Samsung’s Moon Shots Force Us to Ask How Much AI Is Too Much

Have you heard the moon conspiracy theory? No, not the one about the moon landings. It’s about the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra, and the theory it fabricates pictures of the moon, creating images that are far more detailed than the camera itself can actually capture.

Is it true? The reality is a bit more complicated than a pure yes or no answer. And the closer you look, the more you realize that whether a photo is “real” or not is something you can ask of most of the photos you take with a phone.

The Moon Issue Lands

The Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra Moongate saga began when Reddit user ibreakphotos posted about their own experiments with moon photography. Their claim is that when someone shoots the moon using the phone’s super-extended hybrid zoom mode, Samsung effectively puts a lunar texture on the images.

This is something Samsung denies. We reached out to the company to get the official line: “Samsung is committed to delivering best-in-class photo experiences in any condition. When a user takes a photo of the moon, the AI-based scene optimization technology recognizes the moon as the main object and takes multiple shots for multi-frame composition, after which AI enhances the details of the image quality and colours. It does not apply any image overlaying to the photo. Users can deactivate the AI-based Scene Optimizer, which will disable automatic detail enhancements to any photos taken.”

Creating a single image out of multiple exposures is at the heart of computational photography. But, as ibreakphotos proved, there’s more going on here. Samsung’s Fake Moon Photo Controversy shows that some of the user’s testing was pretty smart. A photo of the moon was blurred, and displayed at a distance, putting a hard ceiling on how much detail would be possible to capture, regardless of the quality of the camera’s optics.

However, the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra’s image still gives off the impression of having much more detail than the source image being captured. The effect in their sample images is dramatic.

This test has, no surprise, been repeated elsewhere since this whole moon issue hit blast-off. Famous YouTuber Marques Brownlee tried it, for example, and found that while his results were in no way as dramatic as ibreakphotos’ at Reddit, they were there. Mobile photography content creator Shayne Mostyn’s results sat somewhere between the two.

The Moon Travels in Circles?

Something is going on here. But this is not the “gotcha” scoop that parts of the internet might have you believe, because the issue has cropped up before.

Samsung introduced its moon mode processing two years ago with the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, because it in turn introduced us to the company’s 10x zoom camera and 100x hybrid “space zoom.” Its successor, the S21 Ultra, with an even better zoom, was accused of faking photos, leading Input to investigate for itself, and it came to largely the same conclusions we see today. The Galaxy S21 Ultra did do a bit more than your standard image processing when shooting the moon.

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