Every year around this time, there’s one camera comparison that must be made — the latest iPhone vs the latest Samsung Galaxy.
It’s a necessity because Samsung and Apple have essentially a duopoly in the North American market, meaning for a major, highest-spending, chunk of the world’s phone market, the latest iPhone and the latest Galaxy are just about the only flagship options.
For years, the Samsung device chosen to go against the new iPhones would be the Galaxy Note, but there was no new Note device this year — and maybe never again — so the several-months-old Galaxy S21 Ultra steps in to fill the void.
The good news for Samsung is, the Galaxy S21 Ultra was so awesome, so overkill as camera hardware at the time of release that even now, it’s still arguably the best Android camera phone.
The challenger facing Samsung is the iPhone 13 Pro. Since there are no camera differences between Apple’s Pro iPhones this year, that means this comparison can double as an iPhone 13 Pro Max vs Galaxy S21 Ultra too.
One of the biggest differences between Android and iPhones is that Android brands often make wholesale design overhauls from generation to generation, while Apple prefers to keep a consistent design language for years.
This is especially true this year for these two phones. Both Samsung and Apple made relatively big advancements in their camera systems, but while Samsung gave the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s camera module an entirely new look to signify the upgrade, the iPhone 13 Pro camera module looks exactly the same as the iPhone 12 Pro’s — just larger in size.
We’ll start with the new kid on the block. The iPhone 13 Pro camera is, just as last year, a triple-lens main system consisting of a trio of 12MP cameras.
But all three lenses got new, larger image sensors. The ultra-wide camera also gains a faster aperture, while the telephoto zoom lens is now a 3x optical zoom instead of a 2x.
The front-facing selfie camera, also 12MP, remains mostly unchanged, as is the LiDAR scanner (that’s used more for AR apps and not so much for photography).
The Galaxy S21 Ultra, meanwhile offers a 108MP main camera with an even large image sensor than the iPhone 13 Pro’s, a 12MP ultra-wide, and two zoom lenses covering the 3x and 10x optical zoom range — the latter a Periscope zoom lens. A 40MP selfie camera sits in a tiny hole-punch around the front.
To this day, this is still technically the most well-rounded and capable smartphone camera hardware yet, with only Huawei’s P40 Pro Plus (which used the dual 3x/10x zoom lens strategy before Samsung) being able to throw its name into the ring.
Test 1: Main camera
We’ll start with some easy shots — in great lighting conditions, with the light source coming from behind me toward the scene. It’s no surprise both phones produce beautiful shots, and it really comes down to personal preferences.
The iPhone, for example, prefers to let areas covered in shadows stay dark, while Samsung brightens up everything. This is most noticeable when looking at the tree leaves in the samples.
Moving to more challenging conditions — shooting against harsh light or in low light conditions — then we start seeing each camera’s strengths and weaknesses.
Apple’s marketing team has been heavily promoting the larger image sensor used by the iPhone 13 Pro’s main cameras, but in typical Apple fashion, the company didn’t actually reveal exact numbers.
But those who know cameras can calculate the iPhone 13 Pro’s image sensor size using its micron-pixel number relative to image resolution, and the iPhone 13 Pro’s main camera image sensor size is around 1/1.67 inch.
This is a big jump for Apple, but still small compared to the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s 1/1.33 inch. This means Samsung’s image sensor can still pull in more light and has a shallower depth-of-field for natural bokeh when shooting subjects up close.
In the below samples, Apple’s tendency to leave shadowed areas remain dark starts to work against it when I am shooting against backlight. In the below set, the city streets appear dull and covered in shadows, while Samsung’s HDR goes into overdrive to keep city streets well lit without blowing out the skies.
However, Apple’s image, by virtue of being not as artificially brightened, keeps the definitions of the clouds better. If you zoom into the images (use the original uncompressed photos in this Flickr album), you can see the iPhone image retains details better, especially in the bottom half of the photo.
One noticeable change between the iPhone 13 Pro and the iPhone 12 Pro is the former, because it has a larger image sensor that takes in more light, but doesn’t resort to light mode as often. In moderate low-light settings (night shots in the city, for example), the iPhone 13 Pro will mostly shoot the photo straight up instead of turning on night mode.
The result is images that aren’t as well-lit, but they capture the real-life vibe closer to Samsung’s images, which are brighter than the actual scene to my eyes.
When you move to real low light conditions, both phones will turn on night mode automatically. Because the iPhone 13 Pro’s camera by default takes in less light, its photos obviously benefit from night mode more.
This is a very close one, but I personally would give the win for the main camera to the Galaxy S21 Ultra because I find the colors pop a bit more, particularly in moderately low light.
Test 2: Ultra-wide camera
Both phones’ ultra-wide-angle cameras have a really wide FoV (well over 120-degree), and quality is close during the day.
In low light conditions, the iPhone 13 Pro will need to resort to night mode, while the Galaxy S21 Ultra often does not. And even still, the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s ultra-wide shots are brighter and more vivid.
If we are shooting in absolute darkness and must rely on night mode, then I trust Apple’s night mode more than Samsung’s. But for just about any other scene that doesn’t require a multi-second night mode, Samsung’s ultra-wide is just a bit better.
Test 3: Portraits
Interestingly, despite both phones having a 3x zoom lens, only the iPhone uses the 3x focal length (roughly 77mm) as the default framing in Portrait mode. The Galaxy S21 Ultra shoots at a 2x zoom by default, which does not take advantage of its 3x zoom lens. You can see the difference in framing in the portrait samples of my friend.
You can however manually switch to the 3x zoom lens on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. In good lighting conditions, these shots are too close to call, although I think the iPhone 13 Pro’s edge detection around my friend appears a bit more natural.
Just as a test, I took portrait shots against harsh backlight (not an ideal way to shoot photos). The iPhone’s HDR produced a perfectly balanced photo — the shot was able to highlight my partner without blowing out the scene outside the window.
But Samsung’s shot is the more realistic one — if you take this same shot with a “real” camera, there’s no way you can have both subject and window be properly exposed. Either the subject is drenched in shadows or the window scenery must be blown out.
I think the iPhone 13 Pro’s portrait capabilities win by a slight hair — it helps that Apple’s 3x zoom goes slightly further than Samsung’s 3x zoom.
Test 4: Zoom capabilities
This category has been a landslide victory for Samsung (or any Android flagship for that matter) over the iPhone for the past few years, but this year, the iPhone 13 Pro closes the gap a bit. In 3x zoom shots, as shown in the last section, the iPhone 13 Pro’s photos are as sharp and crisp as Samsung’s.