Sitting at the top of Samsung’s line-up of premium smartphones, the Galaxy S21 Ultra was announced in January 2020. Aimed more squarely at photographers than Samsung’s Note series, it features a quad-camera setup and a number of other features which should directly appeal to those concerned with camera quality.
It’s a follow on from last year’s S20 Ultra, with some similar specifications, and some which are new for the latest model. The most important and obvious difference is the addition of an extra camera unit, so there’s now a quad-camera setup on the back of the S21 Ultra.
You get an 108MP wide-angle standard lens, joined by a 12MP ultra-wide, and two 10MP telephoto lenses – one offering a 3x zoom, and the other offering a 10x. There is also a 40MP front-facing camera.
Other differences include a slightly smaller screen (but which has been improved in other ways – we’ll go into more detail as we progress through the review) and compatibility with an S Pen Stylus. Not every change is necessarily positive – there’s now no longer a Micro SD card slot, nor do you get a charger included in the box.
Additional relevant features include 8K video recording, a 5000mAH battery, and 5G connectivity.
On the plus side, the S21 Ultra retails for cheaper than the S20 Ultra did at launch. At the time of writing, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra will set you back £1,149 for the minimum storage space option (128GB), rising up to £1,329 for the largest (512GB).
Ease of Use
Although the Galaxy S21 Ultra is fractionally smaller than its predecessor, the S20 Ultra, with a 6.8inch screen, the S21 Ultra is certainly one of the larger phones on the market – some might even go so far as to call it a “phablet”.
The benefit of such a large screen is that your videos and images look fantastic on it, but it does make using the phone as an actual phone a little tricker than those with a smaller overall body.
The screen, although smaller, has seen some improvements when comparing it with the S20 Ultra. It’s now brighter and has a faster refresh rate, plus there’s an Eye Comfort Shield which is designed to reduce eye fatigue.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that the display takes up almost the entirety of the front panel, with just a tiny cut out for the front-facing camera – there’s no notch here, such as you might find with the likes of the iPhone 12 Pro.
The overall design is very sleek and stylish, while there’s a few different colours to choose from – some are exclusive to the Samsung online store. We’ve been using the Phantom Silver colour way, which has a lovely sheen to it. There’s also Phantom Black, Titanium, Navy and Brown available.
Flip to the back of the phone and you’ll see the large camera bump, which now houses four selectable lenses. Although it protrudes from the back of the phone, it’s smaller than that on the S20 Ultra, so that’s a slight improvement.
It’s best if you opt to use the phone with a case which will flatten out the back of the phone, which will mean it will then lay flat on a hard surface.
As is pretty common for most modern smartphones, the number of physical buttons found on the S21 Ultra is very few. Indeed, there are just two found on the right hand side of the phone, which are used to wake the screen and for controlling volume, or, if in the native camera app, you can use the volume buttons to take a shot.
The native camera app can be launched by swiping up from the bottom right hand corner of the lock screen. As we’ve seen before from other Samsung models, the S21 Ultra’s native camera app is very well featured, giving you a good range of different shooting options which should match the needs of most users.
By default, the app launches in the standard ‘Photo’ mode. This is probably the mode that most will use for the majority of the shots, and it’s where the phone makes all of the most important decisions for you, leaving you free to concentrate on framing and composition.
At the bottom the main camera window, you’ll see your options for switching between the different lenses that the S21 Ultra offers. The different zoom options are represented by trees / leaves – meaning the ultra wide angle is represented by three trees, the standard lens, two trees, the 3x zoom a single tree, and finally the 10x zoom, a leaf.
Once you tap on any of these options, you’ll also see numerical options appear at the bottom of the screen, giving you 0.6x, 1.0x, 2.0x, 4.0x, 10x, 30x and 100x. The 30x and 100x options are digital options. Alternatively, you can also pinch to zoom in and out of the screen to adjust the zoom ratio.
Also displayed within the main window is the scene optimiser icon, which you can tap to switch on or off. It’s worth leaving this on most of the time, but if you’re finding that colours are going a little overboard, switching it off can be helpful.
