the match of the kings of the photo

Today, the three Galaxy S21s (S21, S21 + and S21 Ultra) were unveiled. Like its predecessor, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the best equipped of its siblings for taking photos and videos. Of course, he will have to face stiff competition. Among them, the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max seems to be a strong opponent with real strength against the S21 Ultra. But also some weaknesses. It’s time to score the points.

galaxy s21 ultra vs iphone 12 pro max cover

A few days ago, Samsung presented the new flagships of its catalog. These are the Galaxy S21, S21 + and S21 Ultra, three high-end smartphones. Find now official presentation articles on the three models, a complete file on the differences between the models and our handling of the three S21s. One of the good surprises of this year is the average drop in the purchase price. For around fifty dollars less than the S20 4G, you have the Galaxy S21 with just as much RAM, storage and 5G on top. We offer you a complete file on the prices charged by Samsung, with a comparison with previous models.

Read also – Best smartphones in photos: which one to buy in 2020?

While the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 + are technically very similar and take up much of the technical data sheet of their predecessors, the Galaxy S21 Ultra moves away from its little brothers to offer a more premium experience. And fortunately, since his starting price is over 1200 euros. Among the strengths of the Galaxy S21 Ultra, you will find in particular the photographic equipment. Samsung claims it is one of the best mobile cameras on the market.

Samsung is not in the 2020 Top 5 best camera phones

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
Galaxy S20 Ultra is Samsung’s best camera phone of 2020, according to DxO Mark

If this is confirmed, it would be quite a surprise. Why ? Because our colleagues at DxOMark have not placed no Galaxy in the Top 5 best camera phones. And the first Galaxy model comes only in 10th place: the Galaxy S20 Ultra. We are convinced that the Galaxy S21 Ultra brings improvements over the latter. But is he able to face the big names? We’re talking about the Mate 40 Pro, the P40 Pro and, let’s not forget, the iPhone 12 Pro Max. All are part of the famous DxO Top 5.

Since the P40 Pro and Mate 40 Pro do not take advantage of Google services, it is difficult to place them opposite the Galaxy S21 Ultra. This is why we chose to carry out a comparison between the S21 Ultra and … the iPhone 12 Pro Max, tested in November in our columns. This one is not only excellent in photo, but especially in video thanks to the combination of a 12 megapixel sensor, a particularly bright lens and an optical stabilizer comparable to a gimbal. This is what responds to Samsung’s proposal. You can find a comparative table above to better understand the technical sheets.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Main module 12 megapixel sensor
Pixel size: 1.7 microns
Lens opening at f / 1.6
Dual Pixel PDAF autofocus
Sensor-Shift stabilization type “gimbal”
108 megapixel sensor
Pixel size: 0.8 microns
Lens opening at f / 1.8
PDAF autofocus
Optical lens stabilization
Ultra wide-angle module 12 megapixel sensor
Lens opening at f / 2.4
Field of view: 120 °
12 megapixel sensor
Pixel size: 1.4 microns
Lens opening at f / 2.2
Dual Pixel PDAF autofocus
Optical zoom module (s) 12 megapixel sensor
Lens opening at f / 2.2
PDAF autofocus
Optical lens stabilization
2.5x optical zoom ratio
10x digital zoom ratio
10 megapixel sensor
Pixel size: 1.22 microns
Lens opening at f / 4.9
Dual Pixel PDAF autofocus
Optical lens stabilization
10x optical zoom ratio
100x digital zoom ratio
10 megapixel sensor
Pixel size: 1.22 microns
Lens opening at f / 2.4
Dual Pixel PDAF autofocus
Optical lens stabilization
3x optical zoom ratio
Focus help LiDAR camera (3D depth calculation) Laser autofocus
Selfie sensor 12 megapixel sensor
Lens opening at f / 2.2
Face ID sensor for focusing
Video mode: 4K @ 60 fps and 1080p @ 120 fps
Electronic stabilization with gyroscope
40 megapixel sensor
Pixel size: 0.7 microns
Lens opening at f / 2.2
PDAF autofocus
Video mode: 4K @ 60 fps
Video modes High definition: 4K @ 60 fps
Slow motion mode: 1080p @ 240 fps
HDR10 + and Dolby Vision
Capturing stereo sound
Sensor-Shift optical stabilization “gimbal” type
High definition: 8K @ 24 fps or 4K @ 60 fps
Slow motion mode: 1080p @ 240 fps or 720p @ 960 fps
HDR10 +
Capturing stereo sound
Electronic stabilization with gyroscope
Super Steady (with ultra wide-angle sensor)

First round: the definition of the main sensors

Galaxy s21
The Galaxy S21 Ultra with its protection

Let’s start this comparison with a first dividing point between the two smartphones: the definition of the main sensor. We are indeed faced with two completely different approaches to smartphone photography, while the two companies were very close two years ago. On the one hand, we have Apple continuing to opt for low definition sensors here 12 megapixels, while Samsung prefers to increase, year after year, the definition of its main sensor. 12 megapixels with the S10. 64 megapixels with the S20. 108 megapixels with the S20 Ultra and Note 20 Ultra. We also find here a model 108 megapixels, second generation.

