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Samsung Galaxy S23 vs. Galaxy S21 camera test: is it really any better?

Samsung’s latest flagship, the Galaxy S23, has arrived. While the top of the line S23 Ultra has a 200MP camera sensor, the 50MP main camera on the S23 and S23 Plus is nothing to scoff at. The entire S23 series also has the powerful Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 for Galaxy chipset, long-lasting battery life, and beautiful displays.

Though we’ve been enjoying the S23 so far, it’s definitely more of an iterative upgrade if you’re coming from a Galaxy S22. But what if you’re still using a Galaxy S21? Is the S23 worth upgrading to for better photos?

We put the S21 and S23 head-to-head in this camera comparison over the past week to find out.

Samsung Galaxy S23 vs. Galaxy S21: camera specs

Samsung Galaxy S23 in Cream and a S21 in Phantom Violet
Christine Romero-Chan / Digital Trends

At the time, the Galaxy S21 took respectable photos with its triple-lens hardware. You have a 12MP main camera, 12MP ultra-wide camera, and a whopping 64MP telephoto lens. The main lens has dual-pixel PDAF (phase detection autofocus) and optical image stabilization, the telephoto also has OIS and PDAF, along with 1.1x optical zoom and 3x hybrid zoom, and the ultra-wide camera has a 120-degree field of view. You also have a 10MP selfie camera. The camera setup is pretty much identical to the Galaxy S20 before it.

The Galaxy S23, however, is a big leap from the S21, but pretty identical to the S22. You have a 50MP main shooter with PDAF and OIS, a 10MP telephoto camera, and a 12MP ultra-wide camera. The telephoto lens has 3x optical zoom, and the ultra-wide has a 120-degree field of view as well. The front-facing camera is 12MP.

All of the photos that we are using as examples in this comparison have been unedited to show the differences between both devices’ automatic camera settings.

Samsung Galaxy S23 vs. Galaxy S21: main camera

For most people, the most-used lens on a dual or triple camera system will be the main, wide lens. Because of that, the main camera is the most important one to evaluate. It’s what you use to take photos of pretty much everything — from what you’re eating to nature scenes to portraits and more.

Here’s a photo of the ceiling of a gazebo. The Galaxy S21 leans more on the cooler side, while the S23 has more of a warmer tint going on. Though both images show a good amount of detail, the S23 image does a better job of showing finer textures on the wood, including the scuff marks and dirt. I also like the mood that the Galaxy S23 conveys with the “golden hour” kind of tint going on (the image was taken a little after high noon).

Next is this image of neon lights at an Asian noodle bowl shop. The S21 image doesn’t have as much detail, as the wall doesn’t appear to have much texture in the paint, and the contrast appears to be lacking between the neon light tubes and the emitted light itself. The light also looks rather weak. But the S23 photo shows more texture, detail, and contrast — with the neon tubes and the light being much starker. Because of this, the Galaxy S23 picture is much more dramatic.

Let’s take a look at this side view of Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland Park. Though they both look pretty good, upon further inspection you can definitely see more of the finer details in the S23 image over the S21. The contrast on the gold steeple near the top right is better on the Galaxy S23, making it easier to see the details, and you’re able to see all of the texture on the drape towards the right. The S23 is also able to capture the detail of the moving water from the fountain better, the exterior of the castle appears sharper, and you can even see the details in the leaves of the tree branch in front of the castle, whereas the Galaxy S21 is mostly dark.

These photos of a Hainan chicken dish (which was delicious) at a restaurant are pretty similar. But I actually mostly prefer the image that the Galaxy S21 produced here, as you can see a tad more detail with the outlines of all the grains of rice, and it’s easier to see the detail in the chicken and pickled vegetables. The S23 made the cucumber slices a bit more vibrant, but the rest of the dish is leaning too warm of a tint for my liking. The cool tone of the S21 works in its favor for this image.

Although the Galaxy S21 pulls ahead with the final photo, the Galaxy S23 gets a strong and easy win for the entire round.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S23

Samsung Galaxy S23 vs. Galaxy S21: wide-angle camera

The wide-angle camera is great for capturing more of a scene in the frame when the main camera is too tight. It’s also great for group photos with large gatherings. I don’t shoot with ultra-wide very much, but I gathered up some examples for this camera comparison.

In this ultra-wide shot of a rose garden archway area at the park, the photos both look similar at first glance, though the S23 definitely made the sky much more vibrant than reality. But once you zoom in and inspect the finer details, the S23 image is overall sharper, especially with that spread of wood chips in the dirt and the leaves in the trees and bushes, and there is more contrast. The S21 does seem to handle the planter rock and tree textures slightly better, which seems to be smoothed over or just too dark in the S23 photo.

