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Pixel 6 Pro camera shootout vs Galaxy S21 Ultra and iPhone 13 Pro Max

Robert Triggs / Android Authority

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Google’s image processing prowess has long earned the company a reputation as one of the best at mobile photography. That accolade has been tested in recent years, owing to stagnant hardware and high-flying competitors. With the arrival of the Google Pixel 6 Pro, we’re anticipating a return to form and potentially even a new gold standard for smartphone cameras.

To put the phone to the test, we pitted Google’s handset against the ultra-premium Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max and Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra smartphones — two handsets regarded as among the best in the business when it comes to photography. They also cost $200 or more than the Pixel 6 Pro, so a win here for Google’s handset would represent exceptional value for money as well.

While we’ll be talking you through our image analysis, be sure to check out the well over 200 full-quality image samples in this Google Drive folder for yourself.

Google Pixel 6 Pro vs Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs iPhone 13 Pro Max: Camera specs

Google Pixel 6 Pro Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max
Main Camera

Google Pixel 6 Pro:

50MP (12.5MP binned)
f/1.9 aperture
26mm focal length
1/1.31″ sensor
Omni-PDAF, OIS

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra:

108MP (12MP binned)
f/1.8 aperture
24mm focal length
1/1.33″ sensor
PDAF, OIS

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max:

12MP
f/1.5 aperture
26mm focal length
1/1.66″ sensor
dual pixel PDAF, sensor-shift OIS

Ultra-Wide

Google Pixel 6 Pro:

12MP
f/2.2 aperture
Fixed Focus

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra:

12MP
f/2.2 aperture
13mm focal length
1/2.55″ sensor
dual pixel PDAF

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max:

12MP
f/1.8 aperture
13mm focal length
1/3.4″ sensor
PDAF

First zoom

Google Pixel 6 Pro:

48MP (12MP binned)
f/3.5 aperture
104mm focal length
1/2″ sensor size
PDAF, OIS
4x zoom

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra:

10MP
f/2.4 aperture
70mm focal length
1/3.24″ sensor
dual pixel PDAF, OIS
3x zoom

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max:

12MP
f/2.8 aperture
77mm focal length
1/3.4″ sensor
PDAF, OIS
3x zoom

Second zoom

Google Pixel 6 Pro:

N/A

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra:

10MP
f/4.9 aperture
240mm focal length
1/3.24″ sensor
dual pixel PDAF, OIS
10x zoom

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max:

N/A

Focusing

Google Pixel 6 Pro:

Laser AF system

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra:

Laser AF system

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max:

3D ToF Lidar

Selfie camera

Google Pixel 6 Pro:

11.1MP
f/2.2 aperture
20mm focal length
Fixed focus

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra:

40MP
f/2.2 aperture
26mm focal length
PDAF

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max:

12MP
f/2.2 aperture
23mm focal length

Color and white balance

As usual, we’ll start with the quintessential parts of any good photograph — color, exposure, and white balance. Let’s get right to our batch of samples from the main cameras.

As we’ve come to expect from Samsung, its camera loves a bit of punch and you can definitely spot vivid yellows, greens, and reds in our first very colorful snap. The effect isn’t as over the top as previous years but it’s definitely the punchier of the three. Both Apple and Google add some strong blues to the first snap, and Google takes its exposure up a little notch, which you can see in the scene’s blacks. It’s actually hard to make out the Nintendo Switch controller logo in the iPhone’s picture. Generally speaking, Samsung is the punchiest, and Apple is the most color-conservative of the three.

Our verdict: Google Pixel 6 review | Google Pixel 6 Pro review

The rule extends to our second picture, where the Galaxy S21 Ultra indulges in the scene’s warm hues more than its competitors. Our iPhone 13 Pro Max leans on a yellow tint indoors, which makes the blue of the bottle label take on a green appearance. You’ll often see this yellowing of grass, too. The Pixel 6 Pro strikes a fine balance in our second snap and is the more realistic looking out of the three here.

Moving outdoors, things change quite dramatically when it comes to Apple’s handset. The iPhone’s hues are consistently on the cooler side, with more noticeable greys and bluer-looking skies present when taking pictures outdoors. It may be cold and drab in my homeland here in the UK, but this effect is over the top. Apple also aims for a high contrast effect, with notable deep shadows around the red phone box and exaggerated highlights on the ground leaves. Similarly, the water ripples and flower highlights are cranked up in our lake-scape, but this somewhat washes out the background image. The camera’s exposure isn’t always spot on, as you’ll no doubt spot throughout the rest of this shootout.

