iPhone 12 Pro vs. Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra camera comparison
Does Pro beat Ultra? See side-by-side photos taken by Apple and Samsung's flagship phone cameras.
Daniel Van BoomSenior Writer
Daniel Van Boom is an award-winning Senior Writer based in Sydney, Australia. Daniel Van Boom covers cryptocurrency, NFTs, culture and global issues. When not writing, Daniel Van Boom practices Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, reads as much as he can, and speaks about himself in the third person.
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is the biggest iterative jump
has made for its flagship devices in years but, unusually, that jump doesn't largely revolve around the camera. The iPhone 12 family is entirely 5G, reverts to an iPhone 5-esque design, and there's also an iPhone 12 Mini for the first time ever.
But how does 2020's iPhone compare with the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, one of 2020's best (and most expensive) Androids? I took both around Sydney to find out.
When it comes to flagship phones in 2020, you'll rarely find a huge quality gulf in photos taken in well-lit scenes. That's the case here, too, as both the iPhone and S20 shoot vibrant, detailed daytime pictures.
This sculpture photo represents most of what I saw when comparing the two phones' standard photography: Very similar quality, with slight differences. Here the iPhone's shot is a little better -- the extra information it captured on the leaves in the top left, the texture in the wood atop the sculpture and the sharpness of the sculpture itself -- but you have to look closely to see the differences.
But if I were paid to nitpick the differences between these two phones -- and I am -- I would note that the iPhone's main lens takes photos with more shadows than the S20's. Notice the extra shadows in the trees below on the leaves up top and on both trunks. I'd call this a matter of taste: The S20 Ultra's shots may look better at a glance, but if you look up close you'll see some noise in the spots where the iPhone has shadows. The software is doing some heavy lifting to eliminate shadows, but it comes at a small cost.
The S20 Ultra also has two weaknesses in comparison to the iPhone. At times it can struggle to contain highlights, resulting in some confronting whites. I'd put an asterisk next to that criticism, noting that it's something I only encountered every now and then. But I also found the iPhone more consistent for up-close photography. The below picture of a flower shows both issues in one.
The S20 Ultra's close-up woes appear to stem from its issues with autofocus. In the below photo you can see how it's struggled to find a focal point, resulting in a more blurry shot.
Finally, I want to point out that the iPhone has a habit of warming photos up while the
comparatively cools things down. That's illustrated below, as you can see how both phones capture artificial indoor light. Also notice the iPhone's excellent job of capturing the condensation on the cold brew's cup.
Both the iPhone 12 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra shoot outstanding portraits, which mimic the depth-of-field effect of DSLR cameras. I'd nod at the iPhone for being slightly more consistent, but it's really too close to say decisively -- or at least, objectively.
The portrait above of Rachael shows how similarly excellent these phones are. I prefer the iPhone in this case, as the edge detection around Rach's hair is a bit smoother and it more accurately captured the color and saturation of her hoodie.
In the below photo of Garrett, you'll once again see how the Samsung is prone to highlight issues. The white garage doors in the background are a borderline eyesore on the S20 Ultra, and are better handled by the iPhone. The iPhone also captured better detail in Garrett's hair and jacket. (It may not look fair, since Garrett's smile is so much better in the iPhone shot. I managed to capture a similarly authentic smile on the S20, but the background brightness was even harsher on the eyes.)
But it's not always the iPhone coming out on top. In this shot of Jackson, both phones captured an identical level of detail and performed edge detection with the same degree of smoothness. But the iPhone's warmth is a hindrance here, looking artificial compared to the Samsung.
I wanted to pressure test both phones in a difficult lighting situation, so I shot this Portrait Mode shot of Esther against the light of a window. Surprisingly, it was the Samsung that was more balanced and the iPhone that was less able to deal with the light.
As for portrait selfies, which both phones can do, the iPhone 12 Pro comes out on top. I have an odd-shaped head and a strange balding thing going on, so edge detection is tough on me, but the iPhone usually did better than the S20 Ultra in this regard. I also found that the S20 Ultra's selfies look under-saturated in comparison.
The ultrawide-angle camera is one of the areas Apple has noticeably improved with the iPhone 12. The camera itself is the same -- at least on paper -- as last year's 12-megapixel ultrawide-angle shooter, but the software has been improved to reduce the distortion that comes along with such lenses.
The above photo, taken in sunny conditions, shows how both shoot vibrant colors. The S20 Ultra, however, did capture more details, as you can see in the cement's texture at the bottom. The two phones' performance diverges much more in different lighting conditions, though.
The S20 Ultra tends to ramp up the processing. As a result, there are often more details but also some more artificial-looking shots. On an overcast day, the iPhone more accurately captured the gray clouds and lighting of the scene. The S20 Ultra's photo is bluer, with a little more saturation too. In the below photo you'll see this work -- in my opinion -- in the S20 Ultra's favor.
In this shot, though, results are more mixed. You'll see that the overcast environment overwhelmed the iPhone, while the S20 Ultra used all of its processing might to capture that troublesome sky. The result is perhaps a more pleasing image, but one that looks significantly more artificial. Note in particular how the sky changes from blue to a streak of white just above the foliage.
This theme continues into night time. The iPhone can now capture ultrawide-angle shots in Night Mode, with excellent results. But as you can see below, the Samsung S20 Ultra's ultrawide-angle Night Mode captures way more light and detail. But there's a big asterisk here, as the iPhone's Night Mode will by default take 1-3 seconds to capture an image, while the S20 Ultra takes 7-8 seconds.
