Photo test: the Galaxy S21 Ultra restores the photographic image of Samsung

From Galaxy S7 in 2016 to Galaxy S9 + in 2018, Samsung was the champion of our Top 10 best camera phones. Then Huawei came along. A Huawei that has surpassed it on many technological fronts. And increased Chinese competition (Oppo, Asus, etc.) has highlighted Samsung’s relative stagnation. The shy S10 was eaten and the S20, which inaugurated the new generation of “super sensor” 108 Mpix, itou. But the South Korean has rolled up its sleeves with the S21 generation.

It is obviously not here that we are going to tell you about the power of its Exynos processor, nor its magnificent 120 hertz screen. For that, direction our test. What interests us is the photographic part. And within the scope of three little ones of the S21 family, it is obviously the flagship S21 Ultra 5G that caught our attention, because it is the one that offers the most advanced imaging partition. And which attacks the Chinese head-on in their chosen field: the ultrazoom

Ultra wide-angle and wide-angle side, the partition of the three terminals is similar. It is in terms of telephoto that you have to look for the difference. Or rather the differences: while the “normal” versions are equipped with a pseudo-telephoto lens (a 29 mm equivalent whose 48 Mpix sensor offers a funny optico-digital zoom), the S 21 Ultra 5G version does not receive a , but two telephoto modules. Real telephoto lenses this time: the two 10 Mpix sensors are respectively equipped with a 70 mm f / 2.4 and an impressive 240 mm f / 4.9. The kind of periscope lens that equips the super P40 Pro +, champion of our current Top 10.

On a purely physical level, if the theoretical optical zoom power is x18, Samsung’s algorithms allow the terminal to display an impressive optical-digital zoom of x30. Even louder: the terminal’s digital mill claims a x100 mega zoom.

You will understand that if Samsung is to be compared to a manufacturer, it will be less to Apple, which is very conservative in terms of the power of magnification, than to an Oppo or a Huawei.

Autofocus: laser, 108 Mpix sensor support

Samsung is the only smartphone manufacturer capable of producing its image sensors. This legacy of its former photo division allows it to position itself as a serious competitor to Sony in the field of the sale of smartphone sensors. And to meet its own needs as well as those of its customers, Samsung invests heavily in r & d.

The main camera module of the S21 Ultra still incorporates the famous 108 megapixel sensor that already animated the S20. A sensor whose oversampling makes it possible to produce very beautiful shots in 12 Mpix. While it is good at detecting colors and reproducing details, this component caused harm to the previous generation. Because, very rich in photodiodes, this sensor is not based on the Dual Pixel technology of the previous 12 Mpix sensors. By renouncing this technology, Samsung had regressed in terms of autofocus. A unanimous disappointment among testers and customers – the S20 range sold quite poorly – because the speed argument was in particular what had allowed Samsung to take the lead in the competition with the Galaxy S7.

While waiting to see the arrival of the first sensors coupling super definition and Dual Pixel structure (presumably for next year), Samsung has offered a crutch to its high-end terminal: a laser. It is he who supports the main camera module in order to quickly focus. And as we have already seen completely crappy tricks in the past, as much for this terminal, Samsung has won its bet.

AF finally (again) in the race!

Without being able to claim first place in the competition, Samsung is back in the dance of terminals that have “pep”. Depending on the situation, triggering using the main module ranges from very fast to adequate. The low lights with an infinity focus are not his strong point – beyond a certain distance, the laser, very little powerful, is useless.

As for the ultra wide-angle, things go even faster, thanks in part to the sensor which is based on Dual Pixel technology. The wide angular coverage of the 13mm f / 2.2 equivalent allows it to collect a lot of light and react quickly. Same story for the 70mm equivalent moderate telephoto lens. Here again, the Dual Pixel offers a reactivity rarely achieved on this kind of focal length with more traditional PDAF sensors.

