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Are Samsung’s Phones Fudging It on Moon Photography?

There have been some mighty impressive moon shots taken with cell phones these days, but are they even real? In the case of Samsung’s Galaxy S23 Ultra, the answer is: maybe.

Tech YouTuber Marques Brownlee starts out with the most compelling question in modern times: what is a photo? And to answer that question, he brings up what he considers an “edge case” of moon photography. Traditionally, to get a good photo of the moon, I’ve needed a steady tripod, decently fast exposure, and all the zoom I could get and even then, it was tricky. Samsung’s latest phone cameras tout a 100x zoom that has appeared to get clear moon photos using some sort of hardware and software wizardry. While a periscope lens and image stabilization can account for some of the sharpness in the moon photos, no cell phone should be able to make these moon photos clear with the hardware they are packing.

And indeed, as Brownlee points out, it’s not the hardware. It’s AI in Samsung’s software that recognizes that the user is trying to take a photo of the moon, and then scours its database of moon photos to piece together, computationally, the details that the phone just can’t capture. The result is that even when your moon photo is a blurry mess displayed on a computer monitor, the right Samsung phone will turn it into a decent capture of the moon.

Now, this isn’t similar to what Huawei did a few years ago, which was to simply layer a moon photo in its database over what you were pointing at. That’s some clear digital trickery there. This is something with a bit of a lighter, though still a controversial touch.

While Brownlee ran his own tests, the real news was broken over at Reddit, by aptly named user ibreakphotos. Over there, he runs some extensive tests that show what he says are “fake” photos generated from Samsung phones of the moon.

AI and photography are things I’ve spent years of study on, and this one’s a tough one to call. What do you think of what Samsung’s doing with these moon photos?