Why can’t Samsung get its camera system right?

Above: Drummers from Ghulam Hussain perform on Small Hosay night photographed with the ultrawideangle lens of the Note10+. In Photo mode, there is no control over the settings of the camera and this image features high-ISO artifacting and blur from slow shutter speeds. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

The new Note10+ has four, count ‘em, four cameras built into it’s rear facing array.

One is dedicated to depth mapping, a plenoptic technique that enables the camera system’s ability to convincingly create the fake depth of field separation in photo and video modes that Samsung calls Live Focus.

The Note10+’s rear facing camera system sports four cameras, three of which are for photography

You can’t access the depth camera in any meaningful way, nor can anyone else until Samsung offers APIs that allow third party developers to make use of it.

Third party camera apps are limited to using the standard 27mm lens and can’t capture stills or video with all the glass that Samsung has built into the Note10.

Also built in is a new ultrawideangle lens with a whopping 123 degree angle of view (12mm equivalent) and the 2x telephoto lens the company introduced in the Note8.

Add in the standard 27mm lens and you should have quite the arsenal of glass built into a device you can slip into a pocket.

Add in the standard 27mm lens and you should have quite the arsenal of glass built into a device you can slip into a pocket. Except that you don’t.

Except, unfortunately, that you don’t.

I’ve been noticing quirks in Samsung’s implementation of all these lenses since the Note8 and things have continued rather adamantly in the same direction for years now.

Let me acknowledge from the start that these are the concerns of a picture-making professional and not Samsung’s target audience for the new Note10 series.

The average Note10 user will get lovely photographs from their device, because the base implementation of the camera system is sound and clearly focused on delivering great photos in most normal smartphone capture situations.

These capture modes are explicitly suggested by a range of preprogrammed options, including an improved Night and Food modes.

Night mode, for instance, appears to stack multiple exposures and resample them for the best possible image. In photos that don’t move, the results are excellent (though I prefer what I can do working with an equivalent RAW file from the camera), but are distinctly unkind to any quick movements in the frame, which blur and elongate in unexpected ways.

NightMode with movement. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

There’s also some weird artifacting on the edges of objects that’s readily apparent in 100 percent view of the images on a computer screen. These artifacts are invisible on the smartphone’s screen.

There are so many modes now that there’s a new edit option allows you to choose which one you’d prefer to show on the Camera app’s screen.

Night Mode with a still subject. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

In Photo mode, you have access to the wideangle lens, the normal lens and, supposedly, the telephoto lens.

Except that you don’t.

When you select telephoto mode, the phone crops the image made by the standard lens and resamples it up to the required megapixel count.

I discovered this when I deliberately blocked the telephoto and wideangle lenses for a range of tests that sought to discover exactly when the phone uses the hardware optics that you choose in the camera interface.

The only time the telephoto lens was explicitly used was in Live Focus mode when you zoom in to 2X.

At least Pro mode is upfront about denying you access to the new ultrawideangle lens. It doesn’t even appear as an option in that mode.

Pro mode is actually the most limiting of all the options offered in the Camera app, and the only real advantages it offers are  the ability to manually control exposure and to record captures in RAW format as DNG files.

This suggests a basic misunderstanding of the way that serious picture-makers will approach photography on a smartphone camera as advanced as the Note10 series.

Which is just weird, because between 1997 and 2017, Samsung developed a mirrorless line of DSLR cameras under the NX brand, a camera system that was ultimately shelved in favour of the company’s greater success with smartphones and, ultimately, photography on that platform.

From my perspective, the deathknell of the NX camera line was the S4, which was just as good in general use, smaller and always available.

Because of a series of consumer focused decisions about how the powerful and rapidly evolving camera system on the Note series works, serious users seeking control will find themselves increasingly locked out of the physical capabilities of the device.

Consumer focused modes are entirely suitable to a mass-market device like the Note10 devices, but any user who wants to take control of the phone’s capture capabilities should be able to access more of the hardware that’s actually built into phone.

As it stands, the Pro mode on the Note10 devices is a massive tease that doesn’t consummate its considerable potential.