Each photosensitive cell in the Galaxy S21 Ultra sensor measures 0.8 microns per side, compared to 1.7 microns on the iPhone 12 Pro Max. This means that at maximum definition, the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s sensor captures more light per pixel. Of course, like all high-definition Samsung ISOCELLs, the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s 108-megapixel sensor is able to combine multiple juxtaposed pixels to virtually form one much larger one. Here, it is not four, but nine pixels which form a large block of 2.4 microns per side. Admittedly, the definition is divided by nine (i.e. a photo taken in 12 megapixels), but the amount of light is multiplied by that.

Our opinion : Our tests of the iPhone 12 Pro Max show that it certainly offers the best brightness and contrast of all the flagships of 2020. This approach is certainly the best for getting detailed photos, even in low light. However, as with the Mate 40 Pro, Galaxy S21 Ultra configuration seems to be more adaptable, offering detail when it’s needed, and light in other situations. With the combination of nine pixels, you have a strong contribution of light and, at the same time, while maintaining sufficient definition to work on the shot in post production. We give this round to the Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Second round: the objective of the main sensors

apple iphone 12 pro max test photo 1
The three sensors of the iPhone 12 Pro Max

Let’s stay on the main sensors and now look at the optics, an element often misunderstood and yet important: it is through the lens that the light reaches the photo sensor. The wider the shutter opens, the more light will be available. With digital sensors, the shutter has become electronic. You often see numbers that relate to the opening of a goal. Take the iPhone’s main sensor as an example: it opens at f / 1.6. The smaller the number under the fraction, the closer the result of that fraction is to “1”. If a lens opens at f / 1, it’s a full aperture, period.

This makes the lens of the iPhone extremely bright. In telephony, you will not find better than f / 1.5. The iPhone therefore raises the bar quite high. On the Samsung side, the lens of its main sensor opens at f / 1.8. This means that it will take more break time for him to get that much light. In normal light conditions, the difference is not obvious. But in very low light (in the evening for example), it becomes a problem.

Our opinion : light is the sinews of war in photography. The more technical means you put in to absorb it, the more vivid the photos will be naturally, without the need for software processing in post-production. On this point, Apple is ahead of Samsung, while the Korean firm previously offered (Galaxy S10 for example) variable aperture lenses to more finely control the amount of light. We give this round to the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

Third round: optical stabilization of the main sensors

apple iphone 12 pro max design 2 test
The optical stabilization of the iPhone 12 Pro Max is equipped on the main sensor and not its lens.

Let’s continue with the main sensors with another element that has become essential in recent years for all mobile photo enthusiasts: optical stabilization. A stabilizer is a mechanical or electronic element that compensates for parasitic movements that lead to degradation of the sharpness of the image. In other words, it avoids the blur. This is extremely useful on a daily basis for low light photos (especially with night mode) and for video shooting (especially with subject tracking).

There are two types of stabilization: electronic and optical. The first is managed by the accelerometer and the gyroscope of the smartphone. It is only useful in video. The processing tool will compensate for the shaking by cropping the image (ie reducing its size). The second is attached to the photo module. Usually, it is mounted on the lens which rotates according to parasitic movements. But then again, the backlash is a reduction in image size in video (and HDR stills).

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is equipped with the latter, like almost all high-end smartphones. As for the iPhone 12 Pro Max, it is equipped with an evolution of the optical image stabilizer. It is no longer the goal that is stabilized, but the whole couple ” sensor + optics “. It looks like a gimbal-type system (and it’s called here ” Sensor Shift Stabilization “). Here, the stabilization compensates for more intense movements, both in frequency, but also in amplitude. And, most importantly, there is no cropping. The effect is almost “magical”.

Our opinion : In optical stabilization, Apple provides an excellent solution here. We saw it during our test of the iPhone 12 Pro Max: it compensates for all parasitic movements, even the most intense. Few smartphones are equipped with a “gimbal” system (we also know the Vivo X51). The Galaxy S21 Ultra is not one of them. The sleeve goes to Apple.

Fourth round: autofocus

Galaxy s21
The Galaxy S21 Ultra is equipped with a laser autofocus in addition to the phase detection autofocus dedicated to each sensor

We enter the last round devoted to the main sensor: that of autofocus. This is also a very important topic here, as autofocus allows you to control the sharpness of a photo. There are more or less fast autofocus. Contrast measurement is the least qualitative. Phase detection (which you identify by the acronym PDAF) has become the most widely used. In this area, the best are autofocus Dual Pixel. They are fast and precise. You will find it in the main sensor of the two opponents here.

