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I tested the Galaxy S24 Ultra’s new camera, and it shocked me

The Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra and Galaxy S23 Ultra's camera modules.
Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra (left) and Galaxy S24 Ultra Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

When did camera zooms get so complicated? These days, we don’t just have a single number like 3x to deal with, but many other zoom levels,. we also need to understand optical zoom, hybrid zoom, periscope zoom, Space Zoom, and a whole lot more. Samsung has confused the issue again with the Galaxy S24 Ultra, which has a 5x optical zoom and a 10x hybrid zoom, meaning it’s different from the Galaxy S23 Ultra.

The question is, do the changes make any difference, and if so, which one is better for taking zoomed-in shots? I took both Samsung Ultra phones out to see which one is best — new or old. The results are very interesting.

The Ultra camera specs

A person holding the Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra.
Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

Before we get started, be aware this is not a full camera comparison between the Galaxy S24 Ultra and the Galaxy S23 Ultra. We’re only looking at the telephoto cameras and comparing the zoom capabilities of both — we’re not looking at the main, wide-angle, or video cameras. Before we get to the photos, here are the camera specifications.

The Galaxy S24 Ultra has a 200-megapixel main camera, a 12MP wide-angle camera, and a pair of telephoto cameras: one with 10MP and the other with 50MP. These cameras provide a 3x and a 5x optical zoom, and a 2x and 10x optical quality zoom. The Galaxy S23 Ultra has exactly the same camera system apart from both its telephoto cameras having 10MP, providing a 3x and 10x optical zoom.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra in Sky Blue, seen from the back.
Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

Samsung has swapped the second 10MP telephoto camera for a 50MP telephoto on the Galaxy S24 Ultra, promising that the greater megapixel count will return 10x optical quality zoom photos that look just as good as the S23 Ultra’s 10x optical zoom. The S24 Ultra has an optical 5x telephoto zoom, while this is a digital zoom on the S23 Ultra, and both provide a 3x optical zoom.

What’s the difference between optical, digital, and hybrid zoom? Samsung itself provides a great definition, saying an optical zoom “physically adjusts the camera lens to bring the subject closer without sacrificing image quality,” while a digital zoom, “uses software to enlarge images without making any physical lens adjustment.” A hybrid zoom, or “optical quality,” uses a little of both to create the zoomed-in photos.

3x optical zoom

Both the Galaxy S24 Ultra and Galaxy S23 Ultra have a 3x optical zoom, and unsurprisingly, there is very little difference in quality between the two — with both providing plenty of detail and clarity. However, there are differences in tone, color, and overall balance, a theme we’re going to continue seeing throughout this comparison.

The first photos show marginal differences in texture between the two, with the Galaxy S24 Ultra smoothing the walls of the building in the background, as well as the stone walls under the arch, more than the S23 Ultra. The Galaxy S23 Ultra image has stronger contrast, and slightly more vivid colors than the S24 Ultra, but a weaker exposure, where the sky is not quite as defined. The differences are minimal, and only really noticeable when the two are compared.

However, in the second photo, the differences are far more obvious. The car’s black paint and red roof are a little washed-out in the S23 Ultra’s photo, but far more realistic and eye-catching in the S24 Ultra’s photo, and the white balance is more accurate too. This extends to the autumnal colors of the trees and the gravel road. There’s perhaps a hint more noise in places in the S24 Ultra’s photo, but I’ll take that when the colors are so much more pleasing.

The Galaxy S24 Ultra’s software, Samsung’s updated Super HDR, and the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 are at work here, as the two cameras are basically the same. Samsung’s hard work has paid off, and the Galaxy S24 Ultra’s 3x optical zoom takes better photos than the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra

5x digital and optical zoom

Moving on to the 5x optical zoom, remember that the Galaxy S24 Ultra has a new 50MP telephoto camera for an optical zoom here, while the Galaxy S23 Ultra uses its software for a digital zoom to create the images, and therefore we should expect a greater difference in the photos.

It’s hardly surprising that the first image shows some differences in detail, with the white text crisp and readable in both, but obviously clearer and more defined in the Galaxy S24 Ultra’s image. But it’s the differences in color and tone that leap out, as the S24 Ultra’s photo looks more like the setting did in real life, compared to the S23 Ultra’s cooler image.

