Flashback: the weird add-ons that boosted the Samsung Galaxy S cameras
Samsung says that the new Galaxy S24 Ultra has a “Quad Tele System” that offers four magnification levels: 2x, 3x, 5x and 10x. The middle two are achieved with optics, the first and last with advanced image processing. That’s just for zooming in, the S24 Ultra does have four actual cameras on its back – but it wasn’t that long ago when phones had just the one.
That was the case in 2016 when the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 edge arrived – there was a single 12MP camera with a 26mm f/1.7 lens. It was fairly advanced with Dual Pixel autofocus and OIS, but still it locked you into a single focal length.
Samsung had a plan to get around this limitation – the Lens Cover. It was a special case for the S7 and S7 edge that had a lens mount. It shipped with two lenses, one ultra wide-angle (110°) and one telephoto (2x). These were high quality lenses made out of stainless steel and securely screwed into the case (which was designed to place them at the correct position over the phone’s camera).
They packed away neatly into a plastic cylinder and had protective caps to prevent scratches if you wanted to carry just one of them.
This same kit was available for the Galaxy Note7 as well and we got to take it for a spin back in the day. First, here is an illustration of the different fields of view that can be achieved with the camera:
Did this actually work? Indeed it did! Here is a comparison between the digital zoom with the phone’s camera and the 2x tele lens. The difference in detail is massive.
Of course, this was with a 12MP sensor and an old chipset, plus software written before the explosion of computational photography. Digital zoom is much better these days thanks to improvements in all those fields.
Plus, the lens add-on strategy had its issues. The tele lens in particular suffered from corner softness. You could shoot in 16:9 to crop most of it out, but this is always an issue with this sort of lenses.
Here are some photos we took during testing:
Corner softness was the biggest issue with the tele lens, the ultra wide lens had its own problems. And you only need to look at the thumbnails below to spot it, the geometric distortion was very noticeable.
These lenses could be used when recording video and they had a hidden advantage. The Galaxy S7 and Note7 were capable of recording 4K video, however, digital zoom was available only at 1080p. With the tele lens you could get both 4K resolution and a closer view of your subject.
The idea of case-mounted lenses didn’t catch on and Samsung abandoned it after 2016. The Galaxy S8 came out the following year and still had a single camera, but the Note8 did add a 52mm (2x) tele camera to its tool set, thus making an external 2x lens unnecessary. With the S10/Note10 generation in 2019 an ultra wide camera joined the mix, which removed the need for external lenses altogether.
That is not to say that photographic add-ons in general are useless. For example, check out the Photography Kit for the Xiaomi 13 Ultra. This also comes in the form of a case, but instead of add-on lenses, this kit adds filters meant for the standard 67mm adapter ring.
This allows you to put a Neutral-Density (ND) and Circular Polarized (CPL) filters. These are large enough to cover the whole camera island. ND filters they allow you to reduce the amount of light that goes in the camera without changing the aperture (though the 13 Ultra can actually do that, unlike most phones) or the shutter speed. CPL filters are great at reducing reflections and glare.
We will save Xiaomi’s experiments with photo accessories for another time, however, as the company has some really cool ideas – like an actual interchangeable lens system for phones.
Xiaomi’s kit had one trick that we didn’t mention – a grip that also adds a physical shutter key.
Samsung tried out something similar last year with the Gadget Cover case for the Samsung Galaxy S23 series. This system came out a few months before the Xiaomi kit, but can’t hold filters. It does have its uses, though, the Camera Grip Stand in particular combines a compact tripod with a grip/shutter key accessory.
The tripod actually tucks away into the grip, so it’s relatively compact to carry. Also, the grip itself attaches to the case with a twist, so it’s easy to put on and take off.
This accessory has one more trick up its sleeve. The shutter key is actually part of a small detachable module that connects over Bluetooth, so that you can set up the camera on the tripod, get into the frame and snap a photo remotely.
There is also a simpler version of this, the Slim Tripod Stand. As the name suggests, this is just the tripod, though it serves as a nice handle for vlogging too, and you can actually put in your pocket without taking off the tripod.
The Gadget Case add-ons are still around and Samsung has released Gadget Cases for the Galaxy S24 generation, so you can use the Camera Grip Stand with the new models as well.
That said, it looks like Samsung has focused on releasing grips styled with popular brands and characters (e.g. BTS, Lisa Simpson and BB8 grips) instead of accessories that help out with photography.
Have you used lens add-ons for your phone and if yes, what did you think of them? Do you think there is a market for other add-ons like the Xiaomi Photography Kit or the Sony vlog monitor?
- 24 Jan 2024
I didn't know these still existed, sounds awesome. Might grab one for an upcoming trip
- 23 Jan 2024
Samsung not using curved screens good joke.
- 23 Jan 2024
Besides Apple, Samsung is the only brand that isn't using curved screens anymore so that automatically makes it better than any of your favorite ugly curved abominations