There’s no bigger rivalry in the smartphone space than Apple versus Samsung. These two each have their latest range of flagship smartphones on sale now, vying for the performance, style, and photography crowns. Today we’re taking the ultra-premium iPhone 12 Pro Max and Galaxy S21 Ultra cameras out for a spin to see which takes the better pictures.
Click here to view the full-res files, if you fancy conducting your own analysis. Let’s dive right on in.
More Galaxy S21 Ultra camera tests:
- Camera shootout: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Huawei P40 Pro Plus
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs iPhone 12 Pro Max: Camera specs
|Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra||Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max|
|Main Camera||108MP (12MP binned)
24mm focal length
26mm focal length
dual pixel PDAF, IBIS
13mm focal length
dual pixel PDAF
13mm focal length
70mm focal length
dual pixel PDAF, OIS
65mm focal length
240mm focal length
dual pixel PDAF, OIS
|Focusing||Laser AF system||3D ToF Lidar|
Daylights, colors, and exposure
As we’ve come to expect from Apple and Samsung flagships, the majority of pictures you take are going to look great. This generation is no exception, although there are still a few key differences between the photos you’ll take from both phones.
Our verdicts: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review | Apple iPhone 12 Pro/Pro Max review
Samsung continues to be the punchier of the two color-wise, at least in most shots. Samsung has dialed back its color saturation a bit from the S20 series, but you’ll still want to disable the Scene Optimizer to avoid a tendency towards overly vivid reds and greens. See the first example below as an example where Samsung still takes its colors too far.
Disabling this extra mode evens out the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s pictures and its color profile moves much closer to the realism that Apple strives for. As well as punchy colors, both phones offer solid white balance in most shooting conditions. Although as you’ll see below (check out the TV remote and plate), Apple tends to hit a more idealized white point when shooting indoors, while Samsung can end up a fraction too warm or cool. Even so, it’s a minor difference.
Indoors, you’ll get great results from both phones. There are subtle differences in color reproduction, white balance, and exposure. But nothing that’s worth diving any deeper into.
Photography terms explained: ISO, aperture, shutter speed, and more
Outdoors is a little different. Here we find that the iPhone 12 Pro Max struggles to obtain consistent exposure. It’s often slightly overexposed in bright environments and underexposed in darker situations. This isn’t a major issue, more a personal preference. To my eyes, overly bright or dark images take the sheen off the iPhone’s otherwise solid approach to realistic photos. Also, note in the pictures below that the Galaxy S21 Ultra has a slightly wider field-of-view from the main camera, so you might not need to switch to the wide-angle sensor as often.
The key takeaways are that you’ll get slightly more vivid and saturated photos from the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra but also more consistency when it comes to exposure. While the iPhone 12 Pro Max tends to err on the side of realism, at least when it comes to colors. That said, we’re really talking about reasonably small differences when shooting with the main camera in decent lighting.
You’ll have to pay very close attention to pick out any major difference between these two phones, but that’s exactly what we’re here to do. So let’s take a closer look at the cameras in some more demanding scenarios.
At 12 megapixels apiece, there’s very little discernable difference in detail between the two cameras when looking at full-frame pictures. Cropping in at 100% reveals a surprising lack of detail from the 108MP sensor in some of the darker Galaxy S21 Ultra examples, which may be due to pixel binning or HDR processing. Still, in most shots, these two phones are very close for detail. Instead, it’s their different approaches to sharpening and denoise that make a difference to the way these pictures look when you crop in.
Pictures from the Galaxy S21 Ultra come out with an extra dose of sharpening. This helps extract a few extra details but also sees the images come out with a harsher look to edges and textures. I suspect part of this look is also due to the camera’s pixel binning algorithm, which converts colors from the 108MP sensor into a 12MP image.
Apple, on the other hand, takes a much softer approach to sharpening. This produces a more natural look that pays dividends on well-defined textures and edges, such as brickwork. However, this approach loses some details on complex textures, such as grass.
Both offer plenty of detail in daylight, so the look boils down to preference. It’s a meaningless difference for most photos, but I prefer Apple’s softer approach to processing. It makes crops far more palatable when you want to edit your pictures.
Related: The best camera phones you can get
Extreme HDR capabilities
Thanks to computational photography, HDR has increasingly become a solved issue for smartphones. Although some phones are still better than others. Both our handsets take great high dynamic range (HDR) pictures in common situations, as you can see from the first example below. Highlights and shadows are well balanced for the most part. So far so typical. However, once we move into more extreme HDR environments, Samsung’s flagship takes a clear lead.
The second set of images above are difficult for any camera, but the iPhone 12 fairs rather poorly. The phone can’t discern any color or detail from our foreground subject, leaving us with little more than a silhouette. The Galaxy S21 Ultra turns to an extreme ISO level to help pick out colors and details in this scene, which also results in a high level of grain at the edges of the image. Still, a little noise is a worthwhile trade-off in this instance.
