Samsung S21 Ultra Camera Review - A Photographer's Perspective

This post in a continuation from the Samsung S21 Ultra review series, and I have shared my Part 1: Initial Impressions here (click). In this particular blog entry, I shall discuss specifically on the imaging performance on all the 4 camera modules at the rear of Samsung S21 Ultra. Samsung has been at the forefront pushing the development and innovation of smartphone imaging, with use of high megapixel image sensors to inclusion of super telephoto lens in their previous flagship iterations. Having the latest Samsung S21 Ultra in hand, I was very curious to find out if Samsung has made any improvements in the camera department and of course, my thoughts generally using the S21 Ultra coming from a professional photographer's vantage point. 

After 2 weeks using this phone, I really do love how the design is!
I genuinely think the S21 Ultra is bringing a lot to the table for smartphone photography

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.

All images were shot with JPEG and presented with only very minor post-editing done (slight contrast and exposure balance adjustment). The images were not cropped, and no other color processing or image manipulation was applied, they were as good as straight out of camera. 

MAIN CAMERA SPECIFICATIONS
The Samsung S21 Ultra is an ambitious smartphone trying to push the boundaries of technical numbers when it comes to specifications on paper. From the number of Megapixels, to number of camera modules and the range and variety of focal lengths, what was packed into S21 Ultra was nothing short of impressive. On one hand we have the incredible numbers (space zoom 100x, 108MP, etc), on another, I am also a very practical person, being a photographer by profession, I'd test the S21 Ultra on the field thoroughly first, without jumping to conclusions. I think the mistake that a lot of gagdet/tech reviewers make when they test the cameras of any smartphones is the lack of experience, and effort put into really putting the camera through the paces. Or, they don't even know what they are doing, and what to look for in camera performance, and that is totally understandable (though not acceptable) considering they are not photographers. 

Here is a look at the simplified key specifications of Samsung S21 Ultra's cameras:
MAIN CAMERA - 108MP with 1/1.33" size image sensor, 24mm F1.8 equivalent lens, with Image Stabilization
ULTRA WIDE CAMERA - 12MP, 13mm F2.2 equivalent lens
MEDIUM TELEPHOTO CAMERA - 10MP, 70mm F2.4 equivalent lens, with image stabilization
SUPER TELEPHOTO CAMERA - 10MP, 240mm F4.9 equivalent lens, with image stabilization

Considering that I am a photographer and am still quite noob when it comes to video, I will skip on video capabilities review in this blog article. I will also not mention anything about the selfie (front facing) camera, because we honestly can live without the selfie camera. Repeat after me - we don't need a selfie camera! Thank you. 

Malaysia is still currently under a lockdown state nationwide, and I am stuck at home. There was only so much that I can do testing a new camera or smartphone in such restrictive conditions. Nevertheless, I shall do my best, in whatever ways that I can, to get some good images, at least meaningful enough to discuss about the camera review. Do bear with me less than dramatic shots than usual (where I can travel outside of the city for some shots, or shoot in the streets at night roaming freely). I personally believe in practical, real life shooting conditions if I really do want to test a camera, but hey, do cut me some slack, times are tough these days. 

Samsung S21 Ultra camera modules
Top corner - Ultra Wide
Middle left - Main Camera
Bottom left - Super Telephoto
Right bottom - Telephoto

You can easily switch between each cameras by pressing the icons from left to right:
Ultra wide all the way to super telephoto

SHOOTING EXPERIENCE

HANDLING
I must point out that I have been shooting with the Samsung S21 Ultra naked, without a protective case or cover. The Phantom Silver variant that I have is very slippery, and the gripping on the smartphone body is very poor due to the metallic edges (I think it is aluminum frame), and the glass back was no help in providing any sense of security. So if you do own this phone, please do yourself a favour and get a non-slippery protective case, not so much to protect the phone in case of knocks of falls (whatever happens, happens) but for better handling of the phone during the shooting process, and providing more secure finger/hand gripping on the phone's edges when using the camera. 

