Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra - My First Impressions

Samsung has recently launched their latest and much anticipated S21 series smartphones, and I managed to get my hands on the flagship S21 Ultra. My first thought was to run out with the phone and start going crazy shooting with the quad-camera setup, at least that was what the photographer in me would have wanted to happen. Unfortunately Malaysia is still under very strict move restrictions/lockdown and we are forced to stay home. Nevertheless, getting my hands on the latest launched S21 Ultra and the model I had in hand is the shiny Phantom Silver version, I just cannot wait to do something with it. So here is my hands on, first impression of the S21 Ultra just days after I have unboxed it. 

A big boy and his gadgets. We all love our toys. And that S21 Ultra blends in just nicely. 

Been using the S21 Ultra for my audio listening pleasures recently.
The USB-C out sound performance, and the wireless audio have been quite good. 

Important Disclaimers:
The Samsung S21 Ultra was sent to me for review purposes. I have no affiliation to Samsung Malaysia, and they did not ask me to promote or say anything in their favor while writing my reviews. I have reviewed Samsung products before here in this blog or in my YouTube channel, and I have always been critical about the camera performance, being brutally honest in my reviews. I shall continue doing the same with the current S21 Ultra in hand.

Key Specifications of my S21 Ultra:
Exynos 2100
Android 11
6.8 inch, WQHD, 120Hz, Dynamic AMOLED 2x
256GB Storage, UFS 3.1
Quad Camera Setup
5000mAh battery, 25W USB-C charging, 15W wireless charging

The S21 Ultra felt surprisingly light when I picked it up. It weighs only 228g, and that is incredibly light for a flagship phone that has huge 6.8 inch screen. I actually welcome the lighter side of build, as it would be easier to carry around and handle without the heft. The phone felt very solid in hand, as expected with excellent build. Despite the fact that the back is made of glass, it did not feel fragile at all and the aluminum frame felt rigid and robust. One thing I must note though, having used this S21 Ultra for a few days, the back of the phone did feel rather slippery! For those who plan to get this phone, best advice is to use some sort of cover, case of protection for additional grip when using the phone with your hands. I have had a few almost-accidents, the phone slipping off my grip too easily. 

The design needs a little getting used to, at least for me. The large bump of the camera at the back was more than just a statement - it was hard not to notice it. After several days of looking at the phone, it started to just blend in nicely and let's face it, whenever we use the phone, we are looking at the front screen, and very rarely do we check what goes on at the back (unless you are paranoid like me, or any photographers who would wipe the lens clean before taking a photograph). I like how smooth, clean, simple and minimalist the phone design is. It looks premium with the shiny edges and frame, the slightly curved front screen and the smooth, silver back, yet at the same time it did not have any loud or bold branding and unnecessary decorations. Samsung scores high points in my books for the design of S21 Ultra. 

The button placements are quite standard now, nothing new to write home about, and I have no issues reaching all the important controls. The power button and the volume buttons are easy to reach for my medium sized Asian fingers, and I have no issue holding the phone for long duration of time despite the larger size, thanks to the light-weight build. 

Simply love the large, 6.8 inch display with high resolution WQHD

The Dynamic AMOLED 2X renders super deep blacks.
I do appreciate the 120Hz refresh rate, I cannot live without it. 

Colors look rich, vibrant, and perhaps a touch too saturated, but that's fine. 

Excellent fine details shown through the WQHD display!
A clear advantage of having higher resolution than Full HD. 

I like that the screen does not overly curve out at the edge any more. 
I much prefer the flatter display

Flatter display means, no more accidental touches! A good move forward, Samsung!

QHD resolution + 120Hz
If there was one thing sure to win the race, well at least for now, way ahead of competition, is the inclusion of a Quad HD display (1440p resolution) with 120Hz refresh rate. The 120Hz refresh rate made a huge splash in 2020, with a lot of phones, down to budget offerings having such high refresh rate for smoother scrolling and navigating experience using the phone. None have successfully implemented higher resolution than Full HD (1080p), and Samsung was the first to do WQHD + 120hz. The higher resolution was much welcomed, as a photographer, I do want to see every crisp fine details on the screen. I have been using 120Hz display on my own Poco X3 which I have bought several months ago, and I have to say, having used 120Hz every day, I cannot go back to 60Hz, it just feels stutterly and not smooth any more! You have to try it, use it every day, and then switch the 120Hz off and see how laggy, a big of a difference it makes when you go back to 60Hz. There is no going back trust me. 

