To find out, we took a bunch of photos with four phones that are all competing for that privilege: the Galaxy S20 Ultra, the Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max, the Google Pixel 4 XL, and Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10+.
Which one takes better pictures? Let’s take a look…
2X zoom comparison
We kick off this comparison with probably the coolest new feature of the S20 Ultra: its ability to zoom in while retaining crispy clear detail.
But starting at the 2X zoom level, you would notice that the S20 Ultra is actually not as detailed as even last year’s Galaxy Note 10+. There is a reason for that: while the Note has a dedicated 2X telephoto lens, the S20 Ultra’s periscope camera only starts working once you reach 4X zoom level. This means that the quality of zooms from 1X right to the 4X mark is actually not as good as it used to be on previous Samsung phones. In this range, the S20 Ultra is just using plain lossy digital zoom.
And one more example shows that once again, the level of detail at 2X magnification is not quite as good as you have on the other contenders.
4X zoom comparison
But once you reach that 4X zoom level and the periscope lens kicks in, you notice an immediate change in the balance of power.
The S20 Ultra easily climbs on top of the rankings with a very clean and detailed image. At this level of zoom, you have a lot of noise on the other phones and you can hardly see much in terms of detail.
We have one more set of images that proves the immediate change that you see once you reach 4X zoom and how the S20 Ultra instantly starts looking far better than its rivals.
10X zoom comparison
We do one more comparison at 10X zoom and this is probably the point where the difference between the Ultra and the rest is most pronounced. Heck, the Google Pixel 4 XL can’t even zoom 10X, it maxes out at 8X magnification and we have left it out of this round.
You have a similar case when you look at 10X zoom in low light. The presence of the periscope lens really makes a big difference and the S20 Ultra emerges head and shoulders above the rest.
Scene 1: Blue skies
Okay, we have already proven that the S20 Ultra is in a different league when it comes to its zoom capabilities, but what about just using the main camera. After all, you have a brand new 108MP sensor here. It defaults to taking pictures at 12MP as it combines 9 individual pixels into 1 to achieve that, and the results should be a photograph with a superb quality.
Is that really so, though? We like the image from the Ultra here, it has nice colors and a cheerful, bright exposure, but the dynamic range on the Google Pixel is still superior and the other two also capture very good looking shots.
Scene 2: The Monument
We really think this second image shows some of the peculiarities of the camera on the S20 Ultra. Notice how the image is sharp, but almost too sharp, it seems like the thorns on the pine trees appear almost brittle and the monument has got a bit of a halo around its edges. That is due to an excessive oversharpening that Samsung is applying and while we do appreciate the amount of detail, that is a bit of an overkill. Compare this to all other phones that have a softer, but more realistic detail. Still, we like the colors and you cannot say that the image looks bad, but it’s not quite perfect either.
Scene 3: The Park
In this next scene, you would notice the strong, contrasted colors on the S20 Ultra. It almost seems like this photo has been shot and then already edited with added sharpness. You will notice this clearly when you compare it to the Note 10+ which has a more realistic look to it.
Notice also the contrast in white balance against the iPhone which has a warmer tonality. The truth was somewhere in the middle.
Scene 4: Greens and browns
This time again you would see the striking difference in sharpness here: the S20 Ultra makes everything extra sharp and you easily notice it when you contrast the photo against the one taken by the Note 10+.
The Google Pixel 4 XL here shows that it can still capture amazing images as you can see how the dynamic range and the depth of color that it has captured surpasses that from other devices, and we’d easily pick it as the winner in this round.
Scene 5: The road
Are you convinced that newer always means better? That is not necessarily the case and this scene shows it: in our opinion, the older Galaxy Note captures a better photo here, with more lively colors and more dynamics, while the image on the S20 Ultra is fine, but the contrast is overly applied and the colors don’t look natural.
Interestingly, the Pixel here captures an underpexposed shot that doesn’t look all that good. That’s a bit of a trend on the Pixel that you will see in other photos too.
Scene 6: The restaurant
The differences in this shot are not huge, but look closer and you would notice that the Google Pixel shot pulls ahead. It just looks good: the white balance, the detail that is not overly sharpened, the dynamic range, the color depth, it is the photo that we would pick here.
The S20 Ultra does a decent job, but can’t quite match up to that level.
Scene 7: The entrance
And while you may end up with the impression that we are picking a fight with the S20 Ultra, that’s not the case: here, for instance, it has captured a very nice looking photo with beautiful colors and a nice exposure. The rest of the phones are also doing quite well, and this scene looks pretty good on all of them.
Portrait Mode Comparison
The lack of a 2X telephoto camera has the most impact if you like taking portrait shots. People just look better with a telephoto lens because of the compression and that is the reason why professional photographers rarely use a wide angle lens to capture portrait images.
