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Best night mode phones in 2021: Galaxy S21 Ultra, iPhone 12 Pro Max and Pixel 5

Many phones can take pictures in the dark, but which ones do it the best?

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The Galaxy S21 Ultra, iPhone 12 Pro Max and Google Pixel 5 can all take incredible images thanks to their powerful camera setups and stellar software integration. They're amazing cameras to keep stuffed in your pocket, whether you're wandering through your local town or trekking out into the hills. But they're not just skilled in the daytime; all three phones offer dedicated modes for capturing gorgeous shots at night by using multisecond exposures to capture as much light as possible. The results can be dramatic, but which phone does it best?

To find out, I took all three on a jaunt around Edinburgh's delightful old Dean Village to see how each one handles the darkness best. All images were taken either in the standard camera view on the iPhone and Pixel, or using the "night mode" option on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. They're all shot in JPEG, and all were taken using default camera settings. 

Read more: Best phone to buy for 2021

Galaxy S21 Ultra.

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iPhone 12 Pro Max.

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Pixel 5.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

To my eye, this first test, taken in the heart of Dean Village, is a comfortable win for the Galaxy S21. Its shot isn't much brighter than the iPhone's, but the details are a lot clearer. It's particularly noticeable in the leaves of grass at the bottom right of the image, which are clearly visible on the Galaxy's shot, but look much more fuzzy and ill-defined on both the iPhone and Pixel's shots.

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Galaxy S21 Ultra.

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iPhone 12 Pro Max.

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Pixel 5.

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This time the iPhone's shot comes out on top. It's the colors that made the difference here; the Galaxy S21 Ultra's image looks cold and lifeless, with the usually vivid red door in the middle looking subdued and almost purple in tone. The iPhone's shot is every bit as bright -- and sharp -- but has maintained more accurate colors, which gives this scene a more appealing look. The Pixel's photo falls somewhere between the two in terms of its colors, but falls behind the pack with its less sharp details.

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Galaxy S21 Ultra.

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iPhone 12 Pro Max.

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Pixel 5.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

There's little to choose between all three phones in this test, with each one packing plenty of detail into their bright images. The iPhone's colors look more natural than the others, particularly the Pixel's which has rendered the yellow building more green-looking in places. It's for that reason (and maybe the smaller lens flare around the light) that I'd pick the iPhone as the winner here, but it's a close call. 

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Galaxy S21 Ultra.

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iPhone 12 Pro Max.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Pixel 5.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

This view over Dean Village was a more demanding test as so much of the scene was in almost total darkness. The phones all had to work harder here, using longer exposure times to capture as much light as possible and I'm genuinely impressed by all three. I prefer the Pixel 5's blue sky, which contrasts nicely with the orange lights beneath, but the image itself lacks details compared to the other two. 

It's the Galaxy S21 that takes the win here. Not only does its shot have more fine details around the buildings, it's also captured more light in dark areas, particularly in the bottom right of the image where more trees are visible, but that are in almost complete blackness in the iPhone and Pixel's shots. 

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Galaxy S21 Ultra.

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iPhone 12 Pro Max.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Pixel 5.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The differences in this street scene are fairly subtle, but there are a few reasons why I prefer the iPhone's shot. Firstly, its white balance has produced a more true-to-life color tone than the cold and yellow-greeny look of the other two. Second, there is more detail in the iPhone's image, particularly noticeable on the front of the far building. Finally, the iPhone's shot has more controlled highlights on the central building, with the reflected white light looking overpowering on the Galaxy's shot in particular. 

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Galaxy S21 Ultra ultrawide lens.

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iPhone 12 Pro Max, ultrawide lens.

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Pixel 5, ultrawide lens.

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Switching to the ultrawide lens and the Galaxy S21 Ultra takes a clear victory. Its shot is brighter than the iPhone's, particularly on the building on the right: It's in shadow on the iPhone's image but looks bright and detailed on the Galaxy's. The foreground foliage is also brighter on the Galaxy, and packs enough detail to almost be able to make out individual leaves. On the iPhone's the whole area is mushy and lacks fine detail of any kind. 

The iPhone's ultrawide shot even falls behind the Pixel 5's, which has also been able to put out more brightness in the shadows, although it's not as sharp as the Galaxy's image. 

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Galaxy S21 Ultra.

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iPhone 12 Pro Max.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Pixel 5.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The results have flipped again on this indoor still life scene taken in almost total darkness. The iPhone 12 Pro Max's shot is brighter than the other's and has sharper details, particularly noticeable on the word "Travel" on the book and on the "X-T20" product name on the camera. 

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Which phone takes the best night mode photos?

It's difficult to pick a winner. In terms of overall quality it's a two-horse race between the S21 Ultra and the iPhone 12 Pro Max. The Pixel 5's shots don't quite measure up, but it's important to keep in mind that the Pixel 5 sells for $699 (£599, AU$999) making it a significantly cheaper option than the S21 Ultra at $1,199 (£1,149, AU$1,849) and the iPhone 12 Pro Max at $1,099 (£1,099, AU$1,849). If you're looking for great low-light shots on a budget, the Pixel 5 is the one to go for. 

But between the iPhone 12 Pro Max and Galaxy S21 Ultra, it's difficult to call. Both have taken the crown in different tests, with the iPhone generally offering more natural colors and the S21 Ultra leaning more into sharper details. The S21 Ultra did take a clear victory in the ultrawide test though. 

In other words, there's no clear winner. Both phones can both take super night-time images, and both have proven themselves to be exceptionally capable as cameras in other tests. Low-light performance alone won't help you decide between them. The biggest differentiator is still the S21 Ultra's impressive zoom skills, which blow the iPhone clean out of the water.