Google and Samsung’s results are warmer. The Galaxy S21 Ultra tends towards the reds a little, while Google’s color pallet sometimes verges into the yellows, which you can definitely spot in the leaves and wood of both the outdoors snaps. They’re also both a little better with their exposure, avoiding overly dark shadows or clipped highlights in these outdoor scenes.

Don’t forget: All the photography terms you should know about

As you probably expected, all three phones snap great-looking pictures indoors and outdoors. There’s certainly nothing glaringly wrong with the way any of these flagship phones present their pictures, but they do each produce a slightly different look.

Detail

With 50MP and 108MP high-resolution cameras, we might expect ultra-fine details from the Pixel 6 Pro and Galaxy S21 Ultra, respectively. However, all three of these cameras output 12MP images, with these two utilizing pixel binning to combine light data from multiple adjacent pixels. This is just as well, as we doubt any of these sensors can actually resolve such a high resolution because they’re likely to be diffraction-limited. The iPhone’s image sensor utilizes a more traditional Bayer filter. Does that make a difference? Let’s take a look at some 100% crops.

Starting with a well-lit macro shot, there’s very little to tell between these three phones. The iPhone is the least detailed in the first sample, with notable smudging on the leaf. We make out far more fine details with the Pixel 6 Pro. Meanwhile, Samsung’s flagship provides the best overall focus and a decent level of detail, but fine lines aren’t quite as crisp as Google’s photo.

These different levels of detail capture and sharpening are much more noticeable in the second shot of a book. The iPhone’s text is barely legible and there are clear signs of noise cleanup on the image panels. The S21 Ultra shows signature signs of sharpening halos around the text, so it’s the Pixel 6 Pro that’s the cleanest here, albeit still a little heavy on the sharpening.

The Pixel 6 Pro and Galaxy S21 Ultra capture impressive levels of detail.

Turning to more complex scenes and we see a wider variety of detail capture issues across all three phones. The Pixel 6 Pro is rather smudged looking in the tree shot, with some noticeable blockiness that could be a result of insufficient light capture. Unfortunately, you can spot this effect in quite a few pictures captured by the Pixel 6, particularly in dimmer lighting conditions. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is slightly cleaner in terms of noise but with a slightly more noticeable sharpening pass on the grass and trees. The iPhone 13 Pro Max is the softest and most natural looking in this outdoor shot, albeit with some clear signs of noise too.

The roles reverse in our complex indoor scene. Here, Apple’s latest iPhone is the most aggressive in terms of sharpening and processing, producing ugly highlights and smudged textures. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is the softest here while the Pixel 6 Pro finds itself in between the two, managing to extract the slightly better minor details. Again though, we’re talking fine margins in these cropped examples.

Before leaving this section, I want to highlight a few problems I’ve noticed with the Pixel 6 camera that you definitely don’t see from either of these competitors. Quite a few of the pictures I’ve taken contain artifacts, ranging from random texture smudging to blue and red specular highlights (see some examples below). I believe these are due to the pixel-binned image sensor although they could also be a result of Google’s image cleanup algorithms. These are reasonably rare occurrences but crop up consistently enough that they’re clearly an ingrained problem with the camera.

Overall, the iPhone is regularly the weakest in terms of fine details, while the Pixel 6 Pro seems to struggle with complex textures and has some more glaring but specific issues. The S21 Ultra is the most consistent across all these environments — although either way you have to crop in to spot these differences, and all three will serve most photographers very well for detail.

High Dynamic Range

Google’s Pixel smartphones helped pioneer some of the best HDR technology in the business — it’s one of the reasons its previous handset remained competitive despite aging hardware. However, the competition has definitely caught up, so let’s see if the Pixel 6 Pro can recapture the crown.

In our first highly dynamic shot, we see by far the most foreground detail as well as more saturated colors captured with the Pixel 6 Pro. There’s a small amount of highlight clipping, but that’s to be expected when shooting into the sun, and this is present in all three results. By contrast, the foreground trees are completely black in the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s picture, although the phone does capture a little more of the sunrise’s orange hues. The Galaxy S21 Ultra sits just behind the Pixel 6 in terms of exposing the foreground.

