As impressive as the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra's specs are (120Hz display, 5,000 mAh battery, Snapdragon 865 chip, etc.), there's really only one thing that everyone cares about: the camera.
Make that cameras, because there are five cameras on the S20 Ultra — four cameras on the back and one selfie camera on the front. Are the cameras on the S20 Ultra, the biggest and most powerful of the three S20s, the best in a smartphone?
Does the main camera's 108-megapixel sensor, the 64-megapixel telephoto lens and its mind-boggling 100x digital zoom, 40-megapixel selfie camera, and 8K video recording obliterate the iPhone 11 Pro's puny 12-megapixel cameras?
I've had the S20 Ultra since last Thursday and have been shooting with it daily since. While there's no arguing that Samsung has crammed in more powerful cameras (on paper), the iPhone 11 Pro is still the superior smartphone camera with wider dynamic range, more life-like colors, sharper details when it comes to skin tones and hair, and smoother video stabilization.
I was so stoked to test out the S20 Ultra's cameras. I know few people who push their smartphone cameras as hard as I do (the 512GB storage on my iPhone 11 Pro filled with 4K video and tens of thousands of photos doesn't lie). So it was especially heartbreaking to finally shoot with the S20 Ultra's cameras only to learn they have autofocusing issues for both photo and video.
When shooting multiple photos, Input guides editor Evan Rodgers and I noticed the autofocus was just a second slower to refocus between shots than on the iPhone 11 Pro, Galaxy Note 10, and Pixel 4. As a result, sequential photos (usually at different distances) often turned out blurry because the autofocus didn't refocus in time. For video, the autofocus kept "hunting" (refocusing) to keep a subject in focus, which led to unusable video footage.
At first, Evan and I thought it was a faulty review unit, but we saw the same autofocus problems on a replacement unit. We've reported the autofocus issues to Samsung and provided them with several photo and video comparisons, but the company wasn't able to connect us with a camera expert at the time of publishing.
On February 26, a Samsung spokesperson sent Input the following statement regarding the camera:
The Galaxy S20 features a groundbreaking, advanced camera system. We are constantly working to optimize performance to deliver the best experience for consumers. As part of this ongoing effort, we are working on a future update to improve the camera experience.
The statement doesn't specifically address the autofocus issues, but look, Samsung still has two weeks before the S20 comes outs, which is plenty of time to at least improve it.
How we tested
Before I get to any camera comparisons, it's probably useful for you to know what kind of camera tech the S20 Ultra is packing:
Front — 40-megapixel camera with f/2.2 aperture
Back — 108-megapixel f/1.8 main (79-degree FOV) + 48-megapixel telephoto f/3.5 (24-degree FOV) + 12-megapixel f/2.2 ultra-wide (120-degree FOV) + “Depth Vision” (time of flight sensor)
Zoom range — 10x "hybrid optic zoom" and 100x "space zoom"
And that's just for photos.
For shooting video, you can go crank the resolution all the way up to 8K (7,680 x 4,320), but it's limited in a few ways. The highest framerate is limited to 24 fps (no 30 or 60 fps), the zoom only goes up to 6x, and there's no stabilization (optical or electronic) which means footage will likely be shaky. Not to mention, a minute of 8K footage is equal to about 600MB.
Now that you know the specs, a quick note on how we tested the cameras. The S20 Ultra and the phones we compared it to (Galaxy Note 10, iPhone 11 Pro, and Pixel 4) were all hand-held with the cameras positioned as close to one another to get the closest field of view. We could have used tripods, but that's not how most people use their phone cameras.
All photos and videos were shot with default settings in order to get the same out-of-box experience as customers; leaving each camera set to default settings also let us test things like autofocus speed and responsiveness (we rarely tapped on the screen to focus). With the S20 Ultra, we took photos set at the default 12-megapixel resolution and also images with the full 108-megapixel resolution.
Lastly, for videos, we tried to match the resolution and framerate whenever possible. The only time we couldn't match the resolution was when comparing the S20 Ultra's 8K recording. However, we did make sure any competing phones were set to match its 24 fps framerate.