GREAT SCREEN
Overall, the shouting experience using the Samsung S21 Ultra for over a week now was really fun, and fuss free. I particularly treasure the super large 6.8 inch Dynamic AMOLED 2x screen, which was super bright and helps my composition even when I was shooting under direct, harsh Malaysian sun. I must also comment on the color accuracy of the screen, while it is still not 100% accurate as I have wanted (I'd always prefer LCD screen's color as a creative and photographer), but I also admit that the tweaks Samsung has done over the years have improved the colors on AMOLED screen so much, I can now use the screen without thinking too much. I just need the camera/phone to get the shot, and I will deal with the colors later if necessary. 

IMPROVED AF
Generally, autofocus was fast and the phone was very responsive, there was definitely a noticeable improvement in AF (Single AF) for all the camera modules in comparison to previous flagships from Samsung. They AF operation just locked onto the subject with confirmation much faster, everything felt snappier and the whole shooting process was smoother. I have been complaining about the multiple lags in previous reviews (Note20 Ultra, S10 Lite, etc): screen lag, AF lag and shutter lag, all contributing to somewhat delay in shooting that can compromise some critical shooting environment. I find that the new S21 Ultra has tried to mitigate most of these lags, it is still not as instantaneous as a professional level camera but for most consumers who do not need to nail that split second moment, the AF improvement is a welcome. 

Unfortunately, I must also admit that due to the lockdown situation, I was unable to really test the AF in extreme conditions, eg moving subjects or anything fleeting such as street photography decisive moments. I will repeat similar tests once the lockdown is eased or lifted in Malaysia, and continue shooting and making content, continuing this discussion in the future. For now, I am quite satisfied with the improvements and it is a step toward the right direction. 

MAIN CAMERA SAMPLE IMAGES

Main camera 24mm
1/1564, F1.8, ISO50

Main camera 24mm
1/4496, F1.8, ISO50

Main camera 24mm
1/100, F1.8, ISO50

Main camera 24mm
1/100, F1.8, ISO50

Main camera 24mm
1/558, F1.8, ISO50

LEFT - 12MP mode
RIGHT - 108MP mode

Main camera 24mm
1/2240, F1.8, ISO50

Main camera 24mm
1/60, F1.8, ISO64

Main camera 24mm
1/50, F1.8, ISO50

Main camera 24mm
1/100, F1.8, ISO50

Main camera 24mm
1/100, F1.8, ISO80

Main camera 24mm
1/60, F1.8, ISO80

Main camera 24mm
1/766, F1.8, ISO50

Main camera 24mm
1/616, F1.8, ISO50

MAIN CAMERA REVIEW
The main camera is the highlight of the S21 Ultra, and should be the preferred camera at all times. You should be using this camera at default, and only switch to other cameras when necessary. The main camera gives you the best possible detail resolving capabilities, having native 108MP image sensor which was then pixel-binned and downsampled to 12MP output. This results in very optimized 12MP image files coming from the S21 Ultra's main camera, which not only has extra pixels to spare, but also features a larger than usual image sensor size at 1/1.33" (larger sensor collects more light and data, rendering better output), and also the lens has image stabilization built in. The lens is perhaps a little wider than usual, but useful for general day to day photography, and has a bright aperture opening of F1.8, the brightest of all the camera/lenses in S21 Ultra, which helps greatly in low light shooting situations. Trust me - stick with the main camera as much as you can, you won't go wrong. 

The images from the main camera is very sharp, full of good details and contrast. The dynamic range is very good, though this was probably due to computational trick of merging multiple exposures together, and with some aggressive in camera processing to recover highlight and shadow details. The colors came out a touch oversaturated, but I believe this is not a problem for most consumers who prefer the punchy, vibrant outcome from their images. I can't say that the colors are accurate, but they are generally looking quite pleasing. Lens technical flaws were well controlled. I do not see any distortion or chromatic aberration (purple fringing) even in very challenging situations. I think the CA control has improved from previous Samsung phones, I clearly remembered seeing traces of purple fringing in some shots, but in S21 Ultra, they were all almost completely gone. For the main camera, the sharpness was consistent from edge to edge, and the corner softness if there is any, is negligible. However, I cannot say the same about flare control, which we will discuss in the later section of this article together with some other issues I have with the S21 Ultra. 

