Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra vs iPhone 14 Pro Camera Shootout: Time for Apple to Step Down?
iPhones have long been hailed as the “go-to” smartphone of choice when it comes to video recording. Whether its content creators or mobile photography enthusiasts, Apple’s iPhones pack enough power and capabilities to satiate everyone’s video capturing requirements. However, this year more than ever, Apple seems to have fallen behind in terms of still imaging quality. In my previous smartphone camera shootout between the Google Pixel 7 Pro and the iPhone 14 Pro, it was easy to tell how big of a leap Google had over the iPhone 14 Pro. At the same time, our review of the Pixel 7 Pro (Review) also drove home the fact that while Samsung’s Galaxy S22 Ultra (Review) might be the ‘king of zoom’, it still had a lot of catching up when it came to regular still photography.
It’s 2023, and Samsung has launched its latest Galaxy S23 Ultra, which exceeded expectations in our review thanks to its new 200-megapixel primary camera sensor and the customised processor from Qualcomm. At the same time, Apple has had plenty of time to deliver several updates to the iPhone 14 Pro in order to fine-tune its high-resolution 48-megapixel sensor. Both phones are available at a similar price too, which just begs another camera shootout, and that’s exactly what we have done.
Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra vs iPhone 14 Pro: Camera specifications
Samsung’s Galaxy S23 Ultra has four rear-facing cameras and the specifications are in the table below. While it may seem like a simple setup, Samsung uses these cameras in a very interesting manner and most of this depends on how far an object or person is from the rear cameras. These results do vary depending on how well one understands this camera system, so let’s dive a bit deeper.
|Galaxy S23 Ultra||iPhone 14 Pro|
|Field of View||120 degree||120 degree|
|Telephoto Camera||Resolution||10 + 10-megapixels||12-megapixels|
|Aperture||f/2.4 + f/4.9||f/2.8|
|Optical zoom||3X + 10X||3X|
Since the primary camera on the Galaxy S23 Ultra has a large sensor, it leads to photos that have a very shallow depth of field (DoF), which some may prefer but others won’t. This DoF makes better sense when shooting people or objects a metre away, but at the same time makes it difficult to shoot smaller objects up close. Samsung attempts to remedy this by using a feature called Focus Enhancer, which basically switches between the primary sensor and the ultra-wide sensor depending on the lighting conditions and how far phone is from the subject.
When you tap-to-focus on an object less than a metre away from the rear cameras, Focus Enhancer attempts to give the user a wider DoF by switching to the ultra-wide camera and this leads to some underwhelming and over-sharpened images. Move in closer for that macro shot (about a couple of centimetres away from the same subject) and the phone switches to a cropped (almost 1.5-2X) view of the ultra-wide angle camera.
This seems like a smart move because it gets you closer to the object for that perfect macro photo, but results in a slightly upscaled image that seems a bit over-sharpened. It does make better sense to switch to the ultra-wide camera manually and use the full resolution of the 12-megapixel sensor, which leads to some quality macro photos.
On the iPhone 14 Pro, the system is far simpler and Apple uses its large primary 48-megapixel sensor to its advantage, switching to the 3X telephoto only when it’s really needed. However, when it comes to macro photography, just like the Galaxy S23 Ultra, I found the results from the ultra-wide camera to be far better.
For daylight samples in this comparison, I disabled the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s Scene Optimiser feature as it captures photos with abnormally saturated colours that are nowhere close to the actual scene. However, Scene Optimiser has its advantages in low-light shooting as it helps capture well-optimised low-light photos with shorter exposure times, firing up the dedicated Night mode only when needed. I did keep the feature enabled after sunset. One thing to keep in mind is that Samsung’s Scene Optimiser is only available for the rear cameras when using Photo mode.
Apple’s auto-night mode also functions in a similar manner when set to “Auto” in the slide up tray. It automatically judges exposure times according to the scene. Setting the same slider to “Off” switches off Night mode completely leading to noisy low-light photos, and setting it to “Max” enables a proper Night mode with long exposures.
Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra vs iPhone 14 Pro: Primary cameras
When it comes to colour consistency, Samsung wins against the iPhone despite its slightly warmer colour tones. It’s incredibly hard to understand how Apple gets this wrong, but images produced by the iPhone have colours that can be quite accurate or way off at times, appearing as if they have been shot through a filter. Samsung isn’t the best in the business either, as it showcases slightly warmer tones with a reddish tinge, but it sure has come a long way from previous Galaxy models.
There’s also a noticeable difference in focus priority between the two primary cameras. Apple’s iPhone prioritises and focuses on an object or plane closest to the camera, which results in a nice focus fall off thereon. The Galaxy on the other hand tends to throw it wide open and focus to infinity (unless you tap on an object in the viewfinder) so there are instances where a scene may end up appearing a bit flat with all the objects in the scene appearing sharp. Of course, this isn’t a problem but something that can be remedied with a single tap-to-focus gesture when you need to create that sense of depth.
