(Camera comparison) iPhone 12 Pro vs. Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

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The iPhone 12 is the biggest iterative jump Apple has made for its flagship devices in years but, unusually, that jump doesn't largely revolve around the camera. The iPhone 12 family is entirely 5G, reverts to an iPhone 5-esque design, and there's also an iPhone 12 Mini for the first time ever.

But that's not to say there's nothing new in the cameras. As CNET's Patrick Holland explains in our review of the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro, the main camera on both phones has a faster lens that lets in more light, and night mode is now on both the ultrawide-angle and selfie cameras. The 12 Pro also gets an improved telephoto camera, yielding a better optical zoom.

But how does 2020's iPhone compare with the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, one of 2020's best (and most expensive) Androids? I took both around Sydney to find out.

Portraits​

Both the iPhone 12 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra shoot outstanding portraits, which mimic the depth-of-field effect of DSLR cameras. I'd nod at the iPhone for being slightly more consistent, but it's really too close to say decisively -- or at least, objectively.


The portrait above of Rachael shows how similarly excellent these phones are. I prefer the iPhone in this case, as the edge detection around Rach's hair is a bit smoother and it more accurately captured the color and saturation of her hoodie.

In the below photo of Garrett, you'll once again see how the Samsung is prone to highlight issues. The white garage doors in the background are a borderline eyesore on the S20 Ultra, and are better handled by the iPhone. The iPhone also captured better detail in Garrett's hair and jacket. (It may not look fair, since Garrett's smile is so much better in the iPhone shot. I managed to capture a similarly authentic smile on the S20, but the background brightness was even harsher on the eyes.)


But it's not always the iPhone coming out on top. In this shot of Jackson, both phones captured an identical level of detail and performed edge detection with the same degree of smoothness. But the iPhone's warmth is a hindrance here, looking artificial compared to the Samsung.


I wanted to pressure test both phones in a difficult lighting situation, so I shot this Portrait Mode shot of Esther against the light of a window. Surprisingly, it was the Samsung that was more balanced and the iPhone that was less able to deal with the light.


As for portrait selfies, which both phones can do, the iPhone 12 Pro comes out on top. I have an odd-shaped head and a strange balding thing going on, so edge detection is tough on me, but the iPhone usually did better than the S20 Ultra in this regard. I also found that the S20 Ultra's selfies look under-saturated in comparison.

Night sight​

It's the same story for low-light photography on the main lens, with the iPhone being better in certain circumstances and the Samsung in others. Generally speaking, the S20 Ultra does more processing on low-light photos. This typically pays off when there's very little light, but it also means there can be overkill if there's already some light in the shot.

This photo exemplifies the tradeoffs. The concrete wall on both sides is more illuminated on the S20 Ultra, but there's also much more noise. The same is true in spots of the green beam atop the mural. That said, the colors are more vibrant in the S20 Ultra.


The trend is more evident with Night Mode turned on. This below photo was taken on the iPhone 12 Pro without Night Mode. So as you can see, it's a dark scene.

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And here's both phones with Night Mode turned on. The S20 Ultra does a much better job here, thriving in a scene with minimal light. In addition to being a more balanced shot, you'll also notice the definition in the leaves up top that's lacking in the iPhone 12 Pro's take.

(Note: If you have a tripod handy, you'll be able to take Night Mode shots with up to 30 seconds exposure on the iPhone 12 Pro, which uses accelerometers to enable this function.)


But once you get into taking photos that aren't almost entirely dark, the S20 Ultra can struggle. Look at these shots, taken without Night Mode.


Then when you add Night Mode, you see how the iPhone improves on it with more details in the tree and atmospheric light in the sky. The S20 Ultra, on the other hand, artificially floods it with light, resulting in a noisy sky and an overly warm photo.


Personally, I prefer the iPhone 12 Pro's low-light photography. I prefer its versatility and the ability to use Night Mode in both low and medium light scenarios. But this will come down to taste, and what type of photos you shoot at night.

Zoom​

It'll come as little surprise that the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra's zoom capability is greater than the iPhone 12 Pro's. Whereas Apple's flagship offers a 2.5x optical zoom, Samsung's flaunts a 100x Space Zoom.

Still, this isn't quite a clean win for Samsung. I found that the iPhone 12 Pro performed similarly, and sometimes better, up to around 5x magnification -- which shocked me, because the S20 Ultra has 4x optical zoom. But anything beyond that was Samsung's game, with the difference getting bigger alongside the magnification of zoom.

Start with this 2x zoom comparison. If you look closely -- like, really closely -- you'll see that the text on the book spines is slightly sharper on the iPhone. Similarly, Apple's device captured more detail on the flowers in the top right. And if you squint hard, you'll also see the iPhone's picture has some texture detailing on the wall that's absent in the Samsung photo. You can thank Apple's Deep Fusion photo processing for these differences. They may be tiny differences, but they're there.


A note here that I found the iPhone's lowlight performance at 2x zoom to be better than the S20 Ultra's, often drastically so. Check out the huge gulf in quality in the photo below. This isn't representative -- there wasn't this big a difference in every 2x zoom night-time photo -- but it demonstrates the type of difference I often saw.


But as the iPhone diverges more from its 2.5x optical zoom, the more you can see its software straining to make the difference. In the below shot, at 4x zoom, it oversharpens the details of this flower, while the S20 Ultra handles it much more smoothly.


Sometimes that same software does the trick. This mural of Nelson Mandela, at 5x magnification, is on the knife's edge for me. The colors on the iPhone shot are more vibrant, and the texturing of the bricks is more pronounced. At the same time, looking at the details, the iPhone shows slight signs of artificial sharpening. Still, you could argue the iPhone is the victor.


But that's certainly where it ends. This chalk board at the local cafe was shot at 10x zoom, and the difference in clarity is vast.


Another 10x zoom shot, another resounding win for the S20 Ultra.


Feature rich​

This is where the iPhone 12 Pro taps out -- at 10x zoom -- while the S20 Ultra can go all the way to 100x. There's the perfectly legitimate question of how useful 100x zoom is, since you need a tripod to stabilize and the photo quality is super grainy, but the option to shoot at 20-50x at somewhat decent resolution is certainly nice to have.

Extra zoom isn't the only capability the S20 Ultra has over the iPhone 12 Pro, either. There's also the Ultra HD mode, which takes advantage of the S20 Ultra's 108-megapixel main shooter. It's essentially like having the ability to zoom in on a picture once it's already been taken -- check out our guide to it here.

One more consideration to make: The iPhone's camera software is much easier to use than the S20 Ultra's. On the iPhone, Portrait Mode is a touch away, and Night Mode turns on automatically. On the S20 Ultra, you'll need to go through a menu to activate either mode. It sounds like a small thing, but it's almost perplexing to have such strong features hidden in a menu.

Ultimately, I personally prefer the iPhone 12 Pro's camera. Its photography is generally more consistent, and I prefer its more natural take on photography as compared to the S20 Ultra's enthusiasm to razz shots up artificially. That said, the S20 Ultra's zoom function is amazing, and its ultrawide-angle shots are also ahead of the iPhone's.

Which do you prefer? Are you impressed by the iPhone 12 Pro's cameras, or are you disappointed? Let us know in the comments.
 
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