Galaxy S21 Ultra vs iPhone 12 Pro Max, Pixel 5, Note 20 Ultra selfie camera comparison
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Selfie cameras are the unsung heroes of mobile photography: despite all the research and development that went in favor of their "hiding" in the past few years, we aren't really ready to part ways with the good ol' front-facing camera. Notches, pop-up mechanisms, rotating bezels, and punch-holes all emerged as ways to do away with the necessary evil that was the front-facing camera. Even more so in the days of a global pandemic where Zoom meetings are commonplace and you have to virtually attend certain work meetings.
As a 30-something year old white male, selfies aren't a something I do on a regular basis. Even so, when the time comes, I'd rather have a capable camera in my hands as those rare photos I take of myself or with friends better be good ones.
I took the new Galaxy S21 Ultra for a little selfie shootout against the venerable iPhone 12 Pro Max, Pixel 5, and Galaxy Note 20 Ultra to determine which one's your best bet if you're a selfie devotee. Even if you don't care about selfies that much, it's still worth knowing which phone does the best overall job in this often-overlooked aspect of mobile photography.
So, which one does the best job? Samsung, Apple, or Google? Let's find out!
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Scene 1: Regular indoor selfie
This selfie was taken in a moderately-lit room at around noon, which is a fairly common selfie scenario. There's not much difference in terms of details here, but what makes or breaks these selfies is the overall tone. The most realistic and true-to-life colors are delivered by both of Samsung's finest here, with the Galaxy S21 Ultra looking a bit more pleasing, though the Note isn't too shabby at all. The iPhone 12 Pro Max has created the most "shareable" selfie, with slightly boosted exposure and livelier colors, which can be achieved with all other selfies with the help of some destructive image editing. The Google Pixel 5 selfie is noticeably more contrast-y than the rest, which could strike the fancy of some folks.
Another selfie indoors which corroborates our summary from Scene 1: true-to-life selfies taken on the Galaxy S21 Ultra and Note 20 Ultra, a bit more flattering iPhone selfie, and a more contrast-y photo taken with the Pixel. Which one you like the most is solely a matter of personal preference, as a bit of subsequent image editing can easily transform the images.
Scene 3: Low-light indoor selfie
In dimly-lit lighting scenarios, the same general image properties pertain: the iPhone creates a more pleasing selfie, whereas the Galaxy S21 Ultra creates a more realistic overall image. The Pixel 5 and the Note 20 Ultra do a great job here as well, with minor differences in color representation. Details are great in all selfies here, even despite the not ideal lighting conditions.
Scene 4: Portrait
While I was parading my quarantine bod' in the local mall, the chance for a well-lit portrait arose. Portraits, indeed, are the bane of almost all selfie cameras due to the difficult subject separation, which almost always results in artifacts between the subject and the artificial bokeh. Indeed, without the help of a second sensor, it's hard to determine what should be blurred and what should stay in sharp focus. The portrait above is taken at a more uniform background and all devices except for the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra have correctly determined that the glasses on top of my head shouldn't be blurred and be sharp instead. In terms of overall appearance, I really like the Galaxy S21 Ultra selfie, which is warm and pleasing. Interestingly, I'd usually expect the iPhone to deliver the yellow-ish selfie, but in this case, it's Samsung's turn to create the warmer selfie. There are some very minor artifacts in all selfies, but they aren't that harsh and could have been averted if I had chosen a plain uni-colored background. Yet, those aren't that common in real life.
The good thing about portraits on the S21 Ultra, Note 20 Ultra, iPhone 12 Pro Max, and Pixel 5? You can edit your portraits later and change the amount of background blur. The focal point can't be changed, however.
Scene 5: Portrait #2
This portrait scene was a bit harder due to the busier background. Which phone did the best job here? I feel the iPhone has done the best job here, followed closely by the Pixel 5 and the two Samsungs, which once again add too much bokeh.
Scene 6: Group portrait
Outdoor portraits are the iPhone's strength and that's clearly visible here: simply lovely facial tones that can't be seen on any other device. The most realistic, however, seem to be the colors in the S21 Ultra selfe, followed by the Note 20 Ultra. The Pixel 5 is a bit more pinkish in comparison.
Scene 7: Group portrait #2
What happens when a phone detects two or more faces but one is much further back? Normally, the one in the foreground is favored and the other one is blurred. However, I noticed that the S21 Ultra doesn't explicitly do that and tries to keep both faces in focus in a natural way. Even playing with the blur level in post-processing only adjusts the blur in the top right corner of the photo, keeping the rest of the scene mostly intact from artificial bokeh, which was a pleasant surprise. At the same time, all other phones did what I expected: foreground human in focus, background human heavily blurred.
Bonus: Baby selfie
You've got to teach them young! In no time will this little one be ready to help his daddy with the camera comparison phone juggling.
Truth is, no matter which phone you pick, the differences in quality and overall appearance aren't that stark. Personally, I'd be stoked to use any of these four troopers as a daily driver if I were fan of taking selfies. One thing I love about all four phones is the customizability that they offer for your selfies: you can edit the amount of blur in portraits, change the lighting effect, or even modify your face. Yes, South Korea's obsession with physical beauty has seeped into Samsung's camera app, allowing you to artificially slim your jawline, enlarge your eyes, and smooth your skin, but even the Pixel 5 has a face smoothing effect available on board.
You can check out all the images in this comparison once again in the gallery right below.