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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra zoom tested — so good iPhone 13 should be worried

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review
(Image credit: Future)

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is one of the most powerful camera phones ever, and it’s not just because it packs a 108MP main sensor. You also get two telephoto zoom lenses — one with 3x hybrid optical zoom and one 10x optical zoom. And it can make a huge difference in terms of what you can capture.

The S21 Ultra lets you go even further with Samsung’s Space Zoom, with a digital zoom that maxes out at 100x. And there’s a Zoom Lock feature that attempts to steady your shot so the viewfinder isn’t jumping around as you shoot.

Meanwhile, the iPhone 12 Pro Max, which is Apple’s most powerful camera phone, has a single telephoto lens with a 2.5x optical zoom and a 12x digital zoom. In our Galaxy S21 Ultra vs iPhone 12 Pro Max face-off, Apple’s phone delivered better image quality in some cases, but it’s hard to ignore this huge advantage when it comes to zooming.

Plus, there are rumors that the iPhone 13 won't offer a periscope zoom. Reports have Apple adding this feature to the 2022 iPhones. Take a look at how far Apple is behind. 

Road sign

For our first zoom test we set up the Galaxy S21 Ultra and iPhone 12 Pro Max across a highway facing a fish market and restaurant. And it immediately became apparent how superior the zoom is on Samsung's phone. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 

Galaxy S21 Ultra 1x zoom (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The photo above gives you a sense of how far I was away from the sign across the street, and below you'll see the Space Zoom at 10x, 30x and 100x. 

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Galaxy S21 Ultra zoom

Galaxy S21 Ultra 10x zoom (Image credit: Tom's Guide)
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Galaxy S21 Ultra zoom

Galaxy S21 Ultra 30x zoom (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

As you progress through the above slides, you'll see that the Galaxy S21 Ultra produces a sharper image at 10x than the iPhone 12 Pro Max manages at 12x. The Wooley's Fish Market text on the building is clearer, while there's plenty of noise in the iPhone image. 

The S21 Ultra's zoom camera then pushes even further so that you can easily make out the "Any Size Lobsters" text on the sign. (There's a missing T but you get the point.)

Galaxy S21 Ultra 100x zoom (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

At 100x Space Zoom, the Galaxy S21 Ultra doesn't produce the clearest image, and it wasn't that easy to capture. However, the new Zoom Lock feature on the S21 Ultra reduces some of the shakiness; you tap the display to lock in on your subject and then press the shutter. 

iPhone 12 Pro Max

iPhone 12 Pro Max 12x zoom (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The iPhone 12 Pro Max gets us across the highway in this case, and I like the warm color profile. But Apple's phone overall image is pretty noisy compared to Samsung's photo with a similar zoom level. The text on the sign is fuzzier, and there's less detail toward the top of the building. 

Samsung Galaxy Note 20

Galaxy Note 21 50x zoom (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

I included this image just to give you a sense of how far the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra's 50x zoom reaches versus the 100x zoom on the S21 Ultra. Clearly, the Note also delivers a much better zoom than the iPhone 12 Pro Max, but it doesn't benefit from the S21 Ultra's Zoom Lock feature. So this was a bit tricky to capture the first time. 

Gazebo

Galaxy S21 Ultra

Galaxy S21 Ultra 1x zoom (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

It's not that easy to tell at a quick glance that there's a gazebo in this photo across a half-frozen lake, so the fact that the Galaxy S21 Ultra can get us all the way up to the shingles on the roof is pretty impressive. 

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Galaxy S21 Ultra zoom

Galaxy S21 Ultra 10x zoom (Image credit: Tom's Guide)
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Galaxy S21 Ultra zoom

Galaxy S21 Ultra 12x zoom (Image credit: Tom's Guide)
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Galaxy S21 Ultra zoom

Galaxy S21 Ultra 30x zoom (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

At 10x zoom, you can make out more of the detail in the ice glazing across the lake, and the gazebo itself. At 30x the picture is still fairly sharp, but the shadowy areas have some noise on the left side of the shot. 

Galaxy S21 Ultra 100x zoom (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Once again, the Zoom Lock feature on the S21 Ultra helped me grab this photo at 100x, but the tiles on the roof aren't that distinct. This was taken without a tripod, so in general, I think you'll want to use one if you're going past 30x. 

iPhone 12 Pro Max

iPhone 12 Pro Max 12x zoom (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The iPhone 12 Pro Max 12x digital zoom is pretty disappointing in this case. The columns on the gazebo are not well defined, and the ice on top of the water almost looks more like a painting than a photo. 

Bench

Galaxy S21 Ultra

Galaxy S21 Ultra 1x zoom (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Going to the other side of the lake, I turned my attention to a bench across the water, and you can barely make it out in the distance. 

Galaxy S21 Ultra 30x zoom (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

At 30x zoom, the bench is mostly in focus on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, and the surrounding grass and the lake itself are fairly well defined. The top left portion of the bench is blown out a bit by the sun, but overall, it's a decent image. 

Galaxy S21 Ultra 100x zoom (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

At 100x Space Zoom, the bench is a rather blurry mess, and this was with Zoom Lock engaged on the S21 Ultra. It's usable but not something I would share. 

iPhone 12 Pro Max

iPhone 12 Pro Max 12x zoom (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The 12x zoom on the iPhone 12 Pro Max looks a bit worse than the 30x zoom shot on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which tells you how far Apple needs to go to catch up to Samsung on the zoom front. 

Mailbox

Galaxy S21 Ultra

Galaxy S21 Ultra 1x zoom (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

For this zoom test, I wanted to see how close I could get to the number on a mailbox with the Galaxy S21 Ultra to get a clear shot of the number. 

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Galaxy S21 Ultra zoom

Galaxy S21 Ultra 10x zoom (Image credit: Tom's Guide)
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Galaxy S21 Ultra zoom

Galaxy S21 Ultra 30x zoom (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

At 10x zoom, the flower and butterfly on the mailbox above the number both look very clear, as does the bark on the tree to the left. And even at 30x the flower and butterfly sticker are remarkably sharp. 

Galaxy S21 Ultra 100x zoom (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

You only start to see significant noise in the image when we hit 100x Space Zoom on the mailbox. However, in this case the results look a bit better than other photos taken at the max zoom level. 

iPhone 12 Pro Max

iPhone 12 Pro Max 12x zoom

iPhone 12 Pro Max 12x zoom (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Alas, this is as far as the iPhone 12 Pro Max goes, and you'll notice that the road and tree don't look as detailed as on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. The mailbox itself looks pretty good, though.

Bottom line

The Galaxy S21 Ultra's zoom gives it a major advantage over the iPhone 12 Pro Max's camera. You simply have a lot more options for shooting when you can get 10x zoom photos that look fantastic, and 30x zoom pics that deliver fairly sharp results. It's only once you hit 100x zoom that the image quality starts to fall apart — a situation you can mitigate by using a tripod.

As for the iPhone, rumor has it that the zoom on the iPhone 13 coming out this fall won't see the leap that we were hoping for, and that Apple may hold off until 2022 to give us a powerful periscope zoom. I hope that's not true. 

Mark Spoonauer

Mark Spoonauer is the global editor in chief of Tom's Guide and has covered technology for nearly 20 years. In addition to overseeing the direction of Tom's Guide, Mark specializes in covering all things mobile, having reviewed dozens of smartphones and other gadgets. He has spoken at key industry events and appears regularly on TV to discuss the latest trends. Mark was previously editor in chief of Laptop Mag, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc. Follow him on Twitter at @mspoonauer.