Shutter Therapy with Samsung S21 Ultra

This blog entry is a continuation of my Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra smartphone camera reviews, please do read my first impression (click) and camera review (click) if you have not done so. 

When I was shooting for sample images for my previous Samsung S21 Ultra camera review, I had to do most of my shots indoor because of the on-going lockdown/movement restrictions imposed by the government due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The restrictions have since been eased and we are now allowed to go out and walk freely on the streets, with tight social distancing practice in place. I thought that would be a fantastic opportunity to bring the Samsung S21 Ultra out for a spin, a full day adventure around the city, capturing some urban landscape and street photography images. The S21 Ultra was just the right camera for this task - I was just shooting with a smartphone and was not seen as a serious or commercial photographer carrying large camera setup, considering the rules were still rather loose and confusing on whether public photography/shooting was allowed. As an extra precaution, I also went out alone, and did the entire session on a solo outing. 



For the sake of reference, there are 4 main camera modules at the back of the S21 Ultra:
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
3x TELEPHOTO CAMERA - 10MP, 70mm F2.4 equivalent lens, with image stabilization
10x TELEPHOTO CAMERA - 10MP, 240mm F4.9 equivalent lens, with image stabilization

The Samsung S21 Ultra proved to be a reliable, and capable shooting machine. Thankfully the weather was working to my favor, with almost clear skies and intermittent clouds, I get abundant of light to work with throughout the session. With good lighting, the S21 Ultra truly shines, producing images with very pleasing colors and high contrast. Some may argue that the colors are over-saturated and the images look too punchy, but these are also images that most non-photographers, on the very consumer level would love to have straight out of the camera, without doing any tweaking at all. The S21 Ultra was also smart enough to apply HDR and appropriate processing to lift shadows and preserve highlights, optimizing dynamic range as much as possible in some difficult shots. I was genuinely pleased with all the images I shot in this particular session. 

I particularly like the multiple camera setup, and all of them performed splendidly in day time shooting. The best performer obviously, as I have mentioned in my review was the main camera. I did however made a note to use all the other cameras as much as possible, and they all produce very good results. I was particularly pleased with the 10x telephoto camera, giving me the far reach that I need, zooming into specific parts of building and structural features which I like to photograph in the city environment. The ultra wide angle also added a lot of impact in scenes where I needed to fit as much as possible within the frame. I can see the appeal of traveling with just one smartphone for non-photographers who just want something that works - the S21 Ultra will get you really good shots consistently. 

I enjoy shooting with the 3x telephoto camera this time, a lot more than during my previous review session. As much as I have repeatedly mentioned that the main camera is superior when it comes to resolution, dynamic range, low light performance, etc, the 3x telephoto camera is a lot easier to compose most images, as I do find that the main camera is a little too wide for general shooting. I wish that Samsung included a 50mm equivalent lens - don't call that a telephoto, it is not, just call it 2x zoom, and that 50mm would really be the camera that I use 90% of the time, shooting almost everything. The longer focal length provided more proportionate look with less distortion. Think of the fisheye effect where the face or nose of the people/animal appearing comically huge in comparison to the rest of the body proportion, that is the problem when wide angle is being used, and to mitigate this problem, the 3x telephoto lens solves it altogether!

3x Telephoto
The HDR processing is quite spot-on, maintaining the layers of colors in the sky

3x Telephoto
This shot worked much better with a telephoto lens, in comparison to main wide camera, as a telephoto lens can bring the twin towers much closer, magnifying it in the frame. Using the main camera, the towers would have appeared too distant. 

Main Camera
I love how the image sensor is larger than usual for a smartphone, allowing shallow depth of field, separating the glass of iced coffee from the background. 

3x Telephoto
Using a longer lens produces a more polished look - proportionate and somehow, there is that "professional" look which main wide angle camera cannot accomplish. 

Main Camera
The main camera is already very capable of going close, revealing incredible amount of details in the shot, without switching to ultra wide for extreme macro. My advice is - turn OFF the "focus enhancer". Trust me, it makes things worse most of the time. 

10x Telephoto
This is by far, the magical addition to the S21 Ultra, or Samsung's flagships smartphone cameras. That 10x lens with periscope folding design, though being so miniscule, was nothing short of amazing. Not only it gives you that superb reach of 240mm, it produces sharp images too. And the lens has image stabilization built in!

