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This iPhone and Samsung Galaxy camera comparison was not what I expected

I compared Samsung's Galaxy S21 cameras with the iPhone 12's. Are more cameras better? Or does a higher price mean better photos?

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Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12 camera compare

The Galaxy S21 has four cameras and is $29 cheaper than the iPhone 12 and its three cameras. I tested both phones taking lots of photos and videos with each.

Patrick Holland/CNET

The $829 (£799, AU$1,349) iPhone 12 has two rear cameras and Samsung's $800 (£769, AU$1,249) Galaxy S21 has three rear cameras. Are more cameras better? Or does a higher price mean better photos? To find out, I did a good old-fashioned camera shootout. The results surprised me.

There aren't many people deciding between an iPhone 12 and Galaxy S21 based solely on their cameras. Maybe there is a small niche of professional photographers, like me, who'd use cameras to decide between a Galaxy S21 Ultra or an iPhone 12 Pro Max. But most people stick to what they know and if someone switches from iOS to Android or the other way around, cameras won't be the only deciding factor.

With that acknowledgement of reality out of the way, let's take a look at these cameras. Despite a similar price, the Galaxy S21 and iPhone 12 represent two different approaches to phone photography and video capture. Samsung takes a "more is better" position, with three rear cameras (wide, ultrawide and telephoto) and a camera app with a dizzying number of modes including two different slow-motion options, two pro modes (one for photos and one for video) and two portrait modes (one for photos and one for videos). The Galaxy S21 seems to have a camera feature for just about everyone.

Apple takes a more restrained approach for the iPhone 12 and wants a camera system everyone can use. There are two rear cameras (wide and ultrawide) and its app is largely the same as it has been for years. What it lacks in number of modes, it makes up for with an interface that is straightforward and easy to use.

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Photos from the iPhone 12 and Galaxy S21 are excellent

It comes as no surprise that both phones take great everyday photos. The Galaxy S21 and its main 12-megapixel camera takes photos that are bright with cool tones. The photos have a wonderful soft look and pictures don't suffer from over-sharpening.

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I took this photo just before sunset with the Galaxy S21. It shows off Samsung's HDR chops.

Patrick Holland/CNET
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This picture of a church was taken on the iPhone 12 and shows off its SmartHDR processing.

Patrick Holland/CNET
Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12 camera compare

I used Single Take mode on the Galaxy S21 to get this adorable moment. Single Take captures a burst of photos and videos and selects what it thinks are the best ones.

Patrick Holland/CNET
Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12 camera compare

The iPhone 12 can capture photos with excellent detail and textures even indoors. Look closely at the patterns on the wallpaper, the cups and the texture of the leaves on the plant.

Patrick Holland/CNET

The iPhone 12 and its main 12-megapixel camera have a new lens this year. Pictures are sharper compared to the Galaxy S21. Colors skew toward warmer hues and highlights are protected better. There isn't much difference in sharpness and exposure between the phones, and the choice will ultimately come down to personal taste. To see the differences in sharpness, look at the photos below, specifically at the menu.

Both phones have a 12-megapixel ultrawide-angle camera and capture dramatic-looking photos. The ultrawide on the Galaxy S21 prioritizes brightening the details in shadows. You can see this in the photos below especially the stonewall to the bottom right. 

The ultrawide on the iPhone 12, like its main camera, exposes photos to keep highlights from blowing out to white. In terms of their ultrawide cameras, neither phone has a giant advantage over the other.

Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12 camera compare

This was taken with the ultrawide camera on the iPhone 12. Look closely at the building on the right and its crown molding and white window trim. You can still make the details out.

Patrick Holland/CNET
Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12 camera compare

I stole this ultrawide shot with the Galaxy S21 while being photographed by my pal and colleague Sarah. Skin tones look good and shadows are bright.

Patrick Holland/CNET
Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12 camera compare

This self portrait was taken with the iPhone 12's ultrawide camera and self-timer. The phone protects the highlights in my face but lets the clouds and sky go to solid white.

