I compared the Pixel 8 Pro vs iPhone 15 Pro Max vs Galaxy S23 Ultra in a zoom shootout — here's the winner

Pixel 8 Pro, iPhone 15 Pro Max, and Galaxy S23 Ultra cameras placed next to each other.
(Image credit: Future)

Zoom cameras are increasingly setting apart flagship phones from everything else. With this year’s Pixel 8 Pro, Google kept the 5x zoom range for the 48MP telephoto camera on the back of the phone — which I personally think is a missed opportunity to stay ahead of the hone maker's rivals. And why’s that?

Well, it gave Apple an opening to add a new 5x optical zoom camera of its own with the iPhone 15 Pro Max. The telephoto lens on the back of the new Pro Max represents a step up from its predecessor’s 3x optical zoom and rightfully proved to be a formidable addition.

At the same time, the Pixel 8 Pro continues to trail the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra — widely acclaimed for its class-leading 10x telephoto camera. Considering how both the iPhone 15 Pro Max and Galaxy S23 Ultra have proven to be the two best camera phones around, it adds more pressure for the Pixel 8 Pro’s 5x telephoto camera to keep pace.

I took all three phones to find out exactly how the Pixel 8 Pro stacks up against its chief rivals when it come to 5x zoom shots. The Galaxy S23 Ultra technically still has an edge with its 10MP telephoto camera with 10x zoom, but I’m only going to judge photos shot with a 5x zoom  to keep the comparison even.

5x zoom face-off: Bethesda fountain statue

One of the first things I captured with their respective telephoto cameras was the Bethesda Fountain statue in Central Park. The Pixel 8 Pro delivers excellent details and dynamic range. Between shots from the Pixel 8 Pro and the iPhone 15 Pro Max, it’s almost impossible to tell which image came from which camera. That said, I can make out more detail in the shadows with the Pixel 8 Pro — which you can see in the shadowed portion of the statue’s left wing.

While the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s 5x zoom photo is softer due to how it’s applying a digital zoom with its 10MP 3x telephoto camera, switching over to its 10MP 10x telephoto camera reveals even sharper details that can’t be matched.

Winner: Pixel 8 Pro

5x zoom face-off: Distant skyscraper

In this shot of a skyscraper I captured from Bryant Park, the Pixel 8 Pro again shows me it’s able to capture just a smidgen more detail than the iPhone 15 Pro Max at 5x zoom. Both compositions have similar results when I quickly gaze over them, but zooming into some of the brickwork on the buildings reveals that iPhone 15 Pro Max delivers the sharper image. The Galaxy S23 Ultra is light on the finer details at 5x zoom.

Winner: iPhone 15 Pro Max

5x zoom face-off: Mosaic rooster across the track

The Pixel 8 Pro again delivered what I think is the best shot of this mosaic across the train tracks from where I was standing. There’s a good contrast between the artwork piece and the surrounding wooden boards, which exposes many of its finer details.

Meanwhile, the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s color temperature looks odd — resulting in this weird greenish hue over the entire shot. And while there’s less definition with the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s shot at 5x zoom, I have to admit the overall composition looks very similar to the Pixel with its strong contrast.

Winner: Pixel 8 Pro

5x zoom face-off: Hanging around statue

Here’s another close finish between the iPhone 15 Pro Max and Pixel 8 Pro with this 5x telephoto shot of a statue hanging off the facade of a building. If you pay close attention to the platform the statue's perched upon, the details around it are sharper with the iPhone 15 Pro Max. I can’t complain much about the Galaxy S23 Ultra, because it’s a usable shot at 5x zoom.

Winner: iPhone 15 Pro Max

5x zoom face-off: Corner side hot dog stand

I often rely on my phone’s zoom camera to read food menus that are sometimes difficult for me to see. In the case of this corner side hot dog stand, I like how I can read out all of the menu items from a far distance with the Pixel 8 Pro. If you zoom in all the way into the shot, you can actually make out the “Time Square Halal Food” sign in the middle of the food stand — whereas it’s tougher to discern with the iPhone 15 Pro Max and Galaxy S23 Ultra.

Winner: Pixel 8 Pro

5x zoom face-off: Times Square Ball

And finally, there are these shots of the Times Square Ball that I captured at 5x zoom on all three phones. I would say it’s a draw between the Pixel 8 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max. There’s a fair amount of detail in the ball itself, including in the wire running down from the ball and adjacent building. 

Winner: Pixel 8 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max

Verdict: I still wish Google extended its zoom camera

Google Pixel 8 Pro held in hand.

(Image credit: Future)

After looking through several shots at 5x zoom, it’s clear that the iPhone 15 Pro Max and Pixel 8 Pro closely match each other. They take excellent telephoto images and come in handy for certain situations, such as when I have difficulty reading menu items off a sign.

However, there’s still a part of me that wishes for an even longer telephoto range for the Pixel 8 Pro. By choosing to stay with a 5x zoom camera, it gave the iPhone 15 Pro Max the opportunity to catch up — as this comparison proves.

This ultimately leaves me to say that the Galaxy S23 Ultra is still the undisputed telephoto king. Even when I was shooting at 5x zoom, which is achieved on the Galaxy S23 Ultra with some digital zooming help from its 3x telephoto camera, I was surprised that the overall shot still handled nicely against its competitors. Of course, there’s no denying that the Galaxy S23 Ultra's 10x telephoto camera can get closer to subjects with better optical fidelity, making it the telephoto lens to turn to when you want the best close-up.

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John Velasco
Senior Channel Editor for Phones

John’s a senior editor covering phones for Tom’s Guide. He’s no stranger in this area having covered mobile phones and gadgets since 2008 when he started his career. On top of his editor duties, he’s a seasoned videographer being in front and behind the camera producing YouTube videos. Previously, he held editor roles with PhoneArena, Android Authority, Digital Trends, and SPY. Outside of tech, he enjoys producing mini documentaries and fun social clips for small businesses, enjoying the beach life at the Jersey Shore, and recently becoming a first time homeowner.