On smartphone cameras, the Seattle Mariners, and disappointment

The iPhone 14 Pro has one of the best smartphone camera systems money can buy, but it still has its limitations. | Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The VergeThere’s the smell of sizzling sausage, car exhaust, and late-season...

On smartphone cameras, the Seattle Mariners, and disappointment

There’s the smell of sizzling sausage, car exhaust, and late-season playoff hopes in the air on Tuesday night as I cross the street toward the stadium. I’m carrying a neon green Mariners fanny pack across my chest (that’s how the kids are wearing them, right?!?) loaded 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 railway, looming like the Death Star, and I head toward an entrance with a few things on my agenda, in no particular order:

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

I chose these two phones in particular because they’re two of the best you can buy right now. They also present significantly different camera feature sets, and I’m curious which I’ll like using better over the course of the evening. The 14 Pro has more of a “helps you take nice pictures with minimal effort” vibe, while the S22 Ultra takes a maximalist “you want cameras? here, have 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 field.

Buildings and a clock tower in downtown Seattle.

A 10x zoom lets you take advantage of some news views of downtown on the walk to the stadium. Taken with the S22 Ultra.

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

On top of all that, the Mariners are coming off a dismal road trip in which they lost a string of extremely winnable games, casting an all-too-familiar shadow of doubt on our chances of snagging a wild card spot. With about a week left of regular season play, they can’t afford to lose any more easy games.

View from 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, look at the views from the stadium!

Before the game starts, I spend some time on a 300-level pavilion with sweeping views of Elliott Bay and downtown Seattle. The early evening sun even peeks through the “O” in T-Mobile for a brief Stonehenge-like moment. With the S22 Ultra’s 10x zoom, I can get shots of the downtown skyline that the 14 Pro’s 3x zoom can’t touch. Even in wide-angle shots, it captures detail that the 14 Pro’s noise reduction would smooth into oblivion. But then again, the Ultra’s photos of my Stonehenge moment have that cursed Thomas Kinkade over-HDRed look about them, and I much prefer how the 14 Pro handles that situation. Win some, lose some.

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, getting a telephoto shot from the stands of Seattle starting pitcher Robbie Ray’s delivery is cool in theory, but the results aren’t very inspiring. Highlights are blown out and details are obviously lacking. It’s just too challenging of a situation for this tiny sensor and lens.

I grab a portrait of my friend modeling the included-with-ticket-purchase flannel shirt with the 14 Pro; I like its 2x portrait focal length better than the 1x or 3x options Samsung provides, but it cuts around her curly hair clumsily. The S22 Ultra probably would have done better with subject isolation, but at that point, I’d made my friend sit still long enough that I didn’t bother. I want to be wowed, but up against these (admittedly, very challenging) conditions, they’re just underwhelming.

<em>Taken with the Samsung S22 Ultra, 10x lens.</em><em>Taken with the Samsung S22 Ultra, 10x lens.</em><em>Taken with the Samsung S22 Ultra, 10x lens.</em><em>Taken with the iPhone 14 Pro, 3x lens.</em><em>Taken with the iPhone 14 Pro, 3x lens.</em><em>Taken with the iPhone 14 Pro in portrait mode.</em>


Taken with the Samsung S22 Ultra, 10x lens.

There’s not much more excitement on the field, either. The season’s breakout star Julio Rodríguez is on the injured list, and so apparently is the rest of the Mariners’ offense. I sit through a grueling seven innings as the Mariners manufacture zero runs and make the Texas Rangers’ pitching look Cy Young-worthy. If none of those words made sense to you, then just know that the Mariners got shut out 5–0, and the game was every bit as disappointing as the score suggests.

I walked myself and my fanny pack of phones back to the light rail station, grateful for my flannel in the early fall evening air. A string of losses in late September shouldn’t put so much of a damper on what has otherwise been an electric season. The baseball season is long and physically demanding — who can reasonably expect a team to keep up a pace of improbable come-from-behind wins all the way from start to finish?

Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed of getting these kinds of photos with a phone

Similarly, I feel a little guilty about my disappointment with the two phones I tested out that night. They’re both little 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 getting these kinds of photos with a phone camera. I feel I ought to give them a little more credit, even though they underperformed in this particular situation.

They’re the best of the best (and should be, at over $1,000 each). The fact they struggle under these circumstances is only because nobody — not 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 through their remaining scheduled games from the comfort of home. The next time I attend a game in person, I might have to break out my dedicated camera and a telephoto lens. I just have to figure out how to get it into that stadium-security-approved fanny pack.