The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s great camera doesn’t make life easy for the iPhone 13 Pro

The Galaxy S21 Ultra has the best camera Samsung has made yet, and it remains one of our favorite camera phones. Its biggest rival for the crown of “best camera on a smartphone,” the Apple iPhone 12 Pro, has now been replaced in the range by the iPhone 13 Pro, making it essential to put the two cameras up against each other.

Samsung’s hard work paid off on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, but will it now have to play catch-up to Apple’s newer iPhone? The 13 Pro’s camera has generated plenty of hype, but as you’ll see, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is not only still a winner, it has the new iPhone beaten in several important areas.

The cameras and the test

All photos taken for this comparison were shot over the course of a single day, with all using the standard Photo mode on both phones, and without any editing afterward. Do be aware the photos have been resized to make them suitable for viewing online. Before they were resized, the photos were compared on a color-calibrated monitor.

The iPhone 13 Pro and Galaxy S21 Ultra held in hand.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The iPhone 13 Pro has three 12-megapixel cameras providing 120-degree field-of-view wide-angle and 3x telephoto optical zoom features. The Galaxy S21 Ultra has a 108MP main camera, a 12MP wide-angle, a 10MP telephoto with 3x optical zoom photos, and a 10MP periscope camera with 10x optical zoom. We have not tested video for this comparison.

The seat in the sun

We’ll start off with a standard photo — a countryside scene with blue sky and lots of greenery. It’s the kind of photo you expect to come out well, almost regardless of the camera, and sure enough, both are great. The photos set the tone for the remainder of the images, with the iPhone 13 Pro showing deeper blues, brighter greens, and more shadows compared to the S21 Ultra.

What’s interesting is the iPhone 13 Pro’s approach isn’t always successful later on, as we’ll see in other photos, but it does work well here. The white flowers are brighter than in the S21 Ultra’s photo, the seat is more of a focal point due to less shading, and the sky is more atmospheric. However, the S21 Ultra’s photo just shows a different interpretation, rather than being technically superior or inferior.

Winner: Draw

Bread and cheese

I took several photos herem and in all of them, the Galaxy S21 Ultra seemed to not understand where to focus. I didn’t use tap to focus on either phone, yet the iPhone 13 Pro captured the bread in sharp detail, while the S21 Ultra seemed to favor the cheese and the knife. The sharpness continues in the iPhone’s photo, with more detail and depth to the color, while there’s grain evident on the plate in the S21 Ultra’s photo.

The iPhone’s warm tones really suit this photo, giving the bread an appetizing, natural look, compared to the slightly out-of-focus, saturated image taken by the S21 Ultra. The beautiful, subtle depth of field in the iPhone’s photo just finishes it off perfectly.

Winner: iPhone 13 Pro

Mini Countryman in the sun

The sun was behind me when I took this photo, and the Mini Countryman’s white-and-black color scheme often shows any issues with white balance quite well. Here, it shows the different exposures favored by each camera, and the iPhone 13 Pro’s tendency to hide detail in shadow.

Interestingly, the iPhone 13 Pro’s photo looks like a Samsung photo from a few years ago, with the saturated sky and deep shadows in the wheel arches hiding any detail on the rims. The S21 Ultra balances the scene more effectively, showing detail on the car and its glass, while even revealing more detail inside the vehicle. The trade-off is a lighter blue sky. Neither is an amazing photo, but the S21 Ultra’s greater detail makes it the one most people would likely pick to share with the minimum of editing.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Tree and sky, in wide-angle

In this wide-angle photo, both cameras show evidence of edge enhancement around the tree’s branches, but it’s less obvious at first glance in the S21 Ultra’s photo due to the way it has handled the blue sky and white clouds. The darker areas in the iPhone 13 Pro’s photo give it a more artificial look compared to the brighter, more energetic scene in the S21 Ultra’s photo.