Very Good Colors
The color accuracy is improved from previous models. I have always had issues with Super AMOLED screen's color, having some odd slight color tint that I just cannot quite put my finger to it. LCD screens have much more natural looking colors in my books. However, Samsung has come a long way, and the improvement is indeed noticeable. It is still not where I'd like it to be, but it has improved so much that I am willing to work with the latest Samsung's Dynamic AMOLED 2x screen. The colors are vibrant, perhaps a little too punchy even when set to "natural" profile, but that appeals to general wider audience so I can understand their decision of doing it that way. The blacks, due to AMOLED design, is pure, deep black, which does enhance the look and feel of some photographs with a lot of shadows, adding the sense of depth. The higher resolution QHD was astonishing, I don't think for now we'd need a true 4K display on a phone, heck I don't even have 4K display on my computer screen! I feel that Quad HD is a good middle ground, it provides significant and really significant upgrade over Full HD, yet it is not 4K which would have cost a lot more to make and drains battery much faster. It is a very good compromise in terms of quality and cost. 

Flatter Display
The S-series smartphones from Samsung have always adopted more curvy design for their display, with edges curving so much that it was impossible not to have accidental touches when you use them day in and out. That was one big concern I have, but much to my surprise, Samsung almost completely flattened the display screen on the new S21 Ultra! Visually you will still see some minor curving, which looks really sleek in design, but the display does not extend far beyond the edge, and I am happy to report that I have completely zero accidental touches at the edges! This itself is a huge improvement in user experience for a large display phone. 

I am digging this Phantom Silver edition. Sleek, smooth and very clean looking. 

Finger print reader is now much faster and more reliable to use. 

The camera bump is quite large, so the phone does not sit flat on the table. 

Gorgeous looking quad camera setup. Can't wait to try them out soon. 

Simplistic and logical camera UI, will have deeper analysis and report in my coming camera review. 

The back slightly reflects the adjacent colors, the silver is not looking very silver here, it reflects my skin color. 

Faster Finger-Print Reader
One improvement which I instantly noticed was the implementation of a new under-display finger print reader. Compared to my experience previously using S20 Ultra, and Note20 Ultra, the new finger print reader on S21 Ultra is almost twice as fast, and more reliable due to the larger sensor area being implemented. 

Battery life
This is one area that will need more extensive tests. Being stuck at home due to the current lockdown in Malaysia does not give me much opportunity to stretch the battery life. I don't use GPS, no e-hailing, not doing much browsing on social media since I can do that on my PC working from home. Nonetheless, I do feel that the battery management has improved, but I shall need to verify this with more tests. 

I have no issues with the phone for the past few days, everything runs smoothly, and I have not noticed anything out of the ordinary. The Samsung's One UI offers a wide array of customization options, and should come in handy to fully personalize your phone. 

Audio performance
Both the wireless audio and over the USB-C output audio performed very well. I have been listening to music through PowerAmp App, with lossless FLAC music files, powering through my Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless (1st Gen) and also Gold Planar (wired on-ear planar magnetic, via iBasso DC03 DAC/Amp), and I must say I can live with the audio quality from the S21 Ultra. Of course it is still far from what a dedicated music player can do, or a high level DAC output, but they are much better than average smartphone audio output. 

It is quite frankly difficult to tell this early on, having only used the S21 Ultra for less than a week, but the good news is, I have not encountered anything that I dislike about the phone. I am sure I will have a lot more things to say when it comes to the camera review, which is my next article about this phone, but outside of the camera/imaging category, I don't see anything wrong, or worth complaining about. Samsung has spent many years with their S and Note product lines, they have listened to consumers and I am sure they have refined the flagship products as much as they could. There may not be leaps and bounds when it comes to technological marvel, but I believe the S21 Ultra truly ticks the right boxes when it comes to high end smartphone. So far, I find that the S21 Ultra does exceedingly well as a daily driver smartphone. 

This is one area that I shall leave out from my first impressions. I will have a full blog article reviewing the camera's performance on the Samsung S21 Ultra. I do need some time to shoot sample images, and put all the Quad Camera setup to their paces, and push them to the limit. I am excited to test the imaging performance of the S21 Ultra - is it truly worthy of the Ultra tag on the smartphone? We shall find out very, very soon. I am a photographer after all, and I will have tonnes of fun playing with the S21 Ultra's camera. 

Will I add the S21 Ultra to my own camera daily driver arsenal?

Main 108Mp wide angle, Ultra Wide, a telephoto, and another super telephoto camera, all inside one device. Quite an impressive feat. 

All the available reviews online, articles and YouTube videos that I have encountered on the Samsung S21 Ultra have been overwhelmingly positive so far. I do expect myself to be impressed by the camera's performance. I was already quite happy with what the Note20 Ultra can do, so I can't wait to review the S21 Ultra's camera performance. 

More to come, stay tuned!

