While most smartphone users will love the results offered by computational photography algorithms, photographers aiming for creative control want more freedom: that’s where Expert RAW enters!
Still only available for the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and the S22 series, including the S22 Ultra which I’ve used as my main camera since its launch, the Expert RAW app is an ambitious solution for all those who want more than what sophisticated computational photography algorithms offer, nowadays, in most smartphones.
Samsung just shared an interview with two of the people responsible for the development of Expert RAW, added information that offers answers to some of my questions regarding the app. While I am still waiting for a reply from Samsung on other aspects regarding the S22 Ultra operation and the Expert RAW app, the interview now available clarifies aspects related to the app’s operation and, what’s important to photographers, points to the path ahead, which promises to free those who want the ultimate creative control from the tyranny of computational photography.
This article is based on the interview distributed by Samsung, but I’ve also added notes related to my experience with the Expert RAW app, which I believe will help readers who want to take control of the cameras on their Samsung smartphones. While the app is now limited to the S21 Ultra and the S22 series, Samsung has confirmed that it will be extended to other devices, because, as the company says, it wants to make “the photography experience more inspiring for users”.
Standard camera app gives little control
It’s no secret that Samsung camera technologies, as those from other smartphone brands, have always relied on sophisticated computational photography algorithms to produce the best picture quality. However, Samsung admits, “the standard camera app makes many decisions about how the image will be rendered in terms of color, tone, detail and noise. The user has very limited say in these decisions.”
While this may be exactly what most people want from the camera in their smartphones, Samsung is aware that if they want to seduce advanced photographers to use a smartphone as a camera more often, they need to offer more than the standard camera app in the devices does. The company says that “our inspiration came from the expert and enthusiast photography community, which yearned for an easier mobile photography experience, without sacrificing the creative control that DSLR and post-capture editing allows. Expert RAW was born out of a desire to transform that inspiration into reality.”
Although similar to the standard camera app in the Galaxy S22 Ultra, Expert RAW is different, not just on the interface, but, even more important, under the hood. Like so many great inventions, Expert RAW was a group effort — driven by Samsung’s experts and Galaxy users’ valuable feedback. Hamid Sheikh, Head of the Intelligent Imaging Team at Samsung Research America’s (SRA) Mobile Processor Innovation (MPI) Lab, and Girish Kulkarni, Head of the Camera Solutions Group at the Samsung R&D Institute India-Bangalore (SRI-B), are the experts who collaborated on the app.
The Samsung Research experts
Hamid Sheikh, leads a team of world-class computational photography experts tasked with developing cutting-edge features for use in flagship mobile devices. He has contributed to the development of Super Resolution Zoom, Low Light Shot, high dynamic range imaging technology, Night Mode, Expert RAW and more and was previously part of the team that developed the world-famous structural similarity index measure (SSIM) metric, which is used to train AI networks in image processing.
Girish Kulkarni, leads a team that specializes in the end-to-end development of camera solutions for flagship devices that utilize AI (computational imaging, human aware and visual intelligence) to offer the best pro-grade features. He has extensive camera experience from working on Samsung’s Galaxy A and Galaxy M series smartphones.
Samsung says that “Expert RAW is a comprehensive suite of in-camera editing tools that turn the camera in your pocket into a DSLR-like experience. That means having more creative control over your content.” While you’ve to take the “DSLR-like experience” with a grain of salt, there is no doubt that the app offers, from the interface to what it delivers in terms of files, a promising solution for those who want the ultimate control. It’s not perfect, yet, but the developers do say that it’s going to be continuously improved to make it better.
Designed to work with Lightroom
Hamid Sheikh says that “Expert RAW really gives users the ability to take full control of their mobile photography experience much like a professional photographer would. The app captures much more comprehensive data for each image, which can be used to both improve photos and artistically enhance them with editing software like Adobe Lightroom — the go-to app for professional photographers.”
The expert from Samsung Research adds that “To improve the overall camera experience, we worked closely with Adobe to tightly couple Expert RAW with Lightroom. The result is that photographers have full control over their creative experience. Novice photographers can also utilize automatic set points for camera controls, and then use the Samsung-specific default values in Lightroom. In both cases, the tight integration of the two apps makes for an enjoyable experience.”
This is essential information that was not available before, although the link with Lightroom (there is a Lightroom for Samsung app version) was evident. There is still one question Samsung needs to clarify: is Expert RAW compatible with other RAW editors, like Snapseed? The question makes sense, because the RAW files (DNG) appear too dark when opened in Google’s venerable free photo editor, which some may prefer to use instead of Lightroom.
