Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G Review: Camera Details, Photo Quality

By 01:12 Sat, 07 Aug 2021 Comments

Ultra-packed quad-camera

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has one of the most versatile capturing camera setups available to date and hardware that's worthy of the Ultra moniker. Unlike the Galaxy S20 Ultra, the S21 Ultra offers two telephoto snappers for proper 3x and 10x optical zooms, with no trickery involved.

The primary camera uses Samsung's latest 108MP ISOCELL HM3 1/1.33" sensor with 12,000 x 9,000 pixel grid and 0.8µm pitch. It has a Nona-pixel Bayer filter pattern that allows for 9-to-1 pixel binning, so the effective pixel size becomes 2.4µmm and the resolution 12 MP. The lens in front has a 24mm equivalent focal length and an f/1.8 aperture and is stabilized.

The HM3 sensor features several enhancements over the HM1 (used on the S20 Ultra and Note20 Ultra). This includes improved HDR, low light and autofocus performance.

Old Ultra next to recent Ultra

Smart ISO Pro is an HDR technology that captures one high ISO along with one low ISO shot simultaneously. As both are captured simultaneously, this avoids the ghosting of moving objects that is a problem for sequential HDR. Then the two shots are combined into a single 12-bit image. That's 12-bits per channel, meaning the RAW image contains 64 times more color information than a 10-bit image.

The HM3 also features a Low Noise mode, which should improve light sensitivity by up to 50%. Alternatively, in fine lighting conditions, an enhanced remosaic algorithm can output full resolution 108 MegaPixel (MP) images.

Super PD Plus adds micro-lenses to the Phase Detection elements used by the sensor for autofocus. The lenses should improve the measurement accuracy of those elements by 50%, which allows the sensor to accurately track moving objects even in the dark.

The ultrawide angle module is apparently the same as on the S20 and Note20. It's based on a 12MP 1/2.55" sensor with 1.4µmm pixels and uses a 13mm f/2.2 lens that should deliver a 120-degree field of view. But unlike the last generation of flagships, the S21 Ultra does offer autofocus on this camera, and it can hold closeups.

The telephoto hardware is entirely different on this Ultra. Now instead of one 4x camera, this one offers two snappers - one for 3x and another one for 10x optical magnification.

The first zoom camera uses 10MP 1/3.24" sensor with 1.22µm coupled with 70mm f/2.4 lens, stabilized. It supports dual-pixel PDAF and offers 3x optical zoom.

The second zoom camera has the same 10MP 1/3.24" sensor with 1.22µm but this one sits behind a periscopic 240mm f/4.9 OIS lens. Dual-Pixel PDAF is available, too, and with this one, you can do 10x optical zoom.

The fifth black hole you see on the back is where the laser emitter and receiver for AF assistance reside.

Over on the front, we are getting the same selfie capturing camera that premiered on the S20 Ultra - a 40MP Quad Bayer shooter. Its pixels are tiny at 0.7µm each, but group 4 of them together, and we are getting a 1.4µm pitch. The 25mm equivalent lens is just wide enough and decently colorful at f/2.2. And it has autofocus!

Camera app

Samsung's capturing camera app has a few recent tweaks and additions this year. A cosmetic change is the renaming of Live Focus mode to Portrait mode - a long-overdue name change. Single hold mode, meanwhile, not only allows you to select the duration of capture but also pick the types of shots you want it to take.

Moving on, Pro mode can now be used on the ultra-wide capturing camera as well, not just the main one. The telephotos are still off-limits to Pros.

Those will probably like Director's view for the video. The S21 Ultra's viewfinder can show you live images from all four cameras at once, so you can pick and switch which one to utilize for recording. The selfie capturing camera can either be displayed as picture-in-picture, or it can share the classy screen in a 50/50 split with the rear cameras, and you can also turn it off altogether. Director's view recording is limited to 1080p at 30fps, and only one of the video streams is actually recorded - not all at the same time.

Another video-related development is the relocation of the resolution selector from the menu correct into the viewfinder - this one we really appreciate.

Single hold 2.0 • Pro Mode on the ultrawide • Director's view • Viewfinder • Settings • Extra modes

Photo quality

The default 12MP photos from the main capturing camera are excellent, even if a bit over-sharpened for our taste. The resolved detail is plenty, the grass looks good, the dynamic range is outstanding most of the time, and the noise is pretty much non-existent.

Due to the binning process, some unpleasantries are visible in more complex areas like those balcony blinds and the wall decoration - these patterns don't see this way, at all. But that's a math problem that's dealt with approximations, and that's why we can't have the most complex patterns as realistic as we would have hope for. The excessive sharpening at times isn't helping this either.

The white balance and the color rendition on the S21 Ultra are very accurate, and that's a rarity with Samsung's cameras. Often the processing goes overboard with the colors.

Main camera, 12MP

If you don't like what you are seeing, then you can improve things by opting for a 108MP image and then manually downsizing this huge photo by yourself. The 108MP samples aren't that remarkable in full res - they lack detail, soft and noisy.

Main camera, 108MP

The unprocessed downscaled photos are even more impressive with an incredible level of detail, correct complex patterns, spot-on sharpness and outstanding grass. They could be a bit noisier due to the lack of processing.

Main camera, 108MP-to-12MP resized

The ultrawide photos are good, but not great. They are often overprocessed, and you can see a lot of the fine detail being washed out becautilize of that. They see good, with accurate colors and okay contrast, fine dynamic range, too, but less processing would have been better. We'd prefer some noise and rich detail, rather than noise-less photos with poor detail.

Turning off the Auto HDR could sometimes helps, depending on the scene.

