The Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra Has a Great Camera. You Don’t Need It.

The Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra Has a Great Camera. You Don’t Need It.

Flagship smartphones are extremely expensive, and one of the tactics that device makers like Samsung and Apple employ to try to convince people to upgrade is to add new, DSLR-style camera features to their phones. Samsung’s new Galaxy S23 Ultra attempts to justify its sky-high $1,200 price tag in a few ways, including a 200-megapixel camera that seems especially impressive on paper. But if your current phone is only a few years old, shelling out that much money to get more megapixels simply isn’t necessary.

The Galaxy S23 Ultra’s 200-megapixel Samsung Isocell HP2 sensor seems like a big increase from the 108-megapixel sensor on the Galaxy S22 Ultra. And thanks to this sensor, you can shoot razor-sharp photos at full resolution. But it isn’t as much of an upgrade as it sounds. In fact, the default 12.5-megapixel mode will almost always produce better overall images because of the way smartphone cameras work today—the quality you get is as much about image-processing techniques as it is about the number of megapixels. The real upgrade in the S23 Ultra’s camera lies in how it allows increasingly effortless zoom while preserving brightness, so you can frame every shot the way you want.

What does a 200-megapixel camera even do?

Every smartphone maker uses computational photography to make camera images look more impressive. Unlike mechanical cameras or DSLRs, which take one photo when you press the shutter, your phone’s camera can capture multiple frames, apply custom color science, and run the pixels through AI algorithms to create the final product. This process may give up some resolution in favor of increased brightness, however, and that’s why the S23 Ultra’s 200-megapixel images don’t wow like the 12.5-megapixel versions it’s designed to output by default.

Smartphone camera sensors are small compared with the sensors in dedicated cameras. Small sensors mean small pixels, and small pixels can’t collect as much light. The solution to this simple physics problem is a process called pixel binning, which merges multiple adjacent pixels into larger virtual pixels with higher light sensitivity. By merging four-by-four blocks of pixels together, Samsung turns individual 0.6-micron pixels into a giant 2.6-micron pixel. That’s how you get from 200 megapixels to 12.5 megapixels. You can tell the difference particularly in low-light mode, where the S23 Ultra can capture slightly brighter, more balanced photos than Google’s Pixel 7 Pro.

A 12.5-megapixel binned photo from the Galaxy S23 Ultra. Photo: Ryan Whitwam

In perfect lighting, as shown in the images above, the 200-megapixel mode can extract impressive detail compared with the binned photo. However, life is not perfectly or even consistently lit. The 12.5-megapixel images pump up the colors, even out the brightness, and sharpen the edges, all trademarks of Samsung’s image processing. Nine times out of 10, that processed photo is the one you’ll keep, because the 200-megapixel version is not similarly optimized. In the real-world comparison shown below, the binned photo looks sharper because the 200-megapixel shot’s smaller pixels captured less light and thus less detail in both light and dark areas; the colors and white balance of the full-resolution shot are also worse.

So the S23 Ultra’s 200-megapixel shots don’t look as good. Why use that sensor instead of something with physically larger pixels and a lower resolution? Shooting ultra-high-resolution pictures in pro mode with raw-file output is a cool feature that photography buffs are likely to value. But a 200-megapixel sensor is great for zooming, and that’s where the S23 Ultra truly shines for people who aren’t pros.

A shot from the S23 Ultra’s primary camera (12.5 megapixels). Photo: Ryan Whitwam

Galaxy S23 Ultra vs. Pixel 7 Pro

You’ve probably zoomed in with your phone’s camera to capture a far-away object only to be disappointed with the blurry or pixelated results. But even if you zoom in more than a little with the Galaxy S23 Ultra, Samsung’s 200-megapixel sensor has enough resolution to change the binning and still output a 12.5-megapixel shot with improved brightness and processing compared with the results that the 200-megapixel mode would have produced. For example, at 2x zoom, the S23 Ultra uses 50 megapixels at the center of the sensor binned in two-by-two blocks. Samsung’s improved brightness extends to night-mode photography (which Samsung insists on calling Nightography), where the S23 Ultra can actually take brighter shots than the reigning night-mode champ, Google’s Pixel 7 Pro.

An S23 Ultra night-mode shot, showing more brightness and accurate colors compared with the Pixel 7 Pro. Photo: Ryan Whitwam

Zooming in beyond 2x puts all of the S23 Ultra’s other lenses to work. On cheaper phones, you might have three or even four camera sensors, but that selection could include dedicated macro, monochrome, and depth sensors that barely add anything of value. In contrast, the S23 Ultra has four camera modules with four different focal lengths (zoom levels). If you zoom out from the default viewfinder, you switch to the S23 Ultra’s ultrawide camera. Zoom to 3x, and a telephoto sensor takes over from the primary. You can even push it all the way to 10x, where the phone’s other telephoto camera kicks in.

A shot from the S23 Ultra’s ultrawide lens. Photo: Ryan Whitwam

The 10x telephoto lens is what’s known as a folded periscope because it uses a mirror to reflect light on a sensor that is mounted perpendicular to the back of the phone. That’s the only way to fit such a long lens inside the compact body of a phone, even one as big as the Galaxy S23 Ultra. The Pixel 7 Pro also has a periscope zoom, but it reaches only 5x. The S23 Ultra’s lens allows it to photograph more distant objects without relying on cropping and AI sharpening.

In the past, a higher-resolution camera would give you better-looking photos, but that isn’t necessarily the case today. Even with a 200-megapixel sensor, the S23 Ultra’s photos aren’t twice as sharp as those from the S22 Ultra or four times as sharp as the photos from the Pixel 7 and 7 Pro. Google uses pixel binning in the Pixel 7 and 7 Pro, but its sensor offers only 50 megapixels total, and it doesn’t even give you an option to shoot at full resolution. But when we tried shooting with the Pixel 7 Pro side by side with the Galaxy S23 Ultra, the photos from Google’s flagship phone retained ample detail without oversharpening and exhibited colors that were more accurate while still being eye-catching. The phones simply use different processing techniques to generate a 12.5-megapixel final image, and more often than not, we prefer Google’s take.

An indoor photo from the S23 Ultra. Note the more vibrant colors. Photo: Ryan Whitwam

On the other hand, the S23 Ultra’s hardware gives it some capabilities that Google’s phone simply doesn’t have. Each sensor on the S23 Ultra is integral to the experience, allowing you to zoom in or out to get just the right photo and keep as much of the available resolution as possible, even all the way at 10x zoom. The Pixel 7 Pro, in contrast, tops out at 5x, so it has to crop out half its sensor resolution (known as digital zoom) to match the S23 Ultra.

If you’re shopping for a new Android phone and want one that will nail a photo on the first try without any setup or editing on your part, that’s still the Google Pixel 7. If you’re a photography pro who wants to tinker with zoom levels, crop super-high-resolution images, and shoot in raw formats, the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra is your only choice. That advantage isn’t enough by itself to justify the S23 Ultra’s price, though. You should get the S23 Ultra only if you also require a premium design, an OLED screen, and stylus support.

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