The Galaxy S23 Ultra can still do a really good job at 5x though, as the photos of the clock show. There’s still a lot of detail, and actually less blur in places than in the S24 Ultra’s photo. It’s only when you look closely that the pixelation and noise appears all over the stone walls. The S24 Ultra’s photo is clean, and the natural texture shows through instead. Again, the difference in tone and contrast is clear, and the S24 Ultra’s photo looks far more realistic and appealing.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra

10x optical and hybrid zoom

The 10x comparison is arguably the big test here, as the S23 Ultra’s 10x optical zoom is unique, and the S24 Ultra’s 10x hybrid zoom less so. Samsung promises the S24 Ultra’s 50MP telephoto camera’s ability will negate any drop in quality that comes with a non-optical zoom, but is that the case?

The first photo was taken inside in average light, which really favors the optical zoom, so we get the reverse of the 5x situation above, where the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s photo has less blur and more detail. It’s obvious in the white sugar lumps, the text on the board in the background, the metal surface, and the glass jar lid. The benefits of an optical zoom over an optical quality zoom are obvious in this photo.

What about a 10x photo of the clock featured in our 5x zoom comparison? Now tthat we’re outside in decent lighting, it’s far harder to see the detail differences here, with the Galaxy S24 Ultra doing a great job of minimizing the noise and pixelization, while still showing plenty of detail. You may even see more texture in the S24 Ultra’s photo, and prefer the warmer tone that has been evident throughout the test.

Our third photo was taken outside in average lighting, and again the differences are fewer. The S23 Ultra’s text is marginally sharper, and the blacks are a bit blacker, but there is slightly more noise than in the S24 Ultra’s photo. I wonder if seeing the S24 Ultra’s photo in isolation would make anyone think it’s a hybrid and not an optical shot? It’s certainly way more acceptable than many may have feared an optical quality shot would be, and the S24 Ultra has performed better than the S23 Ultra did in the 5x test.

That said, it’s impossible to say the S24 Ultra optical quality has taken better photos than the S23 Ultra’s 10x optical zoom, but they are definitely not an embarrassment or a disaster. It can’t quite take the win, but the S24 Ultra’s more pleasing tone and stronger noise reduction makes this category a shocking tie.

Winner: Draw

30x zoom

Both the Galaxy S24 Ultra and Galaxy S23 Ultra can take photos at a purely digital 30x zoom, a feature Samsung has been working on and refining for several generations. We only need one photo to show how much the S24 Ultra has improved over the Galaxy S23 Ultra in terms of 30x zoom.

While the level of detail is fairly similar, the Galaxy S24 Ultra’s exposure, contrast, and brightness have been sufficiently altered to bring the detail out more, which makes the photo appear more realistic. It’s still not something many people will want to use often, but work has been done to improve the feature over the previous generation.

Winner: Galaxy S24 Ultra

100x zoom

Yes, if you want to zoom in to 100x, the Galaxy S23 Ultra and Galaxy S24 Ultra will let you. Samsung’s full Space Zoom mode is as pointless as it ever was, but it appears to have become even worse on the S24 Ultra. There’s more smoothing, more blur, and less detail. It’s a camera mode no one in their right mind will ever use, and it’s impossible to pick a winner as the mode is a loser from the start. Even saying it’s a draw suggests it has some merit, which it does not, so we’re not scoring it at all.

The Galaxy S24 Ultra wins

The Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra and Galaxy S23 Ultra's camera modules.
Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra (left) and Galaxy S23 Ultra Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

The Galaxy S24 Ultra has either won or tied in all the categories, cementing its place as the new telephoto superstar of the smartphone world. It’s something of a shock that it managed to tie with the Galaxy S23 Ultra in the 10x zoom category, but none of the photos I’ve taken with it have been markedly worse than the S23 Ultra’s photos, especially when shooting outside in decent light. They’re very close, and if you aren’t comparing them side by side, you probably won’t worry that it’s optical quality and not simply optical.

But it’s not just the 10x mode that makes the S24 Ultra a winner. The 5x optical zoom is excellent, and along with the improvements to the 3x optical zoom, the Galaxy S24 Ultra legitimizes Samsung’s decision to change the telephoto cameras. Add in new software and some very clever AI enhancements, and it takes better telephoto photos than the S23 Ultra in almost all situations.

I was worried about the changes Samsung made to the Galaxy S24 Ultra’s telephoto camera, but the results are excellent. I’m not saying I won’t miss the 10x optical zoom, but I won’t feel shortchanged by the S24 Ultra, and that’s really important. Now, for the Galaxy S25 Ultra, I’d like a 3x, a 5x, and a 10x optical zoom. Please, Samsung.

Editors' Recommendations

Andy Boxall
Senior Mobile Writer
Andy is a Senior Writer at Digital Trends, where he concentrates on mobile technology, a subject he has written about for…
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