Cover The iPhone 12 Pro Max (left) comes with a triple camera setup while the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has four cameras on the rear

The Galaxy S21 Ultra and iPhone 12 Pro Max are two of the best smartphones on the market but how do they fare when it comes to snapping pictures?

There is a saying: “The best camera is the one that's with you.”

Indeed, our smartphone cameras are always there with us to capture every special moment. So let’s examine two prominent flagship smartphones, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max.

Before we compare the cameras on the two models, here's a quick overview of their features. The Galaxy S21 Ultra was just introduced in January 2021, and it comes with a 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED display that boasts up to a 120Hz refresh rate. This means that the motion seen on the phone, both during regular use and watching videos, is smoother and more pleasing to the eye. Checking out the specs, the Malaysian variant of the phone is powered by Samsung’s own Exynos 2100 processor  with up to 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage. 

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Meanwhile, the iPhone 12 Pro Max was launched in November 2020, which was actually delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The largest model in the iPhone 12 range has a 6.7-inch Super Retina Display, a brilliant looking screen although it lacks the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s high refresh rate. Under the hood, the iPhone 12 Pro Max boasts Apple’s latest A14 Bionic chip and you can choose up to 512GB of storage.

With that out of the way, let’s examine the cameras on the two smartphones.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s rear camera array consists of four cameras. There’s the 108-Megapixel main camera accompanied by two 10-Megapixel telephoto zooms that offer 3x and 10x optical zoom. That’s not forgetting the 12-Megapixel ultrawide camera.

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On the other hand, the iPhone 12 Pro Max has a triple camera setup that consists of three 12-Megapixel cameras. This includes the main camera, a 2.5x optical zoom camera and ultrawide camera. Unique to the iPhone 12 Pro Max is a LiDAR scanner, that measures distances by firing laser beams. In practice, the feature is supposed to enhance the iPhone’s Augmented Reality capabilities as well as improve the camera's low light photo capture.

Though we are not exploring their video capabilities, it should be noted that the Galaxy S21 Ultra offers up to 8K video capture while the iPhone 12 Pro Max goes up to 4K resolution. This means Samsung’s phone is able to capture video with more detail and clarity than the iPhone. That being said, you are more likely to record videos in 4K resolution more often as those in 8K take up more storage.

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Video quality aside, I have to say after testing both the Galaxy S21 Ultra and the iPhone 12 Pro Max, both possess qualities that make them great for mobile photography However, Samsung’s offering is more versatile with its dual telephoto zooms compared to the iPhone’s limited 2.5x optical zoom range. 

When testing out the two cameras, it is remarkable how close the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s 10x optical zoom brings you closer to your subject. On more than one occasion, I could read the text on objects far away. What's most impressive is the 30x zoom produces acceptable looking images. The same cannot be said of the 100x Space Zoom. Though it is a nice addition, there are not many situations when you need to zoom on such a subject that far away.

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Now, both cameras produce very brilliant images when snapping photos out in broad daylight. From my tests, it's clear to see that they both can pack in a lot of detail and deliver nice contrasting tones. Still, the Galaxy S21 Ultra's pictures are often brighter and pack more colour compared to the iPhone. Arguably, one may say this is not reflective of how the image looks like in reality, but if you are posting it up on Instagram, it does save you the trouble of having to edit it.

In terms of modes, the Galaxy S21 Ultra offers more options, a total of 12 in fact, compared to the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s six modes. Granted, some of the former's modes are gimmicky like AR Doodle and Director’s Mode but it also has the best mode by far, which is the Pro mode for both photos and videos that lets you manually adjust all the different settings from the White Balance, ISO and focusing distance. 

When it comes to photographing people, it's great to see that both Samsung and Apple have stepped up their Portrait mode game. Both phones do a decent job at separating subjects from the background and introducing an artificial bokeh (blurred background) effect. To be fair, the results are not going to beat a real camera but if I had to pick a winner, the Galaxy S21 Ultra offers more convincing portrait photos.

Although practically any modern smartphone can take half decent photos in bright conditions, how do they perform when the sun goes down or when there’s less available light?

I’m glad to report that both phones perform well under low light conditions with the Galaxy S21 Ultra producing brighter images compared to the iPhone 12 Pro Max; the latter however had more natural-looking colours.

It comes down to a matter of preference as Samsung's approach tends to light up a dark scene making it clearer than in real life.

See also: Review: Apple iPhone 12 Pro

Let’s not forget about the front facing selfie camera on both phones. The Galaxy S21 ultra’s 40-Megapixel selfie camera sounds like the clear winner when compared with the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s modest 12-Megapixel selfie camera—at least on paper. 

The results are actually closer than you think, practically neck and neck when it comes to delivering the best selfie. Again, it comes down to preference as the Galaxy S21 Ultra offers a sharper and more detailed image while the iPhone 12 Pro Max offers more true-to-life colours and skin tone.

On the whole, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the overall winner in this comparison test. The camera array is more versatile, offering a longer zoom range and more features including Pro modes that should please those who want more control over their photography. The iPhone 12 Pro Max is not a bad choice either and does offer great image quality and the pictures are generally more true-to-life looking.

So here's the verdict: If you want more creative control, choose the iPhone but if you want some Instagram-ready shots that require minimal touch-ups and filters, then Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra is the better option. 

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