Okay, you’re taking pictures with your phone. But isn’t there a time when more pixels equals too many pixels?
Samsung has just unveiled its flagship phone Galaxy S23. The device is available in three versions: S23, S23+ and S23 Ultra. It is the latter, the S23 Ultra, that has the best camera.
Its main feature is a sensor that will allow you to capture images with a maximum resolution of 200 million pixels (200 MP) under certain conditions. This is twice as many pixels as the sensor of its predecessor Galaxy S22.
With a resolution of exactly 108 megapixels, the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s camera allowed for very detailed panoramic photos. It’s the same with the S23 Ultra: photos reach a maximum resolution of 200 MP only when using the wide angle.
Samsung says its technology is optimal in a rather specific context: you want to capture a subject far away from you, in an environment that is also worth paying attention to. For example, your significant other who puts his ski boot on the top of the Appalachians. With all those pixels, you end up with a very nice panoramic photo that you can then pull up on the main subject without degrading the quality of the final result too much.
(Almost) one-of-a-kind sensor
The Galaxy S23 Ultra isn’t the first phone to feature a 200MP sensor, but it’s the only one officially sold by major Canadian wireless carriers. Despite its definition, the sensor fits into a square space whose edge is 1.95 centimeters long.
Each photosensitive element on board this sensor measures 0.6 microns (0.0006 millimeters). He is very small. And when you take a “regular” photo (without activating the 200 MP mode in RAW, not in JPEG), the camera combines information obtained from 16 neighboring elements to create one pixel. This results in 12 megapixel photos, comparable to what most phones on the market do today.
A 200-megapixel sensor to take 12-megapixel photos, is it necessary? If there was one answer to this question, all phone manufacturers would use this recipe …
Samsung asked Qualcomm, the maker of the S23 processor, to optimize it to process information captured by each of its sensor pixels more quickly. This allows it to distinguish between all objects present in a single photo and separately improve sharpness, brightness, and colorimetry.
Simply put, every element in the same photo becomes more visible and more detailed, even if the scene contains more contrasting areas. Thanks to these technological improvements, your friends walking out of a restaurant into an alley lit by neon signs won’t look so blurry in the final shot. Everything written in bright neon will be readable. The dark details of the rest of the track will be visible while remaining darker rather than overexposed.
Retouched by AI
So there is an important piece of software on board this camera. In this, Samsung is similar to Google, which is betting heavily on so-called “computational photography” to sell its own phone (Pixel 7). Algorithms are used to select and separately process elements of one photo.
In the case of Google’s Pixel 7, this refinement is intended to compensate for the lack of a true telephoto lens (zoom) that would allow you to photograph an object that is far on the horizon.
In Samsung’s case, these algorithms, billed as “Photo AI”, are felt in the final product. Maybe too much, some will say. Because even though the S23 Ultra has a 3x telephoto lens, the device allows you to get up to 100 times closer to the subject than its main lens. To do this, this AI analyzes the data coming from all the pixels, combines them together and adds what it thinks will improve the final image the most.
The result is not always true. Colors are sometimes oversaturated (too bright). White tones may appear more blue (colder) or more yellow (warmer) than they appear to you.
At the very least, even if we can spot AI editing, even the smallest details will remain visible. It’s less artistic, but more practical…
Luckily, the S23 Ultra also allows you to be more creative with different usage modes. For example, you can overlay up to nine photos on top of each other, as if you were using a film camera and taking multiple shots in the same pose. These same modes, with the exception of those grouped under the Expert tab, are also offered on the S23 and S23+ phone camera, limited to 50 megapixels and 30x zoom.
How many pixels are enough?
Do you need 200 megapixels if you are going to print travel photos? No. Absolutely not.
Just do the math: in general, for a photo in a classic printed format to be sharp, you need to print between 200 and 300 pixels per inch. A typical 4 x 6 inch photo does not require more than 3.2 megapixels. An 8 x 10 inch photo (sometimes referred to as Super A4) would require 6 megapixels. And for a larger print, a 10-megapixel photo will be fine in most cases.
Therefore, a camera that takes 200-megapixel photos is not always necessary. In addition, Samsung only offers this maximum resolution in a specific photo mode, which it includes in a group of other usage modes that qualify as “professional.” This means that the optimal result is likely to come only after some additional manual editing done in software like Adobe’s Lightroom.
Therefore, such a camera is ideal if you are not afraid to “get your hands dirty” to crop and retouch photos in front of the computer and extract something neater.
Otherwise, you’re probably spending on a device that is still a small fortune after all ($1,650 for the Galaxy S23 Ultra in Canada)…