Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra Camera Review

Samsung packed in plenty of camera firepower in their latest flagship smartphone Galaxy Note20 Ultra, and I had the privilege to loan one and review the camera's performance. The Note20 Ultra comes with 3 camera modules: ultra wide angle, main wide and telephoto camera. Being a photographer myself I am genuinely curious to find out about the camera performance and I have been using the Note20 Ultra for more than 2 weeks, and I even brought it with me home to Kuching, Borneo for a one week vacation.


Important Disclaimer: The Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra was on loan solely for review purposes from Samsung Malaysia and has been returned to them at the time this article is published. I am not affiliated with Samsung in any way, this is not a sponsored post, and Samsung did not ask me to do this review. I am testing the camera capabilities of the Note20 Ultra because I wanted to see how far a flagship smartphone camera has come. I am only discussing the camera performance of the Note20 Ultra. I will not be reviewing the video recording capability, as I am not a videographer and there are other more qualified reviewers to talk about the video aspect. I will also skip the selfie camera because, guys, we don't need the selfie camera. I believe smartphones should just get rid of the selfie camera, the world will be a better place without it. 

I am reviewing the Note20 Ultra from a photographer's perspective - many tech/gadget reviewers just gave a quick glance when it comes to camera performance in their smartphone reviews. Also, I have not see a professional photographer's review of the Note20 Ultra. 

The Samsung Note20 Ultra has 3 camera modules:
MAIN CAMERA
- 108MP 1/1.33 inch image sensor
- 26mm F1.8 OIS
ULTRA WIDE ANGLE
- 12MP
- 13mm F2.2 with 120 degrees Field of view equivalent
TELEPHOTO CAMERA
-12MP
- 120mm F3 Periscope Lens, OIS



IMPRESSIVE MAIN CAMERA
The main 108MP wide angle camera in Note20 Ultra is a very capable camera. You should be using this main camera most of the time, and only switch to the other cameras when absolutely necessary. The main camera features a larger than usual 1/1.33 inch image sensor, which is currently the largest image sensor in any smartphones for today's market. In the past, only a few smartphones have bigger image sensors (Nokie Pureview and Panasonic CM1 came to mind), and those smartphones are obsolete. Having larger image sensor gives more lattitude when it comes to dynamic range, high ISO and overall detail capture, and the results are evident in the images I have been taking with the main camera. 

The 108MP image files are downsampled to 12MP images by default, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. The 12MP files were optimized, full of fine details, good contrast, perhaps a little high on the saturation and contrast which appeals more to the consumer crowd. As a photographer I would have preferred a more neutral and natural looking images, but I understand the smartphone is targetted toward everyday users, not photographers. The processing of the images was a little heavy with aggressive sharpening and noise reduction, if you do not pixel peep the images look perfectly fine. With in camera-HDR tricks, the main camera can capture impressively wide dynamic range, you rarely have to worry about overblown images in the highlights. I am quite happy with the performance of the main camera. 

There is RAW capture option, but you don't get the full 108MP capture in RAW, you only get the 12MP RAW images, which was a shame really, I can imagine the full potential of 108MP RAW images. I decided to shoot everything in JPEG, and all the images shown in this blog entry were almost straight out of Note20 Ultra with very minimal tweaks (mostly straightening, contrast/exposure balancing). 

Main Camera

Main Camera

Main Camera

Main Camera

Main Camera

Crop from previous image

Main Camera

Main camera

Main Camera

Main Camera

Main Camera

Main Camera

Main Camera

VERSATILE TELEPHOTO CAMERA
The telephoto camera is quite interesting, and I have had plenty of fun shooting with it. The periscope folding lens design managed to squeeze an impressive 120mm equivalent focal length into the smartphone, which was no simple feat. The aperture of F3 is not necessarily bright enough, but for most situations with good light, the lens does really well. I was happy to find that the telephoto lens does have built in image stabilization, which I believe is more critical for longer lenses. 