It’s a similar state of affairs in this second shot. Again, the Pixel 6 Pro captures the most color and detail in the dark foreground while also balancing the brighter elements of the scene without much clipping, although the phone suffers from some smudging in the finer details which we don’t see from the other two. The strength of the HDR effect is also arguably a little over the top and the shadow areas should be darker.

Camera shootout: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max

The iPhone again is the darkest overall, however, it avoids clipping in the cloud and sky highlights. If the colors weren’t quite so washed out, it would be the most realistic of the three. The Galaxy S21 Ultra again falls in the middle, exposing more of the foreground and providing wide color saturation in exchange for the most clipping out of the three.

The last example is a much closer run competition between the Pixel and the iPhone. Google’s subjects are a little underexposed but the camera doesn’t clip the cloud highlights as strongly as Apple’s handset. Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra offers the best of both — a well-exposed foreground and minimal overblown highlights.

In summary, Google and Samsung offer the more powerful HDR capabilities, although Google’s, in particular, is not always the most realistic look for the scene. The iPhone has the weakest HDR implementation. It struggles with highlight clipping, blacked-out shadows, and washed-out colors far more than the other two handsets.

Low light photography

Following on from HDR, low light and nighttime photography is another area that Google’s software prowess helped popularize. Combined with a bigger sensor, we have high hopes for Google’s latest camera here.

However, it’s quite clear that without Night Sight mode enabled, the phone doesn’t capture as much light as its competitors. The first snap below is very dark and lacking in color. The iPhone 13 Pro Max does a better job with exposure, although its colors are still rather washed out and it’s quite noisy. Samsung’s camera is the noisiest of the bunch, possibly owing to an extreme ISO level, but does capture the best colors and exposure here.

Flicking Night Sight on closes the gap. The Pixel 6 Pro’s image is now as brightly exposed as daylight shots and there’s a big improvement to detail capture and color, although the effect is perhaps a little too extreme, as the colors are slightly washed out. The iPhone’s night mode improves its overall exposure and color but not by a lot. The trade-off is far more smudging — see the wooden shelves — and a generally less detailed result than its competitors.

The winner in the first shot is the Galaxy S21 Ultra. There’s an excellent level of color and detail on offer, while the exposure retains the appearance of depth in the scene that’s missing from the Pixel 6 Pro’s image.

Google still leans heavily on Night Mode for low light picture quality.

Turning the lights down lower showcases the same trend, although all three do very well given the lack of light. The Pixel 6 Pro is marginally darker without the aid of Night Mode, although it extracts a slightly better dynamic range than the iPhone 13 Pro Max. It and the iPhone are also a little too yellow compared to the S21 Ultra. Enabling Night Mode sees the Pixel 6 Pro lean more into the yellows, which is a bit of a consistent problem for its camera in the dark. You can manually adjust the temperature before shooting but shouldn’t have to when Apple and Samsung automatically grade the light correctly. Apple’s handset gets the colors spot on with Night Mode enabled.

Related: Tips for improving smartphone low light photography

The more modern sensor inside the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the best for a quick snap in the dark and it’s consistently good with Night Mode enabled. Google’s newer sensor, while much improved over the Pixel 5, doesn’t perform quite as well, likely owing to the narrower lens aperture. Google’s phone performs much better with Night Mode enabled, perhaps just pipping the iPhone into second place. But reliance on software smarts means your mileage may vary depending on the scene.

Shooting those ultra-wide angles

All three cameras boast ultra-wide angle capabilities to fit more into your shot. Right off the bat, you can squeeze more into your scene with the iPhone 13 Pro Max and Galaxy S21 Ultra. Their 120-degree field of view bests the 114-degree field of view on offer from the Pixel 6 Pro. The latter also offers a fixed focus point, meaning it’s useless for macro photography and may look unfocused at long distances too. But let’s take a look at the snaps.

