I took a multitude of devices with me on a recent weekend road trip with my vaccinated friends. Most of these devices were cameras or, specifically, different types of cameras. I took my S21 Ultra, iPhone 11 Pro, Sony a7iii, Insta360 One , and Snap Spectacles 3 glasses. All of these cameras got some use during the trip, and some of the footage did come out quite well. After coming back though, I realized that I took the vast majority of the photos on my Samsung S21 Ultra.
I have been using the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra on T-Mobile’s network since its launch in late January. While I have had the opportunity to try many different phones during that period, I always find myself gravitating back towards the S21 Ultra. While other cameras sport their own unique features and might execute certain things better, I found the S21 Ultra to be the perfect balance of what I need in a phone and camera. Everyone’s needs are different, but I can say that every person I’ve showed the S21’s zoom ability to has been blown away. And, that’s before they know about the phone’s gorgeous display and insanely fast Snapdragon 888 processor and 5G connectivity. The S21 Ultra is truly Samsung’s best smartphone, and it shows.
Samsung’s camera journey
Samsung’s camera journey has been quite a long one. For many generations, it was playing constant catch up with the likes of Huawei and Apple. I would say that since the Samsung Galaxy S10, the company has either matched or surpassed those company’s offerings, with Huawei having a slight edge over Apple and Samsung. That is, until the S21 Ultra. I believe that Samsung’s overall camera performance and capability have now overtaken Huawei, especially considering Huawei’s phones don’t have access to the Google Play Store and Apps. Huawei’s focus on the camera has allowed it to stay atop the DXOMark charts for a long time, trading punches with Xiaomi and Samsung. That said, I do believe this singular focus has led it to suffer in other areas. What I like about the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is that it’s a very well-rounded phone. It has all the features a flagship phone should have without making any compromises.
How Samsung renders others obsolete
As smartphone cameras continue to improve, more expensive cameras have become increasingly irrelevant. While many artists and professional photographers still opt for traditional cameras with removable lenses, the reality is that a device like the S21 Ultra can capture photos that, to the naked eye, most consumers would be unable to discern from those taken by a professional camera. Yes, in order to achieve this, the S21 Ultra has five different cameras on its back; what that means, though, is that I do not have to carry around five different lenses for different scenarios. I am seconds away from having the right lens for the shot nearly every time. Not just that, but the S21 Ultra also can toggle between the highly dynamic 12MP camera and the 108 MP high-resolution camera sensor when necessary. I have had numerous people look at the back of the S21 Ultra and ask me if I have some kind of cyborg in my hands with that many camera sensors and lenses.
In my experience, the best camera is the one you have. Carry around a full-frame body and lenses is cumbersome and, in many scenarios, draws a lot of attention that you may not want. I have traveled to many places with both my Sony a7iii and my S21 Ultra. While I have taken many great photos and videos on the a7iii, I feel like the S21 Ultra does just as well in 95% of scenarios—only in a few edge cases does the full-frame camera shine. While the full-frame camera does have better image quality in many scenarios, on most people’s smartphone or laptop screens (which they’re likely using to view photos), it’s hard to tell the difference between a 12MP smartphone photo and a 24MP full-frame (unless I shoot at f/1.4 aperture). And then there’s the fact that the S21 Ultra, by comparison, costs a mere $1,200 MSRP. That doesn’t even cover the cost of my $1,500 Sony GM f/1.4 24mm lens, let alone the $2,000 for the body of the camera. The reality is that for most non-professional use cases, the 12MP camera on the S21 Ultra will work just fine. For hi-res photos that you may want to crop or make prints of later, simply toggle to the 108MP sensor.
The S21 Ultra’s zoom (10x optical and 30x digital, up to 100x with some pixel zooming) is another feature that goes toe-to-toe with that of professional cameras. Without press credentials, conspicuous full-frame cameras are banned at most sporting events. You’d be hard pressed to find someone, though, who doesn’t bring their smartphone to the stadium. The S21 Ultra’s zoom enables users to take incredibly sharp and clear photos of the atheletes on the field. For that matter, the smartphone can upload these photos almost in realtime over 5G, especially if you’re on Verizon’s mmWave 5G, which this phone supports. One thing that most high-end cameras lack today is connectivity. We’ve only recently seen the advent of Wi-Fi on cameras; while users can use this to transfer images to a phone for sharing, many solutions are clunky, only work on 2.4 GHz and/or are extremely sensitive to interference. While much of the world has transitioned to Wi-Fi 6 and 5G, some of the world’s most advanced cameras still use Wi-Fi 5. Only Sony offers 5G connectivity, via tethering to a $2,500 5G phone. I believe that there was always room for camera vendors to offer some kind of camera-focused smartphone experience to close the connectivity gap, but none of them did so. Instead, smartphone vendors made them, partnering with camera companies like Hasselblad and Leica. I believe that the majority of the camera industry has lagged behind the smartphone camera experience, allowing smartphones to eat up a lot of the discrete camera market.
Because companies like Apple, MediaTek, Qualcomm and Samsung have packed so much computational power into the smartphone SoC, I believe there is very little camera companies can do to keep up. With a three to four camera sensor array, the ability to capture multiple stops and frames simultaneously, and features like portrait and night-mode video, smartphone cameras’ software and capabilities have far surpassed most cameras. The combination of computer vision and AI enables new features, such as the ability to process images in realtime. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 processor, which is inside of the Galaxy S21 Ultra, features the Spectra 580 ISP, which is capable of capturing three 28 MP images simultaneously and processing 2.7 Gigapixels per second—which translates to 120 photos per second at 12 Megapixels. This same ISP also supports 4K HDR video, 8K 30 FPS and HDR10+ and Dolby Vision codecs. In fact, with the exception of some mirrorless cameras from Sony and Fuji, smartphones have driven most of the photography innovation in the last few years. I consider myself a huge photography nerd and still shoot with my Sony A7iii as regularly as I can, but the reality is that my Samsung S21 has more than satisfied my ability to capture amazing images quickly.
Where to go from here?
This really becomes a question of where do smartphone cameras go from here? What role do full-frame and micro 4/3 cameras have from here on out? I believe that mirrorless cameras will continue to exist, but only for professional purposes and the prosumer looking to capture a specific look. With more people discovering the art of photography on their phones, I believe that there will always be a market for full-frame, APS-C and micro 4/3 mirrorless cameras. The reality is that these cameras will almost always have better quality glass (optics) than smartphones, purely as a function of the laws of physics and the spatial constraints of a phone. However, if the Samsung S21 Ultra has shown us anything, its that the impossible now seems possible. If you had told me even five years ago that I could have a phone with 100x zoom and a 108MP sensor I would’ve thought you were smoking something. But in reality, this has become the standard for most Android flagship phones, across many brands.
As far as smartphones go today, I believe that we could see low-light performance improve through algorithms like Google’s Night Sight. One of the biggest constraints of smartphone cameras today is that they are forced to use smaller sensors, which are inherently worse at capturing light. We’ve seen 1” sensors make their way into the latest Sharp AQUOS R6 phone, which appears to be a rebadge of Zeiss’ phone design, but I wouldn’t expect these sensors to get much bigger. I would expect zoom quality to continue to improve and look better and better once you go past 30x hybrid zoom, which appears to be the limit of most camera systems today. Additionally, I think we will see AI continue to accelerate the capabilities and features of smartphone cameras with more realtime capabilities, smoother lens and focal length blending and even better low-light user experiences. I also think that we’ll see more predictive photography, such as Google’s Pixel 5 camera’s ability to automatically suggest stills from within a video. Regardless, it’s a great time to be a photography enthusiast and I look forward to seeing what comes next.