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Galaxy S20 Ultra vs. iPhone 11 Pro camera comparison: Which phone is best?

Both phones take great photos, but the iPhone can't compete with Samsung's zoom king.

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Angela Lang/CNET

Samsung's Galaxy S20 Ultra is all about the camera. It packs a sensor that can take 108-megapixel images and offers a whopping 100x zoom to close up on distant details. But it's not alone in having an impressive camera: Top-end handsets such as the iPhone 11 Pro and Google Pixel 4 tout cameras that can rival DSLRs in their abilities too. Neither phone is cheap enough to buy without being sure it's the one you want. The S20 Ultra starts at $1,399 for the 128GB version (£1,199, AU$1,999) while the iPhone 11 Pro starts at $999 ( £1,049, AU$1,749) for the 64GB version. 

To see how the S20 Ultra's camera compares to the iPhone 11 Pro, I took both phones around the beautiful Scottish capital city of Edinburgh. Note that while the Galaxy S20 Ultra's images have been directly uploaded, the iPhone's shots (which were taken in Apple's HEIC format) had to be first imported into Adobe Lightroom and exported as full-resolution JPEG files. No sharpening, noise correction or any other changes have been made to the images. Yes, the iPhone can also shoot in JPEG, but that wasn't activated so a quick conversion was necessary.

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7:49

This article is just comparing still images -- mostly of landscapes, city scenes and architecture, night mode and general travel snaps from the two phones. We're working on video comparisons, as well as comparisons between other phones, including portrait modes, so keep your eyes peeled for more.

I started in the quaint area of Dean Village and the phones' standard camera modes produced some interesting results.

Galaxy S20 Ultra.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

iPhone 11 Pro.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

At first glance I prefer the shot from the S20 Ultra. It's a touch brighter and the white balance has given more realistic color tones to the building on the left, which looks a little blue in the iPhone's shot. 

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Galaxy S20 Ultra 100% crop.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 11 Pro 100% crop.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Things change when I zoom in, however. The S20 Ultra applied a lot of image sharpening, which gives the details a crunchy look, a little like the effect you get from ramping up the "clarity" slider in Lightroom. For quick snaps on your holiday you may prefer the crisp appearance of the S20 Ultra, but this can look overprocessed.

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Galaxy S20 Ultra 2x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 11 Pro 2x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Both phones offer a 2x zoom mode. While I prefer the look of the brighter shot from the S20 Ultra, the iPhone 11 Pro's quality when viewed up close was superior. Let's zoom in further...

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Galaxy S20 Ultra 5x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

At 5x zoom, the S20 Ultra's image is suddenly much more crisp and packed with detail. What is likely happening here is that in 5x mode, the camera uses an optical zoom lens, but keeps the full quality of the image sensor. At 2x it just digitally crops into the standard view, therefore reducing the quality. If you want to maximize the quality of your zooming, 5x is the way to go. Samsung hasn't confirmed to me yet whether this is what's going on, but it certainly seems to be the case, judging by the images. 

A tap of the zoom button (displayed as a button with a single leaf) brings up your options, but also automatically switches to the 5x zoom mode (which it indicates with on-screen text). For some reason 5x zoom isn't one of the available zoom modes, which include 0.5x, 1x, 2x, 4x, 10x, 30x and 100x. I've also asked Samsung to clarify whether 5x uses the full resolution or whether it crops in. Needless to say, it's slightly confusing. 

The zoom is where the S20 really takes the lead over the iPhone. Not only does it produce a lovely crisp shot at 5x (easily beating the iPhone's 2x telephoto zoom), it can take it even further...

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Galaxy S20 Ultra 10x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

At 10x there's still a decent amount of detail. Perhaps not even to warrant printing out on a big piece of photo paper, but certainly enough to post to Instagram or Facebook. 

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Galaxy S20 Ultra 30x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

At 30x zoom the quality takes a real dive.

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Galaxy S20 Ultra 100x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

And at 100x zoom, the image looks more like a watercolor painting than a photograph. You certainly won't win any photography awards from shots taken at this zoom (unless you happen to use it to prove the existence of the yeti), but it's not a complete wash. To my mind, the real purpose of this amount of zoom is for reference -- whether you're zooming in on a bird in a tree to identify it or just peeking at details on things you can't get close to. It's best to view the 100x zoom as more of a telescope than a camera.

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Galaxy S20 Ultra 100x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

I used the 100x zoom here, for example, to close in on what looked, from a distance, like an otter. The zoom allowed me to find out it was actually a bronze statue of an otter, artistically placed in the river. 

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Galaxy S20 Ultra.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 11 Pro.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Both phones have done well in balancing the bright sky and shadowy building detail. I give the edge to the S20 Plus for its additional contrast, which gives this scene a little extra punch, despite some of the same oversharpening issues we've seen when you zoom in close. 

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Galaxy S20 Ultra.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 11 Pro.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

There's almost nothing to differentiate these two shots of some shoes on a doorstep. Both images are perfectly exposed. There's tons of detail and the colors look great. The iPhone's white balance is a touch warmer than the Ultra's, but whether that's good or not will come down to your personal preference. 

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Galaxy S20 Ultra.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 11 Pro.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

In this alleyway shot, I prefer the iPhone 11 Pro's image. The auto HDR brought out more detail in the shadowy areas and I prefer the overall color. 

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Galaxy S20 Ultra, wide-angle mode (0.5x).

