Galaxy S21's camera features are good, but are they enough?

The S21 Ultra has a camera with 108-megapixel resolution, 100x zoom and 8K video, but so did last year's S20 Ultra.

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.
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  • Shortlisted for British Photography Awards 2022, Commended in Landscape Photographer of the Year 2022
Andrew Lanxon
4 min read

Samsung's flagship Galaxy S21 line is here, with the S21 Ultra packing all the bells and whistles you'd expect from a top-end phone. And while it has multiple cameras, and a variety of photography features, most of the headline features, including its 100x zoom, 108-megapixel resolution and 8K video were launched with last year's Galaxy S20 cameras and that makes it harder as a professional photographer to get excited.

It was those three features that Samsung particularly highlighted in its press briefing before launch, which seemed odd, given that they're old features. You have to look a bit deeper to find the updates here. There are two telephoto lenses that now offer 3x and 10x optical rather than 10x digital zoom (albeit at 10, rather than 48 megapixels), and the main image sensor is apparently larger (although Samsung hasn't been able to tell me by how much) and can supposedly produce images with improved dynamic range -- more than three times the dynamic range of the S20 Ultra, Samsung says. 

Watch this: Galaxy S21 Ultra: Our first look at Samsung's new premium phone

It's this last point that excites me the most. Increased sensor size and dynamic range could be big deals to photographers as they can result in better-looking shots with more controlled highlights, along with more scope for editing images taken in raw format in apps like Adobe Lightroom Mobile . How much difference the updates make remains to be seen when we get the phone in for testing. 

But it's arguably still more of a case of refinements of existing features rather than bringing anything revolutionary to the table. And while that means you're still getting a phone with a great camera, I rather feel that Samsung needed to try something a bit more exciting for its top-end flagship.


The Galaxy S20 Ultra and the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Samsung's mobile business struggled last year, and with the S21, it needs a success. One rumor indicates that Samsung is aiming for the S21 to be cheaper than its predecessor, which may go some way to explaining the lack of major new features; refining existing tech is much cheaper than developing something entirely new.  

And maybe that's fine for the base S21 -- giving people a more affordable entry into the line would be a smart move, just as Samsung did with the Galaxy S20 FE it launched in the second half of last year. But the Ultra model is aimed at the power user who wants the best of the best and are willing to pay more for it, and I think it's a shame to not see more innovation here.  

Watch this: S21 Ultra camera features improved dynamic range

I explained how excited I was about Apple's iPhone 12 Pro Max when it was announced due to its bigger main camera sensor, its faster aperture, its use of advanced computational photography, its video that uses Dolby Vision and, crucially, the introduction of Apple ProRaw, an entirely new way of thinking about raw imaging. Having used it, I'm impressed -- the images I can take on the 12 Pro Max rival what I could achieve on DSLRs. Apple understood the need to innovate in imagery for people who want pro features and it certainly wasn't put off charging a hell of a lot for it, knowing that it also had the iPhone 12 and 12 Mini for those on more narrow budgets. 

Bear in mind I'm writing this ahead of the phone's official unveiling, and before I've been able to hold it and test it myself. I may well be blown away by the results and conclude that Samsung has made the ultimate photographer's phone. The S20 Ultra can take incredible photos and I'm confident that the S21 will be able to do the same. I loved shooting with the 5x and 10x zoom lenses as they let me capture close-up compositions that I'd need a big telephoto lens to achieve with my Canon DSLR. They're zoom levels that no iPhone can compete with. It's also had something of a design overhaul that's made it look a lot nicer than its intensely dull-looking predecessor. 


A shot taken at 100x zoom on the S20 Ultra. Sure, you can make out what it is, but its low quality makes it unusable as anything more than an example. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

But the 100x Space Zoom is so low quality that I never used it, and the 30x wasn't even good enough for my Instagram shots. Space Zoom seems like little more than a gimmick that doesn't qualify as a pro feature for me and I'm surprised Samsung didn't eliminate it as part of its cost-cutting measures. Reduce the clutter, concentrate more on what will actually make a real difference in taking stunning images.

There are other new software features too, including being able to record video from the different zoom lenses at once, and to be able to record video with both the front and back camera simultaneously -- which we've seen on a variety of phones before. Again, these are features that are fine to have, but they're arguably niche novelties with limited appeal to pro photographers, myself included.


The Galaxy S20 Ultra and Note 20 Ultra both share many key camera specs with the S21 Ultra.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It's not that I find the S21 Ultra disappointing, it's that I'm having to work hard to find reasons to be excited. Perhaps some of that is down to Samsung's press briefings leaning too much on older features rather than outlining what's new, but I can't help but feel if they can't immediately grab the attention of a pro photographer who's also a committed tech obsessive (me) then how are they going to grab the attention of their paying customers? 

At a time when Samsung needed to innovate and excite, its reliance on novelties and existing features in its pro-level phone may be a risky strategy.