Galaxy S21 Ultra: These camera tricks will up your photography game

Samsung's Galaxy S21 Ultra has some awesome camera tricks. Here's how to get the best from them.

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
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Samsung's Galaxy S21 Ultra has an incredible camera that's up there alongside those of the iPhone 13 Pro and Pixel 6 Pro as one of the best cameras found on a phone. (It may be topped by the rumored Galaxy S22 Ultra, but only time will tell.) Its zoom skills are superb, with crisp details to be seen even at 10x zoom. It's full of great features to help both novices and pros alike take brilliant shots when out and about. While it may not be a dramatic overhaul from the Galaxy S20 Ultra (with headline specs such as the 108-megapixel sensor and 100x zoom being common across both phones), there are some new tricks to know about. 

Read more: Samsung's Galaxy S21 is the no-brainer upgrade phone

Let's dive in to see what features are new and how to use them.

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Single Take 

Single Take is a function that allows the phone to capture multiple images and video clips -- each with a different effect applied -- just by pressing the shutter button once. Its aim is to allow you to capture a whole variety of interesting photos and videos of, say, your child unwrapping a birthday present, without having to decide in advance on a particular style, zoom lens or filter. 

It was a feature launched on the Galaxy S20, but it's been expanded to produce even more effects. It sounds complex, but using it is very straightforward. To start, tap into the Single Take camera mode in the mode dial next to the shutter button. Then, all you need to do is tap the shutter button and wait for the 10 seconds it takes to capture everything. The idea is that you'll move around, maybe pan the camera between faces, so that the phone has more material to work with to create all the different options for you. 

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Once done, you can head into the gallery and find your Single Take file and swipe up to see the different items it's produced. There'll be still images, different cuts of videos, GIFs -- all of which will have effects applied. You can save them all or pick your favorites to share with friends and family.

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Using the zoom 

The S21 Ultra has a 3x optical zoom, a 10x optical zoom and can take digitally zoomed images up to a whopping 30x and 100x. Using them is dead easy. In the standard camera mode you'll see small leaf icons next to the shutter button. A single leaf means zooming in (i.e. getting closer to the leaf); the icon with three leaves means using the super wide lens (i.e. capturing more leaves in one shot). Tapping the icons will take you quickly to 3x or 10x zooms, but you can also tap on the numbers that pop up next to them as well. 

It works just the same whether you're zooming in when taking a still image or whether you're recording video. 

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Night mode 

The proper Night mode on the S21 Ultra can be frustrating to find if you're new to the phone and you may not even know it's there at first. The phone can take great low-light images in its standard camera mode, but when things get really dark, scroll to More on the mode panel next to the shutter button and you'll see a whole variety of different shooting options. 

One of them is called Night and is represented by an image of a moon. In this mode the phone will take an image over several seconds in order to capture more light. While it uses image stabilization to keep the shot as sharp as possible, you can help it further by keeping as steady a hand as possible, or even better by stabilizing your hands on a nearby wall or other object to minimize hand shake. 

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Director's View

A new feature for the S21, Director's View is a video feature that shows you thumbnails of what the scene you're shooting will look like using the different zoom lenses. You'll find it in the same menu screen as Night mode (tap More on the mode selection wheel). Once there, you'll instantly see the different thumbnails and can tap on them to start recording video in each zoom length. 

Director's View has an additional feature, however, that allows you to record video with the front and rear cameras simultaneously. The idea is that you can film a scene in front of you, while also capturing your own reaction to it. When in Director's View you'll see a square box at the top right of the screen (when held in portrait orientation, or at the top left if held in landscape). Tapping this will allow you to select how you want your front-facing video to be displayed; as a split-screen view where your face takes up half the screen, or as a smaller picture-in-picture style, where you appear as a small window overlaid onto the main view. 

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Tapping either of these will bring your face into the picture and hitting record will let you capture video with both sides at once. Remember though that the phone permanently bakes both videos into a single file, so don't shoot with the front and back cameras at once hoping to separate them into individual videos later. 

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108-megapixel images

The 108-megapixel resolution of the main camera sensor is huge and while it's the same resolution as the S20 Ultra, it's been given some software tweaks to improve it, so it's worth checking out if you haven't already. To activate it, start off in the standard camera mode and you'll see some icons along the top of the screen (or the left, if you're holding it in landscape mode), one of which will be for the aspect ratio and will be indicated with numbers such as 3:4, 1:1 or Full

Tap it and you'll see the 3:4 108MP option. Tapping that will activate the high resolution mode, but keep in mind that with that active you won't be able to use any of the zoom lenses as it relies solely on the main camera's image sensor.

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12-bit raw

Samsung has apparently given the S21 Ultra a boost in its raw shooting skills with support for 12-bit raw files. Raw files are essentially "digital negatives" that don't save information like white balance or digital sharpening, giving a better base image for editing the shot later. Raw files are typically used by pro photographers who want the utmost control and quality from their images. 

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12-bit raw files, in theory, capture more dynamic range meaning more detail in the highlights and shadows. It's a pro feature perhaps, so it's no surprise that you'll need to go into More and then activate the Pro mode. This will bring up all the manual settings for exposure, white balance and auto focus, so it's only worth experimenting with if you're confident with your photography knowledge. Activating raw mode takes an additional step though; tap the settings cog, go into Format and advanced options and turn on RAW copies, which will allow the phone to take a raw image as well as a standard JPEG. 

Keep in mind, though, that raw files take up a lot more space than JPEG images, so if you're running low on space, make sure you've not left this mode switched on and are accidentally filling up your gallery with high-resolution raw images of your pet. Unless that's what you're into.

Watch this: We review the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G and its bonkers cameras