The 108MP mode is useful if you need to capture more pixels, but I doubt many people would want to use this, and you will waste a lot of storage if you shoot ALL your images in such high megapixel mode. For most consumer use (posting to social media, website viewing, showing images on screen, even up to 4K screens), the 12MP provides more than sufficient resolution, and I don't see any need to go beyond that. The purpose of having 108MP on the main camera was not to show off how many pixels or resolution it has, the 108MP has sufficient data to be downsampled into a fully optimized, better rendered natural looking output of 12MP. I'd suggest sticking to the default 12MP, which I am already very happy with. 

ULTRA WIDE SAMPLE IMAGES

Ultra Wide 13mm
1/1616, F2.2, ISO50

Main camera 24mm
1/2808, F1.8, ISO50
A shot from main camera at 24mm, just to compare against the ultra wide coverage of 13mm

Ultra Wide 13mm
1/944, F2.2, ISO50

Ultra Wide 13mm
1/1092, F2.2, ISO50

Ultra Wide 13mm
Crop from top right corner of previous image to show corner softness

Ultra Wide 13mm
Crop from bottom right corner of previous image to show corner softness

ULTRA WIDE CAMERA REVIEW
Samsung has included the ultra wide angle coverage in many of their previous flagship cameras, and I must say they have improved a few things over time. The ultra wide lens is 13mm equivalent in focal length, which is quite impressive considering how much you can fit into a frame with that kind of wide angle coverage. Certainly it is a technical challenge to fit so much and at the same time, trying to maintain technical flaw control, such as distortion, corner softness as well as chromatic aberrations - all common issues with wide angle lens. Unfortunately the ultra wide angle module does not have image stabilization, and without IS, I'd recommend not to use this for low light shooting. The F2.2 aperture is good enough for moderately low light, not for extreme low light. But we will discuss more particularly on low light performance in a separate section of this review. 

The wide angle camera of Samsung S21 Ultra is generally very good, under good light, it renders sharp, pleasing images. The fine details and contrast are not as good as the main camera, you can clearly see the difference in quality. However, all the flaws are well controlled, you don't see any noticeable distortion which was fully corrected by software in camera and it did a great job. To my surprise, this time there was no trace of chromatic aberration, even in very harsh areas, and edges of the frame. I believe Samsung has stepped up their game in managing the lens flaws and did their best in software to compensate for any lens design shortcomings. The only one problem which was still present was the softness at far corners and edges of the frame, which was difficult to mitigate even for professional level lenses. While the softness at corners is quite obvious and noticeable, they are also not as bad as the previous Samsung flagship phones. I don't have any to show side by side comparisons, but trust me, the improvement is there and I am happy to report that. 

Again, I'd suggest against using the wide angle camera unless you have to fit as much as you can within your frame, and the main camera is not wide enough for this task. With the main camera you get better resolution, sharpness, color and contrast rendering, and of course, superior lens flaw control. You also gain image stabilization and have wider aperture opening (F1.8 main camera vs F2.2 wide angle) and at the same time, the main camera has larger image sensor that gives you cleaner, better low light output. There is every reasons to choose the main camera, and it is already wide enough for 99% of shooting needs, but I get it, in that 1% situation you need ultra wide, go for it, and the Samsung S21 Ultra's ultra wide camera can still deliver good results. 

MEDIUM TELEPHOTO SAMPLE IMAGES

Medium Telephoto 70mm
1/50, F2.4, ISO250

Medium Telephoto 70mm
1/367, F2.4, ISO50

Medium Telephoto 70mm
Crop from previous image, showing aggressive sharpening, and bad artifacts 

Medium Telephoto 70mm
1/1292, F2.4, ISO50

Medium Telephoto 70mm
1/1024, F2.4, ISO50

Medium Telephoto 70mm
1/186, F2.4, ISO50

Medium Telephoto 70mm
Crop from previous image - details/contrast captured could be better

Medium Telephoto 70mm
1/50, F2.4, ISO80
More natural looking image (proportionate in size/shape) with longer focal length, than using wide angle. 