Girish Kulkarni says that “Expert RAW is an epic leap forward for photography. It essentially places a professional studio in your pocket. Whether you are a pro photographer or you’re just a user who wants to capture amazing content, anyone can take full advantage of the Galaxy S22’s pro-grade camera with Expert RAW. It captures high-quality, high dynamic range pictures in the multi-frame RAW format that enables precise post-capture editing and professional results.”
From the Nokia N90 to Expert RAW
Almost two decades ago I heard the same note about having “a professional studio in your pocket”, from Nokia, when the company introduced the N90, with Carl Zeiss lenses. The article I wrote about it then meant the photography magazine I published at the time lost a six-month ad campaign. We’re in 2022, and this time Samsung may be right: paired with a device like the S22 Ultra, the Expert RAW app can produce some “studio” images. It’s not the camera to tackle all subjects, but I’ve had some exciting weeks exploring what the pair can do, both in studio and outdoors.
“With Expert RAW, people can capture much more information in a single picture — from dark details to bright highlights” says Girish Kulkarni, adding that “it also drastically reduces noise and increases sharpness and detail. If you’re looking for the ultimate creative controls, you can choose your own settings for aspects like ISO, shutter speed, white balance, EV and focus, and even choose which lenses you want to use for the subject and the scene. Finally, because both JPEG and DNG files are saved when shooting, you can hop right into the Adobe Lightroom app on your smartphone or PC and edit with ease.”
That’s a clear advantage of smartphones that are also cameras: you can shoot and immediately edit your images, meaning you’re completely mobile. If you’ve an Internet connection, images can be posted online instants after you’ve captured them, making the Expert RAW/Samsung smartphone “marriage” a solution that photographers aspiring for more control have to evaluate when deciding which device to buy. If you want to be free from the limitations of computational photography, this is the right path.
A quantum leap for creative control
“As we heard the input of professional photographers who were mostly utilizing DSLR cameras, they wanted to achieve a pro-grade experience with smartphones” notes Girish Kulkarni, adding that “our consumer research also showed that after using their smartphone’s auto camera for a long time, typical users were very passionate about exploring Samsung’s pro-grade camera capabilities in-depth to become better photographers.”
“The more we talked to professional and amateur photographers – Girish Kulkarni continues – the more we understood their needs in terms of RAW image capturing, camera controls, the post-editing experience, creative capabilities and more. That’s when we set out to create a new pro-grade experience based around RAW capturing so that every level of photographer could merge our camera controls and their creativity to enjoy professional-looking photos.”
The camera experience is one of the most important experiences that a user has with his or her smartphone, according to Hamid Sheik, who adds that “Samsung has been at the cutting edge of camera quality, and the gap between consumers and professional/enthusiast photographers has always been a tempting one to bridge” to claim “I think with the release of Expert RAW, users will find that their photography experience will take a quantum leap in terms of creative control and artistic expression. I expect more and more people will find this new experience rewarding because it lets them personalize their camera based on their tastes — exactly how they want them — and not based on what some other engineers chose for them.”
An app for those willing to go beyond
Girish Kulkarni adds that “as an app, this platform has simplified the RAW capturing process with precise camera and lens controls and post-editing with Adobe Lightroom. It’s for every user who is willing to go beyond — to unleash the true power of an Expert RAW camera, and explore their creative side.”
Expert RAW started at MPI Lab, where the main idea was nurtured. As Expert RAW was a complex R&D project, SRI-B’s experience was essential. The whole story can be read in the interview published by Samsung. What’s important to retain here is that the development of the new RAW camera app is not finished, and Hamid Sheik confirms that “our journey is just beginning.”
The MPI Lab researcher says “I am excited to think about what new improvements and enhancements we can make. One of the best parts of the Expert RAW experience is that the photographer is front and center. We’ll preserve that as we actively look into the experiences of different users and continuously implement improvements to make Expert RAW even better than before”, to which Girish Kulkarni adds “in the future, we would like to continuously enhance Expert RAW with a focus on creating a new ecosystem for pro photography that fully utilizes pro-grade camera capabilities.”
As a final note, here is my take: Expert RAW still needs adjustments and Samsung needs to clarify some questions, including the app’s compatibility with other RAW editors besides Adobe Lightroom. Only being transparent about the inner workings of the app and collaborating with photographers who are willing to have smartphones as regular cameras and explore how much of that idea can be achieved can the company contribute to give users the ultimate creative control, reducing the intervention of computational photography, which has its place, but needs to be tamed.