Galaxy S20 Ultra: Our 5 favorite camera features, and one is Space Zoom

We take a look at five new camera features found on Samsung's Galaxy S20 Ultra.

Andrew Lanxon headshot
Andrew Lanxon headshot
Andrew Lanxon Editor At Large, Lead Photographer, Europe
Andrew is CNET's go-to guy for product coverage and lead photographer for Europe. When not testing the latest phones, he can normally be found with his camera in hand, behind his drums or eating his stash of home-cooked food. Sometimes all at once.
Expertise Smartphones, Photography, iOS, Android, gaming, outdoor pursuits Credentials
  • Shortlisted for British Photography Awards 2022, Commended in Landscape Photographer of the Year 2022
Andrew Lanxon
5 min read

The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra (left) with the S20 and S20 Plus.

Angela Lang/CNET

Samsung finally took the wraps off its latest flagship phones, the Galaxy S20, S20 Plus and the S20 Ultra. The Ultra is the hero of the bunch, with boosted specs and features that are not found on the others. Its cameras, in particular, contain some of the biggest upgrades and it's not being subtle about it -- the Ultra's square camera bump is absolutely immense. And, weird though it might look, it does have some cool tricks up its sleeve and even compares quite favorably to the camera in the iPhone 11 Pro.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

100X Zoom

Much like its predecessor, there are three main cameras on the Galaxy S20 Ultra, a standard zoom lens, an ultra wide-angle lens, and a telephoto zoom lens. It's that last zoom lens that has been seriously beefed up here. It sits at the bottom of the camera module next to the text "space zoom."

When you look closely, the lens looks weird because it has new optics that give it a huge amount of zoom. With those optics and its 48-megapixel resolution, it can zoom in up to 100x. That's an absolutely astonishing level of zoom that, as far as I'm concerned, makes this phone the lovechild of a Galaxy S10 and the Hubble telescope.

I was able to zoom in on a bottle all the way across the room and could just about read the label -- pretty impressive considering that with my naked eye, I couldn't even see there was a bottle in the first place. But don't expect pin-sharp clarity; while I could somewhat make out the bottle's logo, there was a huge amount of image noise and other artifacts. This meant the image wouldn't end up printed and framed on a gallery wall. At 30x zoom, the quality looked a lot better.

Note that I was handling an early sample unit though and I was testing the zoom in a dim corner of our demo area. I'm keen to see how the zoom performs once Samsung's optimized it a bit more and I'm using it outdoors in daylight. 

The 100x zoom is a feature reserved only for the S20 Ultra. If you don't feel the need to get up close on distant details then the regular S20 or S20 Plus may be your better options. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Night Mode

The main camera sensor has an astonishing 108-megapixel resolution, but it's not just for needlessly-detailed images. It can combine nine pixels into one single pixel that, according to Samsung, captures a lot more light. The result is a 12-megapixel image that even in dark conditions should come out well-exposed. 

It's important to note that we haven't been able to put this to the test yet. Night-time shooting skills have been a focus of various recent phones , and handsets like the iPhone 11 and Pixel 4  take amazing shots in really dark scenarios. With these new Galaxy specs, it's going to be interesting to see how Samsung's new technology can compete. 

If you're not into this pixel combining feature, you can always go into Settings and shoot at the full 108 megapixels if you want bigger, more detailed images. Having extra resolution gives you more scope for cropping into the image later on, although exactly how well these high-resolution images can look from a tiny phone camera sensor remains to be seen until we put this thing through its paces. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Single Capture

Single Capture is a new mode that shoots a 10-seconds video and then presents you with a whole variety of photos and smaller video clips, all shot with different zoom levels and some with different effects like black and white already applied. 

The idea is that you shoot a little scene in front of you -- say, someone blowing out candles on a cake -- and instead of having to decide in advance to just take one image, Single Capture takes a whole bunch of different shots for you to choose from all at one go.

You can then select the shots you want to save as they are, or use the software to automatically combine them into a little highlight reel you can instantly share with your friends or family.

I wouldn't say this is a killer feature, but it's pretty fun and I can see it appealing to people with young families who want to quickly share the fun things their kids have been doing without having to fuss around with the different camera settings.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

8K Video

Video skills have been a particular focus on the new phone. Just when we were all getting to grips with our phones shooting 4K, Samsung ups the numbers to a whopping 8K. 

Why so many Ks? You can of course just shoot in the maximum resolution for bragging rights if you want. Though the display on the phone itself isn't sharp enough to show the video off, you can upload it to YouTube, which supports 8K, and you can play it back on 8K TVs , if you happen to have spent the small fortune that they cost.

The other benefit is that you can take crop into your footage or take 33-megapixel still images from your video footage. The downside is that those 8K videos will quickly take up space on your phone. A 20-second 8K video came in at almost 200MB while a 20-second clip in full HD taken on the Samsung Galaxy Fold was less than a quarter of the size at only 42MB. If you're planning to go this max res route, it's best to go for the higher 512GB storage option.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Pro Video

Not just for still photos anymore, Samsung added a pro mode for video that gives you manual control over settings like ISO, shutter speed, focus and white balance. It does have a niche appeal, but if you want to create more cinematic-looking footage for your YouTube channel, you'll get some use out of this mode. But bear in mind you can't use the max 8K resolution in pro mode.

Samsung also boosted video stabilization with improved hardware and software. It seemed to do a decent job during my brief time with it, but it's another feature I'm really looking forward to putting to the test in our full in-depth review. 

In addition to all these rear camera features, the Galaxy S20 Ultra has a 40-megapixel front-facing camera (tucked into a little cut-out hole on the front), a whopping 6.9-inch display, up to 16GB of RAM and 5G connectivity for superfast data speeds. This, of course, will come in handy for uploading those massive 8K video files.