand-new 16-megapixel sensor, this smartphone has also learned some new-school tricks that boost its photographic prowess.

The marquee feature is Lytro-like refocusing, which lets you take a photo (in this case a series of photos) and choose the focal point later. We've already seen a similar feature on Nokia's smartphones, and apps like FocusTwist on iOS can also ape the light field effect.

For Nokia and Samsung, this feature works by creating a composite from multiple photos. The camera shoots a burst of images while quickly moving through its entire focal range. This captures a variety of shots that focus on objects up close, a few feet away, and all the way to the horizon. You can see an example of the end result here.

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The Galaxy S5's camera is one of its major new features, highlighting how important quality imaging has become for smartphone makers.

This method has two major benefits: With some neat trickery it can simulate the deeply blurred backgrounds DSLRs are capable of, and it lets you change the point of focus after you've taken a shot. The shallow depth-of-field effect is the main draw of higher-end DSLRs, and something that the majority of tiny smartphone imaging modules can't get without a little bit of help. The selective refocusing technique is likely to be the real crowd pleaser, however, as it does something even DSLRs can't do.

Keep in mind that although the end result is similar, the Lytro camera uses proprietary light field technology to refocus shots after the fact. Instead of measuring color and brightness on each pixel, the Lytro sensor records how light rays hit the sensor—to the tune of 1 million rays in a single shot. So, while the Lytro cameras include a slight perspective shift as you change focus, these imitators do not. The upshot of the Samsung and Nokia method is the resulting photos are full-resolution.

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Nokia's Refocus app for its Windows Phones also lets users focus later.

It's also worth noting that Nokia's phones benefit from optical image stabilization, which helps keep each frame as steady as the next. This compensates for the minimal shake your hand introduces from shot to shot, keeping each shot lined up with the ones around it. The Galaxy S5 also aligns each shot, though without optical image stabilization we imagine there's some digital shake-prevention involved.

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