Zoom test: Pixel 6 Pro vs Galaxy S21 Ultra vs iPhone 13 Pro Max

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Zoom test: Pixel 6 Pro vs Galaxy S21 Ultra vs iPhone 13 Pro Max
Google’s newest flagship — the Pixel 6 Pro — is touted as the first Pixel that is actually destined to rival the big hitters on the market — like the iPhones and Galaxies.

Why? A perfect storm between having a Google-branded chip, a cool-looking and recognizable design, a major UI update for Google’s Android, a big upgrade to the camera, and a very fair price (considering the market) all come to mind.

We’ve already put the Pixel 6 Pro through a series of tests:

But there are still tiny things to nitpick, even if it’s just for the fun of it. The Google Pixel 6 Pro may have a fresh new camera module, but Google didn’t even try to tackle any of the super zoom options that other Android phone manufacturers are going after. So, with a cap on 20x, how does the Pixel 6 Pro camera do for zoomed-in photos vs the Galaxy S21 Ultra and iPhone 13 Pro Max?

Google Pixel 6 Pro

$899
Buy at BestBuy

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

$799 99
$1199 99
Expired

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max

AT&T model
$999 99
$1099 99
Expired


Scene 1


Establishing shot



Taken with the Pixel 6 Pro at 1x, we will be zooming in at the ship’s figurehead in the center distance there.

First, we move to 3x zoom. Now, here, the Pixel 6 Pro is at a disadvantage — the Galaxy S21 Ultra and iPhone 13 Pro Max have 3x optical zoom lenses, so they don’t need to crop in. The Pixel 6 Pro’s telephoto lens is a 4x zoom, meaning that — at 3x — we are still looking at a digital zoom with the main camera.

And, you can see this — the Pixel 6 Pro shot here is the softest, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is sharpest. The iPhone 13 Pro Max is somewhere in the middle.



Moving to 4x zoom, the Pixel 6 Pro now has its telephoto lens on and the image looks better already. Still, the S21 Ultra is sharper. The iPhone 13 Pro Max also did some software sharpening and we can kind of see halos around the edges of objects.



Let’s crank it up to 10x. The Pixel 6 Pro and Galaxy S21 Ultra are still neck in neck. The Pixel photo looks a bit softer, but the Galaxy S21 Ultra is starting to introduce a little noise. The iPhone 13 Pro Max seems to be falling apart here, with the photo starting to look like a pastel painting.



At 15x, the iPhone taps out — that’s the maximum it can go to, and the photo has almost fully devolved into abstract art. The Pixel 6 Pro is also starting to lose some details to excessive smoothing and noise-reduction, but the image is still looking pretty OK. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is holding out best, though, the graininess of the photo is steadily increasing.



20x is as far as the Pixel 6 Pro would go. At this stage, we can see some artifacting from the excessive noise-reduction that the Pixel had to do. The Galaxy S21 Ultra, on the other hand, goes lighter with the noise-reduction and you can see more and more grain. Still, both phones perform admirably, with the S21 probably delivering a slightly better-looking picture here.



Just for fun: the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the only one that can go beyond 20x, so here’s a 100x shot of the same subject.



Scene 2


Establishing shot



We will be zooming on the clock tower up there in the distance

On the 3x zoom level, we have the same story — the Pixel 6 Pro’s telephoto doesn’t kick in until 4x zoom. So, it’s a pretty obvious digital crop with some artifacts introduced by the software sharpening. The Galaxy S21 Ultra, again, looks sharpest, though maybe a bit too much. The iPhone 13 Pro Max photo is quite balanced here.



Moving on to 4x, the Pixel 6 Pro telephoto is now on, and the other two phones are forced to crop in by a little bit. The Pixel 6 photo looks the most balanced and natural. The iPhone picture is starting to get soft, while the Galaxy S21 Ultra picture is nice and sharp, but you can see a bit of an outline around the tower, caused by the software sharpening.



Dialing it up to 10x, the iPhone is — again —, getting softer and softer with every step. The Galaxy S21 Ultra retains the most sharpness. But I feel like the Pixel 6 Pro deserves credit for the colors of the picture — it was a pretty challenging shot and phones have a tendency of mess up colors and exposure at such extreme zooms. The Pixel 6 Pro photo here looks overall best.



Scene 3


Establishing shot



We will be zooming in on the text at the top of the center building.

3x zoom — we already know the deal. The Pixel 6 Pro is using a digital crop on this stage, the other two phones are using the optical zoom of their 3x telephoto cameras. The result? The Galaxy S21 Ultra is the sharpest and managed a good exposure. The iPhone 13 Pro Max photo does look natural in terms of sharpness, but the challenging shot tripped up its exposure a bit.



