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Saturday, November 26, 2022

When even the best smartphone cameras – and baseball teams – disappoint

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Tuesday night as I cross the street to the stadium the smell of hissing sausage, car exhaust fumes and hopes for play-offs before the end of the season. I wear a neon green Mariners fanny pack across my chest (that’s how the kids wear them?!?) packed with the essentials: my ID, Kleenex, a Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra, and an iPhone 14 Pro. The roof of T-Mobile Park hangs open over the adjacent railroad tracks, looming like the Death Star, and I head to an entrance with a few things on my agenda, in no particular order:

  • Cheer on the Mariners as they Surely hopefully please dear god end a 20 year playoff drought (Editor’s Note: They actually did end the drought last night)
  • Collect the Mariners-branded flannel shirt I’m entitled to on my ticket (we like to keep things on-brand here in Seattle)
  • Test the cameras on the 14 Pro and S22 Ultra
  • Find out if I’m wearing this fanny pack properly

I chose these two phones in particular because they are two of the best you can buy right now. They also present significantly different camera functions, and I’m curious which one I’ll use better over the course of the evening. The 14 Pro has more of a “help you get great photos with minimal effort”, while the S22 Ultra has a maximalist “do you want cameras? here, five” approach. The 10x zoom on the Ultra has really impressed me in the past, but I’m curious to see how it holds up with glowing stadium lights and distant action on the pitch.

With a 10x zoom, you can take advantage of some news footage of the downtown area as you walk to the stadium. Taken with the S22 Ultra.

The 14 Pro doesn’t have the raw telephoto range of the S22 Ultra, but I like the way it handles photos better overall than the S22. Will that make it more useful overall? Or am I annoyed by the limited zoom range? I probably would have brought more phones, but I’m limited to what I can carry in this fanny pack.

Plus, the Mariners are coming off a bleak road trip in which they lost a string of extremely winnable games, casting an all-too-familiar shadow of doubt on our chances of securing a wildcard spot. With about a week to go in the regular season, they can’t afford to lose any more easy games.

View from the stadium over Elliott Bay and Puget Sound.

Taken with the iPhone 14 Pro. We may have the longest-running playoff drought in professional sports, but hey, just look at the view from the stadium!

Before the game starts, I spend some time in a 300-story pavilion with great views of Elliott Bay and downtown Seattle. The early evening sun even peeks through the “O” in T-Mobile for a brief Stonehenge-esque moment. The 10x zoom of the S22 Ultra allows me to capture shots of the downtown skyline that the 3x zoom of the 14 Pro can’t. Even in wide-angle shooting, it captures details that the 14 Pro’s noise reduction would forget. But then again, the Ultra photos from my Stonehenge moment have that damned Thomas Kinkade over-HDRed look about them, and I prefer how the 14 Pro handles that situation. You win something and you lose something.

iPhone 14 Pro on the left; S22 Ultra on the right.

During the game it’s a similar story: sometimes I prefer the Ultra and sometimes the 14 Pro. Sure, it’s cool in theory to take a telephoto from the stands of pitcher Robbie Ray’s Seattle start, but the results aren’t terribly inspiring. Highlights are blown out and details are clearly missing. It’s just too challenging a situation for this tiny sensor and lens.

I grab a portrait of my friend modeling the included flannel shirt with the 14 Pro; I like the 2x portrait focal length better than the 1x or 3x options Samsung offers, but it clumsily cuts around her curly hair. The S22 Ultra probably would have done better with subject isolation, but at that point I’d let my friend sit still long enough for me not to bother. I want to be amazed, but against these (admittedly, very challenging) conditions they are just disappointing.

1/6

Taken with the Samsung S22 Ultra, 10x lens.

There isn’t much more excitement on the field either. Breakthrough star of the season, Julio Rodríguez, is on the injured list, and apparently so is the rest of the Mariners’ offense. I get through seven grueling innings as the Mariners make zero runs and make the pitching of the Texas Rangers Cy Young-worthy. If none of these words made sense to you, know that the Mariners were knocked out 5-0 and the game was just as disappointing as the score suggests.

I walked myself and my fanny pack of phones back to the light rail station, grateful for my washcloth in the early fall evening sky. A series of losses in late September shouldn’t put such a damper on what would otherwise have been an electric season. The baseball season is long and physically demanding – who can reasonably expect a team to maintain a pace of improbable come-from-behind wins from start to finish?

Ten years ago I wouldn’t have dreamed of taking pictures like this with a phone

Likewise, I feel a little guilty about my disappointment with the two phones I tested that night. They’re both small technological marvels in their own way – culminations of decades of advances in mobile technology and digital imaging. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed of taking pictures like this with a phone camera. I think I should give them a little more credit, even though they underperformed in this particular situation.

They’re the best of the best (and should be over $1,000 each). The fact that they are struggling under these conditions is only because no one – Apple, Samsung or anyone else – has figured out how to build a smartphone camera that meets every need. If nothing else, I have a new warm shirt to wear as I listen to the Mariners play their remaining scheduled games from the comfort of home. The next time I personally attend a competition, I may have to pull out my special camera and a telephoto lens. I just need to figure out how to get it into that stadium security-approved fanny pack.

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