Wed. Oct 20th, 2021
iPhone 12 Pro Max vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Cameras: Detailed Comparison


iPhone 12 Pro Max and S21 Ultra camsDoing camera phone shootouts is getting trickier and trickier as imaging systems get more complicated… under the hood. Hopefully, for the general user, the camera experience in their phone is as simple as framing, zooming as needed, and tapping the shutter control. This is almost true… In this case, I’m pitching the two imaging giants of the 2021 phone world against each other. iPhone 12 Pro Max (here with ProRAW, see below) and Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, with its zoom extending to a 10x folded lens telephoto.

In terms of raw imaging specifications, we have:

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max (2020)Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G (2021)
12 MP, f/1.6, 1/1.9″ (estimated), dual pixel PDAF, sensor-shift OIS
12 MP, f/2.2, 1/3.4″, PDAF, OIS, 2.5x telephoto
12 MP, f/2.4, 120˚ (ultrawide)1/3.6″
TOF 3D LiDAR scanner (depth)(all cameras aligned and calibrated at factory)
108 MP, f/1.8, 1/1.33″, PDAF, Laser AF, OIS
10 MP, f/4.9, 240mm (10x periscope telephoto), 1/3.24″, dual pixel AF, OIS
10 MP, f/2.4, 70mm (3x telephoto), 1/3.24″, dual pixel AF, OIS
12 MP, f/2.2, ultrawide, 1/2.55″, dual pixel AF(all output at 12MP by default, regardless of scene or zoom)

… which is an intoxicating mix of high-end camera capabilities to pluck from – and it’s evident that how they match up will depend a lot on how much you might need the 10x telephoto. For day to day shots around the home, office, events, landscapes, pets, and so on, photos tend to need between 0.5x and 3x zoom (go on, check your own photos as proof). Occasional forays beyond 3x are rare and handled on both phones here with software (lossy) zoom. Until a shot (perhaps a wildlife snap of a bird at the bottom of the garden?) needs something extreme since at 10x the blocky digital zoom on the S21 Ultra resolves to a crystal clear telephoto image. In good light, anyway. But I wanted to go through this in order to explain why I haven’t majored on the 10x (and hyped ‘Space Zoom’) much, since there’s limited daily usefulness. Handy to have for extreme subjects and to test, but not worth determining which smartphone to buy – I contend.

It’s also worth talking about ‘ProRAW’ on the iPhone. Traditionally, phones either output a JPG file and/or a RAW file (usually in DNG format). Both have big disadvantages:

  • Most phone camera software adds loads of sharpening and edge enhancement before the final JPG file is produced. The idea is to look good on the phone screen, but looking at the JPG in detail shows horrible liberties usually being taken. Typically, you can’t crop part of the image to see more or to reframe because then the pixel-level artifacts are just too ugly. In addition, JPG output is fairly small, a few Megabytes, meaning that plenty of lossy compressions is also applied, resulting in even more artifacts. And, once encoded, the JPG file and its less desirable properties are set in stone, so you’ve lost any pretense at going back to the image later and reworking it.
  • RAW output has been possible in top-end phone cameras since about 2013. The two big disadvantages are the image size (not such an issue in 2020, thanks to storage capacities and chip speeds) and the very ‘unprocessed’ nature of the output. Because a RAW file contains data more or less straight from the sensor (typically it’s color and luminance data, with loads of noise, and only the basic Bayer filtering from the RGB matrix having been done) and all grabbed from a single exposure, you’ve lost all the advantages of the image being taken on a smartphone, i.e. you’ve lost all the intelligence that normally handles HDR, white balance, noise reduction, multi-frame combination, and so on. So what you end up with is pale and uninspiring until you bring it into a photo editor that supports RAW and get to work experimenting with a dozen parameters. And hopefully a wealth of image tweaking experience – you’ll need it.

This is where Apple’s ProRAW system comes in. At capture time, you decide whether you want to shoot in normal mode or ProRAW mode – there’s a visible toggle in the Camera interface. For most casual snaps, normal mode is fine and who cares if things are a bit jagged, a bit enhanced, a bit artificial, down at the pixel level – after all, no one, even you, are going to examine these shots in extreme detail.

But when you’re faced with something special? A sunset. A picturesque garden. A river scene. A seaside panorama. A posed shot of a loved one. Shots like these – especially on a ‘Pro’ iPhone – are ones that you’re almost certainly going to do things with later. Not least look at the images in detail in a shootout like this (ahem!)

The cleverness of Apple’s new system is that ProRAW images aren’t just the image data from the sensor, from a single exposure, as is the case with traditional RAW files. Apple is selecting image data from much later in the imaging workflow. So you can use any of the phone’s three cameras (ultra-wide, main, telephoto), multi-frame HDR and Night mode shots can still be composited, Apple’s Deep Fusion and Smart HDR algorithms can still work. All of this happens, creating the very best image possible, and only then does the ProRAW .DNG file gets created.

