Can Google’s Pixel 6 Pro camera beat the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra? I found out

The Google Pixel 6 Pro’s camera has a lot of consumer expectations behind it given the Pixel 5’s success and the new Tensor processor, but it also faces a lot of work to do to compete against the Galaxy S21 Ultra, the best camera Samsung has ever put on a phone. I took both the Samsung and Google phone out for the day to take a selection of photos, to answer the question: Which Android flagship has the best camera?

Camera specs and testing procedure

The Google Pixel 6 Pro’s 50-megapixel main camera is joined by a 48MP telephoto camera with 4x optical zoom, plus a 12MP wide-angle camera. How about the Galaxy S21 Ultra? It was released in January 2021, but still has an enviable specification with a 108MP main camera, a 12MP wide-angle, a 10MP telephoto camera for 3x optical zoom photos, and a 10MP periscope camera for 10x optical zoom photos.

The camera panels of the Galaxy S21 Ultra and Pixel 6 Pro side by side.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

For this comparison, photos were taken back-to-back using the automatic mode, meaning all I did in most cases was press the shutter button. I tested the main camera, wide-angle, optical zoom, portrait, and night modes, but not video. All photos have been compared on a color-calibrated monitor, then resized for a friendlier online viewing experience. Do remember this when looking at the examples below.

If you’re looking for a buying guide on the Pixel 6 Pro before diving into the photos, you can find one here and if you want to know the differences between the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, we’ve got that covered too.

The main camera

At the beach

This photo was taken mid-morning with the sun to the left of the photo, with the main camera on both phones. It sets the tone for the images that follow, as the first thing to note is how the Galaxy S21 Ultra has a higher level of saturation in the sky, darker clouds, and a “flatter” sea in the distance.

Pixel 6 Pro beach photo.
Pixel 6 Pro Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

There’s a warmer tone to the S21 Ultra’s photo when you zoom into the water and sand in the bottom left, but the seaweed and remaining colors in the two photos are otherwise practically identical. The sky is the only real differentiating part here, and it may come down to personal preference for which one looks best.

Beach photo taken with the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Galaxy S21 Ultra Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

I find the Pixel 6 Pro captured the scene in a slightly more realistic way. It was astonishingly windy at the time, and the cooler tone of the Pixel’s photo better reflects the weather conditions in my eyes. The sea waves have also been better captured by the Pixel, so I’ll give it the win here, but it’s very close.

At the park

This photo continues to show how very close the S21 Ultra and Pixel 6 Pro are to each other. The obvious difference is the tone of the sky, with the S21 Ultra adding a steely grey color to the clouds, unlike the more natural grey in the Pixel’s photo.

Main camera photo taken with the Pixel 6 Pro.
Pixel 6 Pro Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The S21 Ultra captures the water more attractively though, with more texture and depth, especially in the lower left of the picture. The Pixel 6 Pro does struggle with maintaining sharpness and detail up close, and this may contribute to the difference.

Main camera photo taken with the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Galaxy S21 Ultra Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The S21 Ultra’s photo is typically Samsung, with its treatment of the sky and green grass, and unsurprisingly the Pixel 6 Pro’s photo is considerably more natural. I’d want to tone down the saturation and contrast a little in the S21 Ultra’s photo before sharing it, but I also appreciate not everyone will feel the same way. That said, I do prefer the Pixel 6 Pro’s photo.

The church

The photo of a church in good lighting emphasizes how both phones take extremely similar photos in normal conditions and where the strengths of Samsung’s camera can sometimes win over the Pixel 6 Pro.

Pixel 6 Pro photo of a church.
Pixel 6 Pro Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The S21 Ultra’s warmer tone really suits the scene, giving the brickwork more texture, and it brings out its age and weathering in a more visually appealing way.

Photo of a church taken with the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Galaxy S21 Ultra Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The Pixel 6 Pro is arguably better balanced, with more detail visible in the front window and when you zoom in on the clock face, but my eyes are constantly drawn to the S21 Ultra’s photo due to its overall look.

Friendly dog

As I sat and had coffee, I was joined by this friendly dog, who kindly posed for a few photos, and the results are quite different from the two cameras.

Pixel 6 Pro photo of a dog.
Pixel 6 Pro Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

I absolutely love the way the Pixel 6 Pro has captured this scene, with stunning detail on the dog’s fur, immersive depth of field, and just the right tone and warmth to the colors.

Photo of a dog taken with the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Galaxy S21 Ultra Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The S21 Ultra’s photo is good, but it doesn’t have the same emotion as the Pixel’s, with less detail in the fur, a shallower depth of field, and less emphasis overall on the photo’s obvious subject, the dog. All the other photos in this section are too close to call, and this one is the only one that pushes the Pixel 6 Pro ahead of the S21 Ultra in a meaningful way.