10x Telephoto
I love how the details in the leaves are rendered and the lines and patterns of the building windows all looked proportionate and compressed. I'd never thought this can be achieved with a smartphone camera. Truly impressive

10x Telephoto
I truly think that the inclusion of this 240mm lens/camera combo opens up a lot of possibilities with what a smartphone camera can do. The biggest limitation photographers complain about smartphone cameras was the inability to go far, or no long focal length options. Now that is no longer the case. 

10x Telephoto
With such far reach, there are so many more ways to compose my shots, and get all different kinds of angles. And the fact that the lens is sharp, and the images came out really good, I am not hesitant to use this whenever I am out doing shutter therapy sessions!


3x Telephoto
If 10x is too far, it is easy to just dial down to 3x for a wide look of the scene, without being too wide. I do usually find that using the main camera's wide angle produce very boring kind of angle and perspective. Going either extra wide, or forcefully long/zoom range can create more impact in a photograph. 

One thing I must note - do not go in between zoom settings. Stay with the main designated zooms which corresponds to the cameras directly - 0.6x is ultra wide, 1x is main camera, 3x is the 70mm telephoto, and 10x is the 240mm telephoto camera. If you go in between, say 2x zoom, or 5x zoom, or 7x zoom, the camera will "interpolate" and apply crops/digital processing to simulate the fake reach, which will degrade the image quality drastically, producing sub-par looking images. Avoid doing this at all costs. Stay with the main camera zoom ratios and you will get the best out of the S21 Ultra's camera. 

Also, turn off the "focus enhancer". When you enable the focus enhancer setting, when shooting close up/macro shots, the camera will switch without warning, to the ultra wide camera, which is inferior to the main camera in every single way (less resolution, sharpness, dynamic range, low light shooting performance). While the ultra wide allows you to go much nearer, the image quality will drop significantly, especially when the camera added in digital zooms and processing to simulate the main camera's focal length. Trust me on this - turn off the focus enhancer, you don't need it. Also, the main camera can go extremely close before you need to switch to ultra wide for even closer shooting. Take advantage of the superior main camera as much as possible - that's the hero of all the camera modules. 

I have mentioned in my previous articles that handling can be an issue with this Phantom Silver model of my S21 Ultra, the edges and the back can feel quite smooth and slippery. Thankfully the case of the phone I ordered online has arrived, and with the textured protective case, I have better and more secure gripping of the smartphone, and I am now more confident shooting hand-held without worrying about it being slipped away from my fingers. You must get a comfortable/textured case if you plan to shoot with the S21 Ultra extensively. It makes a whole world of difference. 

Now that I can bring the phone out and I am not just confined in my room any more, I can test the battery life in more intense camera use environment more accurately. I went out at noon, started shooting my lunch and coffee, and proceeded to three different locations (Bukit Bintang, Saloma Link and KLCC area). It was a solid continuous shooting for about almost 5 hours. The battery was about 95% when I left the house, and at the end of the shooting session with about 400 sample shots taken, the battery was at 35%, which was quite good. I did not expect the battery to last forever, and if you know how I handle my camera and my shooting style, the way I use my cameras, I torture them a lot more intensely in comparison to normal use by others. If you want to shoot all day with the S21 Ultra, please do bring a power bank or charger with you, you will surely need it. 

Ultra Wide
One good example of when ultra wide angle lens is important - the main wide camera is just not enough to fit everything here. 

3x Telephoto
I really treasure the ability to go closer and cut out certain part of the scene, and just emphasize on that. In this composition, I want to bring the attention to the twin towers, through the transparent glass panels of the bridge structure, that has interesting patterns too. 

Ultra Wide
Another example of how ultra wide can create impact in a photograph - exaggerating perspective, with plenty of lines and patterns in a frame

Ultra Wide
Take note that the image processing was not always done right, which was one of my complains in my previous review article. You can see the sky portion in the middle of the frame somehow turned red/magenta in color cast, that looked very unnatural and fake. I guess this happens in very complicated scene, as the buildings were in a distant position from the foreground/bridge structures, also under bright direct sunlight. 

Main Camera
Even in this scene, the sky color does not look natural. The blue looks wrong. Samsung needs to learn some color science from real camera companies on how to render more realistic looking colors. They got so many things right with the camera, I do genuinely think the color rendition can be better. 

3x Telephoto
Here the sky color was looking quite good, and the color balance was not a problem. I like how the longer lens, when used properly, can create layers - there are 4 different layers here, the leaves in the nearest foreground on the right, the leaves on the middle foreground on the left, the building with blue glass panels at the back, and of course the almost blank, clear blue sky. 

10x Telephoto
I appreciate beautiful modern structures, that is a beauty of shooting in the city environment, and that super telephoto reach allows me to just cut out one part of the scene. 