Don't acquire us wrong, the photos are good, the automatic distortion correction works nice, as well, we just know that this capturing camera has more potential, and its processing algorithm could benefit from some refinements.

Ultrawide camera, 12MP

Thanks to the autofocus, the ultrawide capturing camera can hold closeups, too. If you acquire close (2cm or more) to a subject, a focus enhancer will immediately pop up. We recommdiscontinue leaving this thing on - it crops a bit, does some magic to sharpen the photo and improve its detail, and, in the end, it will turn up a better image than simply switching to ultrawide and shooting your cactus or banknote from up close (the last photo was captured this way).

So, the 12MP macro shots from the ultrawide camera, using the automatic focus enhancer, are lovely. They are sharp and colorful, you can see a ton of intricate detail, and that's enough for a fine closeup image.

Macro from ultrawide camera, 12MP

The photos from both telephoto snappers are saved in 12MP, meaning the software upscales the 10MP output to 12MP and adds some sharpening to the viola. Why? Why, indeed.

The 12MP 3x zoomed photos are okay - they are detailed enough, with accurate colors and low noise. They also offer a remarkable dynamic range, and you can clearly see what's going on that far.

The images still see a bit overprocessed, and this time that's completely accurate - in addition to Samsung's standard image processing, here we have additional upscale and sharpening for reasons that are beyond us.

Telephoto 3x, 12MP

Same goes for the 10x zoomed photos. At first, we thought of them as incredible. Then we began pixel peeping and saw various processing artifacts, especially around moving objects (see the people in the last photo). The foliage is ruined most of the times, too.

The available detail is about average, though the colors are accurate, contrast is good, while the dynamic range is commendable.

Further tweaking via a software update could improve things. In fact, disabling the upscale may even be enough; we can live with the rest as it is.

Telephoto 10x, 12MP

Live Focus mode has been renamed to Portrait mode in the OneUI 3.1 version of the Samsung capturing camera app, but it essentially does the same thing - isolate the subject by keeping it in focus and blurring the background.

Two zoom levels are available, and the default is a 2x times zoom, sourced from the main 108MP cam - just crop, no upscale. This puts a nice distance between photographer and subject and allows for a flattering perspective while still filling the frame with a head-and-shoulders type of shot.

Subject detection and separation is outstanding, with even complex borders like messy haircuts being handled with superb results. The detail is excellent in the regular photos, and pretty fine in the zoomed samples. The colors are great, as is the contrast.

Portraits (zoomed), 12MP

Thanks to the proficient detection, you can like various portrait effects, if that's your thing.

Portraits (native), 12MP

Now, let's see at some night shots.

The photos coming from the main capturing camera are very good, but not what we expected from a flagship of such caliber. We expected incredible sharpness and exposure, what we got is average detail, a lot of noise, and clipped highlights. The phone shoots at high ISO settings refusing to let shutter speed go as low as we'd expect - almost as if the capturing camera were not stabilized.

Main camera, 12MP

The Night Mode automatically decides the exposure time; for the main capturing camera it is usually 2 seconds. And it is a game-changer.

The photos taken with the Auto Night Mode are impressive with just the correct sharpness, pretty fine detail levels, very low noise, superb color saturation, restored highlights and well-developed shadows. Yes, we did like the Night photos a lot!

Main capturing camera Night Mode, 12MP

The 12MP ultrawide photos are usable and retain fine colors, but this is the best we can say about them. They are poor in detail, the noise is pretty high, and they are rather dark.

Ultrawide camera, 12MP

Night Mode once again is doing a commendable job - it gets rid of the noise, massively improves the exposure, restores clipped highlights and exposes more detail in shadowy areas, and it offers much better colors. If you need to shoot an ultrawide photo at night, the Night Mode is a must.

Ultrawide cam Night Mode, 12MP

The native 3x capturing camera triggers most of the time. If the app thinks the light is insufficient, it will utilize the main capturing camera instead (fourth and seventh image).

The 12MP photos from the 3x tele snapper are okay, given the circumstances (upscale and all). They offer enough detail, and the noise is kept low. If you are shooting relatively well-lit scenes, you will be excited with the photos.

Telephoto 3x, 10MP

Night Mode is available on this camera, too, and it's incredible. It takes about 5 seconds, and the wait is worth it. The Night Mode 3x photos are just as remarkable as the rest - with improved detail, excellent exposure and saturation, low on noise.

Telephoto 3x Night Mode, 10MP

The long-range 10x telephoto also triggers most of the time, unless you are trying to hold photos in pitch blackconditions - then the capturing camera app resorts to digital zoom over the 3x tele.

So, the 10x photos are pretty good, too. There is a lot visible on them, the noise is surprisingly low, the colors are accurate, and you can pry where other phones can't reach.

Telephoto 10x, 10MP

Night Mode works on the long-range tele, too. It helps to improve the exposure, but other than that - you won't acquire a better image than the standard mode. In fact, you may acquire worse - a blurry one. We don't recommdiscontinue the Night Mode unless your phone is stable, but we appreciate the availability of the feature.

Telephoto 10x Night Mode, 10MP

If you see the Moon clearly from your location and you have the Scene Optimizer turned on, you should be prompted to utilize Moonshot enhancer when switching to a telephoto camera. The feature uses the long-range 10x snapper, and it recommends using the 30x digital zoom option. You can even utilize 100x zoom, if you are feeling adventurous.

Well, the photos we took of the Moon aren't poor and will do just fine for a few Instagram squares.

Moonshot 30x • Moonshot 100x

We also shot our usual posters with the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Here's how it stack-up against the competition. Feel free to browse around and pit it against other phones from our extensive database.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G against the S20 Ultra 5G and the iPhone 12 Pro Max in our Photo compare tool



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