At the top of the screen, you’ll see a number of icons. The first is a cog icon, which you can use to change a number of different settings, including switching on/off Auto HDR, enabling location tags, video stabilisation and so on – essentially any setting which you’re not likely to be changing on a regular basis. The options displayed in this menu change depending on the shooting mode you’re in, however, so you’ll see different choices if, for example, you’re in Pro mode.
The next icon is the flash icon, which you can tap to switch the flash on, off or switch it to automatic. Note that you can’t use flash when working with the ultra-wide-angle lens. Next up is a timer, giving you options of 2 seconds, 5 seconds, 10 seconds, or off.
Then there’s aspect ratio, where you can choose between 3:14, 9:16, 1:1 or “Full”. It’s also here that you can select an 108 megapixel mode if you’re using the main sensor – by default images are output at 12 megapixels, so only switch this on if you really want the full resolution.
Next you can switch on “Motion pictures”. This is where a short video clip is recorded alongside a still image. Lastly there’s an icon which looks like a magic wand, where you’ll find a selection of filter options.
If you want to use a different shooting mode, you’ll find all of these at the bottom of the main camera window. To the left of Photo mode is “Single Take”. This is a fun mode, particularly at a social event or during a day trip.
With it you can take a variety of different shots and videos with just a single press of the shutter. Move the phone around the scene to capture lots of different clips and shots, and then play them back later.
To the right of the Photo mode is “Video”. With this mode, you can record at up to 8K resolution. There are different options depending on the resolution you choose. If you shoot at 4K (UHD), for example, you can record with each of the four lenses.
Meanwhile, if you elect to record in 8K, you can only use the standard lens – while a crop is also applied. Full HD (1080) similarly gives you access to all four lenses. “Super Steady” is an option which you can elect to activate if you want to record ultra smooth video, but you can only shoot with this in Full HD.
Again, if you tap on the cog icon, you’ll be presented with a number of different more advanced options. Finally, you’ve also got the option to record video at either 9:16, 1:1 or Full.
For more modes, head to the right of Video and tap “More”. Now you’ll be shown a whole host of additional shooting modes, for both stills shooting and video. You’ve got options here such as Panorama, Food, Super-Slow Mo, Hyperlapse and more. Particularly interesting are the Pro, Night, Portrait and Pro Video modes, which we’ll explore in more depth.
The Pro mode is arguably the one that enthusiasts will be most drawn towards. With this, you get a large degree of control of your shots, being able to change parameters such as ISO, shutter speed, exposure compensation, AF type, white balance and more. It’s a shame you can only shoot with the standard and ultra-wide lenses when using this mode, but otherwise it’s a good option.
It’s also this mode you’ll need to use if you want to record raw format images – something which you’ll need to activate from the cog menu (find it under Format and advanced options). If you switch on raw format shooting, both a JPEG and a DNG file will be captured simultaneously.
Night mode should be activated automatically if you’re shooting in low light conditions, but you can also switch it on from this section of the app too. Night mode can be used with all four lenses, and you can also combine it with a timer.
The mode works by shooting a number of frames and then combining them together, to give the same effect as shooting a longer exposure. It will choose how long to gather those frames together for automatically, but you can also select a “max” option where it will record for longer – that’s particularly handy if you’ve got something to stabilise the phone on, or are using a tripod.
Portrait mode is fairly self-explanatory, though you are able to use it with subjects other than people if you wish. With this mode, you’ll be creating a shallow depth of field, using either the main camera or the telephoto camera. To use it, you’ll need to tap on the subject within your frame – you need to be a certain distance from the subject, with a warning displayed on screen if you’re too close – or too far away.
You can choose different portrait effect modes, including High-Key Mono and Studio. If light is low, you can mix Portrait and Night mode together. A Portrait Video mode is also available, where you can create high resolution video with a shallow depth of field effect.
Finally, the Pro video mode is likely to be of interest to content creators and vloggers. Similar to the Pro photo mode, with this you can adjust settings such as ISO, shutter speed, exposure compensation and white balance. You can also choose different microphone settings, as well as attaching an external mic if you prefer. In this mode you can shoot at a variety of different resolutions, all the way up to 8K.
Although the Galaxy S21 Ultra doesn’t come with a stylus including – such as you’ll find with Samsung’s Note 20 Ultra – it is compatible with one. That means you could buy one separately and use it for certain functions, including triggering the camera’s shutter remotely.
