How Galaxy Note 20’s massive camera compares to iPhone 11’s

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The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s camera is a huge part of the phone — literally and figuratively. With a 5x optical zoom , 108-megapixel sensor and 8K recording, it’s no surprise that Samsung is looking to win over photographers and videographers alike. But how does it compare to the iPhone 11 Pro Max? Though it came out last year, the iPhone is still one of the best phones for photos and video recording.

a hand holding a cellphone

© Lexy Savvides/CNET

To see which of the two had the best camera , I tested both phones when it came to zooming, low-light pictures, video and more. The phones are working with similar hardware — both have three rear cameras with an ultra-wide, regular wide and telephoto lens. And while some categories look to have a clear winner (the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, for example, immediately has the zooming advantage with its 5x optical zoom compared to the 2x zoom on the iPhone), other features incorporate a mix of hardware and computational photography tricks that don’t always result in a clear-cut winner.


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Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max: $1,099 at Apple

That being said, if you want to know the camera strength and weaknesses of either phone, read on to learn more. And take a look at the photo comparisons and in the video on this page to decide which photos you prefer the most. There are no right or wrong answers, and bear in mind that the screen you view these images on will affect the way they look.

Read more: Night mode on the iPhone 11 Pro and Pixel 4 and Galaxy S20 Ultra vs. iPhone 11 Pro Max camera comparison

a hand holding a cell phone: Lexy Savvides/CNET

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Lexy Savvides/CNET

Both phones are great at landscapes, HDR and ultra-wide photos

I took the Note 20 Ultra and iPhone 11 Pro Max around San Francisco and was impressed by how each brilliantly captured the city in its many states, from foggy mornings to bright, sunny afternoons over the Bay. To best simulate the average person’s experience, I left both phones’ cameras on their default settings and the colors looked vibrant. For reference, that means leaving the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s “scene optimizer” on and the iPhone 11 Pro Max’s “Smart HDR” on. 

a large brick building with a purple flower: Lexy Savvides/CNET

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Lexy Savvides/CNET

The Note’s main rear camera has a 108-megapixel sensor, which is valuable if you want to take a photo that has extra latitude to crop in after you capture the image. It also helps take pictures with a shallow depth of field, thanks to its large sensor, giving them a look almost like those from a DSLR. Sometimes though, when I took photos of flowers or other objects close up, the depth of field was so shallow, I often had to check if my shots were in focus or not. Even when shooting at the regular 12-megapixel mode, I found myself sometimes taking a step back and switching to the telephoto lens to get a shot with more depth of field.

The Note 20 Ultra and iPhone 11 Pro Max both use computational photography techniques to get the best out of the camera hardware, albeit using different techniques. The Note uses pixel binning to capture shots that retain tons of details at 12-megapixels in all lighting, while the iPhone 11 Pro employs Apple’s deep fusion technology to bring out the most details in medium to low light.

Overall, details captured from both phones were good, especially when I inspected photos at full magnification. But the iPhone 11 Pro Max did hold the edge for details in medium to dim light.

The ultra-wide cameras on both are also fantastic, though the iPhone 11 Pro Max’s shots looked more saturated and pleasing. On the other hand, the Note 20 Ultra did a slightly better job retaining highlight and shadow detail in its HDR on the ultra-wide.

a bridge over a body of water: Lexy Savvides/CNET

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Lexy Savvides/CNET

Note 20 Ultra wins for its clear, crisp zoom photos

Taking a step back from the ridiculous 100x space zoom on the S20 Ultra, the Note 20 Ultra dials it down to a more manageable 50x on the telephoto camera, with a 5x optical zoom.

Photos taken at 5x zoom look great as long as there’s enough light. I was genuinely surprised at how sharp and detailed shots were. The iPhone 11 Pro Max has a 2x telephoto camera that can go to 10x digital, but when you put the shots side-by-side there isn’t much of a comparison to make. The Note 20 Ultra clearly has the advantage.

a large city landscape: Lexy Savvides/CNET

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Lexy Savvides/CNET

For me, the sweet spot on the Note 20 Ultra’s telephoto camera is the 10x hybrid, which lets me get closer to my subject without sacrificing quality. Take a look at the 10x shot I took of the Golden Gate Bridge to see how well the camera captured the scene.

a large tall tower with a mountain in the background: Lexy Savvides/CNET

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Lexy Savvides/CNET

Night photos are super close

Take a look at the night mode samples below to see how each phone deals with low-light photos. I love the results from both, though overall the iPhone 11 Pro Max had a warmer white balance, which was more representative of the actual scene to my eyes.

a person standing in front of a palm tree on a sidewalk: Lexy Savvides/CNET

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Lexy Savvides/CNET

a motorcycle is parked on the side of a building: Lexy Savvides/CNET

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Lexy Savvides/CNET

The Note 20 Ultra offers more control for photos and videos

There are two Pro modes on the Note 20 Ultra: One for still images and another for video. The mode offers full exposure control to adjust aperture, shutter and ISO to get the most out of your images. For video there’s the addition of live histogram and tools to tweak audio levels and mic controls. Though the tools themselves are useful, it was confusing to have the two modes separated. I’d rather have the interface consolidated to avoid having to swap back and forth between them.

The iPhone 11 Pro Max doesn’t have any of these Pro modes built in, but there are plenty of third-party apps that offer you the same sort of controls.

For selfies and portrait mode analysis, watch the video on this page.

iPhone 11 Pro Max still has the edge for video

While I love the Pro video capabilities of the Note 20 Ultra (plus 8K recording that’s actually usable compared to the version on the S20 Ultra) the iPhone 11 Pro Max records better video straight out of the box. The default picture on the iPhone is well-balanced and has good contrast, plus detail is resolved more cleanly. Take a look at the video samples below to see what I mean.

The Note 20 Ultra has way more video capabilities, however, including a live focus video mode (at 1080p) that blurs the background behind your subject, plus the aforementioned 8K recording at 24fps. I do wish the Pro video mode had the option to change the picture profile, which would really give the most flexibility for grading (a picture profile is a way to adjust the look of the image). There’s also an almost overwhelming number of resolutions and frame rates to choose from, plus aspect ratios like 16:9 and 21:9. I love that the Note 20 Ultra has these options and I have been using them a lot, although for the casual photographer they’ll probably go unused.

Lastly for video (and for still images), the Note 20 Ultra’s Laser AF system addresses the laggy autofocus issues that were present on the S20 Ultra, although it’s still notably not as smooth at exposure and focus transitions as the iPhone in video (you can see the test in the video above, and 8K samples in the video below).

Which phone has the best camera?

It’s clear that the Note 20 Ultra offers more for photographers, thanks to its Pro photo and video modes, 5x optical zoom and 108-megapixel sensor. But deciding between the two phones also comes down to what sort of photos you want to take and what kind of photographer you are. Do you want the most control over your shots, plus an excellent zoom? Choose the Note 20 Ultra. Do you want to be able to take great photos and videos without too much manual control on the default camera? Choose the iPhone 11 Pro.

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