In this camera comparison, we have focused on the important differences: starting with the main camera and how it performs both during the day and in low light, then the ultra-wide camera, next up zoom photos, and of course some selfies as well.
First, here is a rundown of the camera hardware…
iPhone 12 Pro Max vs Galaxy Note 20 Ultra vs Pixel 5 Camera Specs Comparison:
There are a few differences in the hardware that are worth pointing out: first, the iPhone and the Galaxy have a wide, 26mm main camera, while the Pixel has a 28mm lens, which in simple terms means that shots on the main camera of the Pixel are not quite as wide.
Second, the iPhone has the lowest aperture at f/1.6 vs f/1.7 on the Pixel and f/1.8 on the Galaxy. Theoretically, this means that the iPhone is capable of capturing the most light with such a wide aperture.
Finally, you notice that the Pixel lacks a third camera, a telephoto zoom lens, while the iPhone and the Galaxy have such a camera. The iPhone 12 Pro Max comes with a 2.5X zoom lens that it also uses for beautiful portraits, while the Galaxy has a 5X zoom lens that it cannot use for portrait photos, but that brings the big guns in the zoom battles.
And that LiDAR sensor on the iPhone 12 Pro Max only helps with low-light photos for focusing, but is not a camera on its own. With all this in mind, let’s take a look at the actual photos!
Setting the tone for this comparison, the iPhone 12 Pro Max captures a much brighter and more lively picture, it almost seems as if the sun was shining bright in the iPhone shot, while dark clouds have gathered while taking the picture on the other two phones, but let me assure you that nothing like that happened and the weather conditions were absolutely identical, with just a few short seconds between each of the shots. It’s all in the way the new iPhones process the images, they feature a brighter exposure and more saturated colors, maybe even capturing something a tiny bit “better” than reality. That really is okay with us, the warm colors go perfectly well with the autumn mood all around, while the other two images look a bit pale and not quite as share-able.
Let’s go over one more shot for the doubters out there just to confirm that this is indeed now the way iPhones capture photos: notice the bleaker colors and slightly darker exposure on the Galaxy and the Pixel, while the iPhone just captures a much brighter shot with more vivid, saturated colors. Notice that while previously Apple did not apply any excessive oversharpening to its photos, starting with the 12 series and the 12 Pro Max here too, we see a bit of added artificial sharpness to the photo. It’s not way over the top, but it’s definitely noticeable.
So which is the best photo here? Well, there are two ways to look: do you want the realistic photo or the one that looks better? If you’d rather have realism, then the Galaxy and the Pixel are a bit closer to that, but if you just want a picture that you look and just say ‘wow’, then the iPhone is the one.
Scene 3: Fall colors
To share with you a bit of the mood of the fall all around here, this picture of a leaf is a good illustration of how while often similar, sometimes phones these days capture quite different looking photos too. The iPhone did a good job with the yellow of the leaf but the hand looks ghostly in color, while the Galaxy went with a slightly greenish image, and the Pixel went over the board with the colder tonalities. It’s hard to pick a favorite here.
In this scene, we’d say the Galaxy did the best job: the iPhone was fooled by the yellows and oranges and the white balance of the photos is a bit off, while the Galaxy nailed a perfect white balance and a cheerful bright exposure, while the Pixel appears a bit dark and moody. And yes, all phones here no longer feature any annoying lens distortion towards the edges!
Scene 4: Zoom
If there was one word to describe Google as a phone maker, it has to be inconsistent. The Pixel 4 came with a telephoto zoom lens, the Pixel 5… well, it’s got an ultra-wide camera but the zoom lens is gone. And this puts it at a disadvantage compared to the competition, it’s really hard to understand Google’s thinking with phones recently. Anyway, this is a complete camera comparison, so we have to compare how well these phones do with zooming. First, we start at 1X, or no zoom, just using the main cameras.
Next up, we jump to 2.5X zoom, where the iPhone 12 Pro Max kicks in with its dedicated 2.5X lens, and looks much cleaner than the rest. While its detail is cleaner and more plentiful, though, the greenery in the wallpaper behind fooled the iPhone camera once again and the whole image looks greenish as a consequence, while the other phones do a much better job with white balance.
Our next stop is at 5X zoom. At this level, the native 5X zoom periscope lens on the Note 20 Ultra kicks in with its super powers and you immediately notice that the Galaxy gets the lead here. The other phones really start to fall apart from 5X zoom and further, while the Galaxy looks nice and clean.
Our next stop is at 7X zoom for one simple reason: that’s the maximum zoom level on the Pixel 5! We would have really preferred to be able to go up to 10X zoom, sometimes you do need to get those details on something that’s far away. Anyway, even at 7X zoom, the Pixel 5 just look pixelized and detail is mushy, so any further zooming would have made quality even worse. Interestingly, the Galaxy here missed the focus and we have been having these problems with the Galaxy every once in a while in these longer zoom ranges, so even though it has the more capable zoom camera, it misses this shot. The iPhone doesn’t quite have the Galaxy’s super-zoom camera, but it gets the focus right in this shot.