There are some technologies that can improve autofocus. And above all to provide some additional services, such as the famous bokeh effect which blurs the background and keeps the subject crisp, giving the impression that it literally comes out of the cliché. You can find two different ones in the Galaxy S21 and the iPhone 12 Pro Max. The first integrates a laser autofocus. And the second a LiDAR camera which is similar to a time-of-flight (or ToF) camera. The first calculates distances and the second the depths. The nuance is not important in photography, but critical in augmented reality. Interesting fact : the Mate 20 Pro + is equipped with… both technologies!

Our opinion : historically, laser autofocus, widely used at LG since 2014 with the G3, as well as other brands such as Huawei, Oppo, Xiaomi, Samsung, Sony, etc. are gradually being replaced by ToF cameras. In our experience, both are just as fast as each other, but ToF cameras offer more focusing options. It also seems to us that the laser sensor is less relevant in low light. So we give this round to the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

Fifth round: the wide-angle sensor

Galaxy s21
Of the three S21s, the Galaxy S21 Ultra (right) is the only one of the siblings to integrate an autofocus

Now let’s move on to panorama sensor. It is a sensor accompanied by a lens commonly called a Fisheye lens. It’s about a convex lens which offers a wider viewing angle compared to other types of sensors. The advantage is a very, very, very wide field of vision. The downside is the distortion that this causes. Fortunately, images taken with a wide-angle sensor are straightened in post-production so that the lines become straight again.

The wide-angle sensor on the iPhone 12 Pro Max is a 12-megapixel model paired with a wide-angle lens opening at f / 2.4. The viewing angle here is 120 °. There is no autofocus here, but the iPhone 12 Pro Max can rely on the LiDAR sensor to focus. The wide-angle sensor of the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a 12-megapixel model as well. It is slightly bigger than the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Its lens opens at f / 2.2, which is also better. The viewing angle is not officially specified. But it is certainly quite close to that of the iPhone. It incorporates a phase detection autofocus. Finally, it is this sensor that is used to stabilize videos in ” Super Steady “.

Our opinion : In theory, Samsung’s proposal is better than Apple’s. The sensors offer the same definition. But the sensor of the S21 Ultra being larger, each pixel is therefore bigger. It therefore stores more light, for results that should be more vibrant. Another better detail about Samsung is the opening of the lens: f / 2.2, which is better than the iPhone’s f / 2.4. Here again, it’s the promise of a better photo. Finally, there is a autofocus associated with this objective. This should allow the wide-angle sensor to become a good macro sensor on occasion. We will come back to the “Super Steady” mode in the video section. In the meantime, the sleeve goes to Samsung.

Sixth round: the sensor (s) with optical zoom

Galaxy s21
The X100 hybrid zoom of the Galaxy S21 Ultra

Let’s move on to a more difficult exercise: that of optical zoom. Remember that smartphones are not equipped with real optical zooms, but rather several lenses with different focal lengths, giving this false impression of zoom. We call it optical zoom, because it speaks to neophytes and brings mobile photography closer to “classic” digital photography (with real dedicated, compact, hybrid or SLR cameras).

In 2020, Samsung set the bar high enough with the 100x hybrid zoom. For this, Samsung used a sensor 48 megapixels associated with a telescopic lens offering 4x optical “zoom”. To go up to 100x, the Galaxy S20 Ultra cuts through the definition of the photo and creates additional pixels by taking multiple still shots. This is the famous ” Space Zoom From Samsung.

The S21 Ultra inherits this Space Zoom 100x, but the builder made two good decisions. ATincrease the optical zoom ratio up to 10x and atadd a second sensor (10 megapixels, PDAF autofocus, f / 2.4 aperture, optical stabilization, 3x zoom). There is however a counterpart: the definition of the main tele sensor is in free fall: 10 megapixels. This means that the “Space Zoom” will have to rely less on reducing the definition of the photo The aperture is also greatly reduced (f / 4.9), consequence of the zoom depth. On the other hand, the second sensor is very bright. He is the one who will help create contrasting and colorful photos. Additionally, it will act as an intermediate zoom.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max does not make the marketing pitch. Here we find a sensor 12 megapixels relatively small. It is associated with a stabilized objective opening to f / 2.2. A very wide aperture for a telephoto lens. There is phase detection autofocus. Optical zoom goes up to 2.5x. And the digital zoom at 10x. Apple does not allow to climb higher, to avoid the bad experience.

