It’s likely that every tech manufacturer has put itself, at least once, in a tight spot over the years due to some embarrassing marketing choice or PR disaster. It’s hard to think of one that hasn’t, but Samsung is on another level in that regard. This is a company whose name is never more than a stone’s throw away from some controversial tactic uncovered by journalists or some shady trick discovered by consumers and there’s a new entry for inclusion to that shameful list: Samsung’s Galaxy S Ultra smartphones have been promising the moon but delivering… fake photos of it.
Samsung’s moon shots were too good to be true and now we know why
This has already been reported by several outlets, so here’s the rundown in brief: Reddit user ibreakphotos posted a lengthy explanation of how he found the pictures of the moon taken by the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra and its “space zoom” function too good to be true and did a number of experiments in order to understand what’s going on.
The whole post and its updates make for an interesting read – it’s worth going through it for a number of reasons – but the gist of it is this: when asked to take a photo of what it perceives to be the moon against the sky specifically, Samsung’s Galaxy S23 Ultra locks on the object and snaps an extremely detailed shot of it… despite the fact that the device itself is not able to actually resolve that amount of detail given its optics and the distance involved.
The post went viral pretty quickly because Samsung had been aggressively advertising this “space zoom” function as a competitive advantage since the days of the Galaxy S20 Ultra (all Ultras since offer that extreme zoom), so for a good few years now. It was always one of those things a Samsung flagship could “do” that iPhone or Pixel flagship models couldn’t. Hell, something that even smartphones with comparable zoom capabilities, built by other manufacturers, couldn’t.
User ibreakphotos proved, though, beyond a shadow of a doubt that what the Samsung Galaxy S Ultras actually do is “detect” the moon (even if it’s a totally blurry image of it on a computer monitor), then go through a database of moon pictures, find the one closest to that moon’s “current” phase and position and essentially “paste it over” what those phones’ cameras are able to photograph. There are a few adjustments here and there, so as to make the photo somewhat believable, but the end result is not magically “upscaled” and “enhanced” from a blurry bright blob. There’s simply not enough visual information for that. It’s a higher resolution image of the moon taken by a different camera at a different time by a different person, superimposed onto the image of the moon a consumer tries to capture and his/her Galaxy S23 Ultra would normally take.
It’s easy to guess what followed. A number of websites called these photos “fake” because, well, that is the obvious term anyone would use for snaps that were not simply enhanced, but digitally created. Others called out Samsung because of its deceptive marketing, as several of its ads repeatedly showed the moon being resolved on a Galaxy S Ultra’s screen (while clearly this is not what’s happening). A few people expressed the opinion that this is just an extreme case of computational photography effects doing their work and a few more claimed that it was not such a big deal if the final result looked so much better than the unusable blob of light their Galaxy S Ultra captured if they turned the “Scene Optimizer” function (i.e. the “moon magic”) off.
Others still argued, though, that it does not matter whether these moon photos are so much better to look at than what all smartphones are currently able to capture: since Samsung had never made clear that these photos are not real – in fact, the company tried to pass this off as a tech it calls “Super Resolution AI”, which definitely implies upscaling, which definitely isn’t what’s going on here – then this really is a textbook case of deceptive marketing. This is a valid point. Samsung advertised its Samsung Galaxy S Ultra models as being able to do something along the lines of what we, consumers, know that it’s impossible to do with any smartphone – the equivalent of those hilarious “enhance, enhance, enhance” scenes in crime TV shows where an FBI “tech wizard” fantastically recovers the plates of a moving vehicle the size of a stamp out of a blurry 240p video – implying that the company possesses superior know-how in photography other manufacturers do not. It’s as simple as that.
Some YouTubers and media outlets – like MKBHD or MrWhosetheboss and The Verge respectively – chose to put Samsung’s antics in the context of the whole “what is real?” discussion regarding computational photography, but… come on. This is not a simple photo enhancement we are talking about or some smart color correction technique or digitally added depth or anything along those lines that everyone’s been doing for half a decade or so. This is something completely different. When taking a photo of the moon, Samsung’s algorithm is literally displaying on a Galaxy S’s screen – and storing in the final image – a picture of the moon it’s not capable of capturing: effectively a picture of the moon that isn’t there for the device to shoot, over one that is.
The necessary increase in detail is so huge that it just can’t happen with today’s technology, either “on-device” or “on neural networks”. So what Samsung does is this: it calculates how the moon would look to someone standing at that specific spot through a large DSLR viewfinder and an expensive telephoto lens… and “inserts” that image into the Galaxy S’s preview screen. The end result: not a bright blurry mess, as it would normally be, but a highly detailed photo that’s been “manufactured” rather than captured.
Samsung’s tactics are often shady and we’ve been here before
The problem with Samsung is that it’s no stranger to these tactics. This is the company that insisted it offered a new display technology in LED TVs back in 2009 (it was forced to change its marketing message) and did the exact same thing with QLED TVs later on. It is the same company that granted its mobile chips full operating speed only when they detected benchmark apps running (and admitted it after being exposed). It is the same company that boosted the brightness of its TVs when they detected they were being measured in specific window sizes (yet again admitting it after being exposed). It is the same company that promised to respect the creators’ intent in color reproduction with its best 2022 TV, but then didn’t (in order for its TV to appear brighter and more impressive). Samsung is like this, period. There are no coincidences when it comes to its marketing choices.
Which is kind of pathetic, really, because – truth be told – Samsung hardly ever actually needs to resort to such practices. Its top smartphones are great. Its top TVs are great. It just seems so sad that the Korean manufacturer feels it has to deceive consumers or play tricks on journalists just to convince both of their products’ superiority. Nobody would have thought that the latest Samsung Galaxy S flagship smartphone was not impressive enough if it was unable to photograph details on the surface of the moon or that the latest Samsung QD-OLED TV was not a stellar performer if it was somewhat less bright but color accurate. Nobody.
Sadly, knowing Samsung by now, it’s almost certain that the company will choose to make the same mistake again (and again) in the future. It just can’t help itself, which is why consumers just can’t trust Samsung’s claims about anything in return. It always pays to visit websites, blogs, Reddit, forum threads and comments sections to read about tech products one’s thinking of purchasing, no matter who’s manufacturing said products. That has always been the case. It’s just that, for Samsung’s products in particular, this has become a necessity now. Next time this company promises the moon, remember that.