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Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max cameras: A pro photographer's assessment

We put Apple's and Samsung's best phones side by side to see which can take better photos.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max has wowed us with its ability to take stunning photos that can rival what you might see from a professional DSLR. But Samsung's Galaxy S21 Ultra also packs an incredible camera array, boasting mind-bending zoom capabilities that comfortably outstrip what Apple offers in its phone. So how do these two cameras stack up and which should you consider if you're really into your photography? I headed across the beautiful Scottish city of Edinburgh to find out.

For these photos, both phones were on their default settings using the standard camera app on each phone unless otherwise stated. 

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, normal lens.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 12 Pro Max, normal lens.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

We're kicking off with this beautiful view from the top of Calton Hill. The differences are clear: The S21 Ultra's white balance has given its shot a noticeable magenta bias, with more accurate color tones being visible from the iPhone. 

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, 100% crop.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 12 Pro Max, 100% crop.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Cropping into both images to 100%, it's also possible to see that the iPhone's camera provides a lot more detail in its image -- pay particular attention to the detail on the large foreground column on the left. It's surprising, as both shots are 12 megapixels. (The iPhone only does 12 megapixels, whereas the S21 Ultra downsamples its 108-megapixel sensor into 12-megapixel shots, a process called pixel binning.)

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, normal lens.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 12 Pro Max, normal lens.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

There are noticeable color differences again on this outdoor scene, with the S21 Ultra producing a more cyan-toned sky that looks a little unnatural to me. That said, the S21 has also made the church itself brighter, which helps it stand out from the scene much more. 

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, superwide lens.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 12 Pro Max, superwide lens.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Switching to the superwide mode, both phones have captured extremely vibrant scenes here, with a great balance between the bright blue sky and the more shadowy areas around the bushes. The white balance differences are evident again, with the S21 Ultra leaning still on the magenta side. However, I also think the iPhone has gone too far the other way, with a more noticeable green color cast in the clouds and in the building. 

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, ultrawide lens.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 12 Pro Max, ultrawide lens.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It's exactly the same story here. The S21 Ultra displays more magentas in its scene; the iPhone 12 Pro Max leans more into the greens. Neither is exactly better than the other here, although the S21 has brightened some of the details slightly on the cannon. It's subtle, but it helps bring out some of the natural textures of the old ironwork. 

Galaxy S21 Ultra is the zoom king

It's zoom where the S21 Ultra really shines, with optical zoom lenses for 3x and 10x zoom, and digital zoom all the way up to 100x. By comparison, the iPhone 12 Pro Max offers a maximum optical zoom of 2.5x -- an increase of 0.5x over the previous iPhone 11 Pro

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, 3x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 12 Pro Max, 2.5x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

At 3x zoom on the S21 Ultra and 2.5x zoom on the iPhone 12 Pro Max, it's evident that the zoom amount is very similar (the S21 Ultra's 3x zoom is equivalent to a 72mm zoom lens on a 35mm camera, while the iPhone's is equivalent to 68mm).

Both color and overall exposure look to be pretty much identical between the two images, with little to differentiate between them in contrast either. 

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, 3x zoom, 100% crop.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 12 Pro Max, 2.5x zoom, 100% crop.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Cropping in to 100% on those images reveals an interesting difference though. The S21 Ultra's image looks sharper, as the phone has applied a lot of digital sharpening to preserve the details. When viewed up close like this, it almost looks like some of the building details have been gone round with a pen. By comparison, the iPhone's shot looks less sharp when zoomed in. If you're sharing your image straight from your phone, you probably want the sharper shot and would be very happy with what the S21 has produced. 

I personally prefer less sharpening to be added by default, however, as this can quickly degrade the image if you want to do more artistic edits later in apps like Adobe Lightroom. In other words, I prefer less digital sharpening on my images so that I can apply my own sharpening later, should I want to. If you're not quite so into your image editing, this likely won't be a problem for you.

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, 3x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 12 Pro Max, 2.5x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Details look to be pretty similar between these shots. The S21 Ultra's shot is again a bit more magenta, but in this scene I actually prefer the white balance shift as it gives a slight sunset feel. 

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, 10x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 12 Pro Max, 2.5x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The S21 Ultra takes things further though. Much further. Its 10x optical zoom vastly outstrips what the iPhone's 2.5x zoom can achieve and the results are clear to see here. Being able to zoom right in with the S21 has made the dramatic Fettes College the focus of the image, eliminating all of the cluttering details like the buildings and cars that remain present in the iPhone's shot. 

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, 10x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 12 Pro Max, 2.5x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

And here, the iPhone's 2.5x zoom falls far behind the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which is able to zoom right on the distant buildings of Edinburgh's center. 

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Galaxy S21 10x zoom (left) versus iPhone 12 Pro Max digital zoom (right).

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

On the left is a shot overlooking Edinburgh's Princes Street, taken using the S21 Ultra's 10x zoom lens. On the right I've tried to digitally zoom in to an equivalent level with the iPhone 12 Pro Max. The difference is huge, with extremely mushy details on the iPhone's shot that doesn't look at all good. When it comes to zooming in, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is on a whole other level. 

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, night mode.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 12 Pro Max, night mode.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

My last test was this still-life scene, which I set up in an extremely dark room. The iPhone 12 Pro Max quite comfortably takes the win here -- its shot is brighter and with less image noise than the image from the S21 Ultra. I also appreciated that the iPhone automatically switches into night mode when it needs to, whereas I had to go into More and then select a specific night mode on the S21. It's a small point, but Apple has always had an intuitive user interface, which does make it quicker to get shots.

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Which phone has the best camera?

Which camera is better is not an easy question to answer. Fundamentally, they're both superb, being able to take vibrant images with excellent dynamic range. It's close, but generally I prefer shots taken on the iPhone as they tend to have more natural colors and less digital sharpening. I tend to edit all my images, however, so I like a more natural base image to work with -- you may prefer a more finished image to share straight out of camera. 

But it's the zoom that really separates these two and it's worth thinking about how often you've wanted to zoom in closer when you've taken photos before. It really does add a whole new option for composing your images that the iPhone simply can't provide and means that you're walking around with a more complete photography kit bag, ready for any scene you come across. If you've ever found the 2x zoom on your old phone lacking, the S21 Ultra may well be the camera for you.  

Lexy Savvides/CNET

There's a reason why the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G earned a CNET Editors' Choice Award. This top-of-the-line phone features 5G connectivity, a large 6.8-inch AMOLED display and a rear camera setup that includes an amazing 10x optical zoom lens we positively love.

Patrick Holland/CNET

The iPhone 12 Pro Max also received high marks from our reviews team, thanks to its striking design, 5G support and MagSafe charging feature. That's why we think it's worth the $1,099 price tag. And yes, if your priority is image quality, this is the iPhone for you.