Our opinion : We are very curious to know what gives the “Space Zoom” of the Galaxy S21 Ultra. That of its predecessor was certainly very impressive for its depth, but not very qualitative: past the 20x report, the photos were difficult to use. By lowering the definition of its sensors and relying almost exclusively on post-processing, we fear that the quality will not be there, especially in low light. IPhone 12 Pro Max delivers great results with optical zoom and decent results with digital zoom, day or night. But its zoom ratio being so limited, we prefer to give this point to the Galaxy S21 Ultra, at least because its predecessor offered a deeper purely optical zoom.

Round seven: the selfie sensor

galaxy s21 ultra vs iphone 12 pro max selfie
IPhone 12 Pro Max has a less precise selfie sensor, but Face ID is a game-changer

On the selfie side, we find the same dichotomy as with the main sensors. Apple prefers low-definition sensors with large pixels, in order to better capture light. And Samsung opts for a high-definition sensor that combines several pixels into one. The Korean firm has chosen here to take over the Galaxy S20 Ultra selfie sensor. It accurately resumes its characteristics: 40 megapixels, lens opening at f / 2.2 and phase detection autofocus. We should find a similar quality, excluding post-processing.

On the Apple side, the selfie sensor of the iPhone 12 Pro Max is a model 10 megapixels associated with an objective opening up to f / 2.2 and the module Face ID which is used here to focus. This is a great combination that allows for beautiful self-portraits, even at night. We were able to demonstrate this during our full test.

Our opinion : The two proposals presented here have their strengths and their weaknesses. But we think the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s is, in theory, the best. The use of selfies is above all to take a picture of yourself in all circumstances, day and night. However, at night, there are two difficulties for selfie sensors: lack of light darkens photos and prevents focusing. Apple therefore relies on a module where the pixels capture more light and where the focus is taken care of by Face ID lasers. The sleeve goes to Apple.

Eighth round: video mode

Galaxy s21

Let’s end this duel with the assets of video modes. This is an increasingly important exercise for high-end smartphones. And the Galaxy S21 Ultra wants to meet this need. It offers different shooting modes. He films up to 8K, but at 24 frames per second. He films in 4K at 60 frames per second. And slow motion mode goes up to 240 fps at 1080p and 960 frames per second at 720p. He films in HDR10 +, of course, but also in stereo for sound. It uses the gyroscope to stabilize the video, as well as its ultra-wide-angle camera for the Super Steady mode.

On the Apple side, the iPhone 12 Pro Max only films in 4K up to 60 frames per second. Its slow motion mode films at 240 frames per second maximum at 1080p. IPhone does not offer to lower the quality to 720p to increase the frame rate. The iPhone 12 Pro Max films in HDR10 of course, but also in Dolby Vision. It is one of the only smartphones to play and shoot videos in Dolby Vision. It records audio in stereo, like its competitor. And above all, it uses its “gimbal” type stabilizer to stabilize video much more effectively than with a conventional optical or electronic stabilizer.

apple iphone 12 pro max video wide angle test
We ran into this hall to test the iPhone 12 Pro Max stabilizer

Our opinion : At first glance, Samsung’s proposal seems at least equivalent to that of the iPhone 12 Pro Max. However, a few arguments seem to us to fall under the marketing argument. This is particularly the case with 8K video capture. At 24 frames per second, this is just above the limit for the human eye to perceive images. And the travelings will not be fluid. Not to mention the considerable space that 8K sequences will take in the non-expandable memory of the Galaxy S21 Ultra: around 600 MB per minute. Obviously the “Super Steay” mode is also interesting, but it should be limited to 1080p. No stabilization in 4K here, normally.

In our tests, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is one of the best videophones on the market, if not the best, thanks to a very bright main sensor, incredible stabilization and vibrant colorimetry (with Dolby Vision in addition), you have videos stabilized in 4K. We give this round to the iPhone.


Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max. This is THE battle of the titans of the start of the year. There will be more in 2021, notably with Huawei, Xiaomi and the new generation of iPhone next fall. If you opt for one of the two smartphones present here, you are virtually guaranteed to have in your hands one of the best photophones / videophones currently (with the Mateo 40 Pro +, Of course).

Both smartphones have their strengths and weaknesses. On the iPhone side, you have a homogeneous construction which optimizes thelight supply and the optical stabilization. Portraits and self-portraits are precise and contrasting. And in video, you have everything you need for an almost professional result.

At Samsung, it is “almost” the opposite. You have a HD and one very deep optical zoom ratio, allowing some extravagance. You have generally smaller photosensitive cells, but certain techniques (combination of pixels, double telephoto) can compensate for the possible lack of perceived light.

Of the eight rounds in this comparison, we gave Samsung three. But, this comparison is “theoretical”, based on the S21 Ultra datasheet and our tests of the S20 Ultra and iPhone 12 Pro Max. It remains to be seen what it looks like in real life, on the occasion of our full test scheduled in a few days. And it is certain that we will have good surprises.

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