All of the sample images in this review were taken using the 12 megapixel JPEG setting, which gives an average image size of around 4Mb.
As we’ve come to expect from recent Samsung smartphones, image quality from the Galaxy S21 Ultra is excellent.
Working in the standard “Photo” mode, you’re rewarded with great photos in a wide range of different conditions. Colours are nicely punchy and well-saturated, exposures are well-balanced, and particularly in good light, there is an excellent overall impression of detail.
In low light conditions, switching to Night mode yields good results – particularly from the main camera, as we might expect. Portrait mode does a good job at creating a natural drop off from the main subject, while the Pro mode gives you the added flexibility to take greater control of the scene should you feel it’s necessary.
Adding an extra lens to the S21 Ultra makes it one of the most flexible smartphones on the market when it comes to getting closer to your subject. All four of the lenses perform well, with the standard lens putting in the best performance – as we’d expect. Of the two telephoto lenses, the 3x optic produces the better results, but the 10x is pretty decent if you’re shooting in good light.
You have the option to expand zoom via the S21 Ultra’s digital offerings. Up to around 30x is reasonable in some conditions, while 100x is best avoided unless you’re truly desperate to zoom in closer.
There are 12 ISO settings available on the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. Here are some 100% crops which show the noise levels for each ISO setting.
This is a selection of sample images from the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra camera, which were all taken using the 12 megapixel JPEG setting. The thumbnails below link to the full-sized versions, which have not been altered in any way.
Sample RAW Images
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra enables users to capture RAW and JPEG format files. We’ve provided some Samsung RAW (DNG) samples for you to download (thumbnail images shown below are not 100% representative).
Sample Movies & Video
This is a sample movie at the quality setting of 7680×4320 pixels at 24 frames per second. Please note that this 16 second movie is 162Mb in size.
This is a sample movie at the quality setting of 3840×2160 pixels at 60 frames per second. Please note that this 17 second movie is 148Mb in size.
This is a sample movie at the quality setting of 3840×2160 pixels at 30 frames per second. Please note that this 17 second movie is 77.8Mb in size.
This is a sample movie at the quality setting of 1920×1080 pixels at 60 frames per second. Please note that this 16 second movie is 44.6Mb in size.
This is a sample movie at the quality setting of 1920×1080 pixels at 30 frames per second. Please note that this 17 second movie is 29.7Mb in size.
This is a sample hyperlapse movie at the quality setting of 1920×1080 pixels at 30 frames per second. Please note that this 6 second movie is 25Mb in size.
This is a sample hyperlapse movie at the quality setting of 1280×720 pixels at 30 frames per second. Please note that this 33 second movie is 39.2Mb in size.
This is a sample hyperlapse movie at the quality setting of 1920×1080 pixels at 30 frames per second. Please note that this 35 second movie is 45.7Mb in size.
For some time, especially with Huawei’s ongoing issues, Samsung has been the smartphone of choice for those who choose their smartphone based on the merits of the onboard camera(s).
With the Galaxy S21 Ultra, we have one of the most flexible smartphones to date, offering four different focal lengths plus a well-featured native camera app. This is housed in a body which includes a fantastic screen and a pleasing design.
All of this however doesn’t come cheap, with the S21 Ultra being one of the most expensive smartphones on the market – with the base option being even more expensive than an iPhone 12 Pro Max.
As we’ve seen before from other Samsung cameras, there’s a lot of exciting headline specs here to draw you in, including 8K video, a 108 megapixel sensor and 100x digital zoom. All of the above however are specs that most are unlikely to use on a day-to-day basis, so it’s more important how the more ordinary features perform.
Luckily, the S21 Ultra does a very good job in its more pedestrian functions. Images have an overall good quality, there’s a great Pro mode, a well-performing Night mode and a range of other functions that photographers will likely enjoy.
If we compare the Samsung S21 Ultra to its big rival – the iPhone 12 Pro Max – we can see that image quality is pretty similar – but you get more flexibility with Samsung’s offering. If you’re toying between the two (and aren’t particularly affiliated to the iOS operating system), our recommendation would probably land on the Samsung for that reason.
