Samsung gets serious about pictures

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Above: Samsung’s new S9 flagship smartphone. Photo courtesy Samsung.

BitDepth#1134 for March 01, 2018

On hard specifications, the S9 is an incremental improvement on its immediate predecessor, the S8. It’s almost exactly the same size at as the S8, and only fractionally heavier.

At its launch event for the device at the Mobile World Congress in Spain on Sunday, the company spoke of even smaller bezels on the Infinity screen, which successfully gives the user the illusion of a display that’s all screen.

But Justin Denison, Product Marketing Manager, couldn’t resist taking a poke at the competition, noting, “and still, no notch.”

There are a few other small tweaks to the successful S8 design. The new phone offers two front facing speakers and delivers stereo sound (tuned by AKG and using Dolby Atmos) and the MicroSD slot now accepts cards up to 400MB, up from the previous model’s 256MB.

That’s going to be helpful if the public takes advantage of the selling points of the new device, which is being marketed with a focus on the quality it delivers for photography.

For serious smartphone photography, it’s probably best to bite the bullet upfront and get the new S9 Plus model, which incorporates the dual lenses introduced on the Note 8 (again at 26mm and 52mm).

New to both S9 models is a dual aperture solution to the challenge of fixed aperture smartphone cameras.

Smartphones simply don’t have the room to incorporate a mechanical aperture mechanism, the kind you’ll find on most cameras, which open and close to control the amount of light reaching the sensor, like an optical faucet that manages the flow of photons.

The last few years have seen an aggressive race to improve the aperture of these tiny lenses, moving quickly over the last four years from f2.4 to f1.7, an aperture record held by the S8.

The new S9 ships with two aperture settings, f2.4, intended for outdoor photography and an astonishing f1.5 option, for low light captures.

As announced, the camera automatically switches according to the light levels available, but serious picture makers, will want to switch between the two apertures when working in manual exposure mode.

Samsung made the new photography features the lead of its introduction of the device, suggesting a refreshed and more, ah, focused emphasis on image making across the considerable spectrum of smartphone users.

It remains to be seen whether this new emphasis appears in the usability of the device in manual mode.

Getting the S8 into manual mode demands more camera interface fiddling than any serious picture pro will ever be happy with, so the execution in software will need to match the new hardware.

The other big feature, a slow-motion video mode that quadruples the normal capture rate for such videos from 240 frames per second to 960, is a bravura achievement, though the automatic addition of dramatic movie music stings to the resulting clips seems cheesy.

If users can switch that feature off, there are filmmakers who would buy an S9 just for its Super Slomo mode if file sizes prove adequate.

Judging the S9 off announcements and specifications isn’t a fair assessment. It’s been just shy of a year since the release of the S8 and Samsung has clearly put a lot of thought into what an S series smartphone with a serious commitment to photography should be able to do.

At the launch event, Denison used augmented reality to turn the media badge of those in attendance into a facsimile of an S9. It was a neat trick, but it didn’t win the applause he waited for. That’s probably because when it comes to properly evaluating a top of the line smartphone, there’s nothing that beats hands on.