The ProRAW DNG file still has the original, traditional RAW parameters, for maximum compatibility with existing editing packages. Yet it also has the results of Apple’s composition algorithms and calculations. Hence ‘ProRAW’, i.e. RAW and then a bit more added on. In practice, this means that viewing a captured ProRAW DNG file in the iPhone 12 Pro’s Photos application will show a very similar result to a regular JPG shot – at phone screen size, at least. And you can treat it like any other ‘smart’ image when sharing it around.

So… for the test photos below, I’ve cheated just a very tiny bit – in most cases, I’ve shot with the iPhone 12 Pro Max in ProRAW mode, for maximum quality and detail – but if you have a ‘Pro’ iPhone then you can do the same, and reap the benefits. As for the S21 Ultra, there’s a Pro mode, but it has languished in Samsung’s software suite for years now – the current version offers no multi-frame smarts, no HDR, and doesn’t even support either of the telephoto cameras on the device. It’s cool to have but is worlds away from the auto-intelligence in the iPhone’s Camera application, I contend. The S21 Ultra also offers RAW capture, but it’s again vanilla and unimpressive, so I had to go with the default capture and processing.

Note that you can examine all the photos yourself if you’re really keen, or if you don’t trust my analysis(!), since they’re online here.

Test 1: Icy landscape

Shot on a sub-zero winter day in the UK, and looking towards the hazy and weak sun, here’s a frozen pond scene, a typical snap:

Scene overview

All rather bleak, but loads of detail in the center of the frame. Here are 1:1 crops from the iPhone 12 Pro Max (top) and S21 Ultra (bottom):

1:1 crop
1:1 crop

I can’t really fault either phone’s photo here. Even at the pixel level, there’s decent real detail. Perhaps the S21 adds a bit too much contrast and edge enhancement, but considering the subject matter (frozen reeds and ice), I’m calling this one a score draw.

Scores: iPhone 12 Pro Max: 9 pts; S21 Ultra: 9 pts

Test 2: Icy zoom

Continuing the frozen theme, here’s a partially frozen pond in weak sunlight, with a central wooden feature that’s crying out for a little zoom. In this case 2.5x telephoto on the iPhone 12 Pro Max and 3x on the S21 Ultra (though note that this is 10MP upscaled to 12MP, so you already lose a little image quality before you even see the produced photo). Here’s the overall scene, unzoomed:

Scene overview

Here are 1:1 crops from the zoomed photos from the iPhone 12 Pro Max (top) and S21 Ultra (bottom):

1:1 crop
1:1 crop

At first glance the S21 Ultra’s shot looks crisper and clearer, but be careful – looking at the (in reality) very smooth ice around it shows a mass of artifacts – totally made-up detail that’s not there to the eye. The iPhone 12 Pro Max doesn’t pull as much detail out of the wooden structure, but it also doesn’t make things up – the ice is shown beautifully smooth (think ice rink).

The thing about made-up detail, i.e. artifacts, is that their presence makes you doubt detail in the rest of the scene. I’d much rather have a ‘natural’ and accurate photo that could be sharpened up or enhanced later in an image editing application – if you start with artifacts then there’s literally nowhere to go.

Scores: iPhone 12 Pro Max: 9 pts; S21 Ultra: 8 pts

Test 3 – Zoom, zoom again

More telephoto zoom, this time on a plane in a nearby museum, shot at about 50m in overcast lighting. Here’s the unzoomed scene, for context:

Scene overview

Here are 1:1 crops from the zoomed photos (2.5x/3x) from the iPhone 12 Pro Max (top) and S21 Ultra (bottom):

1:1 crop 1:1 crop

We see again, the attempts by the S21 Ultra to enhance reality by sharpening up all its edges. The texture is created where in reality there is very little. And existing detail is amplified to caricature. you have to look down here at the pixel level to see it, but it’s there and it’s rarely pretty. Why does Samsung do this? Because when the images are seen on a phone screen they’ll look ‘crisper’. But it’s important to realize the downside of these exaggerations. The iPhone image is rather more understated. And, as a result, bears inspection even at the pixel level. Or rework (e.g. cropping down).

Scores: iPhone 12 Pro Max: 10 pts; S21 Ultra: 8 pts

Test 4 – Extreme zoom

But I need to at least demonstrate the 10x periscope telephoto on the S21 Ultra, however artificial the real-world use case. Of note – again – is that in a real-world photo like this – the plane – you’d typically zoom by 2x or so for better framing. Or simply get closer! But this is a zoom test, so we have to go a lot further, even if we end up only looking at a small part of what is a wonderful old plane.

