We’ve established that the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra’s 100x spatial zoom is a photographic and technical marvel, but it has a trick up its sleeve that I didn’t notice until recently.
I’ve been using Samsung’s Note-in-disguise large screen Android 12 phone for five months now (mostly uneventfully), but not consistently. The 6.8-inch device is, at 228 grams, a bit heavy, especially compared to my 6.1-inch, 204-gram iPhone 13 Pro. Still, whenever I want the best in smartphone zoom photography, there is no other choice.
When I bought tickets to see Brian Wilson (opens in new tab) (by the Beach Boys) and Chicago (opens in new tab) (of 21 top 10 singles) in Jones Beach Theater (opens in new tab) in New York, I decided to take the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra with me because its 10x optical zoom and 30x to 100x Space Zoom destroy the iPhone’s long-distance photography. Considering my bloody seats (no, I won’t pay $200 for the orchestra), if I wanted decent shots of the band on stage, I couldn’t trust the iPhone 13 Pro’s 3x optical zoom and max 15x digital zoom.
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As the legendary Brian Wilson, now 80, approached his all-white piano, I began using the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra’s zoom and large screen as digital binoculars. With 10x zoom, I felt like I was sitting in the orchestra. With 30X Space Zoom, I sat on stage, and with 100X Space Zoom, I was on top of Wilson’s piano, looking into his face.
To be clear, the image quality differences between 10X and 30X or 100X can be pretty stark. 10X is using Samsung’s pericope lens and prism technology to deliver excellent optical zoom. No interpolation, just 10MP of pure image data. 30X and 100X look decent unless you enlarge them to full size, where the details tend to look more like an image interpreted by an abstract painter or even DALL-E.
Watch him move
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The more you zoom in, the more slight movements of your hand can take the subject out of the frame. The Galaxy S22 Ultra, however, does an excellent job of optical and electronic image stabilization. Brian Wilson helped my cause by playing his entire 45-minute set sitting behind that white piano.
Chicago, however, was a different story. Current vocalist Neil Donnell toured the stage throughout the band’s set. Initially, because I didn’t know who he was (longtime frontman Peter Cetara left in 1985 and since then Chicago has had a revolving door of frontmen), I didn’t bother with 30x or 100x zoom.
Eventually though, I decided to follow the mighty singer with the phone’s Super Zoom. First I hit 30X, but it wasn’t until I tried 100X that I noticed something amazing. Even as I held the Galaxy S22 Ultra perfectly still—or as still as my half-century-old hands are capable—the phone’s camera casually followed Donnell as he paced the stage.
I didn’t notice it at first. I just watched Donnell sing and walk and it wasn’t until I noticed that the back of the stage was moving to the left behind him that I realized the phone camera had locked on Donnell and was tracking him.
To understand how the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra camera can track moving objects, you have to accept that the phone’s 30X and especially 100X spatial zoom are highly interpolated images, where Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen chip-level Computer Vision 1 is constantly working to find out what you’re seeing – it’s a planet, a person, a bird – and what it might be doing.
When I asked Samsung about the feature, they confirmed that Space Zoom uses OIS and EIS to reduce judder and blur. The tracking I was seeing is a product of Tracking Auto-Focus in which cameras try to adjust the frame to keep the subject in focus and – in my experience – in the frame.
With Donnell filling the frame, the Samsung phone accurately assumed he was my subject and, without asking me, kept him centered in the frame as it tried to get out of it. This ability made it possible for me to capture a series of photos of the singer in motion. It’s true that the quality is Van Gogh, but if I were trying to capture a 100x optical zoom image of someone in motion, I probably wouldn’t have anything to show for it.
This tracking does not work on video, which reaches 20x interpolated zoom, but is repeatable in many different still image scenarios.
When I got back to town, I took the Galaxy S22 Ultra to Bryant Park, which has a huge lawn in the middle. I stayed at one end and focused on the other, where people were walking around. Using 100x zoom, I would choose a walker and wait for the phone to track it. This happened every time, but stopped when they walked too far from the board. I suppose if Donnell had left the stage, the Galaxy S22 ultra would have stopped tracking him too.
what to do with it
The 100X interpolated zoom isn’t the right photographic tool for every job, but it’s effective for astrophotography and in situations like concerts where, more than likely, you’re not sitting in the front row, 10th row, or even 50th row.
Image quality is what you can expect from Computer Vision. In situations where it can fill in the gaps with what it knows about a subject, the results can be impressive (I think the moon looks great because Samsung’s AI knows what the moon should look like), but it will struggle, for example, with a relatively new singer from Chicago that even I couldn’t readily identify.
If you want to compare all the best smartphone cameras and see which ones push the optical zoom envelope, read our roundup of the best phones.