I want to get right to the most-hyped camera feature: the 100x "space zoom." Similar to many Chinese phones like the Huawei P30 and Oppo Reno, the S20 Ultra uses a system of mirrors and lenses laid flat inside of the phone to achieve more zoom. This mirror-and-lens unit is often called a "periscope zoom lens" system; Samsung calls it a "foldable lens."
Instead of a large barrel jutting out of the back of the phone like you would get with a DSLR with a big honking lens attached to it, the S20 Ultra's "space zoom" is hidden within the body and then reflected through the rectangle-shaped cutout on the massive camera bump.
This "space zoom" combines optical and digital zoom and uses AI to enhance an image before saving the final shot. While Samsung wasn't the first to put a periscope zoom lens into a phone, it is mighty impressive how far it has pushed the technology. No other smartphone has 100x digital zoom.
Here's what it's like shooting with the S20 Ultra's zoom:
Of course, the big question is whether or not the 100x zoom is any good. When shooting with the S20 Ultra, you're given seven levels of zoom (and every level in between) within the camera app: 0.5x, 1x, 2x, 4x, 10x, 30x, and 100x. Take a look at how close we could zoom in on the Statue of Liberty from the Brooklyn Bridge Park.
For a smartphone zoom, the 100x zoom is just absolutely insane. It's incredible. A phone camera can now snap this kind of photo from almost 2.5 miles away. Just let that sink in.
Impressive as all the zoom is, shooting with the 100x zoom is a terrible experience. Not only is the camera ridiculously shaky at the highest zoom, but the image it takes is so blurry, I have to wonder why even bother including this much zoom? For bragging rights? Just because you can include something doesn't mean you should.
Who's going to be out there taking low-res photos at 100x zoom? Perverts? Paparazzi? It's just not practical when the image quality is so bad.
At 100x zoom, the image on the screen is so blurry and shaky it's almost impossible to nail the framing.
It's also not like Samsung isn't aware of how shaky the 100x zoom. If the company thought it was a good shooting experience it wouldn't have included a crosshair in the upper left corner to help you focus on your subject. At 100x zoom, the image on the screen is so blurry and shaky it's almost impossible to nail the framing; a tripod helps stabilize the shaking, but it still took me multiple shots to get a usable image.
In the above 100x photo of the Statue of Liberty, the shaky zoom kept shifting the framing of the monument to the left and right instead of the center; it took me a handful of tries before I got it framed in the middle (not exactly fun on a freezing cold day in New York City).
Photos taken at 100x zoom may leave a lot to be desired, but that doesn't mean the 10x "hybrid optic zoom" has nothing to offer. On the contrary, I think photos taken with 1-10x zoom look very good and are more than postable to Instagram and Twitter.
Most premium smartphone cameras already take solid low-light photography. The better image quality is largely due to bigger image sensors with larger apertures (labeled with lower f-stop numbers like f/1.8) that collect more light. It's a modern miracle our phones can even see in low-light, let alone complete darkness.
For this test, we went to a lounge bar in Brooklyn. Just a typical lounge with cool couches and cheap cocktails. The scene wasn't too dark and there were various levels of illumination from all directions.
Without any night mode turned on, the S20 Ultra photo maintains a lot of details. You can see the branch-like pattern on the right side of the couch and the wooden table are sharper than in the other photos.
However, you can also see that the S20 Ultra photo has uglier image processing: my face is a mix of a smoothed center and crunchier edges, my sweatshirt lost all of its softness (see iPhone 11 Pro pic for the best reproduction of the fabric), and there's a lack of uniform clarity (cocktail is blurrier) and dynamic range (the photo is more contrasty, but swallows up the details).
The Galaxy Note 10 performed the worst with and without night mode. The colors are completely washed out, the contrast is poor, and the details are soft. For low-light photography, the S20 Ultra is a major step up from the Note 10.
With night mode turned on, you can see the photos from all four cameras are brighter. People tend to prefer brighter photos. Whereas Google used to be the king of night mode photography, it's clear Samsung and Apple have narrowed the gap significantly.