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 11 Pro, wide angle mode (0.5x).

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Dean Bridge, shot using the ultrawide-angle mode on both phones, looks great in both pictures. In this instance, the iPhone has the edge as it managed to capture more detail in the sky and delivered a brighter image overall.

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Galaxy S20 Ultra.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 11 Pro.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Both phones did a great job with this shot of the old entrance to Edinburgh's Stockbridge market. The S20 Ultra bumped up the saturation a bit and added more sharpening, which gives the shot a punchier look overall. The iPhone's has a slightly more natural look. Personally, I prefer the iPhone's take.

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Galaxy S20 Ultra (left) and iPhone 11 Pro (right).

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

There's no question that the S20 Ultra achieved a more vibrant, punchy shot in these taken on Victoria Street. The colors on the orange building in the center of the frame are much more vivid. It'll still come down to personal choice, however, as to which one is "better." To my eye, the iPhone's shot has a filmy, matte style that would lend itself well to post-processing in Lightroom, while the S20 Ultra's shot is better for uploading to Instagram as it is. 

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Galaxy S20 Ultra (left) and iPhone 11 Pro (right).

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It's the same story here with this shot on Calton Hill. The S20 Ultra's shot upped the contrast, which I think looks great on the rocks in the foreground and helps make the green grass in the background pop more. 

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Galaxy S20 Ultra (left) and iPhone 11 Pro (right).

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Again, richer colors from the S20 Ultra and the extra sharpening worked in its favor this time by making the foam on top of this flat white look a bit crispier. 

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Galaxy S20 Ultra.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 11 Pro.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

In this instance, the S20 Ultra's "boosts" have gone too far, resulting in a super saturated sky. There's also some odd purple toning in the clouds, which look pure white on the iPhone's shot. 

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Galaxy S20 Ultra.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 11 Pro.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Different scene, same story. The S20 Ultra ups the contrast and the saturation for a more punchy image straight out of the camera. Both are good images and the S20 is better for sharing to social channels immediately. But the iPhone's flatter look is better for more creative tweaking in post. 

In the next photo taken at the top of Calton Hill, the S20 Ultra's zoom mode really shines. 

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Galaxy S20 Ultra 5x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Galaxy S20 Ultra 5x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Galaxy S20 Ultra 5x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Galaxy S20 Ultra 5x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

I love these shots overlooking the city, which were only possible to capture thanks to the S20 Ultra's 5x zoom. The exposure and the colors look great and there's tons of detail in the images.

Night mode

The iPhone 11 Pro seriously impressed with its low-light photography skills, and Samsung boasts that with its larger image sensor and software tweaks, it'll be able to take incredible night-time images. Let's find out. 

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Galaxy S20 Ultra Night Mode.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 11 Pro Night Mode.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Both phones did a great job of capturing such bright images in a dark night scene. However, I have to give the win to the iPhone 11 Pro. Let's look at the details:

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Galaxy S20 Ultra Night Mode (100% crop).

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 11 Pro Night Mode (100% crop).

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

When you zoom in on the images, it's clear that the iPhone's shot is both brighter and sharper than the S20 Ultra's.

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Galaxy S20 Ultra Night Mode.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 11 Pro Night Mode.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

There's less noticeable difference in these two shots. Both are bright and the color tones are almost identical.

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Galaxy S20 Ultra Night Mode.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 11 Pro Night Mode.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

In this cool cocktail bar, the difference is more noticeable. The Galaxy S20 Ultra's shot is brighter, with more shadow detail visible below the bar. It's got a strong "HDR style" however, which won't be to everyone's tastes.

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Galaxy S20 Ultra (left) and iPhone 11 Pro (right).

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Things have swapped round in this picture of a lovely leather chair. Now the iPhone's shot is the brighter and better looking of the two. 

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Galaxy S20 Ultra or iPhone 11 Pro?

I'm impressed with both phones. They take incredible photos and keen photographers would be well suited with either of them. It's clear where the S20 Ultra wins though: the zoom. Sure, at 100x or even 30x the images aren't "good" per se, but the clarity at 5x and to a lesser extent at 10x opens up a huge amount of opportunities not available to you with the iPhone's 2x lens. I loved snapping away on Calton Hill overlooking the city, and zooming in on the buildings to find interesting compositions. 

But when it comes to overall image quality, the winner isn't so clear. The S20 Ultra produces more vibrant, punchier images, but many photographers (myself included) prefer the more natural, less heavy-handed approach of the iPhone. It gives a more flat base image that I can then take into apps such as Lightroom or Snapseed to add my own touches later. 

With Night Mode, it's a close call. Both phones produce superb results. But the iPhone might have just snuck ahead in a couple of my tests, though not by enough to affect anyone's buying decision on that factor alone.

Deciding between the two will really come down to two factors: what sort of photos you want to take and the price. The S20 Ultra starts at $1,399 (£1,199, AU$1,999) for the 128GB version, while the iPhone 11 Pro comes in cheaper at $999 (£1,049, AU$1,749) for the 64GB version or $1,149 (£1,199, AU$1,999) for 256GB of storage. 

When it comes to your preference of image style, do you want vibrant and punchy pictures for quick sharing on Instagram? Go for the S20 Ultra. Do you want more true-to-life shots? Go for the iPhone 11 Pro.

Of course, if you want to zoom in on distant details, there's simply no competition. Go for the S20 Ultra.