MEDIUM TELEPHOTO CAMERA REVIEW
I personally prefer to shoot with longer lenses, and I am glad Samsung included two telephoto lenses in the Samsung S21 Ultra. The medium telephoto camera has a lens that is 70mm equivalent. That is very good not only for reach of subject that may not be too near, but also a good lens to use when you don't want to deal with too much in the background as wider lens tends to fit in too many subjects within a frame, sometimes things that you may not want to include, resulting in messy composition. The F2.4 aperture opening may not be very bright for a telephoto lens, but it is understandable as a long lens design is not as simplistic. 

I also like the fact that 70mm is a more flexible focal length to use in real life, it brings you in close without being too close. S20 Ultra had 103mm equivalent tele lens, and Note20 Ultra has 120mm, both I find a little too far of a reach. I believe 70mm as a medium telephoto lens is a lot more versatile, long enough to control perspective distortion (for those who care, and to render more proportionate looking subjects), without having to step too far back to compose your shots. 

I do think that, of all the lenses that are included in the S21 Ultra, the 70mm camera renders the least sharp image. The image still looks quite good under good light, but as you magnify the image you will quickly see that the sharpness is not natural looking, and pixelation and ugly artifacts due to aggressive sharpening are visible. I'd still use this lens more often than the wide angle lens, for the versatility of the focal length, but at the same time, keep in mind that in terms of image quality, you won't get the best out of this camera. 

SUPER TELEPHOTO SAMPLE IMAGES

Super Telephoto 240mm
1/296, F4.9, ISO50

Comparison of coverage
LEFT - 24mm wide angle (1x zoom)
MIDDLE - 70mm medium tele (3x zoom)
RIGHT - 240mm super tele (10x zoom)

Super Telephoto 240mm
1/250, F4.9, ISO50

Super Telephoto 240mm
1/50, F4.9, ISO64

Super Telephoto 240mm
1/273, F4.9, ISO50

30x Digital Zoom
Please avoid using digital zoom. Stay with the super telephoto camera at 10x zoom 240mm. All digital zoom images look very bad. 

Super Telephoto 240mm
1/197, F4.9, ISO50

Super Telephoto 240mm
Crop from previous image - very impressive for a 240mm in a smartphone!

Super Telephoto 240mm
1/221, F4.9, ISO50

SUPER TELEPHOTO CAMERA REVIEW
Now this was a pleasant surprise! Initially, I expected the 240mm equivalent lens to deliver the worst performance, but boy oh boy was I wrong. The 240mm lens, which was a periscope folding design, a 10x zoom equivalent, gives a massive long reach yet at the same time, being fitted into such a small and slim smartphone, was truly something remarkable to behold. Yes, the F4.9 aperture is nothing to write home about, but in favorable lighting condition, this 240mm super telephoto camera can make a huge difference in your photography. This is the first truly usable, real telephoto lens in a smartphone!

While the super telephoto and the medium telephoto camera uses the same image sensor, the images coming out from the super telephoto lens looks vastly superior in terms of sharpness and how natural the images look. I initially expected a lot of detail smearing, lack of clarity and contrast, and imagine my shock after I previewed the images I have shot to look so good! I was hoping to catch a friendly stray cat at the neighborhood park, but I ran out luck. Instead I found a tortoise and another lizard, both eager to pose for me. The super telephoto camera was just the right camera to bring me close to these subjects that are otherwise, human shy. I do want to have more extensive testing with this lens, but as the pandemic is still looming large, the Zoo, Bird Park and many other locations that I can test this camera with are still closed, and I am not allowed to go anywhere, except this park for some quick exercise. When things do get better, I am excited to test this super telephoto lens further! 

Having said all that positive things about the supertelephoto lens, do not go beyond 10x zoom, which was the default. Anything beyond 10x zoom, say if you go to 30x zoom, or 100x zoom, those are digital zooms which will generate horrible results. Stay away from zooming too much, greed is not good, if you work within the limitations of the camera, and understand it's capabilities, you will get amazing results. 