The primary camera on the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra captures images with plenty of detail at 1X and up to 2.9X, beyond which is where the first telephoto camera takes over. Thanks to its abnormally high sensor resolution and Samsung’s optimisations (hardware and software), even the cropped output at 2X appears almost native in terms of details (with the Focus Enhancer switched off).
The iPhone 14 Pro captures contrasted photos, which leads to lesser dynamic range. I noticed this in my previous camera shootout with the Google Pixel 7 Pro too, and it’s the same case out here as well. This is more evident when shooting around sunset as details in the shadows get blacked out or highlights get clipped easily.
In low light, Samsung manages better details than the iPhone. Surprisingly, Apple’s iPhone also captures some saturated images at times, even when compared to the S23 Ultra’s scene-optimised photos. In contrasting situations like a brightly lit up building, Samsung’s Galaxy S23 Ultra shines with low noise, more details, and excellent dynamic range.
Samsung’s primary camera in street-lit conditions (with the Scene Optimiser on) snaps impressive photos, but its performance in dim lighting (while excellent on other parameters) overdoes the HDR imaging leading to some random haloing around objects. Apple’s iPhone 14 Pro thanks to its contrast-heavy approach tended to overdo the shadows, which did not lead to good results. However, Samsung’s massive sensor manages far better resolved detail than what the iPhone is capable of.
Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra vs iPhone 14 Pro: Ultra-wide cameras
In terms of hardware, Samsung and Apple are on par with one another when it comes to ultra-wide cameras. However, Apple’s consistency with colour tones is as confused as its primary camera. Details are sharper on the Galaxy S23 Ultra and the same goes for its shot-to-shot consistency (even though it showcases the same shortcomings as the primary camera). However, after software correction for barrel distortion cropping some of the frame on the Samsung, it’s the iPhone that ends up offering a wider field of view.
In low light, Apple’s ultra-wide camera is unable to focus correctly, which results in soft images. Samsung’s ultra-wide camera is quick to lock focus and provides sharper images and good contrast in tough lighting conditions. This is indeed one of the best ultra-wide-angle cameras I have come across on a smartphone.
Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra vs iPhone 14 Pro: Telephoto cameras
Samsung’s zoom range remains as impressive as last year’s Galaxy S22 Ultra, but the company has improved in terms of shot-to-shot consistency this year. Photos appear sharp and pack in plenty of detail till 3X zoom (which is where the first telephoto camera takes over) and the same goes for dynamic range.
Jumping to 10X zoom, which is the Galaxy’s optical limit, also shows excellent details. In fact, it gets really hard to convince people that such photos were captured at 10X magnification. At 15X, which is the iPhone’s hybrid zoom limit, photos are still quite usable, but a trained eye can tell that these have been digitally zoomed in.
At the 30X, Samsung’s stabilisation is quite impressive and the same goes for the resulting image which has a bit of noise but otherwise looks like a regular image that lacks a bit of resolved detail. At 100X, the photo ends up looking like a painting, but is still impressive as you can tell what’s in the photo, which is otherwise not visible with the naked eye. Overall, there is a noticeable improvement in the quality of telephoto images compared to its predecessor.
Apple’s telephoto capability is limited to 3X optical zoom and 15X hybrid zoom. At 3X zoom, it is surprising to see the same flaw in colours and dynamic range that I saw at 1X. But in terms of quality, images look quite nice, with good details and sharpness. At 10X zoom, image quality is similar to the Galaxy’s 15X with a bit of noise creeping in. At 15X, it is pretty obvious that it’s a heavily cropped and upscaled image.
With their respective auto-night modes switched on, the Galaxy S23 Ultra at 3X zoom manages noisier photos than the iPhone 14 Pro. However, these have better dynamic range and appear a bit brighter than the latter. At 10X zoom, Samsung clearly manages better image quality, with better definition and resolved detail than the iPhone. Still, it’s impressive to see how the iPhone 14 Pro manages similar level of quality despite going completely digital.
At 15X zoom, Samsung’s cropping becomes obvious and so does the noise, which starts creeping up. But Apple’s image is far from unusable at this point. Samsung manages to push further at 30X and the images are surprisingly useful, with only a bit of purple fringing. At 100X the image ends up looking like an oil painting.
Both phones are also capable of shooting longer exposures in Night mode when zoomed in. Both showcase impressive quality at 3X with the noise and dynamic range under control, but the 14 Pro’s image quality deteriorates from thereon as stabilisation becomes a problem with the longer exposures. Shooting at 3X on the iPhone needs a bit of skill by itself when using Night mode set to “max”.
