Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max vs Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra: Camera Shootout

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max vs Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra: Camera Shootout

Even though us phone geeks know there are more than a handful of brands that put out great premium smartphones, to the average consumer their only real options appear to still be Apple and Samsung. And so every year around this time, it’s worth comparing the latest iPhone against the latest Galaxy Note, because they represent the two most mainstream, widely-available premium phones for consumers around the world. With both Apple and Samsung claiming major camera breakthroughs for their respective top flagship, we figure it’s time for a camera shootout between the iPhone 12 Pro Max and the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra.

iPhone 12 Pro Max and Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max vs Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra: Specification Comparison

SpecificationsApple iPhone 12 Pro MaxSamsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Build
  • Aluminum mid-frame
  • “Ceramic Shield” glass front and glass back
  • Aluminum mid-frame
  • Glass front and back
Dimensions & Weight
  • 160.8 x 78.1 x 7.4 mm
  • 226 grams (global)
  • 228 grams (US)
  • 164.8 x 77.2 x 8.1 mm
  • 208 grams
Display
  • Super Retina XDR OLED Display
  • 2,778 x 1,284
  • 6.9″ OLED Display
  • 1440 x 3088 resolution
  • Up to 120Hz refresh rate
SoC
  • Apple A14 Bionic
  • Snapdragon 865+ or Exynos 990
Storage Options
  • 128GB
  • 256GB
  • 512GB
  • 128GB
  • 256GB
  • 512GB
Battery & Charging
  • 3,687 mAh battery as per certification listings
  • 15W Wireless Charging with MagSafe
  • 7.5W Qi Wireless Charging
  • 4,500 mAh battery
  • 25W wired charging
  • 15W wireless charging
Security
  • 3D Face unlock
  • In-display fngerprint scanner
Rear Camera(s)
  • Primary: 12MP
  • Secondary:12MP, Ultra-wide angle
  • Tertiary: 12MP telephoto
  • Primary: 108MP, f/1.8, PDAF, Laser AF, OIS, 1/33″ sensor
  • Secondary: 12MP, f/2.2, ultra-wide-angle, 120° FoV
  • Tertiary: 12MP, f/3.0, 5x periscope zoom
  • Laser sensor
Front Camera(s)
  • 12MP, f/2.2
  • 10MP, f/2.2, 1.22µm
Port(s)Proprietary Lightning portUSB-C
Connectivity
  • 5G: Sub 6GHz
    • mmWave for USA
  • Ultra-Wide Band (UWB)
  • Wi‑Fi 6 (802.11ax) with 2×2 MIMO
  • Bluetooth 5.0
  • 5G: Sub 6GHz
    • mmWave for USA
  • Ultra-Wide Band (UWB)
  • Wi‑Fi 5 (802.11ac)
  • Bluetooth 5.0
Software iOS 14One UI based on Android 11
Other Features
  • IP68
  • IP68
  • S-Pen

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max vs Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra: Camera Hardware and Design

Over the past couple of years, Chinese phone brands such as Huawei and Xiaomi have been stuffing the spec sheet with more pixels, larger sensors and more lenses, while Samsung and Apple played it safe and stuck with camera hardware that seemed pedestrian on paper.

iPhone 12 Pro Max and Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

Both cameras are very good, but there are key differences in how each tackles image processing

2020 is the year both Apple and Samsung decided to join the camera hardware arms race. Samsung’s major push was made in the spring with the introduction of the Galaxy S20 Ultra, featuring a 108MP camera with a large image sensor, along with a Periscope zoom lens — and the Note 20 Ultra is a refinement of that system. Apple, meanwhile, released four iPhones this fall but claimed significant hardware improvements only for the largest iPhone 12 Pro Max model  — namely a “sensor shift” technology that resembles IBIS (in-body image stabilization) tech used in “real” cameras, and a larger image sensor.

In addition to the now standard wide, ultra-wide, zoom triple focal length set-up, each device has an additional sensor: the iPhone 12 Pro Max sports a LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensor which is mainly used for AR tech, but Apple also says it helps with focusing at night (spoiler alert: I compared the 12 Pro Max against the standard iPhone 12 without LIDAR and could not see a difference in focusing prowess).