We see the same trend manifest in other tricky HDR scenarios, where Samsung captures far more detail in shadows. Both phones do a good job balancing the highlights in the image below, but there’s much more to see here.
Pass over Samsung’s oversaturation and Apple’s slight underexposure for a moment. To really spot the differences in HDR capabilities, pay close attention to the colors and level of detail you can discern in the distant trees. There’s pretty much black on the iPhone 12 Pro Max, while the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra produces a result that’s much closer to the human eye.
This is a prime example of Samsung’s excellent HDR processing. Not only are highlights balanced and not overblown, but details and colors are well preserved in darker areas of the image. Apple’s HDR implementation looks great when eyeballing the sky, but is definitely weaker when it comes to overall exposure and shadow detail. Chalk this up as a big win for the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Shooting in low light
In some sense, Night modes used for low light photography are an extension of modern HDR techniques. Combining multiple exposures together greatly improves brightness and colors when shooting in less ideal lighting scenarios. The first example below shows how Night mode enhances the pictures from these two handsets.
The large 1/1.33-inch 108MP sensor inside the Galaxy S21 Ultra produces a reasonably well-exposed image even without the aid of Night mode. This is an important win for the S21 Ultra, as it can snap low light shots quickly with a lower risk of blurring from long exposures. The iPhone 12 Pro Max’s smaller sensor clearly struggles for light capture, by comparison. Producing a darker image with less color and more noise. You pretty much always have to use Night mode with the iPhone, which takes longer to capture.
Related: 6 tips for improving smartphone low light photography
Turning Night mode on levels the playing field. Samsung’s phone sees an increase in brightness, detail, and color, as does the iPhone 12 Pro Max to an even greater extent. However, close inspection reveals blurrier details and a bit more of a smudgy look with the iPhone’s Night mode enabled.
The same long exposure techniques work for astrophotography too and again it’s the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra that comes out on top. We can pick out a greater number of stars in Samsung’s image, there are minimal signs of noise, and a dark night’s sky. Apple’s attempt is clearly much noisier, with fewer stars visible, and an over brightening in the center of the image. It’s OK given the difficult scenario, but definitely behind what Samsung can offer.
We see similar deficiencies with the iPhone’s Night mode other very dark scenarios. While the phone does a good job at extracting color and brightness in the leftmost images, it’s unfocused and lacking in any meaningful detail. Samsung’s image is darker but in much better focus is the more realistic of the two.
Finally, let’s turn our attention to a more typical, slightly more brightly lit low light shot.
Again, Samsung’s superior HDR implementation comes to the fore, taming the scene’s highlights for a better overall exposure balance. However, the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s details don’t hold up quite so well on close inspection. Heavy denoise smudges some of the images finer details and there’s a heavy sharpening pass. Most odd of all are the detail artifacts on the brickwork that swirl and mush details together into odd shapes. This is most likely a machine learning or pixel binning processing artifact.
While the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s image is a little noisier, it’s still very detailed and doesn’t suffer from these ugly artifacts. These echo our earlier analysis of detail, where the Galaxy S21 Ultra is less consistent than the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s slightly noisier approach. Overall, Samsung comes out best in low light for colors, exposure, focus, but I do like Apple’s softer approach to denoise processing.
Zooming in on details
On paper, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra’s 10x periscope zoom camera gives the phone a notable advantage at long ranges and this bears out in reality. There’s simply no competition at 10x, the S21 Ultra is by far the most detailed. Although the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s software zoom holds up surprisingly well, providing you’re shooting in bright light.
Zoom quality is much closer at 2x and 3x, where the two phones offer 2.5x and 3x telephoto lenses. Image quality follows the broad themes from earlier, with Samsung’s zoom camera leaning more heavily on color saturation while the Apple’s camera ends up with a brighter exposure. Apple also seems to produce yellow looking grass every now and again, for some reason. Very close inspection again reveals that the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a little heavier on its sharpening pass, which helps extract a little extra detail, while the iPhone 12 Pro Max is softer and a little more natural-looking at 100%.
The more interesting battleground is at 5x — a medium-range zoom level where both phones rely on software upscaling. Both phones look reasonably presentable at full-frame but definitely aren’t as sharp at 5x as they are at 3x or 10x in Samsung’s case. Close inspection of 100% crops leads us to the same conclusions as before. Apple’s processing is more hands-off, resulting in softer, noisier looking images that don’t have much detail. Samsung’s processing is much harsher, sharping up details but leaving pictures with harsher edges and lines.
In summary, both phones offer equally capable albeit different looking pictures when zooming in to around 5x. At longer zoom levels, Samsung’s 10x periscope zoom earns a decisive victory for the Galaxy S21 Ultra, making it the more flexible of the two smartphones for zooming in.