Finally, we have just the iPhone and the Galaxy left. Our last stop is at 12X zoom, the maximum level on the iPhone 12 Pro Max (the iPhone 12 Pro maxes out at 10X zoom, and the 12 and 12 Mini max out at 5X zoom, in case you were curious). At this level, the Galaxy is a bit cleaner but we expected to see a bigger difference in favor of the Galaxy and in reality it is not quite that huge. The third image here is not from the Pixel, but once again from the Galaxy, but this time at 20X zoom, just to show you that it can zoom a lot further (you can go up to 50X zoom on the Note 20 Ultra).
Scene 5: Portrait
Next up, portrait mode! That’s one of the big new things on the Pro Max: it’s got a 2.5X lens that gives you a 65mm equivalent focal length for tighter zoom that is considered more flattering in the photographic world. We captured all these shots from the same distance and you notice how much closer and more personal the iPhone gets. It’s got the best detail by far here, but unfortunately it does tend to add that yellow/green-ish tint to photos which is so typical of Apple. It’s the signature Apple touch of warm colors that are not quite realistic, and we’ve gotten used to it, but we wish Apple did improve that white balance a bit.
The Galaxy uses digital zoom here so you don’t quite get as much detail, and interestingly, it has captured a way too contrasty photo that doesn’t quite fit the portrait mood. The Pixel has also gone with a digitally cropped photo, so you notice the lack of intricate detail and it has also gone a bit overboard with sharpening and the darker exposure. The resulting photo is moody, and a bit too harsh. The iPhone gets an easy win in the Portrait department.
Scene 6: Low-light Portrait
But what if we throw in a challenge, a portrait in a very dim room. Well, well, look at that, two of the phones really stand out in this challenging situation, while the Galaxy falls apart with a darker and noisier photo. The iPhone and the Pixel pull out a bit of that night mode magic, but notice the wider camera on the iPhone here does not look great, it makes my face looks like a potato, it’s too large and disproportionate, while the Pixel really nails it with a photo we could easily think was captured on a DSLR. Wow!
Scene 8: Night
Go, Buccaneers! The Tampa Bay team mascot was patient enough to pose for us for this shot in a nearly completely dark room. But you wouldn’t know that if you look at these shots captured using Night Mode on all of the phones (auto on the iPhone, manually switching to Night Mode on the Ultra, and Night Sight on the Pixel). The Galaxy tried, but really its camera doesn’t look as good as the other two that have more detail. The iPhone captured a surprisingly good image, but it was once again outclassed by the Google Pixel that effortlessly captured a beautiful photo with a perfect white balance, just look at those colors and the super clean detail. Wow, and wow again!
And just in case you were wondering, here is what the room actually looked like! The photos above were captured in the same light, but this time we have forced Night Mode OFF. And that’s also a good illustration of how useful those Night Modes can be!
Scene 9: Selfies
Let’s conclude with a few selfies! We would argue that the most important thing in a selfie are skin tones, and everything else kind of takes a bit of a back seat. In this case, you can argue that the background looks a bit more realistic on the iPhone and the Pixel, but it’s the Galaxy that captured the best exposed face, with pleasingly warm skin tones, and it’s the one photo that looks a bit better than the others. The iPhone does have richer detail and a nice balance of colors, while the Pixel is sharp but a bit on the cold side. For us, the Pixel is a bit behind the other two, the Galaxy being the winner, and the iPhone a very close runner-up.
You can also capture a wide selfie with each of the phones, if you want to fit a group of friends or just… more of you! We have to give this round again to the Galaxy which works hardest to expose for the face and paint it in a beautiful warm light, while the other two phones while rich in detail don’t emphasize the face as much as it should be emphasized in a selfie shot.
So… it’s time to draw a bit of a conclusion here. The iPhone 12 Pro Max has arrived with a splash. Its bright and cheerful photos might sacrifice realism a bit but for a good cause: they are way more share-able and look the part. We love what Apple has done with the image processing, colors, exposure, everything looks so good. When it comes to zooming, the 12 Pro Max is not quite on par with the Galaxy Note, but the difference is not as huge as you would expect it to be, and the only big loser here was the Pixel, which is really quite incapable when you have to zoom.
For portraits, the new 2.5X zoom camera on the Pro Max is a welcome improvement, and if you like shooting portrait photos of people, this is hands down, the best phone around.
Then, when it comes to low light, the Pixel steps up and is still king. Others have caught up, but the Pixel is still a bit ahead, with the iPhone being the closer runner-up here and Samsung a bit behind these two.
And finally, for selfies, it’s the Galaxy that seems to do best, with the iPhone being a close runner-up, and the Pixel a bit more erratic than the other two.
And there you have it, the complicated world of smartphone cameras. It’s hard to say one is best in all aspects, but if you look at the larger picture, the iPhone 12 Pro Max really does a great job in various conditions and we would say that if you want a camera that will do great in various conditions, the iPhone pulls slightly ahead of the two.
What are your thoughts, do you have a favorite camera phone and why?