Here are scaled 10x shots from the iPhone 12 Pro Max (top)  and S21 Ultra (bottom):

Scaled photo
Scaled photo

At web resolution, the software-zoomed snap on the iPhone doesn’t look too bad, even not as clear as the Samsung one. At 10x you only see part of a subject though – unless it’s very small (hence my comment earlier about wildlife!)

Here are 1:1 crops from the 10x zoomed photos from the iPhone 12 Pro Max (top, using 2.5x optical and 7.5x software zoom) and S21 Ultra (bottom, using the periscope optical):

1:1 crop
1:1 crop

Obviously, there’s no contest. In decent light, as here, there’s plenty of detail possible from that 10x folded optics telephoto on the S21 Ultra – results are impressive, even after a little 10MP to 12MP upscaling. You can see individual rivets and a great view of… the airspeed probe. While, understandably, the 10x software zoom on the iPhone is a complete mess when you start to look at it in pixel-level detail.

Scoring is tough since this is an unusual test case and you could argue that the software zoomed version is good enough for Facebook, etc. But I have to give props (on an airplane, get it?!) and points to the S21 Ultra’s periscope zoom. Quite impressive.

Scores: iPhone 12 Pro Max: 7 pts; S21 Ultra: 10 pts

Test 5 – Sunny suburbs

A final pair of sunny tests before we take the lights right down. Here’s my standard suburban test, in bright sun and with loads of the usual detail:

Scene overview

Here are 1:1 crops from the iPhone 12 Pro Max (top) and S21 Ultra (bottom):

1:1 crop

With such good light, even at the pixel level, things don’t look too bad. Look very closely and you can see extra edge enhancement in the Samsung image – the finest of branches are either lost or made thicker than they were, plus contrast is just a touch too high, making the image less natural. But I’m being picky here. A win for the iPhone, but only by a single point.

Scores: iPhone 12 Pro Max: 10 pts; S21 Ultra: 9 pts

Test 6 – Sunny suburbs, zoomed

With so much detail available in this scene, it seemed a shame not to try some gentle zoom. Using the 2.5x telephoto on the iPhone and the 3x telephoto on the S21 Ultra. Here are 1:1 crops from the zoomed photos on the iPhone 12 Pro Max (top) and S21 Ultra (bottom):

1:1 crop 1:1 crop

Zoomed in using the telephotos, the image processing preferences in each phone camera are shown a little more clearly. The iPhone 12 Pro Max (here in ProRAW mode, remember) is natural in its appearance, you could almost reach out and touch the leaves in the crop above. While the S21 Ultra enhances edges and contrast significantly, bringing out detail in all surfaces, but arguably to an ugly degree. For example the cartoony artifacts on the felt roof, the oil-painting-like leaves, the drawn-on brickwork. Of all the tests in this feature, this is perhaps the one that persuades me that the S21 Ultra – and Samsung in general – goes too far. With such huge and capable optics in the phone, why does the software need to pull out tricks like this, as if it was a budget device? It makes no sense.

Scores: iPhone 12 Pro Max: 10 pts; S21 Ultra: 7 pts

Test 7 – Low light storefront

On a freezing and snowy night, an interesting storefront. Here’s the scene:

Scene overview

Plenty of light and detail challenges. Here are 1:1 crops from the iPhone 12 Pro Max (top) and S21 Ultra (bottom):

1:1 crop
1:1 crop

Neither camera managed to handle the intensity of the lights inside the shop, but that’s understandable. The S21 Ultra is clearly struggling in terms of processing, with thickened edges and heavy contrast, going to town on texture of brickwork and signage (see that on the door). While the iPhone 12 Pro Max, here in its ‘don’t edge enhance or sharpen’ ProRAW mode, does amazingly well – again look at those door signs.

Scores: iPhone 12 Pro Max: 10 pts; S21 Ultra: 8 pts

Test 8 – More snow… and a low light car

Shooting again in freezing conditions – the things I do for the site – here’s a car in snow and in low light at night:

Scene overview

Here are 1:1 crops from the iPhone 12 Pro Max (top) and S21 Ultra (bottom):

1:1 crop
1:1 crop

The real world, with its many textured surfaces, proves a struggle again for phone cameras intent on exaggerating detail and enhancing contrast. Look closely at the Samsung photo and you can see the texture in the car’s rear panels which aren’t there in real life, plus some pretty ugly patterned artifacts in the snow-spattered tarmac around the car. To be fair, there are also some artifacts in the tarmac in the iPhone crop, but it nails the car’s panels in color and (lack of) texture.