Quite logically, the module equipped with a 240 mm f / 4.9 equivalent is still a small notch below the 70 mm. Even with its Dual Pixel sensor, the very low angular coverage forces the camera to do more work to focus. It’s still very good in broad daylight but, as with all great telephoto lenses, much harder in low light. Both from the point of view of AF and image quality.

Image quality 1: ultra wide angle

The ultra wide-angle camera module of the S21 Ultra is composed of an optics equivalent to a 13 mm f / 2.2, coupled to a 12 Mpix Dual Pixel sensor in 1 / 2.55 ” format. On paper, it looks a lot like the sensor that fitted the only main module of the Galaxy S7. Rather large dimensions compared to the competition… Huawei except (read below).

The optical defects of the module are well corrected and Samsung avoids most of the inconveniences of the focal length such as too visible distortions. There is no vignetting in the corners, the level of detail is quite good… but analyzed at 100%, the shots are quite smooth and lack a little punch, the fault of a sensor that is a little small.

In the end, the image quality in daylight is good. But well below what Huawei’s ultra-wide-angle modules produce on the P40 Pro / Pro + and other Mate 40 Pro. In this area, their giant sensor places them in a whole different category.

Image quality 2: wide-angle (main module)

Equivalent to a 24 mm f / 1.8, the main camera module takes full advantage of the 108 Mpix. Oversampling provides 12 Mpix output definition with a very high level of detail in broad daylight. The general dive is excellent, resulting in chiseled leaf contours, reliefs of trees that stand out. No separation of shots like on a SLR hybrid because of the wide angle focal length and the much smaller sensor than a full frame 24×36, but it’s a good job.

In terms of dynamic range, Samsung’s HDR mode is not too aggressive, but we still detect hazy dark areas and some artefacts, a sign of the work of combining the images carried out by the algorithms and the sensor.

In low light the result is a little mixed. It’s pretty good up to ISO 1600, and the camera retains colors well and the algorithms highlight outlines well. But beyond that, the smoothing of the details is sometimes too strong, especially on solid areas. The score is much worse than at Huawei. Ditto in very low light mode, where the sensor of this Galaxy S21 Ultra sees less detail than the sensors of Huawei / Sony.

Overall, the score is very good is equivalent to what an iPhone 12 poses, with an advantage in the level of detail rendered in broad daylight.

Image quality 3: telephoto lenses and super zoom

Zoom power is one area where the S21 Ultra delivers a very good score. With two modules, a 70 mm equivalent and a second 240 mm equivalent, the flagship of Samsung offers an optical zoom coefficient x18 (240/13 = x18 Mr Samsung, and not x10, because the base to be taken is the widest focal length ). He therefore sees far and precisely as long as we stick to the native focal lengths and shoot in broad daylight.

The 70mm is particularly good in terms of the level of detail, even if the sharpness is not at the level of the main module. The 240mm on the other hand is less punchy – thank you diffraction – and produces images without relief but remains clean enough even for pretty prints.

There is no miracle when it comes to low-light photos, the digital noise level is far too high for serene use. Except in the case of long break photos or shots of the moon. An area where the terminal, according to Samsung’s marketing packaging, is doing very well. Unlike most super telephoto smartphones – Oppo, Huawei – where you have to manually adjust the exposure to “center metering”, the Galaxy S21 Ultra seems to recognize our satellite well and does the job on its own.

For those crazy about the super telephoto lens, know that the x100 zoom of the terminal only comes out a mush that can only be useful for spy purposes. Besides, kidding aside, this feature is undoubtedly used more by intelligence agents than by real photographers!

On the photography side, the score of the Galaxy S21 Ultra could be summed up by a return to a very good autofocus, good image quality and good color continuity in broad daylight and a zoom power suitable for a traveling public. Our regrets are to be found on the side of the ultra wide-angle, far from the Huawei quality and the low-light performance of too mediocre telephoto lenses. The Galaxy S21 Ultra revamps Samsung’s photo image, but we are definitely waiting for a move to additional larger sensors (ultra wide-angle, telephoto), Xiaomi style.

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