Adjacent to low-light photography is nighttime shooting. While the two are similar (both dark scenarios) the differences with and without night mode are usually more noticeable.
Below, we have an Instagram-worthy composition with the Brooklyn Bridge, World Trade Center, night sky, and water all in one frame. A few years ago, this kind of photo wouldn't have been possible with smartphone cameras. Either the buildings or the bridge would be overexposed.
With a bigger image sensor that's 3x as large as the one in the S10, the S20 Ultra easily takes the more detailed photo. Even without zooming in, you can see the water is crispier and not a blurred mess.
Up close, the S20 Ultra (without night mode) is way sharper than the Note 10 and a hair clearer than the iPhone 11 Pro; the Verizon logo on the building to the right is more readable on the S20 Ultra than the others. Maybe the most surprising photo is the Pixel 4 shot; there's more image noise for sure in places like the sky, but the clarity in the buildings to the left of the Brooklyn Bridge is shocking. Despite its smaller image sensor, Google's machine learning and AI that make up its "computational photography" can still keep up with the best camera hardware.
With night mode turned on, you get the same results. The S20 Ultra stomps all over the Note 10. The iPhone 11 Pro narrowly beats out the S20 Ultra with cleaner edges (there's less haloing around buildings) and the Pixel 4 keeps pace. That said, the S20 Ultra image is the brightest of them all and has the best white balance for a night shot — not too cool like the Pixel 4 and not as warm as the iPhone 11 Pro.
I'll be honest, I'm disappointed that Samsung didn't add optical image stabilization (OIS) to the ultra-wide camera or bump up the resolution from 12-megapixels. My biggest complaint about the ultra-wide lens on the S10, Note 10, and iPhone 11 Pro is that the center is the only area that's sharp and the edges are usually very soft, especially when there's not a lot of light.
This ultra-wide comparison only includes the S20 Ultra, Note 10, and iPhone 11 Pro because the Pixel 4 doesn't have an ultra-wide camera.
Outdoors, the photos all look good. The S20 and Note 10 colors are a little more saturated (the sky was more light gray than blue) and the white balance is cooler, but aside from that, there's nothing I dislike about them.
At 100 percent crop, there's not much of a difference in sharpness since all three ultra-wide cameras have 12-megapixels.
Okay, now it's time for some really thirsty Instagram-style pics. This photo is one you've definitely seen a million times. The street, with the Manhattan Bridge in the background, is filled with influencers and tourists striking a pose. As such, it was the perfect place to test the S20 Ultra's outdoor shooting capabilities.
Again, at first glance, all of the shots look solid. Not surprising since the weather was great.
Zoomed-in, though, we can see all is not equal. Color temperature aside, each camera handles skin tones and hair (particularly around the edge) differently. Without question, the iPhone 11 Pro is the best for skin tones and hair (though, there's some weird haloing around my hair). The Note 10 took the softest photo of me so its gets the lowest grade. There are more highlights in the Pixel 4 image, but the S20 Ultra has it beat on sharpness.
I love shooting in the New York Public Library's famous Rose reading room. Mostly because the architecture is stunning, but also because it's a great place to compare dynamic range, sharpness, and exposure.
Taken with the main camera, all four cameras are respectable photos. The leading lines and horizon are enough to rack up likes on Instagram. But the main thing I really wanted to compare was resolution. How does the S20 Ultra's default 12-megapixel image compare to the same photo taken with the image sensor's 108-megapixel sensor?
The S20 Ultra takes a damn sharp photo, but the differences in the details are negligible. Below, you can see the S20 Ultra does a better job exposing the bulbs in the chandeliers, but crushes the details on the stone walls. The white balance leans a shade cooler than reality, but not nearly as yellow as the Note 10 and Pixel 4. As expected, the iPhone 11 Pro nails the color.
So about that 108-megapixel image... it's nice to have more resolution, but the image quality sucks. At 108 megapixels, the details aren't sharp at all. There's this ghost-like effect. Below, is a 100 percent crop-in on a person from the 108-megapixel image.
