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S21 Ultra vs. S20 Ultra: Samsung Galaxy camera shootout

Is 2021's Samsung Galaxy S any better at snapping photos than last year's model?

The standout feature of last year's Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra was its camera, a five-lens setup that could shoot at a crazy 100x magnification. A year later, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is Samsung's newest flagship. It improves on its predecessor in numerous ways: A gorgeous matte back, an even more gorgeous 3,200x1,440-pixel display that lets you scroll in QHD and 120Hz for the first time, and a customary processor upgrade.

But just like last year, those looking into buying Samsung's new crown jewel are mostly doing so for the camera. Updates this year include dual telephoto lenses, 4K video 60 frames per second from all rear cameras, and better zoom-stabilization software. So just how much more Ultra is the S21's photography?

Standard

It'll come as little surprise that there's minimal difference between the two cameras when you're shooting in optimal lighting conditions.

In this shot you'll see the colors on the beer can are similarly vibrant, and the same level of detail is captured. The only difference is in the aperture: The background looks a little more blurred in the S20 Ultra as compared to the S21 Ultra. I personally prefer the latter shot, but that's very much a taste thing.

What about less conducive lighting conditions? I shot these flowers under my living room light, which typically makes for some ugly yellow tinting. The S21 Ultra dealt with this lighting far better, neutralizing the yellow shade and producing a shot with better white balance. It also captured better detail on the flower itself.

One issue I found with the S20 Ultra was that, compared to the iPhone 12 Pro, it struggled with extreme close-up shots. It often couldn't focus properly, and other times colors would be overwhelming.

I recruited yet another flower for help here, and found the S21 Ultra a slight improvement. The red in the S20 Ultra shot is just completely overpowering, whereas it's bearable -- but still strong -- on the S21 Ultra. More data was shot too, as you'll see from the details on the flower's petals.

As for ultrawide-angle shots, I found the cameras to be largely comparable. The S20 Ultra sometimes suffered from blown highlights at times when the S21 Ultra wouldn't. That said, the S20 Ultra's ultrawide shots also looked more vibrant. 

See how the colors pop more here on the S21 Ultra. But the processing around the building's edges results in harsher lighting.

That difference is more evident here, with that harsh sun in the top right being better handled by the S21 Ultra's ultrawide-angle sensor.

Portrait

If the S21 Ultra regresses anywhere, it's in Portrait shots. (Which are now called Portraits, as opposed to Samsung's previous "Live Focus" branding.)

In my testing, the S21 Ultra tended to cool the tone down and capture more detail. It's bokeh, which mimics the depth-of-field effects found in DSLR cameras, is more blurred and creamy. This isn't always bad: See these shots below of CNET Science Editor Jackson Ryan. I much prefer the S20 Ultra shot, as it looks softer and less artificial. But the S21 Ultra has captured more of Jackson's facial features, like his freckles, and more detail in his beard.

This is a nice change. In the past, critics (myself included) have marked down Samsung's Portraits due to their skin-smoothing software, which can result in fake, brushed Portraits.

But more often than not, I found the S21 Ultra's Portraits to be more unsightly than the S20 Ultra's. Look how artificially blue my friend Dan's skin looks here, and note the sunny glow in the S20 Ultra that's absent in the S21 Ultra. The S21 Ultra is a little sharper, but just looks flat compared to the S20 Ultra.

It's less of a problem with selfie Portraits. In the below comparison I look softer in the S20 Ultra shot, and the S21 Ultra's sharpness brings out my monobrow. You love to see it. But assuming you have less facial hair than me, this won't be an issue. Here it's a matter of taste, since the unsightly blue tint isn't as much of a problem.

Zoom

Let's move on to why we're really here. Samsung has been investing big design and marketing dollars into its phones' zoom function over the last year, and that's the case with the S21 Ultra too. Like last year's S20 Ultra, it has 100x Space Zoom. Improvements come with a 3x optical zoom, and a lock feature that makes taking pictures at high zoom much easier.