This is the view from the opposite end of that rose garden archway. In this image, the Galaxy S23 didn’t seem to make the blue sky overly vibrant like in the previous photo, and it’s pretty much a match with the S21 coloring. But the S23 did make everything else in the image punchy and colorful, which makes it easier to see the roses that are blooming near the center of the image, along the left side of the second arch. Leaves in the trees are crisper, as well as the detail and texture of the dirt and wood chips in the planters. Again, for some reason, the Galaxy S21 does seem to get the texture of the rocks better than the S23, but I think the S23 picture is better overall.

Here’s a photo of a large tree outside on a nice, sunny day. Both are similar in that they’re vibrant and punchy with the colors, and the leaves on the tree are pretty sharp for both images. The Galaxy S21 does wash out the clouds in the sky a tiny bit near the bottom left, whereas the S23 seems to not have that problem. The texture on the tree bark and some leaves show up better on the S21, but overall, this shot is very close.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S23

Samsung Galaxy S23 vs. Galaxy S21: telephoto camera

It’s important to remember here that while the Galaxy S21 has a 64MP telephoto lens, it only has 1.1 optical zoom and 3x hybrid zoom. The Galaxy S23 only has a 10MP telephoto lens, but it has 3x optical zoom, so while the megapixel count is less, it’s not a digital zoom like the S21. For these comparisons, I tried both 3x and 10x zoom.

Here’s a 3x zoom shot of two palm trees set against a beautiful blue sky with some wispy clouds. The S21 image is decent with the detail, considering that it’s a hybrid zoom. You can make out the individual palm fronds and texture on the crown shaft and trunk, but the overall color is a bit dark, hiding some of the finer details. The S23 image, on the other hand, not only has a more saturated blue sky, but you can definitely see more of the texture on the fronds themselves, as well as everything else about the trees. On the left tree, it’s easier to see the trunk texture with the S23, as it’s too dark on the S21 to make out anything.

Now let’s try 10x zoom. This is a closeup of an orange rose that was blossoming, but it was in the middle of a fenced-off area, so I couldn’t get super close to it for a photo. That’s where the 10x zoom came in handy. Though both phones are using digital zoom for 10x, the S23 does a much better job of being able to capture texture and detail on the rose petals and even the pistil, as well as the leaves on the bush. The S21 image doesn’t look great and leans more toward a watercolor painting than an actual photo.

When I reviewed the Galaxy S23, my original telephoto camera lens tests gave me a mixed bag of results – some images were pretty impressive considering that it was digital zoom, while others looked pretty bad. It depends on what you’re zooming in on, but still, it looks like the S23 does an overall better job than the S21 if you’re really inspecting the details.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S23

Samsung Galaxy S23 vs. Galaxy S21: night mode

Night mode is a great way to capture scenes in low-light environments. Of course, with daylight saving time in effect where I live, it’s getting darker later, and I’m a very tired toddler mom who barely has the energy to stay up at night. So, I just grabbed some shots in my front yard for this night mode comparison.

This is a night mode photo of a tree in front of my house, taken around 9:00 p.m. with no light other than what was coming from the street lamps on my block. I think the S21 did a better job with this one, as you can make out the individual leaves in the tree branches easier. The S23 version seems to make the leaves appear blurry, so it’s hard to make them out. The tree bark texture is also sharper and crisper in the S21 image, surprisingly, and I prefer the colors in the S21 photo too. The S23 looks a tad too artificial and washed out.

Next is a photo of a bird of paradise flower in my yard. The Galaxy S21 does a good job of lighting up the entire scene, though it does feel a little unnatural considering the time. And though you can see the entire scene more clearly, it seems to be lacking in some of the finer details on the flower itself, like the brown spots on the petal. In fact, it just feels a little washed out on the flower, which is what the subject was. The Galaxy S23 has great contrast on the flower, showing the brown spots very clearly, and the colors feel richer. I will also say that the S23 photo feels more like what you see in reality, because the S21 just makes the street in the background way too bright — almost like daylight.

Finally, let’s take a look at this succulent plant. If anything, it shows that it’s definitely harder to get the Galaxy S21 to focus in night mode than the Galaxy S23. The colors in the S21 image also appear washed out and lifeless. But in the S23 image, you have clearer focus and richer and brighter colors that represent the succulent much better.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S23

Samsung Galaxy S23 vs. Galaxy S21: portrait mode

Portrait mode has been popular ever since Apple added it to the iPhone 7, and now pretty much every smartphone has the feature. With portrait mode, you can create professional-looking portraits of others by having the subject in focus while blurring out the background with a depth-of-field effect. The S21 and S23 both have a 1x portrait mode, but the S21 also has a 2x mode while the S23 only has 3x, so it is zoomed in a bit more. For this comparison, I used the 2x on the S21 and 3x on S23.