Maybe the 108-megapixel mode is worth it if the S20 Ultra is on a tripod and you're photographing landscapes. But for everyday use? Virtually pointless since the images aren't even crispy.
Having shot at so many scenic spots in New York City, I figured why not get a panorama. I've tested a lot of Android phones and the panorama mode has always lagged behind the iPhone. The stitching simply isn't as good so I was really hoping things might have improved on the S20 Ultra. Sadly, the iPhone 11 Pro takes the better panorama.
Apple advertises the iPhone 11 Pro as capable of taking panoramas at up to 63 megapixels of resolution. Samsung discloses no theoretical resolution limit. So let's see what we got.
On the S20 Ultra, the panorama mode took the below image with 8,368 x 3,680 resolution, which works out to 31 megapixels.
On iPhone, a similar panorama produced an image with 13,628 x 3,938 resolution, which is about 54 megapixels.
There's no contest here. The iPhone 11 Pro panorama has more seamless stitching and better dynamic range (especially noticeable in the sunset behind the Brooklyn Bridge and water). Android still has a lot of catching up to do for panoramas.
As much as I hate that our "cameras eat first," I have to accept that food photography is A Thing. Putting aside how delicious the food in the picture may look, I wanted to see how the S20 Ultra handled a typical lunch under mixed lighting.
Right off the bat, the Note 10 fails. The image is overexposed, flat with little contrast, and details are soft. Ditto for the Pixel 4 — the bread looks pale and sick. That leaves the S20 Ultra and iPhone 11 Pro and the latter wins by a mile.
Examine the bread in the S20 Ultra and iPhone 11 Pro shots below at 100 percent crop. There's more visible texture in iPhone photo with more highlights and sharpness. How is this possible? The iPhone's "Deep Fusion" technology, which uses machine learning to process a photo and enhance details. By default, there's no way to see if a photo used Deep Fusion or not; the mode is automatic and there's no way to manually turn it on. However, using the Metapho app, I confirmed the photo did indeed use Deep Fusion, which is likely why the details are so clear.
At closer range, the large f/1.8 aperture on the S20 Ultra's main camera often gets confused resulting in hit-or-miss autofocus. Below, we have a photo of a cocktail drink. Nice in-focus bubbles and soft bokeh. It was also the third try at the same shot. The first two shots came out blurry with the autofocus failing focus on the center.
As you can see, each of the four cameras processes white balance differently. The Pixel 4 photo is too red, which I don't like. The iPhone 11 Pro photo is slightly greenish and I also don't like that. Weirdly enough, I think the Note 10 took the best shot in this test; the image is bright, but not overly so and the bokeh isn't too intense that it blurs out the background context (wooden table).
If we're comparing sharpness, it's pretty close. While the bubbles in the S20 Ultra photo do look a teensy bit sharper at 100 percent crop, the cracks in the ice chunks in the iPhone 11 Pro photo are more defined (not surprising it was taken with Deep Fusion).
Apple invented "portrait mode" with the iPhone 7 Plus and its dual cameras. Everyone's caught up since and some phones like Google's Pixels have even surpassed the iPhone's portrait mode using machine learning to cleanly blur out the background from the foreground without dual cameras.
So how does the S20 Ultra's portrait (Samsung calls it "Live Focus") fare? The results surprised me.
I expected the iPhone 11 Pro or Pixel 4 to produce the best portrait photos — they're usually the most reliable when it comes to isolating a defined subject that doesn't have messy borders — but didn't think the Note 10 would wipe the floor with them.
The close-ups below tell a tale of the iPhone 11 Pro's portrait mode completely erasing the sides of my hair. The S20 also partially cuts off the sides of my hair. The Pixel 4 blurs out part of the fur on my hood (see left of my neck). Ignoring the skin-smoothing in both the S20 Ultra and Note 10 shots, we can see the Note 10 took the best-looking portrait shot.