I prefer to shoot with longer lenses in some situations, as longer lenses render more "professional" looking results, having less distortion, cleaner background with telephoto compression effect. That is what separates a photographer from non-photographers taking a snapshot. The longer reach does come in handy in reaching subjects that may not be too near. However, having used the telephoto lenses on the Note20 Ultra I have also noticed a few troubling issues that I must mention here. 

TELEPHOTO CAMERA ISSUES
Firstly, the periscope folding lens design, while innovative, does have compromise being made so small. The telephoto lens produces images that look noticeably softer than the main camera, with less contrast and fine details captured. Secondly, the autofocus performance of the telephoto lens is not nearly as reliable as the main camera's. The AF locks very quickly, but it may not be always accurate, especially if the subject has a busy, high contrast background, the AF tends to shift toward the background, no matter how you move the focusing point to the intended subject. Thirdly, and the most troubling one, the Note20 Ultra will decide to switch over to the main camera when you are too close to the subject, even though you have selected the telephoto camera, and this happens without any warning. As I was shooting 5x zoom, engaging the telephoto camera, as I move too close to the subject, the main camera is being used instead with digital zoom. The resulting image is plain garbage - full of pixelation and basically looking very bad. I think the second and third issue can be rectified in future software updates. 

Telephoto camera

Crop from previous image
The telephoto lens is not as sharp. 

Telephoto camera

Telephoto camera

Telephoto camera

Telephoto camera

Telephoto camera
The AF can get tricked very easily with busy and high contrast background

Telephoto camera

Shooting with telephoto camera, but Note20 Ultra switched to main camera with digital zoom without warning. 

Crop from previous image
Hopefully this bug is resolved in the future. 

Telephoto camera

Telephoto camera

Telephoto camera

ULTRA WIDE ANGLE CAMERA
There is nothing to write home about when it comes to the ultra wide angle camera, it does have impressively wide coverage of 120 degrees equivalent field of view. The 12MP, 13mm F2.2 equivalent focal length does get the job done when you do need to fit in more within a frame. However, I must also note that when it comes to image quality, the ultra wide is the least impressive of all the three camera modules in Note20 Ultra, and you should only use this when you absolutely have to. 

The good news - the ultra wide angle camera does decently well in good light. The distortion is automatically corrected in camera, so you don't get the barrel, fisheye, curved look at the edges of your images, and straight lines remain naturally straight. The wide angle does fit in a lot, in some situations it definitely can be beneficial but please do not deliberately shoot with ultra wide just because you have ultra wide. The image quality falls apart quickly when the light level drops, and in low light, I'd suggest avoiding the use of ultra wide and just stay with the main camera as much as possible. The main camera has a respectable equivalent focal length of 26mm which by itself should be wide enough for most shooting needs. 

Ultra Wide Camera

Ultra Wide Camera

Ultra Wide Camera

Crop from previous image - not as good as main camera quality, noticeable softness and less contrast

Ultra Wide Camera

Ultra Wide Camera

Ultra Wide Camera

Ultra Wide Camera

Ultra Wide Camera

AUTOFOCUS PERFORMANCE
The AF of Note20 Ultra is fast, and perhaps the fastest for smartphone cameras today, no doubt about that, the response was speedy and generally I have no issue using the camera even for street photography. However, there is a noticeable half a second needed for focus acquisition, and there is a huge gap between what the AF of Note20 ultra can achieve versus a true professional grade DSLR or mirrorless camera - the AF on the latter cameras are marginally speedier with a huge gap. That blazing fast, instantaneous AF response is needed for photographers who do care and shoot in fast action situations to nail critical moments. I am not saying the Note20 Ultra's AF is slow, I am saying it is nowhere as fast as a professional camera, and I believe there is plenty of room for improvement in the future. After all, we do want smartphones to get better, no?