In contrast to zoom cameras, we’re not so interested in the level of detail from wide-angle lenses. That being said, high-end wide-angle lenses should offer a wide field of view with minimal signs of distortion.
Read more: The complete guide to ultra-wide camera phones
The Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max and Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra offer essentially identical fields-of-view. Both are very wide, offering a 0.5x and 0.6x step back from the main camera respectively, with 13mm focal lengths apiece. Remember that Samsung’s main camera is slightly wider, so this evens out with a slightly shorted step back to the wide-angle camera.
The common themes we’ve already discussed carry over to the general perception of wide-angle photos from the two phones: more saturation from Samsung and over and underexposure issues from Apple. Importantly, these phones offer consistent quality when switching between lenses, with no immediately obvious change to quality.
A closer look at the edges of these wide-angle lenses shows us some of the minor differences. Samsung’s wide-angle lens has minimal perspective distortion at the edges but does suffer from some chromatic aberration (purple halo) when shooting into bright light. The iPhone 12 Pro Max doesn’t suffer from this problem but is marginally blurrier at the edges resulting in a lack of detail and color at the very edges of the frame. The results are much closer in the center of the frame, and again the differences boil down to their different approaches to processing.
Ultimately these are minor issues that you’ll find in virtually all wide-angle smartphone lenses. The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max fair better than most in this regard. When it comes to details and quality near the center of the frame, both phones perform a little worse than their main sensors but are more than good enough for the vast majority of wide-angle shots you’ll want to take. I’m calling this one a draw.
Bokeh and portraits
Finally, we come to portraits and bokeh blur. Both phones provide extra hardware assistance from dedicated focus finding cameras that can help out width distance and edge detection. Let’s see if that theory holds up in the real world.
When it comes to shooting inanimate objects, both phones offer quite a nice looking bokeh effect. Apple is more aggressive with the strength of its bokeh but has the more natural-looking effect that introduces a realistic subtle bloom to bright background lights. Samsung’s blur isn’t quite as strong with the default setting and perhaps isn’t quite as soft and natural looking as Apple’s bokeh.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra definitely wins when it comes to edge detection in the above shots. See the leaves and edges of our figure, which are very well defined in Samsung’s pictures. Similarly, Samsung seems to have a more natural background and foreground roll-off, while Apple’s blur applies very quickly. The iPhone also changes camera lenses when shooting in portrait mode, which can lead to an odd perspective when shooting close up to objects.
With portraits, the most immediately obvious difference is that the iPhone 12 Pro Max shoots with a warmer, softer white balance, producing an unnatural skin tone indoors. It’s rather strange that the iPhone 12 Pro Max ditches color accuracy once it switches to portrait mode, but presumably Apple believes this look is more visually appealing. Samsung is more neutral when it comes to color processing and looks more accurate as a result, particularly when shooting on a cold winter’s morning.
The positions reverse when it comes to detail. The iPhone 12 Pro Max captures fine details and textures, such as hair and fabrics, much better than the S21 Ultra. There are minimal signs of post-processing and noise suppression, resulting in an excellent look for portraits. By comparison, the Galaxy S21 Ultra appears a little blurry too soft, likely as a result of some post-processing touch-ups. But you have to crop in to notice these discrepancies.
There are definitive pros and cons to both handsets when it comes to bokeh and portraits. While Samsung has the edge of colors, HDR, and bokeh accuracy, Apple wins out when it comes to portrait details and bokeh quality.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max camera test: The verdict
For most pictures, neither the Galaxy S21 Ultra nor iPhone 12 Pro Max will disappoint. The two phones provide the colors, detail, white balance, and flexibility that we expect from premium tier smartphones. That said, there is a clear winner in my book when it comes to consistency across various scenarios: the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Samsung’s 2021 flagship smartphone caters to everything a demanding smartphone photographer could want. Exceptional detail when shooting at long range, a wide-angle camera that’s mostly distortion-free, outstanding HDR and Night mode capabilities, and a main camera that keeps up in pretty much every environment. The Galaxy S21 Ultra does it all. Importantly, the phone has fixed the focusing issue that detracted from last year’s flagship. The handset still has a few issues, particularly with color saturation, oversharpening, and detail capture artifacts in some tricker shots. But it’s definitely Samsung’s best camera phone in years and will likely be 2021’s camera phone to beat.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max is still a great camera, of course. It hands in more realistic colors and white balance in most scenarios than the Galaxy S21 Ultra and may still be the preferable pick for purists. The phone’s wide-angle camera also doesn’t suffer from chromatic aberration and its lighter approach to post-processing yields better-looking details in a few scenarios we shot in. However, the phone falls notably short of the Galaxy S21 Ultra in very low light shooting, outdoor exposure, long-range zoom, and HDR processing capabilities.
If you have over $1,000 to spend on a flagship smartphone and are looking for the best camera package in the business, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra should be your pick. But what do you think about the photos taken with these two phones? Let us know in the comments below.