Winner: Google Pixel 6 Pro

The wide-angle camera

Beach scene

The Google Pixel 6 Pro has greater consistency between the main and wide-angle camera compared to the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which ups the saturation even more, creating shadows and a lack of detail in certain areas of this photo. A good example is the wooden beach wall in the bottom left of the frame, which shows more grain and texture in the Pixel’s photo.

Wide-angle photo taken with the Pixel 6 Pro.
Pixel 6 Pro Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Look more closely, and there is less edge distortion in the Pixel’s photo, while in the S21 Ultra’s photo, the pebbles at the bottom remain natural-looking but oddly elongated. There’s evidence of some edge enhancement in both photos, but it’s more striking in the photos taken by the Samsung phone. You do have to look closely to spot it, though.

Wide-angle photo taken with the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Galaxy S21 Ultra Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Like the main camera photos above, both are really great, but the Pixel 6 Pro’s lack of distortion is the tipping point for me as it makes the picture appear more natural.

Footprint in the sand

The lack of distortion is again noticeable in this photo of the sand, but it also demonstrates how the Pixel can miss out on detail up close, as the indentation in the sand is more defined in the S21 Ultra’s photo.

Wide-angle photo taken with the Pixel 6 Pro.
Pixel 6 Pro Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Leaving aside the distortion, the sand, in general, has more texture in the S21 Ultra’s picture, although the Pixel’s cooler tone is more representative of the real-life conditions.

Wide-angle photo taken with the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Galaxy S21 Ultra Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

If left to choose which one to share instantly, with no editing, it would probably be the Samsung’s photo, as the silvery, cooler tone of the Pixel’s photo is less visually appealing.

At the park

Taken in the same spot as one of the main camera photos above, this wide-angle photo also shows how close the two cameras continue to be.

Wide-angle photo taken with the Pixel 6 Pro.
Pixel 6 Pro Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The same differences in tone apply here as they did with the main camera’s picture, with the Pixel 6 Pro’s grey clouds giving the scene a very natural look compared to the blue tint in the S21 Ultra’s photo.

Wide-angle photo taken with the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Galaxy S21 Ultra Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The Pixel’s photo is also much sharper, with the S21 Ultra introducing a lot of unexpected blur in the background. While this may have been down to me, it’s unlikely as the tree on the right is in focus with no blur. Add the minimal edge distortion in the Pixel’s shot — the trees aren’t sloping to the side so much — and the S21 Ultra has to take second place.

Winner: Google Pixel 6 Pro

Portrait and Macro mode

Coffee cup

I took this photo without tapping on the screen to identify the subject, leaving it to the cameras to work out.

Portrait mode photo taken with the Pixel 6 Pro.
Pixel 6 Pro Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Both get the color and tone right, although the S21 Ultra really boosts the red in my Apple Watch strap, there’s a lot more detail in the cup itself in the Pixel 6 Pro’s photo. It really brings out the texture of the cardboard compared to the S21 Ultra.

Galaxy S21 Ultra portrait photo.
Galaxy S21 Ultra Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Edge recognition is also clearly better in the Pixel 6 Pro’s photo. Both effectively isolated the cup — the S21 Ultra had the added challenge of the cup meeting the bench in the background — but a glaring error on the edge of my hand in the S21 Ultra’s photo gives the artificial bokeh effect away immediately.

Seaweed

This shot once again shows how uncomfortable the Pixel is with objects up close, even in Portrait mode.

Portrait mode photo taken with the Pixel 6 Pro.
Pixel 6 Pro Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s photo is hugely more detailed compared to the noisy Pixel photo, which also fails to isolate the subject as effectively too, despite me tapping on the screen to select the post this time. It’s not perfect though, with a piece of seaweed floating in midair on the right, which was blurred out completely in the Pixel’s picture.

Portrait photo taken with the Galaxy S21 Ultra
Galaxy S21 Ultra Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

I actually took multiple versions of this photo, all from slightly different angles, and the lack of detail in the Pixel’s photo was the same in each. I’m glad I did, as it proved this wasn’t an anomaly.

Chestnuts

While not shot with Portrait mode, this photo of chestnuts highlights how the Pixel 6 Pro is bad at taking photos close up, and why the S21 Ultra’s automatic macro mode makes the camera more versatile.

Pixel 6 Pro photo of chestnuts.
Pixel 6 Pro Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The camera switched to macro mode when I got closer to the chestnuts, resulting in a clear, sharp, and detailed photograph from the S21 Ultra.