Patrick Holland/CNET

The Galaxy S21 zoom destroys the iPhone 12

There were only a few times where one phone was unquestionably better than the other. The most obvious example of this is camera zoom. The Galaxy S21 has a dedicated 64-megapixel telephoto camera that can zoom to a 30x magnification while the iPhone 12 doesn't. You have to jump up to the $999 iPhone 12 Pro to get a telephoto camera.

Unless you get physically closer to your subject, you'll rely on digital zoom and cropping on the iPhone 12. At 3x zoom, photos from the iPhone 12 look OK, but the 3x photos from the Galaxy S21 are better in every way. Check out the 3x photos from both phones below.

The iPhone 12 can take photos up 5x zoom, but things don't look great at that magnification. Zoomed photos are soft, blurry and lack detail. 

Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12 camera compare

The iPhone 12 tops out at 5x for photos.

Patrick Holland/CNET

The zoom on the S21 is pretty good up to 10x, at which point image quality starts to suffer. Photos taken between 20x and 30x look terrible. Take a look below.

Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12 camera compare

Three photos from the Galaxy S21 of the same bridge. The left one was taken at 10x, the middle at 20x and the right one at 30x.

Patrick Holland/CNET

iPhone 12 vs. Galaxy S21 night mode

No surprises here, but both phones take excellent night mode shots. The Galaxy S21 prioritizes brightness: Take a look at the photos below and the reflection in the water. The Galaxy S21 makes the water brighter, which makes the reflection look more hazy. The iPhone 12 over-sharpened its photo. Look closely at the bricks in the building.

There are some notable differences between them though. The biggest is the way the iPhone 12 reflects light sources. I'm not sure if it's the lens coating or the compactness of the lens that's causing this, but the iPhone 11 series had similar issues. Take a look at the photo below. In the middle of the picture, the clouds have letters reflecting from the Bank of America sign on the building.

Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12 camera compare

This was taken with the iPhone 12 in night mode. Notice the lights and sign reflections that show up in the center of the clouds.

Patrick Holland/CNET

The Galaxy S21 applies a lot of noise reduction, which gives night mode images a soft, smooth look. In the photos below, notice the clouds as well as the bricks of the building in the far right. They're softer and lack detail.

The Galaxy S21 has autofocus for selfies

Like photos from the iPhone's main rear camera, its selfies have a warmer white balance. That will look more flattering for some skin tones than others. But the biggest difference comes down to focus. The iPhone 12's front-facing camera, like most smartphone cameras, has a fixed focus. The Galaxy S21's selfie camera has dual-pixel autofocus and can lock in on my eyes perfectly. That's not to say iPhone 12 selfies aren't in focus, but that the Galaxy S21 can nail a truly sharp focus.

Video: Specs vs. reality

On paper, the Galaxy S21 can shoot up to 8K video, which is insanely impressive. But you sacrifice a lot when recording 8K. You can only shoot at 24 fps. You can't zoom in. Videos suffer from moire, which is also known as the "screen door effect." Low-light videos are absolutely horrible. And files are enormous, which is only made worse because there isn't expandable storage on the Galaxy S21. Take a look at the video below to see 8K video footage shot with the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Ultra.

4K video on the Galaxy S21 is actually quite good, but 4K video from the iPhone 12 has the edge in terms of image quality and color. In many ways, Samsung has caught up to Apple in terms of phone video quality. 

The Achilles' heel for Apple is the same reflection problem I found in Night Mode photos. If you're filming under low-to-medium lighting and there's a light source, it will likely cause a reflection in the video recording. Sometimes, you can work around this by simply changing the angle you're holding the phone. But that's not an ideal solution.

Take a look at the videos below to see footage shot from the iPhone 12.

Both phones have capable camera setups, and to me there isn't a clear winner between the two. The Galaxy S21 offers more versatility, but it's overwhelming in terms of options, settings and modes. The iPhone 12 keeps things simple and easy to use, but it left me wanting more "pro" options, leading me to look to the iOS app store for third-party solutions.