As expected, the Pixel 6 Pro is still wide enough to fit a lot more in. However, the iPhone 13 Pro Max and Galaxy S21 Ultra grant a bigger step back from the main camera. In terms of image quality, Google’s handset offers the best exposure, although the tree texture from its ultra-wide camera is a little smudged on close inspection. Samsung’s camera also boasts a decent dynamic range but is too heavy on the denoise and sharpening pass. Apple’s main and ultra-wide cameras look a little washed out here, but the details are solid.

See also: The complete guide to ultra-wide camera phones

The choice of a wider field of view has its drawbacks, which can be seen in the image below. Detail quality falls off towards the edges of the image for both the iPhone and Galaxy flagships, and there are more obvious signs of lens correction attempting to disguise the warping effect of an ultra-wide field of view.

There are no such signs on Google’s narrower camera and it offers the best details here despite its fixed focus point, although that definitely isn’t always the case. It’s also worth highlighting the crushed dynamic range from Apple’s ultra-wide lens — it produces very dark shadows and clipped highlights. You’ll see this in other ultra-wide snaps in our library.

Unfortunately, Google’s seemingly cheaper wide-angle camera has some glaring problems when it comes to chromatic aberration (purple fringes and halos). You may have already spotted signs in the images above. It’s particularly noticeable in HDR scenes with patches of bright light, such as the examples below.

The effect is plainly spotted between the tree leaves at both the top and left sides of the pictures above. Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra also suffers from a similar issue in the very corners of the lens, but it’s far less pronounced. Halos aside, the Pixel 6 Pro and S21 Ultra again clearly offer better dynamic range from their ultra-wide lenses than the iPhone, which again struggles with dark shadows and overblown highlights.

Chromatic abberation severely lets down the Pixel 6 Pro’s ultra-wide camera.

Just like the Pixel 5, the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro’s ultra-wide camera is a major letdown in quality compared to its main camera, let alone its competitors’ ultra-wide implementations. The iPhone is also somewhat disappointing, as it offers decent details and a wide FOV but pictures regularly appear washed out. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is, once again, the most consistent shooter when it comes to its ultra-wide lens.

Even on a dim, overcast day, all three zoom camera setups manage reasonable exposure, dynamic range, and detail capture, although it’s Samsung’s phone that hands in the more consistent color grading and exposure when moving between zoom levels. Apple’s wide-angle and main cameras underexpose, even for this gloomy day.

In terms of detail, all three cameras are impressive from the wide-angle camera right out to 5x. At least in this first set of shots, the iPhone 13 Pro Max looks the cleanest at 3x, the Pixel 6 Pro is the winner at 5x, and Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra holds on to the finer details best at 10x, as we’d expect given the hardware on offer.

Super-Res Zoom sees the Pixel 6 Pro punch well above its weight at long range.

Switching to a move complex scene gives us a better idea of how detail holds up at intermittent and longer ranges. At around 3x, none of these three cameras is particularly clean in the scene below, with very noticeable over-sharpening from Samsung and a little from Google, too. Apple’s image is lacking detail because the 3x lens hasn’t kicked in, possibly due to the lighting — it can be finicky.

Surprisingly, all three look better at 5x, although Samsung’s image is again oversharp. The iPhone remains competitive here, as the telephoto lens has turned up to help out this time. However, it’s the 4x lens on the Google Pixel 6 Pro that produces the cleanest image by quite a margin.

At 10x, the iPhone 13 Pro Max falls off the pace quite noticeably. The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s 10x periscope camera provides a softer, more natural look than at its previous zoom levels. Google’s Pixel 6 Pro is also very good at such an extreme distance. There’s very little in it versus Samsung’s photo, despite the lack of optical hardware at this distance.

To showcase just how impressive Google’s long-range zoom capabilities are using just 4x optical hardware, here’s a 20x image comparison with the S21 Ultra. Samsung’s phone looks ever so slightly cleaner but the Pixel 6 Pro is clearly capable at extreme zoom distances too.

Although Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra excels at ultra-long range, the images produced between 3x and 10x aren’t of the same high quality. Likewise, Apple’s 3x telephoto sensor is competitive out to about 5x but not much beyond. Google’s Super Res Zoom and 4x lens combination offers the best of both worlds. While below 4x isn’t spotless, it’s at least as good as the competition, and the Pixel 6 Pro keeps the pace with Samsung’s more expensive flagship at long range too. Google’s onto a winner here.