Of course, different backgrounds and foregrounds will produce different results so your mileage will vary based on the scene. Still, I would say these photos taken at the Vessel, a popular tourist attraction, in Hudson Yards, are realistic representations of what users would expect.
In a challenging shooting condition, how good is your phone's portrait mode? Turns out, there's still a lot of work for every phone maker to do. Any of these photos might fool the unsuspecting eye on Instagram, but not to anyone looking closely.
My least favorite camera comparison test is the one for selfies. I hate having high-res photos of my face on the internet, but for the sake of thoroughness, here goes nothing.
The S20 Ultra has a 40-megapixel front-facing camera. That's a lot of pixels, which means more resolution and larger images. However, by default, the camera actually takes 10-megapixel photos. So just like the 108-megapixel sensor on the rear, the 40-megapixel selfie sensor combines multiple pixels (four in this case) into one. The result is supposed to be one sharper and brighter 10-megapixel selfie from the 40-megapixel sensor compared to the 10-megapixel sensor on the Note 10.
So let's look at some selfies!
At first glance, it looks good. But let's get in closer to see the details in the skin and hair because that's kind of what makes a good selfie.
As expected, the S20 Ultra smoothened out my skin and wiped out most of the highlights in my hair, blurring the tips of the strands into the background. Some people may like the skin smoothing, but I'm not a fan. Be sure to turn off the on-by-default "beauty" mode if you don't want this airbrushing applied to your skin.
The iPhone 11 Pro once again produced the most accurate skin tones and had the most detail in my hair, eyebrows, and beard, but it's not the cleanest image. You can see it has more image noise compared to the other selfies.
Time for the ugly: the autofocusing issues I mentioned earlier. It's weird to me that Samsung didn't notice any autofocusing problems during testing. As I said in the beginning, the S20 Ultra's autofocus is slower than it should be. There are no issues when it nails the autofocus. But when you want to take sequential shots, say, at different angles and distances, waiting for the "phase detect autofocus" system to refocus on the subject could mean a missed shot. Here's what I mean.
Point your attention to the pair of photos below. The top set was shot with the Galaxy S20 Ultra and the bottom with the iPhone 11 Pro. The first photo is a close-up, and the second is a wider shot. All shots were taken with the main camera and autofocus.
As you can see, the second S20 Ultra photo ended up blurry because the autofocus took an extra second or two to refocus. The S20 Ultra camera usually tells you that your photo may be blurry, but not always; I didn't get any warning for this second pic.
We tested the S20 Ultra's autofocus with the Note 10 and Pixel 4 and saw the same lag.
Here's a closer look at the missed autofocus on the second photo:
The brief autofocus delay may not seem like a big deal, but to people who are demanding the best smartphone camera technology, it's a very big deal. A $1,400 smartphone shouldn't have an autofocus system that's slower than its direct competition, let alone the previous generation.
The autofocus issue doesn't only affect photos. It wreaks havoc on video, too.
With the promise of 8K video recording, improved "Super Steady" stabilization for 4K video, and up to 20x zoom, I was more than a little excited to shoot video with the S20 Ultra.
That all came to an abrupt end as soon as we saw the autofocus problems on video. In the four videos below, you can see how the camera, even at different resolutions and framerates, struggles to maintain autofocus on the subject.
Here we have a comparison between the S20 Ultra and the iPhone 11 Pro, both shot in 4K resolution at 60 fps. Observe how the autofocus pops in and out as it tries to focus on Evan.
That was on our original review unit. On our second review unit, we pit the S20 Ultra (8K at 24 fps) against the iPhone 11 Pro (4K at 24 fps) and you can see the same autofocusing issue. It's especially bad when I take out my keys; you can really see the autofocus delay as it readjusts focus.
Below, we have a moving shot between the S20 Ultra and Galaxy Note 10 — recorded in 1080p at 30 fps. The S20 Ultra fails to autofocus most of the time. It's a real tragedy.
Things are even worse in low-light. In the same lounge bar we shot the above low-light photos, the S20 Ultra's 8K video recording is pretty poor. Footage looks blurry, muddy, and grainy.