That 3x optical zoom actually makes a big difference, although it's a qualified one. As you can see, not all 3x magnifications are created equal. The S21 Ultra's 3x zoom is actually less magnified than the S20 Ultra's: These shots of my old and ill-kept Game of Thrones books were taken from the same distance at 3x zoom, yet they look far closer on the S20 Ultra. But they also look clearer and less blurred on the S21 Ultra.

Extending out to 10x zoom, the difference actually shrinks. Both phones do a crazy good job here. The below photo was taken at the standard magnification.

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Now zooming in 10x, you'll quickly notice how much more dynamic the S21 Ultra's shot is. You may not be able to tell on site here, but looking at the raw files I noticed the S20 Ultra is also more grainy than the S21 Ultra. Again though, both Samsung phones do well at 10x zoom.

However, the chasm widens once again when you begin to zoom further than 10x. See that blue building in the background of this shot? Let's zoom in a big ol' 30x.

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The building is adorned with artwork of an Australian kookaburra bird. Apologies for the weird angle, but taking identical shots at 30x zoom is hard! In any case, the S21 Ultra's software is working overtime here and it shows. Both are impressive -- most phones can't zoom this far -- but the S21 Ultra's shot is sharper and with better colors.

Below is another 30x comparison. You'll see that the S20 Ultra's shot is more blurry, has less contrast and captured less detail.

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And finally, the ultimate flex: 100x zoom. Of all the 100x-zoom shots I took, this one exemplifies the difference the best. First, here's the scene I was working with:

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Now zooming as far as both phones can go, we see both do frankly insane jobs at capturing the moon. The S21 Ultra, though, did better. It's more luminescent and impressive.

Night time

The S21 Ultra performs better at night than its predecessor, but it's not without flaws. Generally speaking, it'll capture more light in its low-light photos -- but at a cost.

This shot illuminates the issue. It was taken with Night Mode off. The S21 Ultra took the better photo, capturing more light and more detail, which you can see in the clouds and on the fencing behind the umbrella. But along with that comes some ugly noise, which is particularly bad in the top left of the photo.

Now let's turn Night Mode on. Here I can say the S21 Ultra is an unqualified winner. There are noise issues, particularly on the wall on the right of the photo, but it's worth it for the extra illumination and sharpness.

But there are times where Night Mode can overdo it. Below is a scene with minimal natural light.

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With Night Mode turned on, the S21 Ultra technically does a better job at flooding the scene with light. But it goes too far, resulting in a harsh shot. The S20 Ultra's Night Mode added less light, but produced a more natural-looking photo.

Still, generally speaking the S21 Ultra was a minor improvement over its predecessor. The comparison below is illustrative of what you'll mostly find: The S21 Ultra is a bit sharper, brighter and better at night.

Small improvements

Samsung made some improvements to the S21 Ultra's video camera, too. Both can shoot video in 8K, but now the S21 Ultra can shoot 4K 60 frames-per-second video from all of its rear cameras, notably including its ultrawide angle shooter.

We'd need a whole new article -- or video rather -- to compare the video capabilities of the two phones. I'll just say in my (more limited) testing of the video capabilities, the S21 Ultra's cameras did better at night, with improved low-light autofocus and also better processing of highlights, which can get blown out on the S20 Ultra at times.

All in all, the S21 Ultra is a solid bump up from its predecessor in most photographic ways, especially zoom, though you may personally prefer the S20 Ultra's take on Portrait modes. This is particularly impressive considering the S21 Ultra ($1,200, £1,149, AU$1,849) actually launched at a lower price than the S20 Ultra ($1,400, £1,199, $1,999).

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is Samsung's flagship 2021 phone, its biggest and best of the 2021 Galaxy S21 line that was originally released in the first quarter of that year. We loved its two telephoto cameras, spectacular 6.8-inch screen and support for Samsung's S-Pen stylus (though you'll need to buy that separately). While it's comparatively heavy and lacks a MicroSD expansion slot, you can find it marked down from its original $1,200 base price. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Galaxy S20 Ultra was Samsung's top phone until the Note 20 Ultra was released later in 2020. We liked its 5x optical zoom camera and S Pen support, but felt it was a bit too heavy and expensive compared to other models in the 2020 Galaxy S line.