This is a portrait mode photo of my daughter as she’s exploring the playground at a local park. Though the colors are nearly identical, it does look like the Galaxy S21 image is a bit more washed out, as you can’t really see the textured red circles on her hoodie like with the S23 image. The S23 also appears to handle edge detection better, as you can see a small wisp of hair at the top of her head, which is completely missing in the S21 image. The wood chip in her hand is also completely in focus on the S23 version, whereas it’s slightly blurred in the S21 image — indicating that the S21 had a hard time differentiating it from the ground.

In this daddy-daughter portrait, it looks like the Galaxy S23 had a bit of trouble blurring out the lamppost behind my husband’s head, showing that edge detection can still be a software issue. However, with the sun behind them, the Galaxy S21 image looks a little washed out, with the colors not being as vibrant. The S23 seems to handle the lighting better, being more true to life with the clothing colors and skin tone. The bokeh effect with the S21 is preferable in this particular scenario, and there doesn’t look to be any edge detection issues either.

Lastly, here’s another portrait of my daughter as she sits in the wood chips at the playground. I intended for the entirety of my daughter to be in focus for this portrait, and it looks like the Galaxy S21 failed to have all of her in focus, as her shoes and pants appear blurred. The Galaxy S23 doesn’t have this problem, as her entire body is in focus. Both the S21 and S23 have some edge detection problems at the top of her head, as you can see a wisp of hair strands blurred out with the grass behind her. Skin tone looks better on the S21, as the S23 made her appear a tad yellow. Overall, colors look more vibrant in the S23 image, and you can better see details and texture.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S23

Samsung Galaxy S23 vs. Galaxy S21: selfie camera

I don’t usually take a lot of selfies when I’m not at Disneyland, and unfortunately, the weather has been bad enough to prevent me from going for photos lately. Regardless, here are some I managed to take at the local park while the sun was actually out.

In this first selfie, the Galaxy S23 definitely has a cooler tint going on, while the Galaxy S21 is oddly leaning a touch warmer. Though you can see more detail and texture in the S23 image, especially with the flowers in the background, I like the S21 selfie more because of the colors, which are more true to life. The sharpness of the flowers behind me in the S23 version is also a bit distracting, while the S21 is a bit more toned down.

Another park selfie, this time in more direct sunlight. Both images have bright and punchy colors, but the S23 is a bit too oversaturated with the tree in the background than I’d like. The S21 better represents what it looks like in real life, with the shadows and overall contrast looking better. My hair also seems to have more detail and sharpness in the S21 version, so it slightly edges out the S23 for me here.

And finally, in our last selfie test, I tried out portrait mode with the selfie camera. Similar to the previous shot, the S23 version oversaturated the tree again, and even the sky feels brighter than it should be. It also feels like there isn’t as much of a bokeh effect to blur both the tree and sky out, so it’s distracting. However, the edge detection on the S23 is much better, as the S21 version seems to have some visual bits of the sky and tree mixed in with my hair. But I will say that the S21 produces a better blur effect, and if it weren’t for that visual glitch with my hair, the S21 would again have a better selfie.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21

The Galaxy S23 is a big camera upgrade over the S21

Samsung Galaxy S23 in Cream and a S21 in Phantom Violet
Christine Romero-Chan / Digital Trends

We stated that anyone who has the Galaxy S22 lineup may see the S23 as an overall iterative upgrade, but that isn’t the case for those who are on older Galaxy devices, like the Galaxy S21. As you can see from these camera tests, the S23 is a big jump from the S21, and if you care about overall photo quality, you’ll want to upgrade.

I’m not surprised that the Galaxy S23 beat out the Galaxy S21 in most of these rounds. You’re going from a 12MP main camera to 50MP, which is over a massive 4x jump in pixels. The ultra-wide cameras are similar, and despite going from 64MP to 10MP for the telephoto, the increased optical zoom range makes a huge difference. The biggest surprise for me was the selfies — I think the S21 handled those better than the S23 overall, even though it’s 10MP versus 12MP. I just don’t like how overly processed the colors on the S23 selfies look, that’s all.

If you still have a Samsung Galaxy S21, it’s by no means a bad device. But if camera quality is a thing you care about, then the S23 is a worthy upgrade. Make sure to check out the latest deals on Samsung’s Galaxy S23 to help you save some dough when upgrading.

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Christine Romero-Chan
Christine Romero-Chan has been writing about technology, specifically Apple, for over a decade. She graduated from California…
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