Read more: These photography tips will take your photos to the next level

Portraits and selfies

Outdoor selfies look great no matter which camera you’re shooting with. Skin tones and textures are mostly decent, although the iPhone can add a little too much pinkness to my skin sometimes and prefers a very bright exposure. Google adds some extra pop and sharpening to its selfies and portrait pictures, while Samsung’s results are the softest of the bunch. But overall, it’s down to personal preference which looks the best.

All three phones support front camera bokeh blur and edge detection is very good on all three phones. Stray hairs still trip up these cameras but it’s not as noticeable as in years gone by. Bokeh blur looks nice, although Google’s bokeh looks a bit more like a smudge than a blur in the above example, hence why Apple errs on the side of a brighter exposure — it brings out those highlights that form nice sparkling circles. Google’s camera also pumps up the color in portrait mode and it’s just a fraction too warm here. Likewise, Apple’s is a tad cooler, but that’s more a point of preference than a complaint.

In lower light, Apple’s selfie looks a little noisier, resulting in a degradation of skin texture and tone. The camera is clearly struggling for light, although the bokeh edge detection holds up well. Ditto for the Pixel 6 Pro, although Google’s camera collects much more light and retains a warmer skin tone. The Galaxy S21 Ultra fairs well too, although it looks perhaps a little more washed out than Google’s added portrait pop, and fine face textures are a little smudged.

Related: The best selfie camera phones you can buy

You can also shoot portrait pictures using each phone’s rear camera. Edge detection is mostly good here too, although the iPhone is marginally weaker in our first example. It’s too aggressive on the foreground and background separation and misses the pumpkin stalk as a result. The Pixel 6 is slightly cleaner at picking out the pumpkin edges, but Samsung has a more subtle blur between the background and foreground that’s pleasing to the eye.

With a person in our scene, we again see the iPhone 13 Pro Max opt for a brighter presentation, and it captures very realistic skin textures. Although the skin tone is again too warm/yellow there’s the odd error in edge detection both on the hair and the right shoulder. The Galaxy S21 Ultra handles edge detection, white balance, and exposure better but facial textures are too soft. It’s perfectly fine at a quick glance but isn’t a flawless picture on closer inspection.

Google occasionally adds too much pop to its portraits, but they’re still some of the best I’ve ever seen.

This leaves us with the Pixel 6 Pro as the overall best shot here. Hair edge detection isn’t 100% perfect, but the skin texturing is incredibly detailed. The phone also nails skin tone, white balance, and subject exposure, and it’s definitely the most realistic of the three. I’ve taken plenty more photos of friends and family with the Google Pixel 6 Pro that I couldn’t include in this shootout. But I will say it takes some of the best portraits shots out of all the camera phones I’ve used over the years. It can look simply incredible, although my one complaint would be that the phone can apply too much sharpening and contrast in some situations.

Google Pixel 6 Pro camera shootout: The verdict

Google Pixel 6 Pro vs Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max side by side

Robert Triggs / Android Authority

Google has definitely upped its photography game this year, but ultimately it’s not enough to eclipse the market leaders. I highly recommend the phone to those who take a lot of portrait and zoom snaps. It recaptures the crown here thanks to Google’s latest machine learning smarts. However, the ultra-wide camera is far below par and I’d avoid this phone if that’s your preferred shooting style. Likewise, there are some regular detail issues with the main camera that need addressing too. Here’s hoping there’s a software patch soon.

Even taking these drawbacks into consideration, I’d rate the Pixel 6 Pro as a marginally better shooter than the iPhone 13 Pro Max. Apple’s latest premium smartphone costs a lot more, yet struggles with exposure, HDR, and low light shooting. It also doesn’t handle long-range zoom or ultra-wide colors as well as these competitors, although, to Apple’s credit, it does take some good portraits. It’s also a phenomenal handset for capturing video, so if you’re more into moving images over pictures, Apple’s phones are a great choice.

In terms of sheer versatility, however, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is the best out of the three. It offers excellent day and night photos from its main camera, solid selfies, excellent long-range zoom, and a robust ultra-wide lens too. There’s nothing it does badly, even though I occasionally prefer a few of the pictures taken with other phones. We’re nearing the end of the year and Samsung’s top phone is still the one to beat.


Which camera phone do you think takes the best pictures overall? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below and cast your vote in the poll above.

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