The cameras on Apple's new iPhone 12 Pro and Samsung's Galaxy Note 20 Ultra seem similar on paper. Both have a three-lens camera array with improved low-light performance, 4K HDR video capabilities and advanced autofocus systems. And while they both produce excellent results overall, they each have their strengths and weaknesses in different categories.
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For zoom, it's hard to compete with the Note 20 Ultra's 5x telephoto camera, which can make any far-off subject look like it's right in front of you, especially when you compare it to the 2x camera on the iPhone 12 Pro. For portraits, the iPhone generally produces the better result thanks to more natural bokeh (or blur) effects. But choosing an outright winner across every category is not so clear cut, given that both use a clever combination of hardware and computational photography tricks to get great-looking shots in almost all situations.
We put the cameras on two of this year's best smartphones to the test to see how well they handle zoom photos, portraits, landscapes and video.
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The iPhone 12 Pro's camera builds on the strengths of previous iPhones. It has an improved night mode, a Lidar scanner for faster autofocus and produces photos with excellent detail in almost all lighting conditions. Plus it also records Dolby Vision HDR video which looks fantastic when played back on a supported screen.
The Note 20 Ultra produces fantastic shots in almost all lighting conditions and there's no doubt that it has the best telephoto camera with its 5x optical zoom. A range of features like portrait video mode and 8K recording provide a lot of flexibility, but photographers will mainly appreciate the addition of pro (or manual) modes for both stills and video on the default camera app.
Great for landscapes, ultrawide and HDR photos
I took these phones to some of my favorite scenic spots around San Francisco and found they produced excellent results, whether I was snapping a foggy morning in Golden Gate Park or an epic sunset over the Pacific Ocean.
In well-lit situations, it's hard to distinguish which phone took which photo, as the color, detail and dynamic range is excellent on both. For reference, I left the phones on default settings to best simulate the average person's experience: Smart HDR on the iPhone 12 Pro turned on, as well as Scene Optimizer on the Note 20 Ultra. The improvements to high dynamic range on the iPhone 12 Pro, called Smart HDR 3, produce very balanced photos on the main rear camera. Side by side with the regular HDR mode on the Note 20 Ultra, shots look great and give very natural results as you can see in the comparison below.
The iPhone 12 Pro also uses a computational photography technique called Deep Fusion on all its cameras to bring out texture and reduce noise. See the 100% crop on the image below from the main rear camera and you'll see each is sharp and retains detail even in dimmer lighting conditions.
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The Note 20 Ultra's main wide-angle rear camera has a 108-megapixel sensor that gives you scope to crop in and change your frame even after you've snapped the photo. You can also get more of a shallow depth of field on your shots without software tricks like portrait mode, thanks to that larger sensor. But sometimes, the depth of field effect (or the blurred background) was so shallow that I had to check to see if my photos were in focus after I snapped them. A technique called pixel binning on the Note ensures that photos taken at 12-megapixel resolution (active by default) look great, because all the detail from the 108-megapixel shot is consolidated into the 12-megapixel image -- I usually take all my photos in this setting.
The ultrawide cameras on both phones are also fantastic in good lighting, although I did find that in more challenging lighting conditions, the iPhone 12 Pro's produced a more balanced and well-saturated shot. The iPhone's ultrawide lens also corrected better for distortion compared to the Note 20 Ultra which looked slightly warped at the edges, a characteristic of ultrawide lenses.
Zoom images are a clear win for the Note 20 Ultra
The Note 20 Ultra has a 5x optical zoom compared to the 2x optical on the iPhone 12 Pro, so it's no surprise that the Note 20 Ultra produces better results in this category. With enough light, photos taken at 5x with the Note 20 Ultra look sharp and well balanced. Good quality zoomed-in shots meant I started using the phone zoom a lot more than I was expecting, particularly in situations when I couldn't physically move closer to my subject like when I was capturing the sunset over Ocean Beach and didn't want to walk onto the sand (or wade into the water).
The Note 20 Ultra also gives you the option to narrow in on your subject beyond 5x with a hybrid digital/optical zoom that can go from 10x all the way through 50x. Photos start to look pretty pixelated at the full 50x reach, but at 10x in good lighting conditions, the hybrid zoom still produced usable photos.
