I just did a Galaxy S23 Ultra vs iPhone 14 Pro Max RAW camera shootout — and Samsung beats Apple

An iPhone 14 Pro Max in purple and a Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra in green
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The cameras on the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra and iPhone 14 Pro Max are some of the best on any smartphone you can buy today, offering impressive versatility and attractive-looking images at the tap of a virtual shutter button. But let's see what happens when we test these cameras to their limits.

Both the S23 Ultra and iPhone 14 Pro Max offer their own take on RAW image capture, a feature found on certain premium smartphones that saves photos in their highest possible resolution with minimal processing, directly from the sensor. It's similar to the format DSLR cameras use, and while they'll quickly fill up your phone's storage, it can ultimately offer the best possible results and control.

After taking several rounds of photographs with the Galaxy S23 Ultra and iPhone 14 Pro Max, I think we may have a new champion of our best camera phones guide. The iPhone is a great camera phone still, but I do think that Samsung's finally got a phone worthy of the top spot thanks to its new photography upgrades.

These images were all taken in the Samsung and iPhone's respective ExpertRAW/ProRAW camera modes, which produce larger, more detailed images that are ideal for editing later on. Since we can't display the full RAW files on our site, we've instead opted for minimally-compressed JPG images (with the appropriate color profiles) and cropped examples to demonstrate the differences between these phones.

We previously tested the iPhone 14 Pro Max 48MP ProRAW mode and were left impressed with how it stacked up against Apple's normal shots. If you want to check out some regular photo comparisons for the new Samsung phone, including with the iPhone 14 Pro Max, consult our Galaxy S23 Ultra review. Here and now though, we're going to start checking out how the iPhone 14 Pro Max and Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra compare on RAW photography.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra vs. iPhone 14 Pro Max RAW photo shootout: Night mode

We'll begin, as I did, with a low-light night mode shot. This is an area where the Galaxy S23 Ultra did very well in our review, and it continues to do so here. 

In this scene of a row of food trucks, taken with the phones' main camera, the iPhone's 12MP night mode offers better overall exposure, but it also managed to reflect the Katsu King sign within the lens (which you can see by the truck's front tire). While the lights glow more in the Galaxy S23 Ultra's image, a wider dynamic range gives the shot a more dramatic look than the flatter iPhone picture.

Switching to a cropped-in view of these shots, we see the Galaxy's image is sharper, accurately showing the pupils in the eyes of the painted skull. In some cases, though, that sharpness produces a less pleasant image. Look at how the painted sign and Dodge badge are smooth and easy to read on the iPhone image, but are more jagged and difficult to make out on the Galaxy shot.

Comparing two ultrawide shots of a floating canal bar in Paddington, the iPhone 14 Pro Max produces an attractive shot, with a more even exposure. Once you begin to crop-in, however, the advantages of the Galaxy S23 Ultra become more clear.

The ExpertRAW shot offers far more clarity and detail in the cobblestones and the boat’s flag markings versus its ProRAW counterpart — likely due to Samsung’s choice of lenses and sensor. The iPhone image also struggles with noise throughout the nighttime scene, which points to limitations with its smaller sensor compared to the Galaxy.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra vs. iPhone 14 Pro Max RAW photo shootout: Daylight photos

Moving to regular shots in the daytime now, we have this image of a cappuccino on a wooden picnic bench. We again see the greater dynamic range in the Galaxy S23 Ultra's shot, but the flatter and overall brighter look of the iPhone 14 Pro Max's image is more appealing.

The Galaxy's extra megapixels benefit it when cropping in to the latte art on top of the mug. Even accounting for the slightly different field-of-view, the bubbles in the milk foam are much clearer in the Galaxy image.

Here we've got an ultrawide shot of a red British telephone box that's been turned into a planter. The Samsung has the dimmer picture again, although it's still got a decent amount of detail in the phone booth's paintwork. There's more detail to be found in the iPhone photo though, as well as it being brighter and more appealing overall.

Let's close out with telephoto shots, this time of a fox relaxing on top of my garden shed. At 3x zoom, the two shots are closer in quality than we saw during the nighttime tests, but the Samsung produces a sharper image with much brighter colors, while the iPhone's much more saturated, helping bring out the green in the leaves particularly.

Cropping in, we see the sharpness/color gap between the two phones widens. The layers of the fox's fur is much more obvious in the Galaxy S23 Ultra image. But the iPhone still wins on color, capturing the reddish-orange of our vulpine subject much more effectively.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra vs. iPhone 14 Pro Max RAW photo shootout: Verdict

So with the onboard storage of my Galaxy S23 Ultra and iPhone 14 Pro Max units now both full of several more gigabytes of photos, what have we learned?

Generally, taking photos in ExpertRAW on a Galaxy S23 Ultra will land you with a more detailed image with a wider dynamic range, while ProRAW photos on the iPhone will be flatter and less crisp, but have more appealing colors generally. 

Taking a photo on the Galaxy S23 Ultra

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

This difference is most obvious on the ultrawide and telephoto lenses and in night mode, with the first two playing to the iPhone's strengths, and the third demonstrating the Galaxy at its best.

The overarching caveat to this test is that you can edit RAW images to look how you want them to — so because of its extra detail, the Samsung seems better for a user who's definitely going to put work into their RAW photos after taking them. The iPhone on the other hand produces RAW shots that are more fully baked; ones that will look good even if you export them immediately and start sharing without touching any settings.

It feels right that the Galaxy S23 Ultra occupies the top spot on our best camera phones guide, as its RAW photo experience is one that will suit the camera geeks who will get the most out of the image format. With the iPhone 14 Pro Max, those experts will still get a great experience, but it's also more newbie-friendly.

Richard Priday
Assistant Phones Editor

Richard is based in London, covering news, reviews and how-tos for phones, tablets, gaming, and whatever else people need advice on. Following on from his MA in Magazine Journalism at the University of Sheffield, he's also written for WIRED U.K., The Register and Creative Bloq. When not at work, he's likely thinking about how to brew the perfect cup of specialty coffee.

With contributions from