When Samsung announced that the S20 Ultra would use an extra large camera sensor, I was intrigued. We published a comparison to other flagship phones and the images looked good, but when I was shooting with the Ultra I did end up noticing some problems that will hopefully be fixed in a firmware update (though I’m not holding my breath.) Even with full knowledge of the S20 Ultra's focusing problems and totally wacky colors, I still preordered Samsung's wallet-destroying smartphone, and here's why:
At 12.03mm diagonally, the sensor in the S20 Ultra is just shy of the 15.8mm sensors in “1-inch” compact cameras like the Sony RX100 VII and the Canon G7X II, or roughly 24 percent smaller. It’s also about 58 percent larger than the 7mm image sensors in most smartphones, including the iPhone.
The lenses on the Ultra and the lens on the Canon G7X II are strikingly similar as well. The Canon has a 24-100mm lens at f/1.8-2.8 and the Ultra has a 26-102mm f/1.8-3.6 lens. There are several caveats with the Ultra, of course, like the fact that the zoom sensor is significantly smaller at a 1/2 inch, but the takeaway is that this phone has comparable zoom to a premium dedicated camera. The sensor in Sony's RX100 is more advanced than the G7X's, but the RX100's lens is a bit different at 24-200 at f/2.8-4.5.
So with a large sensor and an actual zoom range, the S20 Ultra should really be put in the same category as more premium compact cameras. Sony's RX100 VII retails for $1,299, just $100 less than the S20 Ultra, but with it you also get a really good smartphone.
It's not all rosy though: throughout this piece you’ll see me make several criticisms of Samsung’s colors, but I have had good experiences with Samsung in the past. Two years ago I did a long hike to Young Lakes in California where I took only a Galaxy S9+ and the Moment Anamorphic lens, and I didn't regret leaving my larger cameras at home at all. Sure, I'm grading on a curve because there's only so much you can expect from the S9's 7mm sensor, but the results were surprisingly good:
So the question is: can the S20 Ultra hang with the RX100 VII and the G7X II?
I won’t know until I’ve traveled and shot with the Ultra for a while, but we can get some hints with a few tests. Before I go on, though, I should note that these tests were more casual than our camera comparison, which we shot totally handheld to approximate the experience most people would have. These tests were done on a stationary tripod, but I didn’t stress out over lining everything up perfectly, and we’re going to be doing things like resizing RX100 and G7X’s pictures to match the proportions of the S20 Ultra. Don’t worry pixel peepers, you can check out the raw files here. I should also note that Samsung's "Scene Optimizer" and smoothing were disabled for these tests.
I’ll be honest, I was worried — and frankly still am — about close focusing on the S20 Ultra. This past Saturday I took a picture of an absolutely delicious cookie I got from a local coffee shop. I think we can all agree that food pictures are a staple, even if you only share them with friends. But as you can see in the image below, something really weird is going on with the focus.
Now, it’s true that the S20 Ultra camera’s sensor and lens will produce a much narrower area of focus, especially close-up, but if what we’re seeing with the blurry cookie on the left is just what the Ultra’s bokeh looks like on either side of the focal plane, then yeah, that sucks.
I didn’t have my other cameras with me at the time of the cookie eating, so I did a small still-life shoot on a table with about a foot between the camera and the objects. Just like in our camera comparison, the S20 Ultra focused slightly behind where we wanted it: on the transformer rather than headless BB-8.
Here we can see that the S20 Ultra is a little brighter compared to the Sony, and we can already tell that the there's a bit more saturation if we look at the marker caps. Let's zoom in.
Now it becomes more obvious that the S20 Ultra struggles with close-up focusing. The minimum focusing distance seems to be around 6-7 inches, which is just a bit farther than other smartphones, but even at nearly a foot away the Ultra still struggled.
We can also learn something about the S20 Ultra's bokeh in this picture. Looking at the credenza we can see that there's less blurring, which almost makes sense. The S20 Ultra sensor is 24 percent smaller, but the lens is f/1.8 while the RX100's is f/2.8, which should even the playing field. On the bright side, it's great to see natural lens bokeh at all on a smartphone, but to me the bokeh looks shaky and lacks confidence. We'll come back to this in the next section.