The iPhone 12 Pro on the other hand, maxes out at 2x optical and 10x digital zoom, but the 2x optical zoom looks sharper than the equivalent 2x digital zoom on the Note 20 Ultra. Even though the phone has a 5x optical zoom, it doesn't use the telephoto camera to zoom in from 2x-4x, it uses digital zoom on the main wide camera.
Portrait mode: Better on the iPhone 12 Pro
Both phones give you the option to take portraits of just about anything with a blurred background effect. On the Note 20 Ultra it's called Live Focus, and Portrait Mode on the iPhone 12.
Both phones did a good job of identifying the edges of the subject to figure out what to leave in focus, but the iPhone does a much better job of retaining shadow and highlight details in and my subjects generally looked sharper compared to the same shot on the Note 20 Ultra.
Even in less than ideal conditions, when my subject was backlit, both phones produced pleasing results. In the image below however, I prefer the golden glow from the iPhone and I was able to retain more details where the sun hits my hair.
Selfies and night portraits
On the front camera, the iPhone's white balance and exposure is more pleasing and matched my skin tone more accurately. The Note 20 Ultra washed out my skin tone and made my hair look darker. But with strong backlighting, the dynamic range is a bit wider on the Note 20 Ultra's selfie camera for photos and videos.
The iPhone 12 Pro has an ace up its sleeve with night mode on portraits which keeps your subject sharp and well-lit even after the sun goes down. The Note 20 Ultra doesn't have that option, so you either have to take a regular night photo without the blur, or use live focus mode and risk having your subject look dark and blurry.
Night mode photos are too close to call
The iPhone 12 Pro added night mode to its ultrawide and selfie camera so now all three cameras have better low light performance than earlier iPhones. The Note 20 Ultra also lets you use night mode across the board.
But the new lidar scanner on the back of the iPhone 12 Pro means that autofocus at night is super snappy and it feels faster than the laser autofocus system on the Note. The iPhone 12 Pro also has a slightly faster main camera with a maximum aperture of f1.6, which lets in more light than the f1.8 main camera on the Note 20 Ultra. In night shots, like in the image below, you can clearly see the advantage of having that wider f1.6 camera aperture. But for this photo, I actually preferred the inky blue sky produced by the Note, even if the image is a bit darker.
Both phones produce great looking low-light shots, but if I had to pick a favorite, I am leaning toward the Note 20 Ultra as it produced a more consistent result in all the low-light photos that I took using the main wide camera. The iPhone 12 Pro often produced a brighter shot but the night mode result didn't look as pleasing to me.
Video on the iPhone 12 Pro is tough to beat
I love the Pro video capabilities of the Note 20 Ultra, including its 8K recording. But the iPhone 12 Pro records better video overall. The picture profile is well-balanced, colors look realistic and focus in particular is very smooth. I filmed the video on this page entirely on the cameras of the iPhone 12 Pro and Note 20 Ultra so you can really see what they're capable of.
The iPhone 12 Pro also gives you the option to record in Dolby Vision HDR, which looks fantastic when played back on the phone's screen or a compatible display. A word of warning though, my retail iPhone 12 Pro shipped with HDR turned on in the camera settings, so unless you only want to play back video on your phone screen (or own a Dolby Vision-compatible TV for playback) you may want to turn this off for now, otherwise the video may not display correctly. The Note 20 Ultra can also record in HDR 10 Plus, although playback wasn't quite as smooth at the same resolution and frame rate.
But if you're looking to customize your video settings, the Note 20 Ultra has way more options to choose from in the default camera app than the iPhone 12 Pro. This includes a live focus video mode (at 1080p) that blurs the background behind your subject, the aforementioned 8K recording at 24 frames per second and Pro Mode that allows you to tweak the exposure, white balance and focus manually. There's also an overwhelming number of resolutions, frame rates and aspect ratios to choose from.
Which phone has the better overall camera?
While they each excel at different categories, it's hard to pick an outright winner as both phones are an absolute delight to use for photography. For the best zoom on a smartphone, the benefits of a larger image sensor and great low light shots, pick the Note 20 Ultra. But for the best of both worlds between still photos and video recording, the iPhone 12 Pro is a better match.
Don't forget this is the first year that Apple's iPhone Pro models will feature slightly different cameras. The iPhone 12 Pro Max, which goes on sale in November, adds additional features like a sensor-shift image stabilization system on the wide camera and 2.5x optical zoom, instead of 2x on the iPhone 12 Pro. We'll be testing that phone against the Note 20 Ultra once it's available.
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