LOW LIGHT SHOOTING
The low light performance of Note20 Ultra's main camera is very good. I am generally very pleased with the low light results using the 108MP (downsampled to 12MP by default) straight out of the main camera. The larger than usual image sensor size at 1/1.33 inch helps in high ISO shooting. At ISO400, the images are perfectly usable with manageable noise, and good amount of fine details intact. However, at ISO800 and above, the image starts to suffer, and not only high ISO noise being a problem, the aggressive noise reduction kicks in, destroying much of the useful structural pixel integrity, I'd still use high ISO for very dim environment, but I'd know what to expect - the images won't come out great. 

If you deal with very low light, please use the main camera. Avoid the ultra wide or telephoto cameras, these will give you poorer results, and this is no joke - the difference in image quality is significant. The Night Mode does not necessarily make things any better, sometimes high ISO number is selected an the camera is trying too hard to brighten everything in the image, which may be a problem, because, the dark sky should stay dark, artifically brightening the sky will create an image that looks overbaked. 

 
Main Camera - ISO800

Main Camera - ISO640

Crop from previous image

Main Camera - ISO1600

Crop from previous image - image quality suffers with ISO800 and above

Ultra Wide Camera - ISO1000

Crop from previous image - best avoid using Ultra Wide Camera in low light

Ultra Wide Camera - ISO1600

Crop from previous image 

Ultra Wide Camera

CAMERA DISPLAY ISSUES
I generally have very little complains when it comes to shooting with Note20 Ultra's cameras, but I must mention these few display issues that I have encountered. For most consumers these are small issues and can be overlooked. The photographer in me may be nit-picking, but I believe it is important for me to voice these up here for those who care. I have not see any tech/gadget reviewers complain about these issues, and I don't expect them to do so, since they are not photographers. There are fundamentally two display issues with the Note20 Ultra in camera mode - low display refresh rate, and display lag. 

Do not get me wrong, the screen on Note20 Ultra is gorgeous, large, high resolution with 120Hz display, super AMOLED, high in contrast, and I have a wonderful time with the screen for my day to day smartphone use. Things change drastically when the camera mode is activated. The refresh rate is no longer 120Hz, and that is ok, but it is not even 60Hz. In fact, the refresh rate drops somewhere below 30Hz, and that is troubling, because the lagginess, the non-smooth display when I move the smartphone around, panning left to right, you can feel the jaggedness in the display. It is very annoying, and being a photographer, looking at the display, the ONLY display to compose my shots, that is a huge deal for me. I expect a smooth viewing experience, at least constant 60Hz when the camera mode is being used. 

There is a visible lag on the display in camera mode. It may be minimal, but very noticeable nonetheless. I'd expect the display lag to be cut down to maybe 0.1 second or less, professional cameras can cut it down to 0.005 second, which is virtually no lag at all when seeing with human eyes. The lag on the Note20 Ultra, as estimated, is about 0.2-0.3 second (definitely faster than half a second of course), and that is a huge concern for serious photographers. If what you see on the camera display is already lagging in real time, by the time you AF and press the shutter, you are missing a lot more of the critical moments. Normally I won't make any noise about these issues, but since Note20 Ultra is a flagship smartphone, I'd expect better camera display performance!

I have demonstrated the low refresh rate in camera mode and display lag in my YouTube video review, you can see the embedded video at the start of this article. 


CONCLUSION
I did enjoy shooting with the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra's cameras, and I truly believe the main 108MP camera is the best smartphone camera out there today. The images came out superbly detailed with admirable dynamic range, good low light performance and optimized image processing. The telephoto and ultra wide angle cameras added versatility to the camera, providing a very good smartphone photography solution for those who are serious about photography, but may not necessarily want to get a dedicated camera. 

I do think that there are still plenty of room for improvement, and for future flagships, I do want to see improved AF, less display lag with better refresh rate and improved overall cameras for not just the main camera, but also ultra wide and telephoto modules, which currently are nowhere near as good as the main camera. 

For those of you who own the Note20 Ultra, do you agree with my finding? Let me know, I love to hear your thoughts!

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  1. It sounds like an overpriced dissapointment

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