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The zooming abilities of the Galaxy S21 Ultra make it a photography champion

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The zooming abilities of the Galaxy S21 Ultra make it a photography champion

Sarah Tew / CNET

Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra it ranks at the top of the company’s phone line for 2021. It’s no wonder then that it has a huge list of elite specs, including a robust processor and super-fast 5G connectivity. It’s Samsung’s answer to Apple’s flagship iPhone 12 Pro Max. But it’s the camera settings that stand out. There are four lenses on the back: a standard zoom, an ultra-wide lens, a 3x optical zoom, and a 10x optical zoom. Coupled with the massive 108 megapixel resolution of the main camera, the phone can achieve a massive 100x zoom overall. (Here are all new features of the Galaxy S21 Ultra camera and how to use them.)

TL; DR: That zoom is the hero here. While results at 100x remain poor, the phone’s ability to take sharp photos with a 10x optical zoom means that it can achieve 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 the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

While I would have liked more Galaxy S21 Ultra main features, what’s here is still impressive. And I went out through Edinburgh to see what the phone could do.

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Andrew Hoyle / CNET

I started in beautiful Dean Village, with this classic view looking out over the river. Taken with the standard camera, the phone has captured a rich and vibrant scene, with lots of detail in an admittedly very dark close-up.

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, super wide lens.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

When zooming out to super wide view, there is a small noticeable change in colors, beyond a bit of magenta tint 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 sharp and vibrant.

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Galaxy S21, 10x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

With a 10x zoom, the image is still perfectly detailed, with beautiful contrast and no color shifts.

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, 30x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

With a 30x zoom, things don’t look so good. Yes, it is perfectly clear what the photo is about, but there is a general blur. It’s hard to line up the shot when zooming in so far, but Samsung has a smart stabilization mode that helped me keep the watch face framed.

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, 100x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

With its maximum 100x zoom, those details are even more delicate, resulting in an image that’s only really good as proof of something you’ve seen, like rare wildlife. Yes, it is a novel 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

The 10x zoom is the sweet spot for me and is my favorite feature of the S21 Ultra’s camera. It allows you to capture photo compositions that would require a large telephoto zoom with a DSLR. By zooming in on this beach, I was able to show the curves of the water, the concrete breakers that run the length of the scene, and clearly show the walkers, which add a wonderful scale to the image.

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

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, 10x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

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

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

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

When zooming in at 100% with the 10x zoom, it is clear that not much detail is captured. Realistically, images taken at the 10x zoom won’t be of sufficient quality to print – flawless quality zoom will remain the territory of a DSLR with a telephoto lens, at least for now. That said, most of the shots I took at 10x zoom look good enough to post to social media or to message friends, which probably accounts for the vast majority of what anyone would want to do with their you take anyway.

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, 10x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

The 10x zoom was enough to make out precisely the details of this landing plane.

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, 10x zoom.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

And it was the 10x zoom that allowed me to isolate this pair from the distracting 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% crop.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

Once again, however, cropping that image to 100% shows that there is a distinct 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 a lot of the scene and I am really impressed with how vibrant and punchy this image is.

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Galaxy S21 Ultra, ultra wide lens.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

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

night mode galaxy s21 ultra

Galaxy S21 Ultra, night mode.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

When activating night mode, I was pleased to see that the phone produced a bright and sharp image, even in a dark room. The colors here are accurate and there is enough detail to be able to read the fine text on the candle. Impressive.

It’s the early days with the phone, but I’m already impressed by the shots I’ve been able to get, with excellent dynamic range and accurate colors in 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 took at 10x zoom, but even then the details are pretty rough. Going beyond 10x cuts it down hugely and I still think the 100x spatial zoom feature is pointless; I would have preferred Samsung to 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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