Be careful when recording in HDR10+, too. If you turn on the setting, your footage will look fine on the S20 Ultra since the display supports HDR10+. However, it's going to look like this — flat, low contrast, and like ungraded S-Log, footage — on screens that don't support HDR10+:
Ignoring the HDR10+ color-sucking footage, you can see the autofocus still has major issues keeping me and the cocktail in focus.
Different autofocus tech
Why is the autofocus so slow? (And potentially slower than on the S20 and S20+?) Without any help from Samsung, we have one plausible theory.
On the S20 and S20+ (and previous Galaxy phones), Samsung is using an autofocus technology called "dual-pixel autofocus" (DPAF). DPAF delivers extremely fast autofocusing.
But, on the S20 Ultra, instead of DPAF, the camera system is using "phase-detection autofocus" (PDAF). Here's a good explainer on PDAF and DPAF and the pros and cons of each.
Long story short: DPAF is faster at autofocusing on subjects and keeping them in focus compared to PDAF because there are "phase detection photo diodes" that are embedded into each of the image sensor's pixels for focusing; in comparison, only some pixels in PDAF are used for focusing.
However, this doesn't mean DPAF is always worse than PDAF. iPhones, including the latest 11 Pro, use PDAF (or "focus pixels" as Apple calls it) and the magic is in the software and hardware optimization with the device's image signal processor (ISP). Apple's ISP is the best in the business, which is why you continuously see the iPhone's camera system best out its competitors.
Why Samsung is using PDAF instead of DPAF could come down to the larger image sensor inside of the S20 Ultra. At 1/1.33", Samsung says the sensor is "3x larger than Galaxy S10." With the ability to collect more light, it's possible Samsung couldn't get DPAF to work across the larger sensor in time for launch and had to settle for PDAF. Another reason could be cost. Embedding "phase detection photo diodes" into every single one of the 108-megapixel image sensor's pixels could have been too expensive.
DPAF is hardware and "fixing" or speeding up the autofocus may not be possible via a software update. Still, if I'm being optimistic, it may be possible for Samsung to update the camera software to allow the PDAF to pre-focus just a tiny bit earlier creating the illusion of faster autofocus like DPAF. The same trick probably wouldn't work for videos, though, as it'd have to constantly pre-focus while maintaining it.
A $1,400 letdown
Samsung wants people to believe the S20 Ultra is a new beginning — it's got a new name after all — but I'm just sad the cameras don't live up to the hype.
The ridiculous zoom range is bananas and the image quality for photos is sharper compared to previous flagship phones like the Galaxy S10 and Note 10, but the highest 100x zoom is so low-res and shaky to shoot with it may as well not exist. I had wanted the 100x to not be a gimmick, but it is.
I also wanted the S20 Ultra's cameras to give the iPhone 11 Pro a real beatdown. It's been too long since anyone with any amount of weight was a real threat to Apple. But alas, the iPhone 11 Pro cameras are still better in nearly every way that matters: dynamic range, sharpness, color accuracy, and video.
If you're thinking that $1,400 will automatically buy you better photos and videos, you should probably get an iPhone.
You can for sure get some decent photos and videos with the S20 Ultra if you put in the work (like using the "pro" mode). But if you're thinking that ponying up $1,400 will automatically buy you better photos and videos, you should probably get an iPhone.
With the autofocusing issues, I can't recommend the S20 Ultra. At least, not until Samsung fixes it. Other than the beefy cameras, all of the other features on the S20 Ultra — the 120Hz refresh rate, big battery, a Snapdragon 865 chip, 5G, etc. — all exist in the less expensive S20 (starts at $999) and S20+ (starts at $1,199). If you really want a new Galaxy phone, both of these are better buys. Hell, even the Galaxy Note 10 is a better value, especially if you're using it to shoot video.
Update 1: An earlier version of this story said the Galaxy S20 Ultra's cameras randomly desaturated the colors. We now know the discoloration is the result of the HDR10+ setting being turned on. We've updated the story to clarify this.
Update 2: Added statement from Samsung regarding upcoming update to the camera.