The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra proves the megapixel war is now a battle of the zooms – TechRadar

Yes, we had the Space Zoom gimmick at last years S20 Ultra launch. However this time were speaking about genuinely helpful optical zoom. Like the Huawei Mate 40 Pro Plus, the S21 Ultra integrates two devoted telephoto electronic cameras– one offering 3x zoom, the other 10x zoom..
And the outcome could, in theory, be the finest zoom experience weve seen on a mobile phone up until now.

Having 2 cams with devoted telephoto focal lengths in your pocket is, as well discover, an imaginative benefit that makes phones feel more like DSLRs or mirrorless cameras. If you missed out on the Galaxy S21 Ultra launch, heres a quick wrap-up of its cam upgrades. The top 2– a fairly basic 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide and primary 108MP f/1.8 electronic camera– are mostly the exact same as the ones we saw on last years S20 Ultra.
The photosites (or pixels) on both the 3x and 10x zoom cams are half the size of the 2.4-micron ones you get in the primary cameras default 12MP mode. And their lens apertures are respectively f/2.4 and f/4.9, which indicates they let in considerably less light than main electronic cameras f/1.8 lens.

Pocket bridge cam.
Now weve set some expectations, its time to get delighted about the possibilities of the S21 Ultras two devoted telephoto electronic cameras again. How might they in fact assist in real-world shooting?
Telephotos usually evoke wildlife photographers in bird hides, but on a smart device they bring a couple of benefits for daily shooting. The S21 Ultras mid-range 3x zoom, for instance, will be more like having a prime picture lens in your pocket.
Portrait photographers normally prefer 85mm prime lenses and the 72mm comparable focal length of the Galaxy S21 Ultras 3x zoom cam could work nicely for this type of shooting. Last years S20 Ultra just had a single 103mm telephoto, and that video camera had a smaller sensing unit and more limited PDAF autofocus than the S21 Ultras 2 new telephotos (which both guarantee the remarkable Dual Pixel AF).

It primarily comes down to the distinction between optical and digital zoom. Digital zooms are really a simulation of optical zoom lenses, which work by physically bending the light to a focal point on the sensing unit, like amplifying glasses.
Digital zooms have actually improved a lot on mobile phones in the last few years, thanks to methods like Super Res Zoom pioneered by the Google Pixel 3. Lots of phones still accomplish their telephoto reach solely by utilizing digital methods like cropping or pixel binning from high-resolution sensing units. And these normally produce inferior quality compared to dedicated telephoto lenses.
Having a two dedicated telephotos at useful focal lengths like 72mm and 240mm, then, is a big step up. However before we get too fired up, there are a few cautions..

Some digital simulation will naturally be inescapable when youre zooming in between the S21 Ultras electronic cameras, because phone lenses do not have moving glass components. In a real zoom lens, these return and forth to change the focal length.
The pesky laws of physics also mean that telephoto cameras, like the ones on the S21 Ultra, have considerably smaller sized sensors and slower apertures than the primary electronic camera.
Thats the case once again on the S21 Ultra. The photosites (or pixels) on both the 3x and 10x zoom cameras are half the size of the 2.4-micron ones you get in the primary cameras default 12MP mode. And their lens apertures are respectively f/2.4 and f/4.9, which suggests they allow considerably less light than main cams f/1.8 lens.

( Image credit: Samsung) The viewpoint.
If the S21 Ultra manages to deliver on these theoretical advantages– and fixes some of the direct exposure and autofocus issues we came across on the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra– then it ought to challenge the Huawei Mate 40 Pro for the title of our finest electronic camera phone.
Of course, the Space Grey elephant in the space is Apple. Its never showed any interest in combating the megapixel war, preferring to keep its electronic camera sensing units at a 12MP resolution. The iPhone 12 Pro Maxs 2.5 x optical zoom unexpectedly looks quite paltry and Apple will likely require to respond.
Its extremely likely that, somewhere in Apple Park, engineers are beavering away on the iPhone equivalent of the S21 Ultras periscope zoom. No doubt it will come billed as “an advancement mobile phone telephoto called HyperZoom”. However according to the latest rumors, that wont get here on the iPhone 13– in fact, it might not be ready until 2022 or perhaps 2023.
This means the zoom war, which is the more intriguing successor to the megapixel war, is likely only simply beginning. Were eagerly anticipating testing the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra to learn simply how huge a headstart it has..

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra launch spent an uncomfortable 3 minutes gushing about its “unforgettable” black paint job, however the phones brand-new telephoto cameras were the genuine stars– and theyre an essential upgrade that proves zoom is going to be this years battlefield for the very best camera phones.

( Image credit: Samsung) In excellent light, that 72mm lens should also be helpful for merely getting more innovative with your shooting. Rather than recording the entire scene in front of you, the tighter field of vision forces you to really think of framing and composition. This is a method thats typically recommended to novice photographers to assist them improve.
What about the longer 240mm lens? As weve pointed out, this will be a more niche affair, but it will not just be for snapping far-off hills and buildings. It might be a helpful way to get more natural bokeh (or background blur) than the digitally simulated kind you get in Portrait Modes..
At longer focal lengths, your depth of field tends to reduce– so if youre shooting small things utilizing the S21 Ultras 10x optical zoom, it could well serve up some charming smooth bokeh and falloff that will be reminiscent of a mirrorless camera or DSLR. Thats something were looking forward to trying.

The limitations of phone zoom.

( Image credit: Samsung) This is interesting since zoom has to do with a lot more than simply having the ability to snap distant horizons. Having two cams with dedicated telephoto focal lengths in your pocket is, as well discover, a creative bonus that makes phones feel more like DSLRs or mirrorless cams. For photographers, this is way more interesting than a 108MP sensing unit that was, as I argued last year, never ever truly the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultras genuine headline feature.
No, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra isnt the first smart device with a 10x periscope lens (that was the Huawei P40 Pro Plus) or the very first to come with dual telephoto cams (see the Xiaomi Mi 10 Ultra and Vivo X50 Pro Plus)..

However it is the very first time weve seen it land on a flagship from the worlds greatest smartphone manufacturer– whichs a huge moment that puts the photography ball firmly back in Apples court.

Youll most likely just be able to get good results from these zoom lenses in daytime, and the 10x optical zoom with a ton of available light. Yes, night mode might be able to help, and the S21 Ultras double-folded periscope lens is technically extremely impressive.
These difficulties, which are a battle even for the Galaxy S21 Ultras bespectacled Phantom Black scientists, indicate its not unusual for mobile phone zooms to covertly switch to their primary sensing units in low light and digitally crop the image from there, instead of use their telephoto video cameras. This has held true on iPhones for a while, and itll be intriguing to see if the Galaxy S21 Ultra does something comparable.

Getting better.
Heres a quick wrap-up of its video camera upgrades if you missed out on the Galaxy S21 Ultra launch. On the back, it now has a total of four video cameras. The leading 2– a relatively basic 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide and main 108MP f/1.8 cam– are mainly the same as the ones we saw on in 2015s S20 Ultra.
But flanking that main cam are those interesting new telephotos. To the right we have a 10MP f/2.4 camera with a 72mm comparable focal length (simply put, 3x optical zoom) and listed below that theres an excellent 10MP f/4.9 camera with a substantial comparable reach of 240mm (or 10x optical zoom).

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