Edge distortion is more noticeable in the iPhone 13 Pro’s photo as well, particularly in the shadows on the ground under the tree on the right-hand side of the picture. The blue sky in the iPhone’s photo is lovely, but the overall balance of the S21 Ultra’s photo makes it the one I’d share.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Wooden roof with 3x zoom

Like with the photo of the bread, the S21 Ultra has once again made an executive decision to focus mostly on the piece of wood closest to it, leaving the rest of the structure blurred out in a slightly odd way. Zoom in and there’s some very obvious haloing around the wood in the background and on the edge of the stone roof against the blue sky.

The iPhone has avoided all this, and although it does focus on the wood nearest to the camera, it’s nowhere near as tightly. There’s no evidence of haloing, and the colors are warm and balanced. The saturated blue sky works here, too. It’s the more visually attractive photo due to the focusing, which is a little unfortunate when the S21 Ultra revealed more detail.

It’s also worth mentioning the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s super 10x optical zoom, which the iPhone 13 Pro cannot compete with, and therefore wasn’t tested here. It’s a really excellent additional feature on the S21 Ultra.

Winner: iPhone 13 Pro

Butterfly in macro

Both the iPhone 13 Pro and the Galaxy S21 Ultra have an automatic macro photo mode that uses the wide-angle camera. Get in close to a subject and it activates itself. The butterfly proved to be a willing model and stayed around for me to take multiple photos with both phones, all with macro mode active.

The level of detail is impressive in both photos, even after zooming in on the image, with the most obvious difference being the color of the butterfly. It was the iPhone 13 Pro that captured its colors most accurately, with the orange in the S21 Ultra’s photo being just that bit too bright, but both are really impressive photos for a smartphone. The iPhone’s tendency to increase shadow worked to the image’s favor for once, producing lush greens as well.

Winner: iPhone 13 Pro

Leaf and saw in portrait mode

Both of these sets of photos were taken with the respective Portrait mode. Looking at the photo of the rusty saw first, the iPhone 13 Pro has captured the texture and patina far more effectively than the S21 Ultra. Both have done a similar job of separating the teeth from the background, and keeping a degree of the foreground in focus, too.

In the leaf photo, the edge recognition is less effective, although the colors and texture are good in both. This also shows that both phones struggle with identifying complicated shapes using Portrait mode, and how both prefer the simple shape of the saw.

I wouldn’t choose either of the leaf pictures to share, but would take the iPhone 13 Pro over the S21 Ultra for the saw, giving it the win here. However, both are pretty close.

Winner: iPhone 13 Pro

Night mode

This photo was taken inside, late at night, with a dim backlight from another room. Both phones activated night mode, which happens automatically and took about two seconds to take the image. The results are very different, with the Galaxy S21 Ultra trouncing the iPhone 13 Pro.

From the white balance to the detail in the carpet, and the sharp, detailed face of the cute cat-shaped doorstop, the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s picture does well because it effectively captures the subject of the image. The iPhone’s photo doesn’t have as much artificial sharpening, and does have some lovely shadows in the background, but it’s not the photo anyone would share.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Conclusion

The iPhone 13 Pro won four categories, the S21 Ultra won three, and there was one draw, giving the iPhone 13 Pro the overall win. It’s not what I’d call a washout though. While the S21 Ultra’s focusing issues let it down in two of the photos, it also took the most decisive win in a single category by handily beating the iPhone 13 Pro in the lowlight test, and came very close to making the macro and Portrait mode shots a draw.

What does this mean to you? If you’re undecided between buying an S21 Ultra or an iPhone, the good news is you’re going to get a brilliant camera regardless of which one you buy. However, do consider some of the additional features before making your decision. The S21 Ultra’s 10x optical zoom adds a really fun additional dimension to the camera, and for me, Samsung’s unusual Single Take mode will be more useful to more people than the iPhone 13 Pro’s Cinematic video mode.

Despite it sounding a bit like it, I’m not trying to take away the iPhone 13 Pro’s win. What I want to do is illustrate how the camera still needs work. I recently put the iPhone 13 Pro up against the iPhone 12 Pro in a similar comparison, and the older iPhone came out on top, meaning the iPhone 13 hasn’t killed it in either test. I do think there’s a ton of potential, but some work needs to be done on the software to optimize its performance.

For now, although the iPhone 13 Pro won, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is right on its tail.

Editors' Recommendations