Our big Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra camera test: 100x zoom, 108MP photos and 40MP selfies

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We don't have to tell you that the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra camera is incredible – the 50 photos we're including in this camera deep dive speak for themselves.

We tested the S20 Ultra 100x telephoto lens, which Samsung calls 'Space Zoom', and have our first thoughts on that. We've got photo samples from shooting on a tripod as well as while handheld; most importantly, we put the phone's photos side-by-side with those shot by top competitors (the likes of Apple, Google, OnePlus).

As you can tell, we're taking our Galaxy S20 Ultra camera very seriously:

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

Yeah, we’re kind of nuts when it comes to properly testing smartphone cameras.

The photo comparison gallery is below, however, if you have specific requests for a comparison or shot scenario, ask us about it on Twitter. We'll try to update this ongoing S20 Ultra camera review with answers. Yes, we'll include the S20 and S20 Plus as comparisons when we get those phones in for review, too.

For now, we've photo galleries on multiple pages (to break up the photos that will load, not to annoy you with multiple pages, we swear!) showing the results of the following S20 Ultra camera modes:

  • 100x 'Space Zoom' telephoto lens with a tripod + rival phone comparisons
  • 108MP photos and 40MP selfies
  • Live Focus portrait mode and all of its fun filters
  • The upgraded selfie camera and automatic group selfie UI (this is poised to be the best selfie camera we've ever tested)
  • Ultra-wide photos (and how they compare to normal wide photos)
  • Handheld 100x 'Space Zoom' telephoto attempts

Now onto the Galaxy S20 Ultra photo comparison gallery below.

So how's that Galaxy S20 100x 'Space Zoom'?

What's it like in 'Space Zoom'? That's the No. 1 question we had when we first did our Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra unboxing and fired up the camera. In a few words: impressive, but not always useable at the maximum 100x times zoom level.

Samsung's folded lens, similar to the Huawei P30 Pro's periscope lens, sits sideways inside the smartphone to give it extra room and uses a mirror to turn 90 degrees and take shots out of the back of the phone. Otherwise, you wouldn't be getting to extreme zoom levels with a thin smartphone.

Using a tripod for this first test, here are the results, starting with 1x (no zoom) and going to 2x, 10x, 30x and 100x, then back down to 0.5x for the ultra-wide.

Edit: We went back and re-did our testing to include both day and night to see what happens when more shadows creep in.

The S20 Ultra camera at 100x isn't something you'd post to Instagram – it's almost a stylized hand-drawn version of what New York City's Grand Central Terminal clock looks like. But this is close to what 10x digital zoom looks like on Samsung's competitors.

Essentially, Samsung's camera is making 10x optical hybrid zoom fairly useable when that's the maximum digital zoom on many of its rivals (and its own previous cameras). Even 4x and 30x (which are preset zoom levels on the camera UI) are usable in the right scenarios (read: good lighting conditions and with a steady hand or tripod), while the 100x zoom feels like a neat tech demo and similar to the quality of 10x digital zoom on other phones cameras.

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Besides the S20 Ultra, here's what we've included

Looking at the Galaxy S20 Ultra camera's photos is helpful, but examining them alone isn't good enough for our testing. So we've included several of Samsung's rivals and two of last year's Samsung phones in many of the scenarios.

Here's what we've included and why:

  • Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra: because… otherwise this is pointless, right?
  • iPhone 11 Pro Max: the S20 Ultra's chief competitor from Apple
  • Google Pixel 4: one of the best camera phones in our book
  • Samsung Galaxy S10: how much has the S20 Ultra improved things?
  • Samsung Galaxy Note 10: some people are deciding between the S20 Ultra and Note 10 (and have emailed us, so this is for you)
  • OnePlus 7 Pro: a flagship at a mid-range price, now 1/3 cheaper vs S20 Ultra
  • Google Pixel 3a: a phone that's $1,000 cheaper than the S20 Ultra

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S20 Ultra vs last year's big Samsung phones 

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S20 Ultra vs much cheaper phones

Now onto the Galaxy S20 Ultra 'Live Focus' mode, which is Samsung calls its portrait mode, and more comparisons to tell how Samsung's new phone stacks up to its competitors.

There's a lot of hype attached to the 108MP camera on the Galaxy S20 Ultra (which is exclusive to the Ultra, by the way), and it does in fact offer a bit more detail, according to our comparison tests. The same goes for the 40MP selfie camera.

But we're not sure if we're going to use it as much as we thought, at least not for the reason we original thought, which was to immediately get better photos and selfies.

Here's where we think 108MP and 40MP selfie photos will be useful:
Cropping in on specific subjects. Maybe it's something in the background you want to isolate into its own photo, or maybe you just want to cut someone out of a photo group selfie (like an ex or an employee who leaves the company after a workplace photos is taken?). Whatever the case may be, you can do so without a tremendous loss in quality.