Samsung’s zoom level in the dedicated Night mode maxes out at 10X, but the result is jaw-droppingly impressive. Noise is well under control, but resolved detail is downright impressive for an image captured at 10X zoom. Cropping into that 10X sample reveals even more detail (the net under the spire), which is really hard to accomplish at this focal length on a smartphone. It’s quite clear that Samsung has done a lot of work on this year’s Ultra when it comes to zoom capability.
Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra vs iPhone 14 Pro: Portrait and selfie cameras
In daylight, both smartphones manage equally impressive portrait photos when using their respective rear cameras. Edge detection is also spot on and photos appear quite sharp. However, Samsung makes faces appear a bit red for some reason. In low light, Samsung’s Galaxy S23 Ultra captures saturated colours when shooting portraits, but somehow manages more accurate skin tones. Apple on the other hand manages better details and sharpness than the S23 Ultra, but captures inaccurate skin tones.
Shooting with the front cameras, it becomes obvious that Samsung provides a wider field of view. Edge detection is also more accurate compared to the iPhone 14 Pro. In low light with the display flash enabled, Samsung again takes the lead, offering better edge detection along with good detail and clarity, while the iPhone manages to capture far less details with a red tint.
Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra vs iPhone 14 Pro: Macro mode
When it comes to macro capability, I utilised each camera’s auto-macro mode which has some level of cropping and upscaling involved. Then I switched to their respective ultra-wide cameras and clicked the same object using each camera’s native resolution. Both smartphones managed equally impressive details and were able to focus extremely close to an object at around 3cm. The Galaxy S23 Ultra managed slightly better colour reproduction, but at the cost of slightly overexposed images. The iPhone managed to get a wee-bit closer with well-balanced results, but its photos had a yellowish tint.
Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra vs iPhone 14 Pro: Video recording
Shooting regular videos at 4K, Samsung’s larger sensor sure manages better resolved details in daylight. Also under control are reflections from shiny surfaces which have been a problem with recent iPhone models. Shooting with the telephoto cameras was also a good experience, however, unlike the iPhone 14 Pro, Samsung lets you zoom in to up to 10X and still maintain plenty of fine details when shooting in daylight.
However, in low light or street-lit conditions, the Galaxy S23 Ultra captured slightly saturated videos with more noise, while the iPhone found the sweet spot, offering better details and less noise. Samsung also supports 8K 30fps video recording, which offers a crazy amount of detail, but at the same time is best viewed only on an 8K TV and it does take up a lot of space on the phone.
Video stabilisation was good on both phones, no matter which camera I used. This was also impressive when shooting at the far end of each smartphone’s optical zoom limit (3X for iPhone and 10X for Galaxy). While the iPhone’s viewfinder showed me shaky footage when recording, the output appeared quite smooth. Samsung’s preview on the other hand appeared stable just like the final output.
Since both smartphones are more than capable of shooting 4K footage, I also recorded samples in HDR. Samsung’s HDR10+ footage, although quite good in terms of dynamic range, bitrate and overall quality, showcases saturated colours, which as pointed out in my review, aren’t a true representation of the actual scene. Apple, which records in Dolby Vision, captures slightly muted colours, but for some reason adds a contrasted look to the footage. Surely, Apple comes out as the overall winner when it comes to video recording, but it’s surprising to see how close Samsung has come and what more it has on offer when it comes to zoom.
A few other things…
Samsung’s Galaxy S23 Ultra might be a bit behind the iPhone when it comes to video recording, but it offers a built-in Pro mode with manual controls which can be useful if you want to get serious about your video recording sessions. When it comes to heat management, Samsung’s Galaxy S23 Ultra does warm up while shooting video, but it’s far from the hot mess the iPhone 14 Pro becomes when recording video back to back on a sunny afternoon.
However, Apple has the advantage of size, or rather more options when it comes to it. As I’ve mentioned in my review of the Galaxy S23 Ultra, Samsung only offers it in one size which might not suit everyone especially if you have smaller hands. The iPhone 14 Pro on the other hand is a lot more pocketable and easier to handle.
Samsung’s Galaxy Ultra series has come a long way indeed, from a model that was just about bragging rights (Galaxy S20 Ultra), to being merged with the Galaxy Note lineup (Galaxy S22 Ultra), making the Galaxy S23 Ultra its most polished attempt yet. Samsung seems to have gotten quite a few things right this year, which includes a consistent imaging experience with all its cameras. Video quality is also probably the best you can possibly get on an Android smartphone currently. The iPhone 14 Pro’s camera performance hasn’t changed much since our last camera shootout, but it still is the go-to smartphone for content creators as the video recording experience is second to none.
However, if I were to pick a winner between the two phones, then the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra makes a much stronger case for itself overall. Still photography is excellent in both day and night, telephoto performance is still unrivalled, and videos recording quality is only a small step behind the iPhone. If you can live with the relatively large size of the phone, the Galaxy S23 Ultra should keep casual photographers and creative professionals equally satisfied.
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