At 4x, all three phones are more or less on the same level. The iPhone is starting to introduce some softening around the edges, the S21 Ultra has a bit of noise. The Pixel 6 Pro’s telephoto camera is in its native 4x, so it’s the cleanest image.



At 10x, it’s the same story we’ve seen before. The iPhone 13 Pro Max is getting fluffy around the edges, the Pixel 6 Pro is a bit too vibrant, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is sharpest, but introducing more grain. In general, the latter two are still doing quite well, considering it’s a 10x shot.



15x is the iPhone’s maximum and you can see it can’t do much more — it’s getting soft with details and colors washing out. The Pixel 6 Pro shot is a couple of steps ahead, but also seems to be softening up quite a lot. The S21 Ultra’s sharpness at this level is still quite impressive — you can see the wire on the roof and the grilles on the air conditioners.



At 20x, the S21 Ultra’s exposure drops by quite a bit — this is a behaviour we noticed throughout making samples for this comparison. Interesting. Still, it’s much sharper than the Pixel 6 Pro, which is getting into painting territory at this point. At 20x, the Pixel 6 Pro taps out.



So, just for fun, here’s the S21 Ultra with a 100x shot of this subject:



Scene 4


Establishing shot



We will be zooming in on the gray building in the far-middle there

At 3x, both the iPhone and Galaxy’s telephoto cameras are both underexposed, but sharp enough so you get an idea of what you are looking at. The Pixel 6 Pro did better with the exposure, but the red wire decoration around the building is visibly distorted and jagged due to the digital zoom.



At 4x, the Pixel 6 Pro’s telephoto camera kicks in and the tables are turning. Not only is the Pixel 6 shot here the brightest, it also has the best details. The red wire around the building is distorted in the iPhone 13 Pro Max and S21 Ultra photos and the lower exposure isn’t doing them any favors as well.



At 10x, the iPhone photos are getting washed out, with soft details. The Pixel 6 Pro picture here looks brighter, sure, but it went a bit overboard. There’s a lack of contrast and it makes it look kind of “fake” and too “doctored”. You can also notice some sharpening outlines around bright objects. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is introducing a bit of noise, but it’s sharpest and looks most balanced.



At 15x the iPhone 13 Pro Max taps out with a pretty underwhelming photo. The Pixel 6 Pro and Galaxy S21 Ultra are neck in neck again, both having some artifacts and noise introduced. But they still hold it together very well.



20x is the Pixel 6 Pro’s maximum, and it’s starting to soften up. There are jagged edges around the red wire, and more artifacts due to the sharpening. The Galaxy S21 Ultra takes this and it’s not out of breath yet.



Just for fun: 100x shot with the S21 Ultra



Scene 5


Establishing shot



Believe it or not, there’s a statue in the center there. We’ll be zooming in on that

By now, we know how this goes. At 3x, the Pixel 6 Pro is at a disadvantage, since its telephoto hasn’t kicked in yet. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is sharpest, the iPhone 13 Pro Max looks balanced, though not as detailed.



At 4x, the Pixel 6 Pro’s telephoto lens comes into play and the photo looks much more pleasing. With so many leaves and branches requiring very fine detail, it’s very obvious that the iPhone 13 Pro Max and Galaxy S21 Ultra were forced to crop in digitally.



At 10x, the iPhone 13 Pro Max is getting washed out, while the Pixel 6 Pro looks strangely fuzzy / soft. The Galaxy S21 Ultra, on its end, is introducing some weird bloom around the statue. All in all, it seems this scene was the most challenging out of all — maybe because of the heavy vegetation around a bright-colored statue in the distance?



At 15x, the Pixel 6 Pro is getting fuzzier and fuzzier for some reason. The iPhone 13 Pro Max is at its maximum and is out of the race, looking like a finger painting. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is also starting to introduce some weird softness and artifacting, but is holding it together the most here.



20x is the Pixel’s maximum. Here, the Pixel 6 Pro photo is very soft, the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s is very noisy. The winner in this case would be your legs — as in, walk up closer to the subject.



Just for fun — the Galaxy S21 Ultra 100x shot of this scene


Conclusion


Google Pixel 6 Pro

$899
Buy at BestBuy

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

$799 99
$1199 99
Expired

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max

AT&T model
$999 99
$1099 99
Expired

While the iPhone 13 Pro Max camera is usually great, we can see here that Apple really lags behind on the zoom front. Admittedly, a niche feature, but hey — if that's what you are after, there you have it. The Pixel 6 Pro does surprisingly well, considering Google didn't really market it as a crazy zoom camera or anything. Up until 15x, you can get usable pictures out of it. Beyond that, they are still OK, but the fuzzyness starts seeping in. And the Galaxy S21 Ultra, with its 100x zoom has a lot of magnification on tap. Yeah, it does introduce noise and artifacts, or it can have trouble with proper exposure sometimes, but it was still consistently the best and sharpest at more extreme zoom settings.

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