Let's take a look:

108MP camera

At first, we noticed few differences between a 108MP and default 12MP photos from the Galaxy S20 Ultra – especially when we looked on the new phone's 6.9-inch screen and on various computer monitors. We don't have one of the 8K Samsung TVs we saw at CES or Samsung's The Wall TV to test it out on something much, much larger.

But then we started cropping-in on a few example photos.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra – 108MP main camera photo

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 108MP camera sample

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra – 12MP main camera  photo

Samsung Galaxy S20 camera roll

So far the two versions look similar, but let's take that ex-employee example and run with it. Someone leaves the company just after a promotional workplace photo is taken (happens all of the time), and that person can easily be cropped out.

S20 Ultra – cropped 108MP photo

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 108MP camera sample

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra – cropped 12MP photo

Samsung Galaxy S20 camera roll

Workplace photo saved – and our cropped S20 Ultra camera examples shows less quality loss from the 108MP version, with more noticeable oversharpening in the 12MP version. Thankfully, both Aaron (right) and Andrew (middle) are still very much part of Future. Thanks for posing, guys.

Wait, now we want a photo of the magazines in the background and forgot to take one. There's going to be even more distortion punching in that far, but the 108MP handles it better.

Galaxy S20 Ultra – 108MP cropped photo of magazines

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 108MP camera sample

Galaxy S20 Ultra – 12MP cropped photo of magazines

Samsung Galaxy S20 camera roll

When we crop to look at a single magazine cover, both begin to degrade in quality, but we can at least read all of the text on the version that was originally 108MP. Just look at the text underneath 'Windsors'.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 108MP camera sample

Samsung Galaxy S20 camera roll

So cropping in anywhere on a photo could give you an entirely new subject without distortion – or at least not as much distortion as normal. Look at the bottles at this sleepy New York City diner in the top left corner.

Again, they look the same in both photos, until you crop in.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra – 108MP main camera photo

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra – 12MP main camera photo

All of a sudden, the 108MP version (which was about 11.6MB) showed the labels a bit better. Look for the word 'Silver' on the second bottle from the left. You can still read that on the 108MP version, but it's blurry on the 12MP version.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra – cropped 108MP photo

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 108MP cropped

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra – cropped 12MP photo

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 12MP cropped

Now, take this example, and imagine having a wide landscape photo of a city street. You'll be able to isolate a single taxi in the distance into its own photo, like you were taking a 12MP photo of that taxi from the very beginning. 

So, will you get better photos at 108MP? That all depends on what you plan to do with them.

Closer subjects exhibit fewer differences – the cups have a bit more reflection in the 108MP cropped version than the 12MP cropped version, and if you were to zoom in further on the 'Warning' sign, the smaller text is somewhat legible in the 108MP shot.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra – 108MP photo cropped-in

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 108MP cropped

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra – 12MP photo cropped-in

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 108MP cropped

Yes, you could always use the 48MP telephoto lens to capture distant subjects, but what the 108MP camera does is give you more control after the shutter button in pressed.

40MP selfie camera

Now, onto the 40MP selfie camera.

We did appreciate the wider field of view in the special 40MP mode. But overall? It won't make your selfies look that much better if you don't intend to crop them in. It's a small difference, but when you want to cut someone out of a selfie photo, this may be useful in a real-life scenario if you want to maintain the highest quality.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 40MP selfie camera

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 40MP selfie camera

A crop of that same Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 40MP selfie photo (notice the gleam in the eye)

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 40MP selfie camera

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 10MP selfie camera

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 10MP selfie camera

A crop of that same Samsung Galaxy S20 10MP selfie photo (notice the loss of detail when we crop in?)

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 10MP selfie camera

Samsung Galaxy S20 'Live Focus' portrait mode

We're still testing the Samsung's portrait mode, and the fact that the S20 Ultra has Time of Flight cameras (something missing on the normal S20), meaning it should be able to better sense depth and differentiate the foreground from the background.

That's not always the case, as the S20 Ultra looks about as good as the Note 10 in our sample photos when it comes to determining the edges. However, our mobile editor, David Lumb, looks sharper in the S20 Ultra photos.

And, for what it's worth, Samsung has consistently had 'the most fun' camera to use with its filters like Color Point (the selective back and white filter), even if it wasn't always 'the best' camera. This year, it could claim both titles.

Galaxy S20 Ultra's biggest rivals in portrait mode

Every phonemaker does it differently, with some leaning into the bokeh (background blur) more than others. These phones also vary in how much they crop in to get that effect, so you may have to stand further back from your subject than you would to capture a normal.

Really, it comes down to taste, though, we have have another set of portrait photos examples coming soon. Watch this page.

iPhone 11 Pro Max portrait camera

iPhone 11 Pro Max camera sample

Google Pixel 4 portrait camera

Google Pixel 4 camera sample

Last year's Samsung phones

Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus portrait camera

Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus camera sample

S20 Ultra vs cheap phones

OnePlus 7 Pro portrait camera

OnePlus 7 Pro camera sample

The OnePlus 7 Pro softened David's face in every attempt in this mode, so while we liked the OnePlus 3x telephoto camera, the portrait mode left something to be desired.

