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Samsung's Galaxy S22 Ultra is missing something big

Commentary: This pro photographer is pretty bummed.

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Samsung

Samsung's new Galaxy S22 Ultra brings a range of tweaks over its predecessor, most notably the addition of the S-Pen stylus from the now-discontinued Galaxy Note series. But while the Ultra versions of the flagship Galaxy S series have always focused on bringing cutting-edge camera tech to the table, the S22 Ultra barely seems to have any significant camera upgrades at all. As a result, it's left me, as a professional photographer and frequent mobile shooter, feeling underwhelmed. 

The S22 Ultra's headline camera specs include a 108-megapixel main sensor, along with a 10x optical zoom and support for 8K video. Big numbers, sure, but they're exactly the same as we got from last year's S21 Ultra. And they're also the same we had on the previous year's S20 Ultra. Rumors for the S22 Ultra hinted at a 200-megapixel sensor, for even better zoomed-in quality, and an innovative continuous zoom lens, rather than switching between fixed-zoom lenses. So where are they? 

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Many of the promised improvements to nighttime photography come from software tweaks, rather than new hardware.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The image sensors are the same size on the S22 Ultra and S21 Ultra too, as are the apertures of the lenses -- both of which would have allowed for clearer, brighter shots with improved dynamic range and better low-light images. Instead, the promised improvements to night mode appear to be achieved entirely on the software side with "upgraded AI algorithms" and pixel binning, which merges nine pixels into one larger one for better light capture. And sure, this might make nighttime shots look a bit clearer, but it's not exactly a feature that's going to get Instagrammers and other mobile enthusiasts' hearts racing by itself. 

The other new camera upgrades supposedly include better portrait mode AI and a video function that automatically zooms in and out to get all your friends in the scene. Again, it's not exactly a revolution for mobile photography. 

Then there's the cloudy issue of computational raw. Apple launched its ProRaw function on the iPhone 12 Pro, giving the phone the ability to merge multiple exposures into one DNG raw file. This gave the better dynamic range you get from a merged image, but with the editing flexibility of a DNG raw file -- that's a big deal for photographers, like me, who want to capture the best possible images with their phones. 

The press briefing I attended on the S22 Ultra suggested that the phone is able to take, and I quote, "high dynamic range images in multi-frame raw format," which does sound like Samsung's version of ProRaw and would be a very welcome addition to the camera setup. However, there's little to no mention of this elsewhere in Samsung's press releases and even after asking the company for clarification we're still not sure if this is actually computational raw or if it's just regular 16-bit raw. 

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The iPhone 13 Pro has one of the best camera systems around on a phone. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It's baffling why it would be hidden away like this. More baffling still though is the fact that this raw shooting is only available when using a dedicated Expert Raw app that you have to separately download from the Samsung Galaxy store. On the iPhone you simply tap a button in the main camera that says "raw" to switch ProRaw on, making it an entirely hassle-free way of boosting your image quality when you're shooting quickly. 

All of which means that, on paper at least, the S22 Ultra's camera setup seems disappointingly similar to the last two generations of this phone. The biggest upgrades are seen at the cheaper end, with the base S22 and S22 Plus getting more camera boosts over their previous equivalents. But the Ultra is the flagship and as such it needs to be pushing the boundaries further and giving people a reason to be excited compared to the competition.

With both Apple and Google pushing hard for incredible imagery on the iPhone 13 Pro and Pixel 6 Pro, Samsung needed to up its offering this time round. Instead, its tired-feeling camera specs make it difficult to be excited about this phone, or to consider it much in the way of an upgrade over previous generations.

As such I'm even more keen to get it in my hand to properly put its cameras to the test and see just how far those software upgrades go in improving overall image quality.