We are here we are again in 2020, with the Galaxy S20 Ultra banging the megapixel drum and claiming that camera resolution is, sort of My Chemical Romance comeback, suddenly an enormous deal again.
Is Samsung just throwing big numbers around again? Or is that the Galaxy S20 Ultra a real breakthrough for smartphone cameras? The short answer is, yes, the S20 Ultra is doing something genuinely interesting, but also that megapixels aren’t the most reason why it’s exciting.
If you missed the Galaxy S20 Ultra launch, here’s a quick recap of its camera system.
The highest lens may be a fairly standard ultra-wide 12MP f/2.2 camera, but below that are two of the foremost interesting bits of smartphone camera hardware we’ve seen for a short time.
Firstly, there’s a supporting act within the sort of 48MP f/3.5 telephoto camera, which serves up the 100x ‘Space Zoom’ that’s exclusive to the S20 Ultra.
On paper, this sounds inferior to the 64MP f/2.0 telephoto equivalents on both the Galaxy S20 and S20 Plus, which similarly have 0.8-micron pixels.
But they crucially lack the ‘folded’ 102 mm equivalent zoom lens stuffed away within the S20 Ultra’s back pocket, instead of achieving their 3x lossless zoom (or 30x digital zoom) by cropping the 64MP image.
This is often still an honest zoom, but not ‘Ultra’ good.
The S20 Ultra’s telephoto uses tech that’s, in theory, superior to its two stablemates and rivals just like the Oppo Reno 10x Zoom.
Like Oppo, its periscope lens provides a lossless zoom up to some extent (in this case, 4x zoom). Then a mixture of digital techniques (cropping and pixel binning) takes it up to 10x zoom (which remains apparently ‘lossless’).
Then, you’re on a rocky, increasingly degraded digital zoom road all the thanks to a daft, then far muddy-looking, 100x ‘Space Zoom’.
Space Zoom seems like a fun party trick, but Samsung reserved its big claims for the S20 Ultra’s main 108MP f/1.8 camera.
You get a photograph album’s worth of detail during a single shot”, Samsung’s Drew Blackard exclaimed at the Unpacked launch. Naturally, he followed it up with “the key to capturing a top-quality photo may be a high-resolution camera.
Before we explain why these statements are, respectively, optimistic and simplistic, there’s one less soundbite-friendly reason why the S20 Ultra’s main camera is exciting, it’s an enormous sensor.
The S20 Ultra’s 1/1.33in sensor is that the joint-second biggest we’ve ever seen during a phone, beaten only by the Nokia 808 Pureview.
The reason why bigger sensors are desirable is that they need greater light-gathering powers.
The classic analogy is to imagine a sensor’s many photoreceptors (the pixels) as buckets, and lightweight photons as rain falling into them.
The larger the bucket, the stronger its image signal, and therefore the less it needs amplification which will cause noise (think snowy grain) or lower dynamic range.
This is often the megapixel conundrum – cram many smaller buckets onto a sensor, and therefore the images will have more pixels that’ll potentially create a sharper image.
But smaller buckets usually have weaker image signals, which successively could see noise obscure all that extra detail if it is not handled correctly.
This is why the S20 Ultra (and other high-resolution phones before it) seemingly offer the simplest of both worlds with ‘pixel binning’.
The S20 Ultra’s default mode is to truly shoot 12MP photos, by turning groups of nine pixels into one big 2.4-micron pixel.
That massive ‘bucket’ could support a number of the simplest low light photography we’ve seen from a smartphone, in theory, at least.
This is one of the explanations why high-resolution cameras just like the Fujifilm GFX 100 exist.
But the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra isn’t, for several physics-based reasons, a Fujifilm GFX 100.
And cameras like that remain niche within the photography world for one big reason, actually harnessing that resolution is a particularly difficult, and sometimes self-defeating, pursuit.
And that is with tripods and remote shutters.
In the world, photo quality comes from a fragile balance of ingredients and flavors.
That specializes in megapixels is like cooking a delicious puttanesca and concentrating solely on the number of pasta shells. Yes, a generous helping will increase your chances of carby goodness, but it’d also overwhelm the entire dish.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra camera
Every camera may be a compromise and therefore the S20 Ultra is not any different.
For instance, it’s interesting that its main 108MP sensor doesn’t have the speedy Dual Pixel AF seen on the S20 and S20 Plus, instead of going for the quality, less advanced phase-detect autofocus.
It’s going to catch up on this with some clever A.I trickery, but on paper, this might make it more susceptible to focusing errors.
Does this mean Samsung’s S20 Ultra camera claims are all marketing hot air? Faraway from it. the large sensor is potentially a true boon for natural-looking low light photos, and we’re excited to ascertain how this all mixes with Samsung’s tasty computational sauce. It’s just unlikely to be the physics-busting all-rounder Samsung suggests, and therefore the S20 and S20 Plus may even be the higher compromise for many people.
The real stars of the S20 series could even turn close to be innovative software features like Single Take (above). This mode simultaneously shoots a spread of various photos, ultra-wides, portraits, hyper-lapse videos – over a ten-second period, then allows you to choose the simplest.
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