Scores: iPhone 12 Pro Max: 9 pts; S21 Ultra: 8 pts

Test 9 – Very low light indoors

With living room light deliberately made as dim as possible (just one lamp 3m away), shooting my recently completed Space 1999 Eagle in LEGO, here’s a rough guide as to how dim it was to my eyes:

Scene overview

A tough challenge in terms of getting detail and indeed in focus in the first place. The latter should be OK for these two imaging champions though, with LiDAR and laser autofocus respectively. Here are 1:1 crops from the iPhone 12 Pro Max (top) and S21 Ultra (bottom):

1:1 crop 1:1 crop

Although the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s rendition of the scene tries to represent the warmth of the lighting in the room, I have to point out the (understandable) digital noise down at the pixel level. But the S21 Ultra’s photo is astonishingly accurate – there’s almost zero noise and perfect colors as if I’d taken the photo in daylight – the white bricks are white and even the background wall is the correct color. Amazing, really. So credit where credit’s due, etc.

Scores: iPhone 12 Pro Max: 8 pts; S21 Ultra: 9 pts

Test 10 – Bokeh effect challenge

We’ve become used to the lengths phone software goes to provide a ‘shallow depth of field’ effect – here’s a bunch of flowers in a vase, shot with ‘Portrait’ mode on the iPhone and ‘Live Focus’ mode on the S21 Ultra – the idea is the same, to combine data from the main and telephoto lenses, along with depth information from other sensors, to know what’s background and what’s foreground in a scene. Here’s the full set-up:

Scene overview

There are some tough asks in there, with outlying stems against the complex background. I don’t expect perfection here from either phone. Here are 1:1 crops from the iPhone 12 Pro Max (top) and S21 Ultra (bottom):

1:1 crop 1:1 crop

Again credit to the Samsung S21 Ultra for a better result, partly because it has a larger sensor and aperture in the first place, so there’s less to do ‘in software’. The iPhone tries a little too hard to blur the background. So excessively that stem sections are physically missing. I know, I know, it’s an extreme example and perhaps I should stick to ‘people’ portraits? (I do, below.) But still, The S21 Ultra nails the shot, with only one or two small defects in the overall photo. Impressive.

Scores: iPhone 12 Pro Max: 7 pts; S21 Ultra: 9 pts

Test 11 – Traditional Portrait

OK, forget bunches of flowers, let’s go for a traditional portrait shot, this time of a person. Me, since no one else wanted to pose in Covid-19 lockdown Britain! Here are scaled images from the iPhone 12 Pro Max (top) and S21 Ultra (bottom):

Scaled image
Scaled image

As you can see, they’re both pretty good, with no obvious depth of field artifacts – the main difference here is the character of each shot. The iPhone (as usual) goes all out to create something cinematic, a portrait in a world where everything is sunny and warm and wonderful. While the Samsung sticks to cold reality and higher contrast. So it depends on what you wanted to achieve. Part of the charm of a ‘Portrait mode’ shot is that it brings out a separated view of a person that you wouldn’t normally get in a straightforward snap, which is where the iPhone aims – usually with great success. But either approach can be argued. So… I’m declaring a draw here.

Scores: iPhone 12 Pro Max: 9 pts; S21 Ultra: 9 pts

Verdict

Adding up the points gives us a quantitative measure of how the two phone camera systems did:

  1. iPhone 12 Pro Max: 98 / 100 pts
  2. S21 Ultra: 94 pts

A pretty close call overall, and one which was, in hindsight, easy to predict. ProRAW images really are very natural and detailed, with few exaggerations, and as a result the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the better day to day shooter, I think. But the S21 Ultra has plenty of strong suits too – in low light indoors, when super-zooming over 10x, when shooting bokeh macro subjects, and so on.

Overall, I was left hoping for more from both manufacturers. Apple, that the default image processing would be dialed back to more closely match what ProRAW shoots, and Samsung that all their image processing would be dialed back. Several notches. With that giant 108MP sensor and 9-to-1 pixel-binning there really is no need to do outrageous edge enhancement – let the pure photos speak for themselves, etc.

PS. Of course, there are plenty of caveats to all of this:

  • I didn’t test the ultra-wide cameras (actually I did, but that’s a feature for another day – this one’s too image-heavy already!)
  • The default iPhone 12 Pro range image processing sharpens and edge enhances almost as much as the Samsung phone did here. So remember that I was choosing to shoot in ProRAW mode on the iPhone. With its own slight penalty in space used per photo, and with no real benefit on every day casual snaps. In daily life, I do tend to only tap the ‘ProRAW’ button in the Camera UI when shooting something impressive or detailed.
  • By choosing a different mix of subjects or by using more (or less) zoom tests, it’s possible to manipulate the scores and results – above, I simply try to present a selection of possibilities!



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