Google Pixel 3a portrait camera

Google Pixel 3a camera sample

For a camera phone that's $1,000 cheaper than the S20 Ultra, the Google Pixel 3a isn't bad by any stretch.

Upgraded normal selfie photos comparison

We're almost ready to call it: the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is poised to have the best selfie camera we've seen yet, according to our early testing. It's not the 40MP hype, though – you have to specifically select that in the UI anyway and the 40MP version is not really meant for dark environments due to the smaller size of individual pixels.

It's the fact that our faces are well lit, colors pop nicely but not aggressively, and the camera UI is so easy to use compared to those of several other smartphones out there. We have a bit more to say about the group selfies UI, too, but here are the front-facing camera photos – note we are very cold in this pictures, but we do it for you.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 10MP selfie camera

Samsung Galaxy camera sample

How do S20 Ultra selfies compare to Samsung's rivals?

iPhone 11 Pro Max selfie camera

Selfie camera sample

Google Pixel 4 selfie camera

Selfie camera sample

S20 Ultra vs last year's big Samsung phones 

Samsung Galaxy S10 camera

Selfie camera sample

Samsung Galaxy S10 5G selfie camera (because it has a depth sensor, the S10 doesn't)

Samsung Galaxy camera sample

Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus selfie camera

Samsung Galaxy camera sample

S20 Ultra selfie camera vs cheap phones

OnePlus 7 Pro selfie camera

Selfie camera sample

Google Pixel 3a selfie camera

Selfie camera sample

Better group selfie camera UI

Here's something we haven't noticed in other smartphone cameras before: you can zoom out for group selfies (OK, that's been in the Google Pixel 3, iPhone 11, and S10 series, etc), or you can have the camera do it for you based on face detection.

That's right, pointing S20 Ultra front-facing camera at multiple friends will uncrop the front-facing camera in an effort to fit everyone in. Yet if you're taking a photo alone, it remains set to that more intimate zoomed-in perspective (note: the wide selfie is not actually a separate wide camera like on the Pixel 3, Samsung just crops selfies a bit more than it has to by default).

It's a smart effect that other phonemakers have been including, but they make you manually press a button to get it to work. This is one less thing to worry about when trying to grab a quick selfie photo with several friends.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra selfie camera

We took more photo comparisons of the main and ultra-wide cameras to see how the camera mode captures more of what you want – which it does, but only sometimes. There's still some natural distortion and moving subjects have prone to blur more than on the main camera. But in the right scenario, you can really take advantage of Samsung's wide 120-degree field of view.

More to come on with daytime ultra-wide photos in the next few hours.

That main and ultra-wide camera

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra main camera

Smartphone camera sample

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra ultra-wide camera

Smartphone camera comparison

How does the S20 main and wide cameras compare to its rivals?

iPhone 11 Pro Max main camera

Smartphone camera sample

iPhone 11 Pro Max ultra-wide camera

Smartphone camera comparison

Google Pixel 4 main camera

Smartphone camera sample

Oh, that's right – no ultra-wide camera on the Pixel 4

S20 Ultra vs last year's big Samsung phones 

Samsung Galaxy S10 main camera

Smartphone camera sample

Samsung Galaxy S10 ultra-wide camera

Smartphone camera comparison

Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus main camera

Smartphone camera sample

Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus ultra-wide camera

Smartphone camera comparison

S20 Ultra vs cheap phones

OnePlus 7 Pro main camera

Smartphone camera sample

OnePlus 7 Pro ultra-wide camera

Smartphone camera comparison

Google Pixel 3a main camera

Smartphone camera sample

Nope, Google didn't make an ultra-wide camera here either

Google Pixel 3a XL

Handheld S20 Ultra telephoto lens shots  

So, in the first test, we used a tripod to take the best possible shots on a the 'Space Zoom' setting. While shooting, we noticed New York City taxis whizzing by us on Park Avenue were creating tiny vibrations that affected the zoom.

But really, we wanted to see what the camera was like while shooting handheld, because people will naturally use it that way. Here are our samples – this time from zoomed-in to zoomed-out.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra camera (Pub gallery)

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra camera (bacon gallery)

S20 Ultra camera testing continues

Congratulations, you've reached the end of our Samsung Galaxy S20 camera test – so far. We're going to be adding more photos and comparison shots over the weekend in order to determine whether or not the S20 Ultra has the best camera on any smartphone and, if it is better, by how much?

Have any special requests for types of shots? Want a specific comparison to a phone? No we don't have the S20 and S20 Plus yet, but those will be coming in future tests. If so, hit us up on Twitter.


Source: TechRadar

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