If you have money to burn and want to buy a smartphone that ranks number one in the photography field, you have two primary options.
The Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra and iPhone 13 Pro Max are good choices — they’re at the top of our list of the best camera phones, and if you’ve been following the tech news, you’ve likely seen countless samples of both.
However, since the former is Android and the latter is iOS, and tech users tend to draw a line in the sand between operating systems and stick with one, you rarely see people comparing their camera prowess head-on.
Which is a shame – it means that people who call one or the other the “best camera phone” generally haven’t tested both. And when you see them together, it’s usually camera experts who take pictures of both and then spend ages analyzing them in the lab, without considering the human factor.
To correct that, we needed a neutral party to make a decision – and that’s where I come in. I don’t have much liking for iPhones or Samsung Galaxy S phones – I prefer cell phones as much as I make beer, cheap and cheerful. So to find out what the most fun shooting experience would be, I picked up both phones and took them to test the camera around the canals near TechRadar’s office in London.
Brief comparison in specifications
Before diving into what I found in my camera test, I feel I should briefly list the phones’ specs for people who don’t know.
|iPhone 13 Pro Max
|Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra
|12 MP f / 1.5 26 mm
|180 MP f/1.8 23mm
|12 MP f/1.8 13mm 130°
|12 MP f/2.2 13mm 120°
|12 MP f/2.8 77mm 3x zoom
|10 MP f/2.4 70mm 3x zoom
|10MP f/4.9 230mm 10x Zoom
Standard pictures? very similar
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When I started taking standard (1x) photos on both the iPhone and Galaxy, I quickly noticed something, and putting the photos on my computer and blowing them up to a larger size made it even clearer.
For images like this, the differences are basically small enough to be irrelevant. At least on my standard computer monitor, the colors look almost identical, and the field of view is about the same (although it’s a touch wider on the Samsung). There are no major changes between the photos.
Sure, you can zoom in and point to small areas where there are slight differences – the balconies in the top left are a little overexposed on the Samsung, and the iPhone clearly loses detail when you start zooming in – but most people aren’t, wouldn’t they?
No, for shots like this, both phones basically work the same way. So I needed more art.
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I like a nice macro photo as much as the next person photo…but obviously neither Apple nor Samsung do that, or they would have made taking close-up photos a lot easier.
As you can see, they both use their Ultra Wide cameras to take macro photography shots, and both automatically switch to these when you place the phone close to a subject. However, the results were not perfect in either one.
When I held the Galaxy S22 Ultra close to these leaves, hoping to get a few closer to focus and the rest of the leaves a little out of focus with the background a nice puddle of blur, it took a lot of compulsion to make it happen. I had to hold the phone still and set the focus manually using the onscreen controls.
While it was annoying on the Galaxy, it was completely impossible on the iPhone. The device would flash between its lenses seemingly randomly when near leaves, and there was no consistent way to get the right level of focus, or keep the phone in macro mode. And sometimes when this mode was turned on, the completely wrong thing was the focus.
So the photos you see are not actually taken in macro mode, because I couldn’t argue with the iPhone well enough to make sure it would be captured properly. Both phones lose points here (neither has a dedicated macro camera, like some other cell phones), although the iPhone loses more.
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When I uploaded these ultrawide images to the TechRadar website, I needed to double-check that I hadn’t mistakenly uploaded the same image twice – they’re almost identical.
Both wide cameras have almost the same resolution and field of view, colors look basically the same, and there is no noticeable difference in distortion between the two. In fact, the main way you can find out the different photos at all is that there is more dock on iPhone snap.
The lack of iPhone and Samsung differences here doesn’t mean much to me – I don’t really like the look of ultra-wide photos – but it does mean this section can be nice and short!
Zoom in a little
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Now we get to the good stuff – zoom.
Both Samsung and Apple phones offer 3x optical zoom on the telephoto lens (although admittedly the Galaxy has a second zoom camera, which we’ll get to later). Note, however, that this does not mean that they zoom in by the same amount – that is, 3x from their “standard” modes.
Since the iPhone has a longer focal length for the main camera, this means that the zoom is up to 3x more than it is on the Samsung. The photos show it – you can’t see any of the uncloudy sky on the Pro Max shot.
For the image of this tree, a surprising iPhone works – it frames the branches well. However, when zoomed in, the iPhone shows a stranger with his head – look at the house on the left. It’s oddly yellow in the Pro Max shot, more so than in the S22 Ultra shot (and compared to the real house).
So there are good and bad things about both picks, although if push comes to shove I’ll have to pick the iPhone 13 as my favourite. If this is the end of the camera test, there will be a clear winner – but unfortunately, Apple’s offerings do not go further.
Zoom in more
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As I mentioned earlier, I don’t like ultra-wide shots – no, I like using telephoto or telephoto to close in on the distance. And the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s camera prowess breaks down when trying anything beyond 3x zoom.
The phone’s maximum is 15x, and thanks to the 12MP sensor used in the slightly lower-res telephoto camera, going anywhere near that level of zoom results in pixelated shots (since digital zoom is essentially cropped).
Compare that to the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra – it can reach 10x optical zoom with its periscope camera, and it can go to 100x digital zoom if you want to. It’s much better than this kind of picture.
Keep in mind that zooming in is not only useful for capturing distant boats or animals. It’s great for close-ups too, of pets or flowers nearby at a medium distance, as the focal length results in shots with a beautiful depth of field.
In my camera test, I repeatedly went through subjects that I couldn’t capture, because my iPhone wouldn’t zoom in enough. And under those circumstances, only Galaxy could help.
That’s not all and the final camera tests – I didn’t shoot using the other camera modes, at night, or take any selfies. But I wanted to simulate the kind of photography I was doing on a normal day outside.
With its zoom versatility, the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra quickly became my favorite for taking pictures. It gave me the versatility I needed to switch from super zoom to super zoom depending on what the subject needed.
The fact that the iPhone felt uncomfortable to use (thanks to its flat edges) and had a simple camera app didn’t help either, but it’s really in the zoom department that Samsung stood out.
Hopefully Apple will learn a thing or two in time for the iPhone 14 release — for an ultra-expensive phone, 3x optical zoom isn’t enough.