3x Telephoto
People always have the misconception that when we shoot landscapes, or buildings, we must use wide angle all the time. That is not true, as you have seen many images of buildings here were shot with 3x or even 10x telephoto lenses, and the fact that we have all these options means we have more creative control at our fingertips. 

10x Telephoto
The magic of using a super telephoto lens, you see something from a far distance that you like, you zoom into that and that alone, and you can have that as your main subject, being isolated effectively from other unnecessary mess and distractions in your frame. 

10x Telephoto
Having such far reach means I can really zoom in and see all the details of subjects that are far away!

I would have loved to shoot some portraits, testing the capability of the S21 Ultra when it comes to people photography but that would have been a challenge. Every one is required to wear a mask in public now, that is mandatory, and I somehow do not find shooting portraits of people wearing masks that appealing, since we cannot capture the beautiful facial features, and most importantly the facial expressions that convey important emotions in a powerful portrait photograph. I also wish that the local parks, such as the Zoo or Bird Park were open, unfortunately they were still closed under strict orders from the government. Having real living animals and birds to test the 10x Telephoto lens on would have been a lot more fun, and added another dimension to my images, instead of just architectural features of urban skyscrapers, as shown abundantly here in this blog entry. Oh well, I can wish on and on about what could have been, but I try my best to shoot what I can. 

Do not get me wrong, as much as I have mentioned all the amazing things about the Samsung S21 Ultra's camera performance, it is not perfect, and I can still see a few things that can be improved. I will not repeat myself over and over again since I have covered this in my review previously, but I will say that a 1 inch image sensor size would have introduced much more dramatic improvement in image quality for the main camera, and I do want image stabilization for the ultra wide angle camera. Image processing is good enough for most scenario, but they can still be improved - less aggressive sharpening, better color reproduction and perhaps, less noise reduction especially for images shot in very good light (low ISO). Then there is the issue of responsiveness/AF speed, which I shall not go too deep into, as I understand this is not a professional level camera review. 

Having said that, now that I have actually gone out for a real shooting session with the S21 Ultra, I must say it is a very enjoyable smartphone camera to shoot with. Can it replace my own cameras for street photography/shutter therapy? A little bit of yes and no. For non serious shooting, purely for personal photography and fun outing, the S21 Ultra is more than sufficient to get the shots that I need and should be satisfied with. The multiple camera modules open up a lot of flexibility to get a variety of shots, and in good light, as shown in this entry with plenty of samples to proof, the S21 Ultra is truly capable of delivering great results. 

On the other hand, the confidence in nailing the shot is not there. While the screen is large and bright, there were times I wished I had an electronic viewfinder for better composition exercise. Also, for difficult to reach angles, for example low angle shooting up from the floor, I do need a tilt/swivel screen. The autofocus performance of S21 Ultra, though very good, is not on the same level as professional level cameras which I have come to rely on for getting fast action shots. The image quality I get from my Olympus OM-D system is also on an entirely different level - better depth of field control, better image quality overall, and sharper lenses. 

If I were to comment purely on smartphone cameras, I must say I am impressed with the Samsung S21 Ultra. With the large sensor main camera, multiple camera options that included first ever true 10x telephoto camera that has a sharp lens, with image stabilization, I got to say this is possibly the best smartphone camera option you can find out there. Throughout my shutter therapy session, I did thoroughly enjoy shooting with the S21 Ultra, and for most consumers, that is all that matters - the user experience and the final output of the images. 

Main Camera
The iconic KLCC, the level of detail and sharpness of the main camera is quite good

3x Telephoto
Go in closer for more dramatic framing. 

Ultra Wide

Ultra Wide

Ultra Wide

Main Camera

3x Telephoto

Main Camera

Main Camera

3x Telephoto

Main Camera



I acknowledge that in this particular session, I did not do any low light shooting, which would have tortured the Samsung S21 Ultra's camera in different ways. I guess, that was also partly intentional, because I did not want to flood this one article with more images, there were almost 40 images shown here already, and I needed to showcase the capabilities of all different camera modules. Do not worry, if the lockdown situation improves, I may even get to shoot more interesting subjects and test the S21 Ultra further. At this point, I am not comfortable venturing out in the night just yet. I still am excited to test the S21 Ultra further, so please stay tuned, more articles with fresh images will definitely come again in the near future. 

What are your thoughts on the images shown in this blog entry? Do you have a Samsung S21 Ultra yourself? Do you agree with my assessment, and have you had time to shoot with yours yet? Please share your thoughts, I would love to hear from you!

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