LOW LIGHT IMAGE SAMPLES

Main Camera 24mm
1/45, F1.8, ISO250

Main Camera 24mm
LEFT ISO800, MIDDLE ISO1600, RIGHT ISO3200

Main Camera 24mm
1/20, F1.8, ISO1600

Main Camera 24mm
LEFT ISO800, MIDDLE ISO1600, RIGHT ISO3200

Ultra Wide 13mm
1/10, F2.2, ISO3200

Main Camera 24mm - Normal Mode
1/25, F1.8, ISO1250

Main Camera 24mm - Night Mode
1/11, F1.8, ISO1250
Take note how the shutter speed was dropped, and image looked too bright and not natural for a night shot. The fine details are also smeared, looking more digitally processed. 

Main Camera 24mm - Night Mode
1/13, F1.8, ISO1600
What the Night Mode is trying to do, is turning night into day. We don't need the over-brightening processing, and smearing of all the details. 

LOW LIGHT PERFORMANCE
If you are dealing with low light shooting with the Samsung S21 Ultra, it is extremely important that you stay with just the main camera. The other cameras will fall short and not deliver images that are as good as the main camera. The main camera has a lot of important advantages over the other cameras - the larger than usual image sensor size for a smartphone at 1/1.33" gives a huge benefit in gathering more light that can translate to cleaner output. The widest aperture opening of F1.8 can allow more light to enter the lens, allowing lower ISO number to be used, and being a wide angle lens, coupled with image stabilization can help hand-holding in low light better. Avoid using the longer lenses, and the wide angle lens won't so as well. 

I am satisfied with what the main camera of S21 Ultra can do in low light. There are no surprises here, and I don't think you will see any big difference in comparison to any other previous Samsung flagships (Note20 Ultra or S20 ultra). As you shoot in low light, and ISO numbers increase, even at ISO800, there are a lot of visible noise and loss of useful detail is already visible. Image quality further degrades as you push the ISO numbers higher, to ISO1600 it degrades further, and at ISO3200 the image is almost useless. I'd say shoot at ISO800 or lower if possible, when you are controlling the settings manually using the PRO mode. 

I don't find the night mode helping much at all. It either raises the ISO number dramatically, or decrease the shutter speed so much that hand-holding the phone is dangerous, causing smearing of details due to hand-shake. While the Night Mode artificially smoothens the image of noise grain, and boosts the brightness, the images look over-processed and unnatural. I'd highly suggest not to use the Night Mode. Just stay within the default settings for the main camera, you should get better results. 

OTHER ISSUES
AGGRESSIVE PROCESSING
I have mentioned this multiple times before in the past whenever I reviewed a Samsung phone, in fact this issue is not unique to Samsung only, it is a problem for all smartphone cameras. The in camera image processing is just too aggressive. The over-baked look is quite unpleasant, resulting in very "fake" and unnatural looking result. The over-sharpening is a constant problem leading to halos around the edges, and artifacts that can ruin the image. This coupled with over-smoothening of the image to get rid of any noticeable trace of noise, makes the image looking very bad. I'd recommend less aggressive processing, in favor of a natural looking rendering. 

LENS FLARE
Flare is a persistent problem for the cameras, and there is nothing that can be done to remedy this. Whenever the camera is pointed at a strong source of light. flare can be an issue, with blobs of unwanted light or leaks happening. Perhaps some better coating for the lens to resist ghosting and flare can help in future camera design for Samsung, after all, some very bad flares can ruin the image altogether. 

SOFTWARE - DIGITAL ZOOM
This is perhaps, my biggest complain as a photographer using the Samsung S21 Ultra. There are 4 cameras, and they can be controlled by the zoom numbers. The Ultra wide is 0.6x, main camera 1x, medium telephoto 3x and super telephoto 10x. If you select exactly the right zoom ratio, you get the main camera working optimally with no issue. If you go off a little, say 2x zoom, or 5x zoom or 30x zoom, then the camera will use either one of the cameras and apply digital zoom/cropping, which will then result in very bad looking result, full of pixelation and poor sharpness. Some are so bad, you'd wonder if they were taken with the same phone at all!

