The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is an obvious stab at Huawei and its Mate 30 Pro. Until now that phone had, on paper, the most advanced camera around.
The Samsung S20 Ultra’s camera capabilities are impressive: it has a 100x zoom and a 108-megapixel main sensor – in fact, it has 208 megapixels in total across its cameras, and can even capture 8K video. And like the entire Galaxy S20 family, it gets 5G.
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra’s variety of camera skills is more notable than the power of those that have attracted the most attention, though.
Meet the hardware
Its 108MP camera is one of the best examples of this. Such a high megapixel count may blow a few minds, but this is not even the first phone to have such a high-resolution sensor. The Xiaomi Mi Note 10 was, and does not cost nearly as much. RECOMMENDED VIDEOS FOR YOU…CLOSE
This is a Samsung-made sensor rather the still-more-common Sony kind. It’s a large 1/1.33-inch chip that employs pixel binning to capture 12-megapixel stills as standard.
All three of the primary rear cameras take 12-megapixel photos. But only one has native 12MP resolution, the ultra-wide. Most phones with wides and zooms use distinctly lower-quality hardware for these extra cameras, but the wide has relatively large 1.4 micron sensor pixels. This is one of the main benefits of a phone this expensive: few corners cut.
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra’s zoom has a 48-megapixel sensor with the same kind of “periscope” lens setup as the Huawei Mate 30 Pro. Some lens elements are arranged perpendicular to the phone’s back to let the thing fit into something only 8.8mm thick.
If you’ve looked into this phone at all, you will have seen talk of its 100x Space Zoom images. However, the “zoom” itself has an optical magnification factor of around 4x. Anything beyond that (and there’s a lot beyond) also makes use of digital zoom, even if it is smarter than the classic ‘crop-and-blow-up’ kind.
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra’s camera app enables you to scroll smoothly from the 0.5x ultra wide to the crazy 100x magnification. And this is a feat in itself, given it involves jumping between three separate cameras on the fly.
Alternatively, there are a bunch of preset focal length shortcuts.
This is one of the best multi-lens arrays in a phone. Not only is the optical range better than almost all, the quality of the hardware is a huge factor as well. You don’t get the sense of a dramatic drop in fidelity when using the wide, and shots look very pleasing – not just up to the 4x “native” zoom level but up to 10x.
Samsung calls these 10x shots Hybrid Optic zoom, perhaps because the phone can crop into the sensor at this level and still have 12 million pixels with which to construct the image. However, the presets beyond this, 30x and 100x zoom, start to look very soft and stodgy. Indeed, 100x images are categorically poor, and are best used to show off the mad-sounding feature without letting your camera-savvy friends actually look at the results.
A useful zoom
Superzoom bridge camera makers need not worry, any more than they already do at least. However, Samsung has put some great work into making these very extended focal ranges easy to use.
Try to take an image handheld with a real 100x zoom and you’ll fail; natural handshake will see the frame pinball around almost uncontrollably. The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra artificially stabilizes this so that, while a 100x shot takes some conscious effort, you do not need a tripod. A handy focal point guide also pops up in the corner of one screen, showing the scene at roughly 5x, so you don’t have to hunt for your subject.
Samsung has failed to achieve the magic superzoom images that some prospective buyers may hope for when spending over a $1000 / £1000 on a phone. But it certainly hasn’t failed in the execution of this zoom feature when realistic image quality expectations are applied.
Such shooting scope also makes the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra one of the most fun-to-use phone cameras ever made. The ability to capture good results at 0.5x, 1x, 5x, and 10x is enough to impress, and makes travel and street photography a real joy.
How is the actual image quality? While there are classic Samsung processing traits of over saturation, mildly overbearing noise reduction smoothing and edge sharpening (with the telltale white outlining of some objects visible down at pixel level) the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra takes some of the best phone images around.
Automatic HDR processing retains highlights and usually avoids dull-looking images even on glum, overcast days. Focusing is generally very quick, too. We noticed the occasional small bout of focus-seeking on occasion when altering the zoom (despite on-sensor PDAF), but it is generally reliable. Some others who have had the chance to use the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra early on have reported major issues with AF, but we haven’t seen them.
We do think there are improvements to make to the handling of low light scenes, though. At night you can either continue to shoot as you would normally, or use the dedicated Night mode. Just like Huawei’s, this mode takes several seconds to shoot the image, constructing a composite made of many frames.
It usually takes 5-8 seconds. But when the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra senses it is completely still it may have up to 28 seconds, in our experience.
Auto mode night shots are inconsistent; 1x zoom images can look fuzzy and indistinct for such a high-end phone, with obfuscation of textures and fine detail. Then again, sometimes they are fine. That the ultra-wide seems to put in a more consistent performance at night (using Auto) suggests that there are more tweaks to make here.
However, the dedicated Night mode is excellent, with superb detail retrieval and clearly enhanced dynamic range. This mode can be used at up to 10x zoom, too. The Night mode is much more effective than anything Samsung has come up with to date. Next time we’d like to see it speed up a bit, as 5-8 seconds is quite a while to wait for a single frame in some situations.