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This particular scene was captured on all four phones without their respective night mode kicking off. That's because the particular lighting conditions were deemed as "good enough" by all four phones thanks to the reflected lighting on the building over there. The iPhone 12 Pro Max
photo is a bit more exposed than the rest which doesn't reflect the actual scene. The two Samsungs and the Pixel
have achieved a more realistic look that feels more true to what my eye saw on the spot.
As far as details go, it's a toss up between the Galaxy S21
Ultra and the iPhone 12 Pro
Max for sure. There's seemingly more details in the iPhone 12
Pro Max picture, which is clearly evident, but the oversharpening in this particular scene looks a bit too harsh and unnatural to me. The Galaxy S21 Ultra appears to be truer to life despite delivering softer details, especially near the edges of the frame. The dynamic range in this photo has also been resolved better as the iPhone has clipped some of the highlights near the spotlight on the left.
Scene 2: Zoom test
Next up, we will conduct a small zoom test to demonstrate how well the phones are coping. The regular test shot reveals the overall dynamics of the scene as well as just how tricky neon signs are to capture properly. Again, no phone found it necessary to automatically enable or suggest night mode.
But what happens when we zoom in? The Galaxy S21 Ultra has the upper hand when it comes to details resolve, as it is one-ups the competition in terms of clarity and sharpness. The dynamics are superior here compared to the iPhone, the Pixel, and the Note 20 Ultra: just see how natural the light coming from the upward-firing lights blends with the masonry. The same partially applies to the Note 20 Ultra sample as well, but that photo is ruined by just how underexposed it is.
This scene was once taken at lower light, but again, not low enough to warrant turning on the dedicated night mode. Yet, I've chosen to include this sample as it once again clearly shows how much sharper the iPhone's main camera is in comparison with the others, whereas the Galaxy S21 Ultra does more than an excellent job here as well but the softness around the edges of the frame is seen here as well.
Scene 4: Night Mode On vs Off
Having eloped from the gentle and refreshing embrace of the illuminated midnight city, I found myself at the gates of the Black Sea, which was sufficiently gloomy for my odd needs. Taking two pictures with each phone, I wanted to demonstrate how stark of a difference each respective night mode accomplishes. No second opinion about it - night mode is king no matter the brand or the operating system running the show, and you will certainly be doing yourself a disservice by not using it as much as possible. Here are four pair of pictures that should clearly prove that.
Galaxy S21 Ultra
Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max
Google Pixel 5
Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Scene 5: The port
This scene was taken in nearly pitch black lighting conditions, with the only sources of light visible being the ships moored on the port half a mile or so ahead of me. All phones correctly presumed that they had to go into their respective night mode.
Scene 6: Ultra-wide
How do the ultra-wide angle cameras fare in such unforgiving conditions? Sadly, the widest cameras haven't caught up to the main snappers in terms of overall quality yet. As evident in the crops below, there's tons of noise visible in the not-so-well lit parts of the scene. The two Galaxies look the cleanest to me, though it should be noted that the Pixel 5
has captured a gorgeous picture that simply sucks you in with its vivid colors.
No matter which flagship phone among the four above you get or have, rest assured it will do good as far as low-light image quality is concerned. Thanks to night mode, which is bringing the power of long exposure to mobile photography, low-lit scenes are no longer an impossible hurdle; instead, with nearly a hundred-percent success rate, each flagship definitely holds up on its own.
Surely, there's room for improvement. For one, the Pixel mostly left me indifferent with its unconvincing performance. As a whole, Google's latest flagship feels like an under-baked concoction resting on the achievements of its predecessors and hardly matching the prowess of the Galaxies and iPhones. The Galaxy S21 Ultra feels like the ultimate do-it-all warrior, but the same applies to the iPhone 12 Pro Max. I'd gladly pick any of these for a personal trip or to capture an important personal event.