Galaxy S21 Ultra vs iPhone 12 Pro Max, Pixel 5, Note 20 Ultra camera comparison

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Galaxy S21 Ultra vs iPhone 12 Pro Max, Pixel 5, Note 20 Ultra camera comparison
The hot new Galaxy S21 Ultra arrived with a splash, expecting to be crowned the new smartphone camera king... but not so fast. The space is very tightly packed with exceptional cameraphones and now the competition is more capable than ever. How do the iPhone 12 Pro Max, Google Pixel 5, and Galaxy Note 20 Ultra stack up against the latest and most advanced Galaxy camera system so far?


But let's not get ahead of ourselves and first quickly recap all the hardware that's tickling in all aforementioned flagships and the new Galaxy S21 Ultra in particular.


With the hardware specs out of the way, it's time to tackle the camera comparison itself. As usual, we've opted to focus on the important stuff: day and night performance, with ultra-wide and zoom shots next in line, and finally, a couple of good ol' selfies to tackle front camera performance. All set? Let's go!

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Scene 1: Daylight



In our first daylight scene, all phones perform admirably and the differences between the pictures we’ve taken are pretty miniscule, which is great news for the state of mobile photography. Great contrast, dynamic range and detail could be observed in all of four pictures, while the differences in overall color reproduction can be attributed to the way Samsung, Apple, and Google tackle colors: the iPhone 12 Pro Max leans to warmer colors, whereas Samsung has an ever-so-slight affiliation to colder colors. As we mentioned above, one thing to note here is the detail softness near the edges of the S21 Ultra image.

Scene 2: Seaside vista



While this scene would have been a nightmare for a smartphone a few years back, all of our participants simply ace this dynamic range test. The Galaxy S21 Ultra takes the cake here: it’s the only phone to not burn out the detail of the clouds immediately beneath the sun, while simultaneously revealing tons of detail in the darker parts of the straw umbrella. This speaks of its exceptional HDR resolve which obviously can’t be matched by neither the iPhone 12 Pro Max nor the Pixel 5.


Scene 3: Ultra-wide



This ultra-wide scene reveals that you can rely on any of the participants to capture a stunning landscape picture. Interestingly, the Note 20 Ultra has the best dynamics in this scene as the iPhone 12 Pro Max and the Galaxy S21 Ultra have failed to resolve some detail in the shadowy areas around the edges of the picture. It’s also pretty clear how much tighter the Pixel 5’s ultra-wide camera is.

Scene 4: Ultra-wide by the sea



The iPhone 12 Pro Max has failed to cope with the diverse dynamic range here, with a blown-out sky, though the rest of that picture looks a-ok. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is the winner to me here, with excellent dynamics and lively colors.



Scene 5: 1x vs 10x zoom



Zooming is the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s shtick as it comes not with one, but two telephoto cameras, one of which is dedicated long-throw capturer. Fortunately, it’s not a gimmick and does an excellent job at capturing actually usable pictures from afar. As seen below, the S21 Ultra is unrivaled at a 10x zoom, followed closely by the Note 20 Ultra in terms of detail. The iPhone, which can reach up to 12x digital zoom, can’t rival the two Androids, but neither can the Pixel 5, which has produced an oil painting at best.


Scene 6: 10x Zoom



This second 10x zoom scene really corroborates our conclusions. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is unbeatable in terms of detail, while the Note 20 Ultra is close second. The iPhone and the Pixel can’t really match this level of detail.

Scene 7: Daylight portrait



When it comes to portraiture, the iPhone 12 Pro Max, Galaxy S21 Ultra, and Note 20 Ultra do a commendable job. The Pixel 5 has some issues with subject separation, which leaves a bad impression, but the rest are all doing that excellent, without any noticeable artifacts. The overall winner here is the iPhone though, as it has captured the sharpest selfie with the loveliest colors. The Galaxy S21 Ultra and the Note 20 Ultra both add a slight yellow-green tint to Victor’s face, which gives him a sickly appearance.

Scene 8: Lights Out



Once the sun goes down, all four do a great job at capturing a stunning nightscape. No two opinions here, it's a toss between the S21 Ultra and the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Samsung's finest now has improved Scene Optimizer which automatically enables the camera's night mode under the appropriate lighting conditions. It also has slightly better dynamics than the iPhone in this scene, which can be best observed by the well-lit door of the foreground building. Yet, details are a bit soft, and I feel the iPhone does a better job at resolving the details in this scene. The Pixel has graced the far-away buildings with a weird blue tint, whereas the Note 20 Ultra picture has some noise when you inspect it from up close.

Scene 9: Nightscape



Another heated battle between the iPhone 12 Pro Max and the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Color-wise, the iPhone picture is more eye-catchy, but the more conservative and colder color reproduction of the Galaxy gives off a more realistic vibe. Details are great in both pictures, though the Galaxy S21 Ultra has a slight advantage, at least to my eyes. The Note 20 Ultra once again has some noise issues especially in the badly lit areas. The Pixel 5 is a bit unimpressive here, with very cold colors and so-so details.

Scene 10: The school entrance



Google's algorithms have finally made a masterpiece: of all the pictures of this school entrance, the Pixel 5 has done the best job with little to no noise, vivid colors, and good dynamic range. All other pictures are brighter, but also noisier.


Conclusion


The results are speaking for themselves - the Galaxy S21 Ultra is easily one of the best and most complete camera systems we've tested so far. The super-versatile cameras produce very good results even in the most diverse lighting situations, and the resulting picture just begs to be shared around. At the same time, the dedicated long-throw zoom is simply unrivaled at the moment. Surely, there are some issues, namely the softer detail near the edges ofthe frame in certain scenarios as well as some noise in low-light conditions with wide dynamic range, but all things considered, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a big win when it comes to mobile photography.

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