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Street Photography in Wide Angle with Fujifilm XF10

In case you have missed out, I recently got myself a compact wide angle Fujifilm XF10 (click here), and just before the lockdown/movement control order was imposed in Malaysia, I managed to bring the camera out for a few spins on the familiar Kuala Lumpur streets. I did purchase the Fuji XF10 with the intention of using it for wide angle street photography specifically, as it would motivate me to force myself to use the fixed length at 28mm equivalent, with no distractions and other options to switch to my usual longer focal lengths when I am out there shooting. Thankfully I went out almost every single day in the first week of January and managed to get myself sufficient content to continue to blog here, share my photography and experience, and update my YouTube channel. 

On the channel, I am sharing the exact same images from this session, but I made a video with a different topic. Instead, I was sharing my Black and White Photography tips there! Go check it out:

Wide angle is not my favourite weapon to use when it comes to street shooting. I fully acknowledge that the traditional classic street photographers generally prefer to work with something wider, 35mm, 28mm, or even 24mm, to have more context within a frame, to be able to go close to the subject and yet fit as much as possible within the composition. I get the idea and concept, but I personally prefer to work with something much longer, say 50mm, or even all the way to 100mm to selectively frame my subject. I just don't want to have so many things inside my frame, I am a simplistic person and I always go for minimalism when I compose my images. However, I do admit that giving myself such excuse means that over time I have accumulated less experience using wide angle. It is not that I am bad at using wide angle, or I refuse to use it. When I need it, especially for my professional jobs (weddings, portraits, products, events), for example to take a group photograph, I will not hesitate to switch to wide angle. In a situation where necessity is not an issue, if I have an option, I have always opted for longer focal lengths. 

Therefore, starting 2021, I did want to explore my lesser used focal lengths, and why not start with wide angle? That was where the Fuji XF10 comes in. I was genuinely intrigued by what this tiny little camera can do, and honestly I am not too concerned about the slow AF (I am getting way too much unnecessary flak from disgruntled users hearing me complain about this, but the truth is the truth), I am ok with the flaws of the camera. All I wanted was a good wide angle lens to work with, and a small, beautiful camera that I want to bring out and shoot. Without the ability to change lens. I am NOT buying into another mirrorless system at this moment (so please stop suggesting X-Pro, X-T or X-S whatevers, I AM NOT INTERESTED thank you for your kindest concerns). 

And just because I got the XF10, that does not immediately make me a Fuji fan. Please people. You don't feed a person sushi once, and expect the person to like it forever. 

Having said all that, my experience shooting on the street with the Fuji XF10 has been generally very positive. There are problems, I do admit, I did miss shots due to the slow response time (on top of the slow AF), and I could not burst as fast as I did with my OM-D system, but it got most of the shots. The most important thing was me being forced to see in wide angle, something I am still learning, something that I am still adapting to. I may not be all great in shooting wide angle yet at this moment, but it is work in progress. It takes time, and I am willing to put in the effort. 

I Finally Got A Full Frame! Canon 5D Classic

I started 2021 with a high energy, and I wanted to explore a lot more outside the world of Micro Four Thirds, now that I am not tied to any particular brand, so I finally decided to get myself a full frame camera, the legendary Canon EOS 5D DSLR.  Recently I found a used unit at an impossibly low price which I just could not ignore, and I nabbed the used Canon 5D unit (thought a bit chipped and worn, it is still fully functional) together with a 50mm F1.8 for about less than RM700/USD180 in total. Why not? It was a guiltless purchase, and honestly I cannot afford any of the latest and greatest full frame cameras from any brands, knowing that the pandemic is still looming and I don't exactly have that many jobs coming in. 

I have made a new video, shooting with the Canon 5D + 50mm F1.8 II here:

Important Disclaimers:
All the images were shot in the first week of January 2021, before the full lockdown/movement restriction order was imposed in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I have no affiliation to/association with Canon, and no one is asking me to share my opinion on this product, I bought the Canon 5D and 50mm lens with my own money. 

No, I am not abandoning Olympus system, please stop feeling betrayed or thinking that I have become promiscuous. Olympus OM-D is still my main workhorse, I shoot primarily with E-M1 Mark II, E-M5 Mark III and E-M1 (original), and I have a plethora of M.Zuiko lenses still for my work and more serious use, such as making YouTube videos. However, I am a photographer and I love ALL cameras, please allow me to enjoy the rich diversity of the camera world, I beg you!

This was not my first encounter with the Canon 5D, I have loaned it from a friend before, shot with it extensively on my shutter therapy sessions and even produced an article which I published on Ming Thein's site here (click). I really did love using the 5D and I have thought of getting one myself, but I also do not want to be seen using other camera brands while I was an Olympus Visionary. Since I have blogged about my experience using the Canon 5D before, and quite honestly, my opinion has not changed, I shall not repeat what I have said in the previous article. 

