AI is wonderful. AI is dangerous. AI is helpful and AI is frightening. And AI also does some amazing things for photography… but have we reached the point where AI is so amazing that manufacturers are more concerned with it, and don't bother improving the cameras themselves?
That's the question I was left with, following the Samsung Galaxy S24 launch. Because as clever as that phone was, the most impressive thing about it was all the AI-powered translation, and gesture-based searching, and automatic transcription, and everything except the cameras – which were essentially recycled from the Samsung Galaxy S23.
When I was love-blogging the launch event, I shared a tweet (yes, it's always going to be a tweet) that made me laugh. In retrospect, though, it's left me scratching my head a bit.
I am not excited for S24 Ultra I am excited for S23 Ultra Pricing 🤪#SamsungUnpacked #GalaxyAI #GalaxyUnpacked pic.twitter.com/QQys7vVo7hJanuary 17, 2024
The S24 family can certainly takebetter photos than the S23 – but not because it has better cameras. Indeed, the only change in the cameras themselves was on the Ultra, where the 10x optical zoom module was replaced by a 5x optical zoom module that uses AI to take a supposedly superior 10x image. Superior or not, some folks definitely perceived it as a downgrade.
Either way, if market monolith Samsung isn't even bothering to upgrade the cameras on its flagship phones, what does this say about the state of camera technology in phones? Are we just conceding that the cameras are as good as they're going to get, and we're just going to patch up the rough edges (like low light and zoom) with AI trickery and upscaling?
I don't necessarily see this as a problem. Now, if Canon or Sony stopped bothering with making new image sensors and better lenses – instead using AI to make up for optical and technical shortfalls – then yes, I think that would be problematic. But software has always been the reason that phone cameras are as capable as they are.
My problem, however, is that as a photographer, I'm being sold a new phone where the cameras are no different than the old phone; only the software is. So why can't I just have the new software in my old phone, to make those new improvements to the same cameras?
I'm fascinated to see what Apple does over the next few years. It's a little behind Samsung in terms of its camera sophistication but, once it's caught up, will it likewise stop bothering with better cameras and instead concentrate on AI to improve its photo capabilities?
At least it's one less reason to upgrade my phone this year!