This problem persists beyond zoom ratio. It happens if you don't pay attention to minimum focusing distance as well. Say that you are using the main camera, which is defaulted to 1x zoom. Then you get too close, and the camera detected macro mode, and that will then switch automatically, without you being informed, to the ultra wide camera, and the image will be severely cropped (example - the hibiscus image). I don't know why Samsung's software prioritized digital zooms and cropping over using main cameras at their full potential. In fact, I'd highly recommend them disabling ALL digital zooms, and ban the use of such fake useless zooms from ALL future devices. They just give us so many unwanted complications to deal with. Why not just stick with 4 zoom settings - 0.6x, 1x, 3x, and 10x (from ultra wide to super telephoto) and we get the best images with no compromise? And when the focusing fails, just warn us so we readjust. Don't simply switch cameras and apply bad digital zoom and destroy our shots. 

Main camera 24mm
1/10526, F1.8, ISO50

Main Camera 24mm
Crop from previous image to show aggressive sharpening and too much processing, introducing grain/degradation to the image output. 

Main Camera 24mm
Lens flare 

Main Camera 24mm
Lens Flare

Ultra Wide 13mm
Lens Flare

Main Camera 24mm
When I get too close the camera automatically (we have no control) switches to ultra wide, and applied digital zoom, resulting in horrible soft, pixelated, grainy looking output. 

CONCLUSION/SUMMARY

WHAT I LIKE
- Impressive main camera delivering great results
- Versatile ultra wide, medium telephoto and super telephoto cameras
- Super telephoto camera (240mm) is surprisingly good - a gamechanger
- Snappier, smoother shooting experience
- Fantastic Dynamic AMOLED 2X Screen

WHAT COULD BE IMPROVED
- In camera image processing can be reworked - too aggressive now
- Lens flare can be a problem - apply better lens coating
- Disable digital zooms (software related) - useless and problematic

On the whole, I did enjoy myself shooting with the latest Samsung S21 Ultra, the cameras are fantastic and I get very pleasing results. I like the main camera and I still suggest you using it for most of your shoots with the S21 Ultra. Use only the other cameras when necessary, and I value the versatility of having options - ultra wide, medium telephoto and super telephoto. I noticed some improvements in image output - less chromatic aberration, and I also notice that the overall user experience of the S21 Ultra's camera modules are snappier, less laggy and smoother overall. I particularly like the super telephoto camera, providing a massive reach of 240mm, yet maintaining very high image quality output. The super telephoto camera sets apart the S21 Ultra from the predecessors, and also from other flagship smartphone cameras, it opens up a lot of shooting possibilities. 

At the same time, I wish Samsung has less aggressive approach to their in camera image processing. The over-sharpening and too much noise filtering created very unnatural and fake looking results. Lens flare can be an issue when shooting against strong source of light, some improvement in lens coatings can be made in the future. Also, software can be improved, the switching to digital zoom was completely unnecessary in all situations, and can ruin a perfectly fine image. 

I personally think Samsung S21 Ultra offers a lot in their latest package - the 240mm massive reach is a gamechanger, and the main wide angle camera itself can deliver fantastic results. The setup is practical and easy to use, you don't need to be a pro to get really good results. I am loving the fact that the smartphone manufacturers are continuing to push the boundaries of what smartphone photography is capable of doing. 

I am sure many of you who pre-ordered the Samsung S21 Ultra are getting your hands on one at the time I am publishing this article. Share your thoughts and experience using the cameras on your new phone with me, I'd love to hear from you!

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2 comments:

  1. I agree Robin. I purchased a s21 Ultra for my wife 10 days ago. (i traded in her S10+). The cameras are much better than my s20Ultra. and the Image Stabilization made the Tele lens great. So far she is enjoying the thing very much. Guess I will have to wait for the S22 or S23?

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