Thankfully, the S20 Ultra has the option to capture 2X zoom portraits with the Live Focus mode, but it uses simple digital zoom. The quality is decent, but it’s a regression compared to Live Focus photos captured on the 2X telephoto lens of the S10 series or the Note 10+. Here you can notice how half of the face of our model is overexposed and burned, and the picture is no match for the quality that you get from the other three devices.
We were surprised with the poor quality from the Pixel as well: the photo is just very underexposed and you can see that you lost a ton of detail in the darker areas of the image, and it doesn’t look great either.
In this second portrait, there is no harsh light to throw it off and the Ultra does a pretty good job and we like the strong, inky colors. Still, the Galaxy Note 10 Plus has quite a bit more detail and we’d take that photo over the Ultra.
The iPhone also does a very good job with its dedicated 2X telephoto camera. The Pixel here is the odd one with a different field of view and a darker, moodier exposure.
In this selfie you will notice something that is very typical for Samsung phone cameras: smoothening the skin. It looks very silky in this shot, which might be an effect some people will like and it does look very good in this shot.
On the other phones, you will notice a lot more rough detail, and we actually like the photo from the Ultra best here.
In this next selfie on the Ultra, you would notice that my face looks a bit blurrier than on the rest, which have a much sharper cleaner detail. Our favorite image here is the one from the Note 10+, it exposes my face brightly, it has a lot of detail and it has the best colors.
Most phones these days do well during the day, but what about low light?
Well, good news is that the Ultra is not afraid of scant light! It is able to capture a great-looking photo here, especially when you compare it against the Note 10 Plus which struggles with color and noice in those green patches of grass at the bottom part of the photo.
The iPhone captures a very good looking photo too as the Night mode kicks in and allows for a brighter photo, but you also notice how the image has a yellow/green tint to it that doesn’t look realistic.
The Google Pixel also captures a good photo, but it cannot match the insane amount of detail you get on the Ultra. Good job, Samsung!
In this scene, once again the Galaxy S20 Ultra flexes its camera muscle and shows that Samsung has really improved its game. Tons of detail, proper white balance, excellent photo all around!
The iPhone while it has captured more light with the auto night mode also makes everything appear just annoyingly yellow! It’s shocking to see such a deviation in color from reality.
The Google Pixel strikes a good middle ground but detail in the grass is completely lost on it.
Finally, the Galaxy Note shoots a decent photo but nowhere nearly as detailed as the Ultra.
In this next shot, it’s a close call between the S20 Ultra and the iPhone, but we’d give preference to the iPhone: it just has the better dynamic range and a more controlled image.
Interestingly, the Pixel, known to be a low-light king, struggles here as it has worse dynamic range and detail than the competition.
The Note does a decent job, but is outclassed by the Ultra that has less noise and a slightly better dynamic range.
We included this one last image to show that the Ultra sometimes has its low moments too. While it did do excellently most of the time, here it botched the photo and you will notice in both the weirdly rendered neon sign and the bushes at the bottom, you don’t have the detail and the clarity that you get on other phones.
The iPhone takes the gold medal in this round: its auto night mode captures a ton of light while the image preserves a plentiful amount of detail and just looks amazing. Kudos to Apple! If only it could get the white balance right, so that images did not have that unnatural yellow tone…
The Pixel does not quite have as much detail or color as the iPhone, but it’s a close runner-up.
And finally, even the Galaxy Note 10+ does a better job than the Ultra here with a very pleasing photograph.
All in all, the Galaxy S20 Ultra has a camera that deserves to be in the conversation for the very best camera phone of 2020. Is it the single very best one out there? In some cases yes: especially when you zoom in more than 4X, but also often times in low light it does a stellar job. We do feel, however, that Samsung tried a bit too hard with it: there is an excessive amount of sharpening that results in halo artifacts and makes objects in a photo appear too sharp and almost brittle. The lack of a 2X telephoto camera also means that Live Focus shots (aka Portrait Mode) are not quite as good as they were on the S10 and Note 10 series.
The iPhone once again proves that Apple is able to create a very reliable and consistent shooter. It does well in all sorts of conditions, and the new auto night mode proves itself once again. We do, however, wonder about some issues like the unnaturally warm, yellow-y white balance in low light and why Apple hasn’t fixed that yet.
The Google Pixel 4 XL often times impressed us with its dynamic shots that looked professional and exceeded our expectations of a phone photograph. However, it was not consistent and it seems that the Ultra beats it when it comes to detail and clarity in low light too.
Finally, the Galaxy Note 10+ proves that not everything old is necessarily worse than newer gadgets. Its softer detail looks more flattering and realistic in many pictures, it does a better job with selfies most of the time, and its 2X telephoto camera makes it the better choice for portraiture.
Can we pick a favorite? Not really, all of those phones have their strong points and their lows, but once you know them, you can work around those shortcomings and enjoy snapping pictures. After all, that’s what this is all about.