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Pixel 6 Pro vs. Galaxy S21 Ultra: Which camera is better?

We take two of 2021's hottest Android phones and see which can take better pictures.

Samsung's Galaxy S21 Ultra and Google's Pixel 6 Pro were both among our top-rated phones of 2021. With their impressive performance, their glorious displays and feature-rich experiences, both phones deserve the titles of "flagship" Android handsets and are still well worth considering even as 2022's new phones begin to appear

And they both have amazing cameras, with the S21 Ultra particularly impressive with its astonishing 10x zoom lens, while the Pixel 6 Pro manages to give the iPhone 13 Pro a run for its money

But which camera is better? Is it still all about that zoom on the S21 Ultra? I took both phones out for a spin to see what's what. 

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Pixel 6 Pro.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

In this first outdoor shot using the main cameras on both phones, there's little to choose between them. The S21 Ultra's shot is perhaps a touch warmer overall, but the exposure, contrast and detail are basically identical. 

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Pixel 6 Pro.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

And it's the same story here: both phones have captured sharp, well-exposed images, but the S21 Ultra's image has warmer tones, which gives a nice sunset feel to the image. 

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Pixel 6 Pro, 4x telephoto zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Galaxy S21 Ultra, 10x telephoto zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Switching to the maximum optical zooms of both phones from the same shooting position, it's clear the difference that the huge zoom on the S21 Ultra makes. At 10x, it's able to get much closer on the buildings, allowing for a different composition. 

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Pixel 6 Pro, 4x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Galaxy S21 Ultra, 10x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

And it's not just for travel pictures; that zoom can be great for getting close up on the local wildlife, too. The Pixel 6 Pro's 4x zoom can take some great shots, but it just doesn't have the reach of the S21 Ultra's 10x zoom. 

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Pixel 6 Pro.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

A solid balance of exposure from both phones in this sunny outdoor scene. The S21 Ultra's shot has a touch more contrast, which isn't always a positive thing, but it's helped make the stark shadows on the ground more defined here.

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Pixel 6 Pro.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

That additional contrast on the S21 Ultra is more pronounced here, with much deeper blues seen in the sky and its reflection in the water. For a quick snap that might be preferable, but I'd rather have a more natural-looking image straight out of the camera in order to apply more contrast -- or other effects -- later on if I choose. It's why I shoot in raw format on my DSLR and it's why I prefer the Pixel 6 Pro's shot here.

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Pixel 6 Pro, super-wide lens.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Galaxy S21 Ultra, super-wide lens.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The situation is identical when I switched to the super-wide lenses on both phones; that contrast boost from the S21 Ultra is particularly noticeable, and I'm not keen on how punchy and oversaturated the shot looks here. 

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Pixel 6 Pro.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

In the fading evening light, that color balance has played in the S21 Ultra's favor, with vibrant green grass visible in its shot, against the Pixel 6 Pro's more muddy, greeny-brown tones. The S21 Ultra's shot is sharper, too, with more noticeable clarity on the blades of grass. 

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Pixel 6 Pro, night mode.

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, night mode.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Taken using night mode, both phones have done a solid job of capturing this night-time scene, with great overall brightness and contrast. I prefer the Pixel 6 Pro's shot however as its color balance is less purply and the fine details are clearer overall. 

In general, it's evident that both phones can take some superb images from their cameras. Overall. I prefer the look from the Pixel 6 Pro thanks to its more natural approach to color and contrast in a scene. Samsung's phones have always had a tendency toward high contrast and saturation in images and the S21 Ultra is no exception. 

However, there's no escaping that the S21 Ultra remains unrivaled when it comes to zoom skills. The 10x optical lens allows you to take shots that you simply cannot get on the Pixel 6 Pro, or from almost any of its main rivals. If zoom skills are paramount in your photography then the S21 Ultra is the phone to go for. If you're more bothered about overall image accuracy and tend to prefer wider-angle images then you'll feel right at home with the Pixel 6 Pro. 

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