Just how much has Samsung improved the camera on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, and how? After all, the new flagship S Series phone has a 108-megapixel main camera, a periscope zoom, and the ability to shoot 8K video, which is all tech we’ve seen before. At least it is at first glance, because when you dig deeper, it becomes obvious how the S21 Ultra’s camera is a big step forward over the S20 Ultra and the Note 20 Ultra.

To help understand what makes the Galaxy S21 Ultra worth buying for the camera, I spoke to a Samsung product expert for a deep-dive into the improvements that have been made, and the best ways to really see them in action.

All-new cameras, and masses of A.I. improvements

All the cameras on the back of the S21 Ultra are new. The main camera is the third generation of Samsung’s 108MP camera, the ISOCELL HM3, and it sits in the middle of the array. Above it is the 12MP ultra-wide camera with dual-pixel autofocus and a 1.4-micron pixel size. To illustrate how much Samsung’s cameras have advanced, the S21 Ultra’s ultrawide sensor size is now the same as the main camera on the S10 and Note 10 Plus.

Below and to the side of the main and ultrawide cameras are two new 10MP zoom cameras — a periscope camera with a 10x optical zoom, and a 3x optical zoom telephoto. Both have dual-pixel autofocus, and provide better lowlight zoom performance, due to a larger pixel size, than previous models.

Bigger and better cameras are only part of the story. Samsung has made big strides forward in its use of A.I. to make use of each sensor’s abilities. The Exynos 2100’s Neural Processing Unit (NPU) is 5.3x faster than the NPU in the Exynos 990 processor, allowing it do more in the same amount of time, or speed up the A.I. aspects of the camera (similarly impressive strides were made in the Snapdragon 888 version as well). Look out for this in features like Best Shot, where the camera’s A.I. makes a recommendation on the framing and composition of your shot. It takes less than a few seconds to appear on screen.

Zoom in, steady shots, and close-ups

There are masses of features built into all the different cameras on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, and most take advantage of the new A.I.. Let’s examine the zoom capabilities first. The camera setup provides a 3x and a 10x optical zoom feature by using the two different telephoto cameras and dual-pixel autofocus technology. Between 1x and 2.9x zoom the S21 Ultra uses the wide-angle camera and laser autofocus for a digital zoom effect, and then between 3.1x and 9.9x it’s a hybrid zoom which pulls in the 108MP main camera to add more detail.

Zoom Lock is a new feature which comes into action beyond 20x zoom, and is designed to keep the subject of your shot in frame and in focus. It works using a preview window in the top corner of the viewfinder, which you tap to confirm the placement of your subject. Now, when you zoom in further the camera maintains focus and compensates for your natural movement, giving you a better final result. This works from 20x to 100x, and although 100x is still pixelated, anything up to 30x is surprisingly detailed.

Galaxy S21 Ultra 10x Zoom Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Even without Zoom Lock, Samsung’s A.I. works hard to keep the view on-screen as steady as possible when zooming right in. The digital zoom makes use of an invisible border around what you see on the screen to counteract the movement of your hand, along with the optical image stabilization, and the A.I. too. It’s noticeable, and helps take decent photos at higher zoom levels.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra has a macro function, a first for a Samsung phone, but it uses the ultrawide camera to take close-ups rather than a low-megapixel dedicated macro camera. There’s no specific macro mode either, as the phone’s A.I. knows to switch to a different mode when you’re within 10 centimeters of a subject. Don’t look for a special notification either, as instead you’ll just notice everything suddenly jump into focus, as the camera enters what Samsung calls “Enhanced Focus” mode.

Better HDR

Samsung’s A.I. works especially hard when taking photos which employ HDR. The S21 Ultra’s HDR shows a 3x improvement over the HDR on the S20 Ultra, displaying 64x more colors, and crucially uses A.I. to balance your shots and sharpen the contrast. More advanced tone mapping goes from pixel to pixel to understand the scene, boosting the image where it’s needed, but not where it isn’t. For example, it will enhance skies and backgrounds, but not apply the same modifications to foregrounds or faces.

Galaxy S21 Ultra Sky Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

This doesn’t only work at 1x and daylight; Samsung’s HDR works throughout the camera whether you’re zooming in or taking lowlight photos. The results are often excellent, even when shooting into direct sunlight, with impressive balance and overall handling of the scene.

Single Take gives you even more

Samsung’s Single Take mode, introduced on the S10 series, is much more than a mode for those who aren’t very confident about photography. It’s also great for ensuring you have total coverage of an exciting scene, and on the S21 Ultra it’s hugely more capable than before. It now presents up to 14 different shots and compositions from one single video, ready for sharing.

The more movement in your Single Take shot — which runs between five and 15 seconds — the more the phone can create from it. Once you’ve taken your short Single Take video, the A.I. will always highlight the best shot for you, and also create a black-and-white photo, a collage of shots, a wide-angle photo, a cropped shot, and a zoom, too. For video it’ll show the original piece with sound, a highlight reel, an A.I.-generated filtered video, one with the lighting adjusted, and various clips at different speeds.

This is where the S21 Ultra’s faster NPU and improved A.I. really come into play. These make the camera 5x faster at recognizing and capturing facial data than before, meaning it can see when the subject smiles, blinks, or frowns. This means the slow motion, dynamic slow motion, fast forward, reverse, or boomerang Single Take videos are more effective at capturing the exact right moment.

Video, Directors View, and multi-mic support

Samsung wants you to make as much use of the multiple camera lenses, and audio sources, as possible when shooting video. The S21 Ultra can shoot 4K video at 60fps through all the cameras, for example. Director’s View is a video mode where all cameras are active at the same time, leaving you to select which camera to use at which time. The completed video shows a main view with a picture-in-picture taken from the selfie camera. As “director,” you select which camera is used at what time during filming using similar picture-in-picture views, but in the completed video this disappears, leaving only the viewpoint changes.

While experimenting with video, use the FHD (Auto) setting to shoot video with a dynamic variable frame rate, which gradually adjusts the frame rate between 30 and 60fps depending on the lighting, ensuring your video’s look stays consistent. When shooting 8K video, the S21 Ultra has a guaranteed frame rate of 24fps, but may actually reach up to 30fps depending on the shooting environment.

Super Steady mode has been further enhanced for even smoother video, operating at 30 or 60fps in Full HD, with an anti-roll of about 90 degrees. It uses the ultra-wide and the main camera, plus the A.I. to achieve the smooth video effect. Switch to Pro Mode to try another new feature, BT Mix audio. This lets you record audio from a Bluetooth earbud source and the microphone on the S21 Ultra at the same time, so you get ambient atmospheric sound and a clear voice at the same time.

All this is really only just the beginning for what the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s cameras and upgraded A.I. make possible. The A.I. works in the background throughout the camera’s operation and its different modes, assisting with depth optimization in portrait mode, gesture recognition for taking a selfie, upscaling and de-blurring lowlight HDR shots, and reducing noise by 200% using multi-frame processing in Night Mode shots.

Alongside Samsung’s computational photography enhancements, the company draws on a library of more than 200 million photos to provide advice on how to frame and compose your photos, all in double quick time compared to previous models. It works hard in the Gallery, too, recommending adjustments to make during editing.

Don’t think the headline 108MP camera on the Galaxy S21 Ultra means it’s basically the same as the Note 20 Ultra and S20 Ultra, because due to processing, A.I., and hardware improvements, it’s a far more advanced, interesting, and versatile camera than we’ve seen before on a Samsung flagship phone.

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