The iPhone 13 Pro Max is the top of our best camera phones guide for good reason, but now it comes with a big caveat. Since testing it against the newly-released Samsung Galaxy S22 Plus, I think when the sun dips below the horizon, the new Galaxy takes the crown for photo quality.
Most impressive is that while the S22 Plus is still a premium flagship phone, it's not the best in the range. The Galaxy S22 Ultra offers additional photography features that benefit its low-light performance, but even without them, I still find the S22 Plus to be better at taking low-light photos than the most expensive iPhone.
If getting the best possible low-light images with just a couple of taps is your priority, then you'll likely do better with a Galaxy S22 than an iPhone 13.
Galaxy S22 Plus vs. iPhone 13 Pro Max: Low-light usability
Both phones will automatically enable their night modes when faced with a low-light subject, but the S22 is a little more trigger-happy on this than the iPhone. One discarded shot I tried of a string of lights in a tree came out in night mode by default for the Samsung phone, but not for the iPhone. This probably isn't a problem for most users, but it did catch me out when I looked back at my images and found what I thought was a huge quality gap between the phones, but which turned out to be down to the iPhone wanting a darker scene before moving to night mode by itself.
You can enable the night modes manually on either phone, with slightly different conditions. Turning night mode on for the Galaxy S22 requires a trip into the "More" menu, but from there you can either have the phone automatically adjust the exposure time, or you can ask for it to set it to max exposure time. The iPhone camera app doesn't give you the option to turn on night mode yourself, but when it is enabled you can select the recommended pre-set exposure time, set it to maximum, or in between the two if the maximum is two seconds or higher. I took all the images you see below with automatic mode enabled, but if it decides to play ball, the iPhone gives you a bit more control over night photography in the default app.
Galaxy S22 Plus vs. iPhone 13 Pro Max: Night mode photo samples
Enough preamble, let's check out my photos. First off, this medium shot of a "green wall" in Paddington Central has come out in two very different ways on the two phones. There's a lot more texture visible in the iPhone's image, but the coloring looks a bit off as a result. I really like what the S22's produced though, as even if you don't get the same detail in the stonework or leaves, the coloration is much more attractive and accurate to how I saw the scene.
Taking the phones for a close-up of this statue (and ignoring the sizable difference in the field of view), we have a closer competition. The S22's image is again brighter, more detailed, less noisy and sharper if you zoom in. I still like the iPhone shot too, though, since this time I feel it has the better color accuracy.
This selfie portrait I took in the same area is another Samsung win. For one, the S22's managed to capture my hair better, and the boundary between me and the background is much cleaner overall. The coloring is much more natural, too, since the iPhone's made me and the scene behind me look too warm again.
Finally, we have an indoor shot of one of my housemate's beautifully decorated espresso cup, kept on a low shelf in a dingy room. Neither shot's particularly good due to the overall lack of light, but the S22's image isn't as noisy, and is brighter than the iPhone's.
However, the iPhone managed to capture the reflection in both the cup and the saucer better, while also winning the honesty prize this time around for a more realistic shot.
Even without the top-tier hardware exclusive to the Ultra model, the Galaxy S22 Plus shows that Samsung's night mode is now on a level rivaling Apple's, if not surpassing it. The cost you need to weigh up is how realistic the shot from the S22 will be compared against the real-life subject, but that's not always going to be a problem.
The iPhone 13 Pro Max hasn't lost my respect as a camera phone due to this test, and I won't be demanding that the TG council of elders revoke its position on the top of our best camera phones guide. However, I will be doing two things: keeping my fingers crossed that Apple has some new night mode improvements for the iPhone 14, and remembering to slip the Galaxy S22 Plus into my pocket next time I'm going out for the night.