150-photo Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra test: 100x zoom, 108MP camera, 40MP selfies

There's a lot of hype attached to the 108MP camera on the Galaxy S20 Ultra (which is exclusive to the Ultra, by the way), and it does in fact offer a bit more detail, according to our comparison tests. The same goes for the 40MP selfie camera.

But we're not sure if we're going to use it as much as we thought, at least not for the reason we original thought, which was to immediately get better photos and selfies.

Here's where we think 108MP and 40MP selfie photos will be useful:
Cropping in on specific subjects. Maybe it's something in the background you want to isolate into its own photo, or maybe you just want to cut someone out of a photo group selfie (like an ex or an employee who leaves the company after a workplace photos is taken?). Whatever the case may be, you can do so without a tremendous loss in quality.

Let's take a look:

108MP photos

At first, we noticed few differences between a 108MP and default 12MP photos from the Galaxy S20 Ultra – especially when we looked on the new phone's 6.9-inch screen and on various computer monitors. We don't have one of the 8K Samsung TVs we saw at CES or Samsung's The Wall TV to test it out on something much, much larger.

But then we started cropping-in on a few example photos.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra: 108MP vs 12MP (originals)

So far the two versions look similar, but let's take that ex-employee example and run with it. Someone leaves the company just after a promotional workplace photo is taken (happens all of the time), and that person can easily be cropped out.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra: 108MP vs 12MP (cropped)

Workplace photo saved – and our cropped S20 Ultra camera examples shows less quality loss from the 108MP version, with more noticeable oversharpening in the 12MP version. Thankfully, both Aaron (right) and Andrew (middle) are still very much part of Future. Thanks for posing, guys.

Update: Something we took notice of later on: the 108MP photo mode grays out UI icons for extras like motion photos and skin smoothing, which is typical of new formats (4K and 8K videos still don't use Samsung's Super Steady stabilization, only 1080p and 8K is stuck at 24fps). But 108MP photos do seem to exhibit some baseline skin smoothing, we discovered in our tests. You can't change it or disable it.

Now, let's take a look at punching into that same 108MP S20 Ultra photo vs what a 12MP iPhone 11 Pro Max can do at that same cropped-in level.

S20 Ultra 108MP vs iPhone 11 Pro Max 12MP (cropped)

Cropping in even further into a 108MP photo

Wait, now we want a photo of the magazines in the background and forgot to take one. There's going to be even more distortion punching in that far, but the 108MP handles it slightly better.

When we crop to look at a single magazine covers, both versions begin to degrade in quality quite heavily, but we can at least read all of the text on the version that was originally 108MP. Just look at the text underneath 'Windsors'.

So cropping in anywhere on a photo could give you an entirely new subject without distortion – or at least not as much distortion as normal. Look at the bottles at this sleepy New York City diner in the top left corner.

Again, they look the same in both photos, until you crop in.

S20 Ultra: 108MP vs 12MP

All of a sudden, the 108MP version (which was about 11.6MB) showed the labels a bit better. Look for the word 'Silver' on the second bottle from the left. You can still read that on the 108MP version, but it's blurry on the 12MP version.

S20 Ultra: 108MP vs 12MP (cropped)

Now, take this example, and imagine having a wide landscape photo of a city street. You'll be able to isolate a single taxi in the distance into its own photo, like you were taking a 12MP photo of that taxi from the very beginning. 

So, will you get better photos at 108MP? That all depends on what you plan to do with them.

Closer subjects exhibit fewer differences – the cups have a bit more reflection in the 108MP cropped version than the 12MP cropped version, and if you were to zoom in further on the 'Warning' sign, the smaller text is somewhat legible in the 108MP shot.

Another crop from the same photo: 108MP vs 12MP

Yes, you could always use the 48MP telephoto lens to capture distant subjects, but what the 108MP camera does is give you more control after the shutter button in pressed.

40MP selfie photos

Now, onto the 40MP selfie camera.

We did appreciate the wider field of view in the special 40MP mode. But overall? It won't make your selfies look that much better if you don't intend to crop them in. It's a small difference, but when you want to cut someone out of a selfie photo, this may be useful in a real-life scenario if you want to maintain the highest quality.

Matt Swider