Galaxy S21 Ultra’s zoom skills make it a photography powerhouse


Sarah Tew/CNET

Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra is the company’s best ever phone, with a huge list of elite specs, including a powerful processor and of course super-fast 5G connectivity. It’s Samsung’s answer to Apple’s flagship iPhone 12 Pro Max. But it’s the camera setup I’m particularly excited about, and it’s here that the S21 Ultra really shines. There are four lenses on the back: a standard zoom, an ultrawide lens, a 3x optical zoom and a 10x optical zoom. Together with the huge 108-megapixel resolution of the main camera, the phone can achieve a huge 30x zoom. (Here are all the new Galaxy S21 Ultra camera features and how to use them.)

TL;DR: That zoom is the hero here. While results at 30x are still poor, the phone’s ability to take shots at 10x optical zoom means it can take images that are simply not possible on rival flagships such as the iPhone 12 Pro or OnePlus 9 Pro. You can also see our shootout between the S21 Ultra and iPhone 12 Pro Max.  

While I would have liked more headline features for the Galaxy S21 Ultra, what’s here is still impressive. And I set out across Edinburgh to see what the phone can do. 


Andrew Hoyle/CNET

I began in the beautiful Dean Village, with this classic view looking down the river. Taken with the standard camera, the phone has captured a rich and vibrant scene, with plenty of detail in the admittedly very shadowy foreground. 


Galaxy S21 Ultra, super-wide lens.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Zooming out to the super-wide view, there’s little noticeable shift in colors, beyond a bit of magenta tinge in the top right corner. It’s a well-balanced shot and there’s plenty of detail throughout. 


Galaxy S21 Ultra, 3x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

At 3x zoom, the clock tower looks pin-sharp and vibrant.


Galaxy S21, 10x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

At 10x zoom, the image is still perfectly detailed, with lovely contrast and no shift in colors. 


Galaxy S21 Ultra, 30x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

At 30x zoom things don’t look so good. Yes, it’s perfectly clear what the photo is of, but there’s an overall lack of definition. It’s difficult to get your shot lined up when zoomed in so far, but Samsung has a clever stabilization mode that helped me keep the whole clock face in frame.


Galaxy S21 Ultra, 100x zoom. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

At its maximum 100x zoom, those details are even more mushy, resulting in an image that’s only really good as proof of something you’ve seen, such as rare wildlife. Yes, it’s a novel feature that can be fun to try, but for most people, the quality isn’t good enough for an Instagram post, for example.


Galaxy S21 Ultra, 10x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The 10x zoom is the sweet spot for me and it’s my favorite feature of the S21 Ultra’s camera. It allows you to capture photographic compositions that would require a big telephoto zoom lens with a DSLR. By zooming in on this beach, I was able to show the curving water, the concrete breakers stretching across the scene and clearly show the walkers, who add wonderful scale to the image. 


Galaxy S21 Ultra, 10x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

And here I was able to fill the frame much more with the dramatic sight of Fettes College.


Galaxy S21 Ultra, standard lens.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Taken with the standard zoom lens, this shot overlooking a golf course isn’t particularly exciting.


Galaxy S21 Ultra, 10x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

But activating the 10x zoom means changing the view completely, focusing instead on the skyline of Edinburgh, with the monuments on Calton Hill clearly visible.


Galaxy S21 Ultra, 10x zoom, 100% crop.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Zooming in to 100% on the 10x zoom image, it’s clear that there’s not a lot of detail captured. Realistically, images taken with the 10x zoom are not going to be of sufficient quality for printing — pristine-quality zooming will remain the territory of a DSLR with a telephoto lens, for now at least. That said, most of the shots I took at 10x zoom look good enough for posts on social media, or for messaging to friends, which probably counts for the vast majority of what anyone would want to do with their shots anyway. 


Galaxy S21 Ultra, 10x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The 10x zoom was enough to accurately make out the details on this plane coming in to land. 


Galaxy S21 Ultra, 10x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

And it was the 10x zoom that let me isolate this couple from the distracting elements in the scene, resulting in a shot that focuses just on them looking into the distance. 


Galaxy S21 Ultra, 10x zoom, 100% crop. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Again though, cropping into that image to 100% shows that there’s a definite lack of fine detail when using this zoom level.


Galaxy S21 Ultra, ultrawide lens.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The super-wide lens captures a huge amount of the scene and I’m really impressed with how vibrant and punchy this image is.


Galaxy S21 Ultra, ultrawide lens.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

While this shot of a cannon has a great overall exposure, with a controlled bright sky and plenty of shadow details on the gun itself. 


Galaxy S21 Ultra, night mode.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Turning night mode on, I was pleased to see the phone produce a bright and sharp image, even in a room that was extremely dark. The colors here are accurate and there’s enough detail to be able to read the fine text on the candle. Impressive stuff. 

It’s early days with the phone, but already I’m impressed at the shots I’ve been able to get, with excellent dynamic range and accurate colors on most of the images I’ve taken. The zoom is the standout feature here, but it’s only impressive up to a point. I love some of the shots I’ve taken at 10x zoom, but even then the details are quite rough. Going beyond 10x reduces it a huge amount and I still think the 100x Space Zoom is pointless — I’d have preferred Samsung spend its time making the 10x zoom look even better. 

Read more: Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max: Cameras put to the test

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