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Home / Technology / The Galaxy S21 Ultra camera’s 100x zoom is pointless, but 10x? * chef’s kiss *

The Galaxy S21 Ultra camera’s 100x zoom is pointless, but 10x? * chef’s kiss *



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Sarah Tew / CNET

Samsung Galaxy S21

Ultra, which is available for purchase now with the rest of the Galaxy S21 series, represents the top of what the company can offer in a phone, with its powerful processor, massive live screen and 5G connectivity. But it’s the camera setup I’m particularly interested in, and this is where the S21 Ultra pushes the boat out. There are four lenses on the back: a standard zoom, an ultra-wide 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 is everyone new Galaxy S21 Ultra camera features and how to use them.)

TL; DR: It’s the zoom that’s the hero here. While the 30x results are still pretty poor, the phone’s ability to take pictures with 10x optical zoom means it can take pictures that are simply not possible on competing flagships such as iPhone 12 Pro or OnePlus 8T.

While I would have liked more headline features for Galaxy S21 Ultra, what is here is still impressive. And I went over Edinburgh to see what the phone could do.

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Andrew Hoyle / CNET

I started in the beautiful Dean Village, with this classic view overlooking the river. Taken with the standard camera, the phone has captured a rich and vibrant scene, with lots of details in the admittedly very shady foreground.

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, super wide lens.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

Zoom out to the super wide view, there is little noticeable change in colors, beyond a little magenta tinge in the upper right corner. It is a well balanced shot and there are many details throughout.

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, 3x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

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

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Galaxy S21, 10x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

At 10x zoom, the image is still perfectly detailed, with beautiful contrast and no color change.

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, 30x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

At 30x zoom, things do not look so good. Yes, it is quite clear what the picture is of, but it lacks definition in general. It’s hard to get your shot up once you’ve zoomed in so far, but Samsung has a smart stabilization mode that helped me keep the entire dial in the frame.

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, 100x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

At its maximum 100x zoom, these details are even more mushy, resulting in an image that is only very good as evidence of something you have seen, such as rare wildlife. Yes, it’s a new feature that can be fun to try, but for most people the quality is not good enough for an Instagram post, for example.

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, 10x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

10x zoom is the sweet spot for me, and it’s my favorite feature on the camera of the S21 Ultra. It allows you to capture photographic compositions that require a large telephoto zoom lens with a DSLR. By zooming in on this beach I was able to show the curved water, the concrete switches stretch across the stage and clearly show the walkers, which gives the picture a fantastic scale.

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, 10x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

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

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, standard lens.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

Taken with a standard zoom lens, this image overlooking a golf course is not particularly exciting.

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, 10x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

But activating 10x zoom means changing the view completely, instead focusing on Edinburgh’s skyline, with the monuments on Calton Hill clear.

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

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

Zoom in to 100% on the 10x zoom image, it is clear that not many details are captured. Realistically, images taken at 10x zoom will not have sufficient print quality – zoom of pristine quality will still be the territory of a SLR camera with a telephoto lens, to say the least. That said, most of the photos I took with 10x zoom look great for social media posts, or for sending messages to friends, which probably counts for the vast majority of what anyone wants with their photos anyway.

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, 10x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

10x zoom was enough to clarify the details of this plane that came ashore.

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, 10x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

And it was 10x the zoom that allowed me to isolate this pair from the disturbing elements of the scene, resulting in a shot that focuses only on them looking into the distance.

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

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

Again, realizing that cropping to that image to 100% shows that there is a clear lack of fine detail when using this zoom level.

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, ultra-wide lens.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

The super wide lens captures an enormous amount of the scene, and I am very impressed with how vivid and striking this image is.

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, ultra-wide lens.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

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

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, night mode.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

When I turn on night mode, I was happy to see that the phone produced a bright and sharp image, even in a room that was extremely dark. The colors here are accurate, and there are enough details to be able to read the fine text on the light. Impressive stuff.

It’s early days with the phone, but already impressed with the pictures I’ve got, with excellent dynamic range and accurate colors on most of the pictures I’ve taken. Zoom is the standout feature here, but it’s just impressive up to a point. I love some of the pictures I have taken with 10x zoom, but even then the details are quite rough. Going beyond 10x reduces it enormously, and I still think that 100x Space Zoom is pointless – I would have preferred Samsung to spend its time making 10x zoom even better.

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


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