Galaxy S20 Ultra camera: Testing Samsung's 108-megapixel and 100x zoom photos

Galaxy S20 Ultra camera: Testing Samsung’s 108-megapixel and 100x zoom photos

by Jyoti
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The Galaxy S20 Ultra is all about the camera.

From the moment I unboxed the Galaxy S20 Ultra last week, 90% of my testing has focused on the camera. That, more than anything, is what makes the Ultra so distinct from the standard Galaxy S20 and S20 Plus. Samsung redesigned the camera system on all the S20 phones, tripling the sensor size to let in more light. But only the S20 Ultra has a 108-megapixel sensor, 100x AI-assisted zoom and a 40-megapixel front-facing camera. My mission: to evaluate if the photo experience helps justify the Ultra’s $1,400 price.

At this point, I’ve shot more than a hundred photos on the S20 Ultra, peering at them closely on the device’s 6.9-inch screen and zooming in on my computer screen. It’d be overkill (and probably break your browser) if I shared them all here, so consider these the highlights.

In the coming weeks, my colleagues and I will snap and analyze scores more photos to drill down into exactly where the S20 Ultra’s camera stands, especially against top competition like the iPhone 11 Pro Max, Google’s Pixel 4 and Huawei’s Mate 30 Pro.

These pictures are not touched up or edited in any way unless stated. But note that they have been processed by CNET’s content image tool — you won’t see every pixel, but you’ll hopefully see enough to give you an early idea of the S20 Ultra’s camera performance. I’m also testing the video camera in regular and 8K modes, but those files are huge and harder to share here. There will be plenty of footage in the final review, though. Keep checking back for new shots!

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Ultrawide-angle shot.

Galaxy S20 Ultra camera specs

  • 108-megapixel main camera: You need to select the 108-megapixel quick setting to take a super-high-resolution photo, otherwise images resolve to 12 megapixels using nona-binning, which essentially creates one super pixel out of nine individual pixels. Part of the benefit of such a high-resolution image is to get more detail when you crop into a shot.
  • 12-megapixel wide-angle lens: Samsung enlarged the sensor, so this isn’t the same camera as on the Galaxy Note 10 or S10 phones even though it uses the same megapixels. The goal is to let in more light, for better image quality, especially in low light.
  • 48-megapixel telephoto camera: This gets you up to 100x “space zoom,” a feature that uses AI algorithms to take shots at extreme distance. The higher the zoom, the shakier your photo will be (a monopod or tripod is key).
  • DepthVision camera: I didn’t go out of my way to test this yet, but it’s meant to assist with various camera modes. You can’t take individual photos from it.
  • 40-megapixel front-facing camera: For selfies, you can choose from wide-angle and ultra-wide-angle compositions.
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Main camera, standard resolution.

What I think so far

In abundant lighting scenarios, the S20 Ultra’s photos look fantastic: crisp and bright, with plenty of detail. Low-light shots get a typical Samsung boost of brightness that you may love or find a little overly cheerful, but that comes down to your mood. Selfies look good — maybe a bit too detailed for my tastes, though beauty settings will airbrush the look — and there’s even a new feature to select a warmer or darker image tone than the default (to apply to the scene, not to skin).

I’ve taken dozens of pictures with the 108-megapixel camera and I think I found the sweet spot. Close-ups and macros didn’t work so well. For example, I got more detail cropping in on a standard-resolution photo of the frayed end of my jeans than I did on the 108 camera. But taking a mid-distance photo and cropping in, the superior detail can punch you in the face, as with the table plant below.

In other compositions, zooming in on the phone screen or in a full-screen photo on the computer revealed mushier edges and more noise than the 12-megapixel counterpart. Interestingly, the 108 setting also artificially brightens and color saturates many scenes, sometimes flattening shadow and detail. The photos are too large to load here.

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Main camera, standard resolution.

The camera’s 100x zoom feature absolutely works, but at such distance, images are intensely blurry. There are still some practical uses, I discovered, and I go into further detail in my ongoing Galaxy S20 review. When you’re simply too far to capture a (fairly static) thing you want to see, like a statue crowning the dome of city hall, or a deer sniffing the air, then this extreme level of zoom can make a photo possible in the first place — and good enough to jog your memory or make a point.

A really good 4x, 10x and 30x zoom are much more useful in daily life, but I took enough interesting shots in the wild to convince me that 100x zoom has a place. I wouldn’t necessarily buy the S20 Ultra because of it, but I am excited to see this technology develop.

Pictures from the Galaxy S20 Ultra

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