Samsung’s new Galaxy S9 and S9 each have an impressive new camera lens that can intelligently switch between two different apertures to capture the best daytime and low-light photos.
You've probably seen how it works in that Samsung ad that got a lot of play at the Oscars. The camera takes fantastic photos in almost any lighting conditions by constricting the lens to let in more or less light. The tech makes the S9 camera work more like a “real” camera, and it might even point the way for other smartphones. Will Apple and Google and everyone else soon copy Samsung for a change?
Even for a gadget nerd and camera enthusiast like myself, I’m hesitant to say that the S9’s camera and its variable aperture will be a feature we’ll see on other smartphones.
Don't get me wrong — it’s wonderful Samsung is pushing the limits of mobile photography with a new type of image sensor on the S9, and as a result users will be able to take photos with next-level clarity.
But it also feels like Samsung might not be paying close enough attention to the disruptive camera developments that are happening on other phones.
First, though, let’s backtrack a little and examine the details of how the S9’s camera works if you haven’t already read my review for the S9 and S9 .
Unlike most cameras that have a fixed aperture (the opening of a lens through which light passes), the S9 and S9 has two aperture settings: an f/1.5 aperture (larger opening) and an f/2.4 aperture (smaller opening).
In auto mode, the S9 switches to f/1.5 when it thinks the scene is too dark and f/2.4 when there’s plenty of light.
This variable aperture isn't quite the same as having a range of apertures (i.e. f2.8-f/5.6) that you can choose from on, say, a lens on a DSLR or point-and-shoot, but it’s the closest thing that we've seen on a smartphone camera so far.
Cramming the most technologically sophisticated camera in the S9 is typical Samsung: trying to win with pure hardware alone. It’s them brute-forcing their way into beating the competition with better specs.
Samsung has been doing this for years. They’ve been adding cameras into their phones with larger and larger apertures (f/1.9 in the S6, f/1.8 in the S7, f/1.7 in the S8, and now f/1.5 in the S9) to improve low-light performance.
And though the improvements in image quality speak for themselves generation over generation, the returns are diminishing. As you can see in the many sample photos (especially the low-light shots) in my S9 review, the S9’s camera doesn’t smoke the iPhone X or the Pixel 2 at all. In most cases, they’re all pretty comparable.
I’m all for better low-light performance, but at the same time, there are other ways to go about leveling up the camera, too.
For example: focal length. The iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X have a dual camera system with a secondary 2x telephoto lens that lets you zoom in optically without losing image quality.
Sure, the S9 has a 2x telephoto lens, but what about the smaller S9? If Apple can squeeze a 2x telephoto camera into the similarly-sized iPhone X, why can’t Samsung?
With the iPhone's bokeh-enhancing Portrait mode being such a hit, it’s pretty clear Apple thinks dual cameras will be the standard for all iPhones moving forward.
The most fascinating technology that’s being used to capture better photos isn’t a lens with a larger aperture or even a secondary camera, but AI.
What Google has done for photos using AI on its Pixel phones is nothing short of remarkable. Why does your phone need a camera lens with a larger aperture when it can instead leverage software and AI to and merge many differently exposed shots into one that brings out all the details?
Or why would you need a secondary camera to capture portrait mode-style pictures when machine learning can be applied to a regular photo and intelligently identify a background and then de-focus it?
“Computational photography,” which uses AI to improve image quality or mimic certain photographic styles like portrait photos is extremely exciting because it has unlimited potential. Phones that use AI don't need to be limited by what's possible with physical camera technology. Things like a large camera bump to accommodate more lens elements could become a thing of the past if AI can replace it.
Exciting times ahead
After years of every phone maker basically catching up to one another with cameras that use the same image sensors, it's refreshing to see so many different ways phone makers are going about improving mobile photography.
Maybe the dual apertures will become standard in all future phones. Or maybe dual cameras will. Or maybe every phone maker's going to use AI to capture better photos.
Which company has the right thinking? To some extent, they all do — the best solutions combine both software and hardware. Whoever can leverage software tricks and AI to enhance what's already made the best it can be through sophisticated lenses and sensors will take mobile photography to the next level. When it comes to smartphone camera tech, compromise is the only way to win.