This is an issue of pros and cons once more. Pound for pound, the iPhone's Night Mode is stronger. (That is, 3 seconds on the iPhone gets you more than 3 seconds on the S20 Ultra.) But the iPhone doesn't have the capability to capture 8 seconds of exposure like the S20 does, meaning the S20 Ultra is ultimately more capable. But -- the last but, I promise -- the S20 Ultra's long exposure time means you can really only shoot inanimate objects in still scenes.
It's the same story for low-light photography on the main lens, with the iPhone being better in certain circumstances and the Samsung in others. Generally speaking, the S20 Ultra does more processing on low-light photos. This typically pays off when there's very little light, but it also means there can be overkill if there's already some light in the shot.
This photo exemplifies the tradeoffs. The concrete wall on both sides is more illuminated on the S20 Ultra, but there's also much more noise. The same is true in spots of the green beam atop the mural. That said, the colors are more vibrant in the S20 Ultra.
The trend is more evident with Night Mode turned on. This below photo was taken on the iPhone 12 Pro without Night Mode. So as you can see, it's a dark scene.
And here's both phones with Night Mode turned on. The S20 Ultra does a much better job here, thriving in a scene with minimal light. In addition to being a more balanced shot, you'll also notice the definition in the leaves up top that's lacking in the iPhone 12 Pro's take.
(Note: If you have a tripod handy, you'll be able to take Night Mode shots with up to 30 seconds exposure on the iPhone 12 Pro, which uses accelerometers to enable this function.)
But once you get into taking photos that aren't almost entirely dark, the S20 Ultra can struggle. Look at these shots, taken without Night Mode.
Then when you add Night Mode, you see how the iPhone improves on it with more details in the tree and atmospheric light in the sky. The S20 Ultra, on the other hand, artificially floods it with light, resulting in a noisy sky and an overly warm photo.
Personally, I prefer the iPhone 12 Pro's low-light photography. I prefer its versatility and the ability to use Night Mode in both low and medium light scenarios. But this will come down to taste, and what type of photos you shoot at night.
It'll come as little surprise that the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra's zoom capability is greater than the iPhone 12 Pro's. Whereas Apple's flagship offers a 2.5x optical zoom, Samsung's flaunts a 100x Space Zoom.
Still, this isn't quite a clean win for Samsung. I found that the iPhone 12 Pro performed similarly, and sometimes better, up to around 5x magnification -- which shocked me, because the S20 Ultra has 4x optical zoom. But anything beyond that was Samsung's game, with the difference getting bigger alongside the magnification of zoom.
Start with this 2x zoom comparison. If you look closely -- like, really closely -- you'll see that the text on the book spines is slightly sharper on the iPhone. Similarly, Apple's device captured more detail on the flowers in the top right. And if you squint hard, you'll also see the iPhone's picture has some texture detailing on the wall that's absent in the Samsung photo. You can thank Apple's Deep Fusion photo processing for these differences. They may be tiny differences, but they're there.
A note here that I found the iPhone's lowlight performance at 2x zoom to be better than the S20 Ultra's, often drastically so. Check out the huge gulf in quality in the photo below. This isn't representative -- there wasn't this big a difference in every 2x zoom night-time photo -- but it demonstrates the type of difference I often saw.
But as the iPhone diverges more from its 2.5x optical zoom, the more you can see its software straining to make the difference. In the below shot, at 4x zoom, it oversharpens the details of this flower, while the S20 Ultra handles it much more smoothly.
Sometimes that same software does the trick. This mural of Nelson Mandela, at 5x magnification, is on the knife's edge for me. The colors on the iPhone shot are more vibrant, and the texturing of the bricks is more pronounced. At the same time, looking at the details, the iPhone shows slight signs of artificial sharpening. Still, you could argue the iPhone is the victor.
But that's certainly where it ends. This chalk board at the local cafe was shot at 10x zoom, and the difference in clarity is vast.
Another 10x zoom shot, another resounding win for the S20 Ultra.
This is where the iPhone 12 Pro taps out -- at 10x zoom -- while the S20 Ultra can go all the way to 100x. There's the perfectly legitimate question of how useful 100x zoom is, since you need a tripod to stabilize and the photo quality is super grainy, but the option to shoot at 20-50x at somewhat decent resolution is certainly nice to have.
Extra zoom isn't the only capability the S20 Ultra has over the iPhone 12 Pro, either. There's also the Ultra HD mode, which takes advantage of the S20 Ultra's 108-megapixel main shooter. It's essentially like having the ability to zoom in on a picture once it's already been taken -- check out our guide to it here.
One more consideration to make: The iPhone's camera software is much easier to use than the S20 Ultra's. On the iPhone, Portrait Mode is a touch away, and Night Mode turns on automatically. On the S20 Ultra, you'll need to go through a menu to activate either mode. It sounds like a small thing, but it's almost perplexing to have such strong features hidden in a menu.
Ultimately, I personally prefer the iPhone 12 Pro's camera. Its photography is generally more consistent, and I prefer its more natural take on photography as compared to the S20 Ultra's enthusiasm to razz shots up artificially. That said, the S20 Ultra's zoom function is amazing, and its ultrawide-angle shots are also ahead of the iPhone's.
Which do you prefer? Are you impressed by the iPhone 12 Pro's cameras, or are you disappointed? Let us know in the comments.
The iPhone 12 Pro gives you nearly all the same hardware perks as the Pro Max, but in a smaller body and without the heftier price tag. These benefits include 5G support, a dedicated telephoto camera, and camera tools like Apple ProRaw.
With a five-lens setup that shoots at a crazy 100x magnification, the standout feature of Samsung's Galaxy S20 Ultra is its camera. However, the Ultra sometimes struggles with uneven battery performance.