Overall, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is probably the best smartphone on the market right now for photographers. It produces great images and video, has a lot going on with its native camera app and has the flexibility of four different focal lengths. If you can get over its high price, then you are unlikely to be disappointed.
|Ratings (out of 5)|
|Value for money||4|
Listed below are some of the rivals of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.
The Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max is billed as the ultimate iPhone for photographers, boasting a larger sensor for the main camera, a 2.5x zoom lens and a much bigger screen and overall size than the standard Pro version. With prices starting at around £$1099, is this really the best iPhone for photography? Read our in-depth iPhone 12 Pro Max review now, complete with full-size sample photos and videos…
The Apple iPhone 12 Pro is one of four new iPhones released for 2020, joining the Mini, Pro Max, and the standard model. With prices starting at around £$999, is this the best iPhone for photographers? Read our in-depth iPhone 12 Pro review now, complete with full-size sample photos and videos…
The Pixel 5 is Google’s flagship smartphone for 2020, yet it’s priced at just £599 / $699. Does it offer similar performance and features to other, much more expensive range-topping handsets? Read our in-depth Google Pixel 5 review to find out if what it offers photographers, complete with full-size sample photos and videos.
The P40 Pro is Huawei’s new flagship smartphone for 2020. Featuring a 6.58-inch screen, 50 megapixel sensor, 5x optical zoom lens and 4K video recording, can it overcome its much-publicized lack of Google App support? Find out now by reading our in-depth Huawei P40 Pro review, complete with full-size sample images and videos…
The OnePlus 8 Pro is the latest flagship smartphone for 2020 from OnePlus. It features a 48-megapixel quad-camera setup with an upgraded ultra-wide camera, 4K/60p video recording, Pro shooting mode and the ability to shoot in Raw. Find out if this is the best smartphone for photographers by reading our in-depth OnePlus 8 Pro review with full-size sample photos and videos.
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is Samsung’s latest flagship smartphone, boasting a 6.9-inch screen, 108 megapixel standard camera, 5x optical zoom, 8K video, super slow motion video, Pro shooting mode and Raw capture. Take a look at our in-depth Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review to find out if this is the best smartphone camera for keen photographers…
The Galaxy S20 Ultra is Samsung’s new flagship smartphone for 2020. Featuring a 6.9-inch screen, 108 megapixel sensor and 100x zoom lens, it’s certainly big in size, megapixel count and zoom range, but is it also big in performance? Find out now by reading our expert Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra review, complete with full-size sample images and videos…
The Sony Xperia 1 II is a new flagship smartphone offering a range of pro image and video features aimed at keen camera enthusiasts. These include 20fps with continuous autofocus focus and autoexposure and real time eye AF for humans and animals, utilising technologies borrowed from the Alpha A9 full-frame mirrorless camera. Read our in-depth Sony Xperia 1 II review, complete with full-size sample images and videos, to find out if this new smartphone hits the mark for serious photography…
The Sony Xperia 5 II is a new mid-range smartphone that inherits a lot of the core features from the flagship Xperia 1 II model, in a smaller and more affordable form factor. Read our in-depth Sony Xperia 5 II review, complete with full-size sample images and videos, to find out if this new smartphone can satisfy the serious photographer…
You’ve probably never heard of Vivo before, but that shouldn’t put you off the new X51 5G, one of the best smartphones for photography that we’ve ever reviewed. What makes the Vivo X5 5G so special for both stills and video? Find out now by reading our in-depth review…
Reviews of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra from around the web.
Surprise, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is launching a month earlier than anticipated, and that’s good news if you’re eager to own the very best of what Samsung can pack into a smartphone. It wowed us with a huge screen, five cameras and the best zoom on any readily available Android phone. Caution: while it’s cheaper than last year’s ‘Ultra’ phone, it remains pricey for average consumers, and it doesn’t come with a microSD card slot nor does it include a charger.
Read the full review »
The Galaxy S21 Ultra is the best Android phone yet with dual zoom lenses, a stellar display and excellent battery life. The S Pen is just a bonus
Read the full review »
Samsung’s new S-series flagship, the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, comes with an updated design and a whole bunch of improvements under the hood. The international version of the device, the subject of this test, is powered by Samsung’s 5nm Exynos 2100 top-end chipset and is the company’s first non-Note device to offer S-Pen stylus support.
Read the full review »