Photo of chestnuts taken with the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Galaxy S21 Ultra Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The Pixel 6 Pro does not have a macro mode, and fails to focus on anything very close at all. It will simply ask you to move further back until it finds focus. As you can see from the photos, I’m at basically the same distance away in each one, yet there is a huge difference between the results. This issue generally lowers the Pixel’s versatility.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Night mode

The bench

Taken in the early evening, about an hour after the sun went down, it was what I would call dark outside. Cars had headlights on, and the streetlights were lit.

Night mode photo taken with the Pixel 6 Pro
Pixel 6 Pro Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Both cameras automatically selected Night mode and set the exposure time, and all the photos in this section were taken handheld.

Night mode photo taken with the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Galaxy S21 Ultra Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

This Pixel 6 Pro captures the conditions better than the Galaxy S21 Ultra, but I really like the sky in the Samsung’s picture. However, zoom in and the Pixel 6 Pro’s photo is sharper, and the tone of the grass and the path are much more natural.

The restaurant

Surprisingly, the sky in these pictures is broadly identical looking, but the rest of the Pixel 6 Pro’s colors are far more natural compared to the S21 Ultra.

Night mode photo taken with the the Pixel 6 Pro.
Pixel 6 Pro Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The pavement and street are actually grey, the yellow car is more realistic, and the white balance is superb. Zoom in and the details are sharper in the Pixel’s photo — the license plate on the car, for example — but the difference in the main content is minimal.

Night mode photo taken with the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Galaxy S21 Ultra Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Both of these are really excellent, and it’s hard to split the photos of the bench either, despite the different look. However, the third photo gives us a winner.

Monster in the tree

While the color accuracy is very good in both photos, and is about the same between the two cameras as well, the Pixel 6 Pro’s focus and sharpness are far greater.

Night mode photo taken with the Pixel 6 Pro.
Pixel 6 Pro Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The S21 Ultra couldn’t quite match the Pixel 6 Pro’s accuracy here, and while there may have been some movement introduced, there are various parts of the monster that are perfectly in focus in the S21 Ultra’s photo, leaving less of a chance the subject was moving.

Night mode photo taken with the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Galaxy S21 Ultra Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The differences are instead likely to be down to software and processing, and the Pixel 6 Pro clearly wins here. While the other two photos are similar enough to call it a draw, the third image suggests the Pixel 6 Pro will provide more consistent lowlight camera performance.

Winner: Google Pixel 6 Pro

Optical zoom

Abandoned building

The Pixel 6 Pro has a stronger basic optical zoom than the Galaxy S21 Ultra, with a 4x magnification compared to the S21 Ultra’s 3x. The S21 Ultra does have a 10x optical zoom, which is excellent, and unmatched by the 6 Pro.

Pixel 6 Pro 4x optical zoom photo
Pixel 6 Pro Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Getting closer using an optical zoom is not always the best option, and a 3x optical zoom often feels like the best compromise between a mostly useless 2x optical zoom, and a far too strong 5x optical zoom.

Galaxy S21 Ultra 3x optical zoom photo.
Galaxy S21 Ultra Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The Pixel 6 Pro’s photo not only gets closer, but it is brighter than the S21 Ultra’s, and that reveals more detail such as the broken glass in the window. However, the texture and balance in the S21 Ultra’s photo give it slightly more atmosphere.

The pub sign

The Pixel 6 Pro’s excellent white balance shows up in this picture, while the contrast in the S21 Ultra’s photo gives the building more age.

Pixel 6 Pro 4x optical zoom photo.
Pixel 6 Pro Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

What matters is the text on the sign, which is readable in both. Zoom in and the S21 Ultra is perhaps slightly sharper, but the difference comes when you look at the window next to the sign. The creases in the curtains are more obvious in the S21 UItra’s photo, and I prefer the look of the brickwork overall, even if it’s not as perfectly balanced in terms of color as the Pixel 6 Pro’s camera.

Galaxy S21 Ultra 3x optical zoom photo.
Galaxy S21 Ultra Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Both these examples look great, but the 3x optical zoom does feel more usable, and there is no loss of quality even when you zoom in. If anything, the S21 Ultra’s zoom photos impress even more when you look closely. Add the 10x optical zoom option, and the S21 Ultra wins here.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Overall Winner: Google Pixel 6 Pro (but it’s close)

Both the Galaxy S21 Ultra and Google Pixel 6 Pro are excellent camera phones, taking fantastic photos anyone will be happy with, almost regardless of the environment or time of day. The Google Pixel 6 Pro has taken three out of five wins here, making it the overall winner, something which it has done through its more natural color palette and tone.

Galaxy S21 Ultra and Pixel 6 Pro
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Interestingly, outside of Night mode, Google’s lead in features that require artificial intelligence and machine learning has been eroded, with Samsung producing great portrait shots and making an easy-to-use and very effective macro mode. The Pixel 6 Pro’s lead remains, but the gap to the best of the competition is shorter than ever before.

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