Why did I get the Canon 5D? Well, old cameras are not bad cameras, and I have always wanted a full frame camera. Who does not? The price is so cheap, I just cannot ignore it, and I did enjoy the full frame shooting experience - super shallow depth of field with the 50mm F1.8 shot at wide open, this was something I could not accomplish with Micro Four Thirds system. 

Also, the 5D + 50mm complements my other recent purchase, the Fuji XF10 really well. The XF10 is compact, LCD screen only, has a wide angle fixed 28mm equivalent and quite slow to focus. While the 5D is quite the opposite - huge hunk of a DSLR, needs to operate via optical viewfinder, I paired it with 50mm, a tighter focal length and the AF is generally fast and reliable. On the Fuji XF10, I need to work harder for my shots because I am not that good with wide angle shooting. On the other hand, the Canon 5D which I paired with 50mm is much easier for me to use, 50mm equivalent focal length is something I am already so familiar with and can just immediately compose to get the shots that I really like. They both complement each other well, or I can pick and choose whichever one to bring out with me on my coming shutter therapy sessions. 

Here are some fresh images, all shot on the Canon 5D + 50mm F1.8 II
(Technical notes: General image settings - shot on Aperture Priority, ISO varies from 100-800 as necessary, F-number is wide open at F1.8 for shallow depth of field shots, or stopped down as necessary to F4-5.6 for more depth of field. All images were shot in RAW and post-processed in Capture One Pro.)

Panasonic Lumix 14mm F2.5 - I Want More Pancake Lenses

I have owned the Panasonic Lumix 14mm F2.5 pancake lens before, many years ago, and I decided not to keep it because it is quite similar in size to the Olympus 14-42mm pancake kit lens, which offers a versatile zoom range. I admit the Panasonic 14mm is still smaller, being a prime lens it offers sharper optics and overall better image quality and the F2.5 brighter aperture is beneficial in low light environment. However, the Panasonic 14mm is also slower to AF and it does suffer severe purple fringing (chromatic aberration) issues when used on Olympus bodies. I loaned one from a friend recently and brought the Panasonic 14mm mounted on my own Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark III for some street photography sessions. I got to say, I do enjoy using it, being so small, light and slim in design, and I am very happy with the image output that it delivers. 

I have made a video sharing my experience using the Panasonic 14mm F2.5 lens, watch it here:

I have blogged about the Panasonic 14mm F2.5 before, several years ago, and I shall not repeat myself writing my thoughts on the lens all over again. Instead, I shall share my fresh photographs taken from my recent street photography outings. I personally am starting to love the wider angle coverage for my street shooting, and I am slowly improving my use of wide angle photography. That was the main reason I got the Fujifilm XF10, to force myself to use wide angle, being a fixed lens on the camera with no zoom options, or interchangeable lens capability. I can totally see the Panasonic 14mm F2.5 being the perfect alternative for Micro Four Thirds shooters who want a truly compact 28mm equivalent prime lens. It should be quite cheap on the used market now and won't put a dent to your wallet, yet it does offer a significant upgrade over the kit lens when it comes to image quality. 

Surprise, I Got Myself FUJIFILM XF10

Happy New Year 2021 to all you awesome people! I hope you have had a great start to the new year, and boy have I a surprise here. I got myself a Fujifilm XF10! I want to share the reasons I decided to get XF10 and also my experience using the camera for a short holiday trip to Penang recently. There are many things that I do love about the XF10, and a few things that dislike about it. For those who prefer to watch this in a video format, I have also made a YouTube video here:

Some disclaimers first - I have no affiliation to Fujifilm Malaysia, and I purchased the Fuji XF10 with my own money. Therefore, this is an independent assessment of the camera's performance, and what I share here is entirely from my own subjective experience and opinion using the camera. Also, this is NOT a review of the Fuji XF10, because the camera has been around since 2018 and you can find plenty of review articles and YouTube videos available online. I don't think I have anything new to add, but I can share my images shot with the XF10, and my own personal experience handling the camera. All images were shot in RAW and post-processed in Capture One Pro. 

So let's get the obvious question out of the way. Why a Fujifilm XF10?

At this moment, starting January 2021, I am no longer an Olympus Visionary. I have not heard from any JIP representative, no one contacted me, so I am currently not tied to any camera brand in particular, and FINALLY I am free to explore any other cameras out there with no contractual restrictions. The first thought that came to mind was to look for something affordable, compact and easy to bring about, and the Fujifilm XF10 checked all the right boxes. Having large APS-C sized image sensor in the camera with wide angle fixed lens, all in a truly compact form factor, with really beautiful design to boot, I just could not resist getting one. Ming Thein, a fellow Malaysian professional photographer and friend has spoken very highly of the XF10 (click here for his quick review), so what could possibly go wrong? 

It is a new year, and getting a new camera to start the year fresh was just what I needed.