Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra vs. iPhone 14 Pro Max macro shootout: Which phone takes the best close-ups?

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra vs iPhone 14 Pro Max cameras
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Our two top picks for best camera phones — the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra and iPhone 14 Pro Max — have versatile lens arrays that'll help you capture all types of shots. But one of the most difficult for a phone to get right is the extreme close-up, or macro shot.

Samsung has offered macro mode on its Ultra handsets since the Galaxy S21 Ultra, while that feature has been a part of Apple's Pro devices since the iPhone 13 Pro. But we were interested in how the latest phones perform when you're holding their lenses right up close to your subject. With both phones in hand, I set out to answer this question.

My findings proved fascinating. Both the Galaxy S23 Ultra and iPhone 14 Pro Max have effective but distinctive styles of macro photo that make the most out of certain shots, despite sharing near-identical hardware. The overall winner comes down not only to preference, as it often can when comparing camera phones, but also to other practicalities like price and even phone design.

If you're a Galaxy S23 Ultra or iPhone 14 Pro Max owner looking for more bragging rights, or are trying to figure out which phone might be best to buy if you're a keen macro photographer, read on to see which device wins.

Also, check out our Galaxy S23 Ultra vs iPhone 14 Pro Max face-off for an overall comparison of these phones' specs and features.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra vs. iPhone 14 Pro Max macro shootout: The cameras

Both the Galaxy S23 Ultra and the iPhone 14 Pro Max use 12MP ultrawide cameras for the macro shots, rather than a dedicated macro or telemacro lens as you may find on other phones. Both phones also feature a 1/2.55-inch sensor with 1.4-micrometer pixels and an f/2.2 aperture, meaning neither should have a mechanical advantage when it comes to detail, light intake or depth of field. Instead, it'll all be down to how they've been optimized by their manufacturers and how the images are processed.

One notable difference is the price you need to pay to get these abilities. While I used a Pro Max model for these tests, the $999/£1,099/AU$1,749 iPhone 14 Pro offers the same ultrawide sensor and the same macro abilities. Samsung has kept macro mode on its Galaxy S models an Ultra model exclusive, meaning you'll have to pay at least $1,199 / £1,249 / AU$1,949 for the privilege. 

Although the cheaper Galaxy S23 and Galaxy S23 Plus use the same ultrawide camera/sensor package, they don't offer Samsung's macro photography mode, meaning the iPhone is (relatively) much better value for macro photo fans. 

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra vs. iPhone 14 Pro Max macro shootout: The photos

The time's come to compare some images. First though, some words on the user experience when snapping macro shots on the Galaxy S23 Ultra and iPhone 14 Pro Max.

On both phones, the camera app detects when you're close to an object, and automatically switches to their ultrawide lenses for the best focus. This works well on both devices, and can be manually disabled if you don't want to use it for a given shot.

It's much easier to get in close to a subject with the Galaxy S23 Ultra's macro mode without casting a shadow than it is on the iPhone. This is because the Galaxy S23's ultrawide camera is in line with the phone's left edge, but the iPhone's ultrawide is located to the right of the other rear cameras. As a result, the iPhone needs to be held higher to get the same shot as the Galaxy, meaning you're more likely to cast a shadow.

This seems petty, but with macro photos you need more light than a typical image, so casting shadows can make things much more difficult.

With that out of the way, on to the photos themselves.

In this first shot of a latte art heart on top of a cappuccino, you can see there's less light in the iPhone's shot for the reason I explained above. In terms of detail, both phones have done a good job of capturing the foamy milk and chocolate powder, but I like both the light level and the richer color of the S23's image more, so that wins this round.

Moving to a small yellow flower, the Galaxy S23 is doing its usual trick of cranking up the saturation of the image, which does look nice in a way. But doing that loses you some of the detail in the veins of the petals that the iPhone still shows, and flattens the color of the overall flower. For this subject, the iPhone wins.

This metal key shows both the Samsung's oversaturation problem and the iPhone's shadow-casting problem. The Galaxy S23 Ultra does win on detail, but it's blown out the highlights along the top edge of the blade, something that the iPhone doesn't do.

Looking now at a leaf, the iPhone's shot has really emphasized the highlights and shadows in the image, which makes for a more visually interesting shot and helps bring out the individual cells in the leaf. The Galaxy's shot is more evenly lit, which makes the leaf look a lot less interesting.

Our final shot captures the cuff of a green sweater. Again we see a shadow encroaching from the bottom of the iPhone's image. But setting that aside, it's captured the color of the sweater more accurately, and is overall a bit sharper than the S23 Ultra's shot.

That sharpness has brought out the stray threads escaping the rows of ribbing, which is a little distracting. The Samsung photo does a better job of capturing highlights and shadows in this case, although it's still a bit dull to look at overall.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra vs. iPhone 14 Pro Max macro shootout: Who wins?

Before I declare a victor, I feel I need to state that the real winner of this comparison is you, no matter whether you buy a Galaxy S23 Ultra or iPhone 14 Pro. Macro mode is worthwhile on both phones if you have the patience for it, and the difference between the two phones isn't wide enough for you to worry about missing out by going for one phone over the other.

I commend the Galaxy S23 Ultra for ease of use, since its basic design is a lot friendlier to keeping your subjects well-lit as you get in close. But if you can get your composition right, the macro shots you can achieve with the iPhone can look a lot more dramatic, and I still prefer Apple's color processing for non-human subjects, as we have seen in the comparisons above.

Bringing other factors in beyond the photos, I think the iPhone 14 Pro could arguably win outright simply because its macro mode costs $200 less to access than the Galaxy S23 Ultra.

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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.