Here's a classic stand-up portrait. I was actually surprised by this picture: it's clear, the focus looks good, and even if the colors look very synthetic, I wouldn't say I hate them.
When we bring in the Canon, though, we can really see how wild Samsung's colors are. Canon's colors are stable and confident while Samsung is punching up the saturation, contrast, sharpening, and flattening the exposure. Here's where things get interesting: even though the Ultra's picture looks a little overcooked, it did recover the sky. Samsung does multi-frame HDR like the Pixel and the iPhone, and that's likely what we're seeing here.
Zooming in a bit, we can see that the amount of detail is comparable, but the Ultra looks a little more sharpened and clearly the colors are very different. The Canon colors are more true to the scene, but Samsung is really pushing the saturation in the yellow and orange channels here, and I wish they would just pull those down a bit.
Here's a zoomed-in view of those distant details. Both of these shots were taken at f/1.8 and I was surprised by how good the bokeh looks on the S20 Ultra's main camera. It's still a little shaky, but it looks a lot better than what you'd get on most other smartphones.
Here's a shot from the 48 megapixel periscope zoom camera on the S20 Ultra. Optically the telephoto camera is only 4X, so that's what we've shot here, but keep in mind it's automatically downsized to 12 megapixels. You can see in our camera comparison that the 5x, 10x, and even 30x "Hybrid Zoom" levels look pretty good, but here we're just trying to get a feel for the base-level zoom quality.
To me this looks really good. For a long time it's felt like wide-angle cameras were getting all the attention, both from consumers and manufacturers, but portraits really come to life when they're shot using telephoto lenses. And now, instead of meager 2x telephoto cameras with small sensors on smartphones, this is something real, and that's exciting.
We can see a lot of great detail here with arguably better skin tone management than the main camera, plus Samsung is still doing the multi-frame HDR that brings back the exposure in this backlit scene. Now let's compare to the G7X II, which has the most comparable lens.
A couple of things are apparent here: at the maximum zoom the G7X produces a lot more bokeh in the background; it just looks a lot better. But the bokeh from the Ultra serves its purpose and brings the eye toward Ray's face, so it's not a total loss. Samsung is also doing a better job with Ray's facial hair than Canon, but I don't love the texture and reflectivity of the skin from the Ultra; the Canon looks more flattering without looking overprocessed. But again, this is a portrait from a smartphone, without using a software portrait mode!
Bonus: 108 megapixel mode
While I was testing I shot a couple of 108 megapixel frames. You have to set this mode deliberately, and that's probably for the best because the files are more than 16MB in size, and editing apps like VSCO like to crash while processing all those pixels. So when you unleash the full power of main camera, how does it look compared to the Sony and the Canon?
Surprisingly, the 108MP image from the S20 Ultra is blown away by the RX100 VII, but retains more detail than the G7X II. The lens on the RX100 is sharp.
Alright, let's review our findings:
- The focus algorithm needs work: it's not great at middle distances and worse close-up.
- The bokeh on either side of the focal plane looks rather ugly in close-up shots.
- The main camera will produce just a bit less bokeh than the G7X II and the RX100 VII, but it's still a lot more than you'd get on most smartphones.
- The lens on the 108 megapixel camera appears to be sharper than the G7X II wide open, but not as sharp as the RX100 VII (also wide open but at f/2.8.)
- The S20 Ultra can, in a way, achieve higher dynamic range using multi-frame HDR.
- Samsung's colors and exposure curves leave a lot to be desired.
- The periscope zoom camera is surprisingly comparable to the zoom on the G7X II.
So what's the bottom line? It's simple: the cameras on the S20 Ultra can't match the raw image quality of dedicated compact cameras, at least in these limited tests. But the gap between the two tiers of cameras has narrowed significantly, and if you factor in the convenience of always having an almost-G7X-caliber camera with you at all times, it really poses a credible challenge to the premium compact market.
That being said, Samsung still has a long way to go. Putting focus and lens quality aside for a moment, I think Samsung needs to put in a lot more work on the software processing side. It's not just that the colors on the G7X are better, it's also the way shadows and highlights are rendered, especially when it comes to faces. The good news is that Samsung can adjust this with software updates, and I know that the company is capable of relatively pleasant colors because my S9+ pictures look pretty darn good. Just relax, Samsung camera engineers; sometimes things can be dark.