Samsung, meanwhile, gave the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra a laser sensor to help with that 108MP sensor’s focusing, which was slightly unreliable on the Galaxy S20 Ultra (spoiler alert: the Note 20 Ultra’s auto-focusing improves from the S20 Ultra but it’s still a bit wonky compared to other top phones).

Nonetheless, both are very powerful systems, and they look the part too, with large, pronounced modules that grab attention. Around the front, the iPhone 12 Pro sports a 12MP camera placed with the Face ID facial scanning system — resulting in a huge notch — while Samsung uses a 10MP selfie lens in a tiny hole-punch cut-out. Anyway, enough with specs, let’s start the test.

Test 1: Main camera, day shot

Both cameras, unsurprisingly, are very, very good in this situation. But there are some key differences in how each tackle image processing. In general, Apple’s image processing is superior in finding the best balance in dynamic range, but the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s images are slightly sharper as it has more pixels to play with (even factoring in the pixel-binning that takes place). For example, the set below is a relatively challenging shot, with really harsh sunlight blasting through the lower half of the window, while the blackout curtains in the top half cast a deep shadow across the room and the human subject’s face.

Even without zooming in, we can see the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s image lights up the shadowed parts a bit better — without blowing out the harsh lights coming through the window.

Zooming closer, we can see the actual paintings in the 12 Pro Max’s shot while the Note 20 Ultra’s shot is dim.

Photo samples of the iPhone 12 Pro Max and the Note 20 Ultra

iPhone 12 Pro Max (left) and Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (right).

Now, better lit doesn’t necessarily mean a better shot. One can argue the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s photo is moodier, more atmospheric. But what’s objective is that the Note 20 Ultra’s photo is slightly more detailed, sharper. See the difference when we zoom into the face mask and the book on the coffee table.

Note 20 Ultra and iPhone 12 Pro samples

iPhone 12 Pro Max (left); Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (right).

Moving onto another day shot, it’s mostly the same deal: the Galaxy Note 20 shot is slightly sharper, showing the texture of the tree’s leaves and pavement better, but slightly overexposes the clouds.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max (left) vs Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (right)

Another thing I noticed is that the iPhone 12 Pro Max has a faster, more responsive shutter — the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s shutter isn’t slow per se, but it does take an extra beat. Whenever I point both phones at moving cars and hit the shutter button at the same time, the vehicle is always further along in the shot in the Note 20 Ultra’s shot — because the photo was taken a split-second later than the 12 Pro Max’s.

iPhone 12 Pro Max (left); Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (right).

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max (left) vs Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (right)

But Apple also tends to keep colors too natural, while Samsung isn’t afraid to make tweaks to produce what it thinks are more pleasing shots — and you know what, for the most part, I like Samsung’s color science better. Just look at how much more aesthetically pleasing the leaves look. They’re orange and vibrant on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s image, dull and staid on the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s shot.

But photos during the day is easy stuff. Let’s move onto more challenging tests…

Test 2: Main camera, night or low light shot

The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s main camera sensor measures 1/1.33″, making it the second-largest sensor (the Huawei P40 Pro and Huawei Mate 40 Pro edges it out with a 1/1.28″) in smartphones. Apple did not reveal the exact size of its image sensor, but teardowns have revealed that it’s large by Apple standards, but still small compared to what Samsung and Huawei are rocking. But the Note 20 Ultra also needs more light than the iPhone 12 Pro Max because it has more pixels (108 million of them) to fill. Plus, as the Google Pixel 5 has proven, software smarts is arguably as important as hardware for low light performance.

This first set, although taken at night, barely qualifies as a low light shot, because Hong Kong streets have so many lights, but it’s still a hint of what’s to come as we go darker.

Both shots turned out very nicely, with mostly proper balance despite the myriad of light sources with a blend of shadowed, dark areas. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s color science tend to cool, resulting in less of a yellow hue that’s present in the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s shots. Technically, the 12 Pro Max’s colors are more accurate because there was a yellow-ish tint from the fluorescent street lights, but again, I like Samsung’s color science a tad better. If we zoom in, the Note 20 Ultra’s shot is sharper with less noise. This is a trend that will continue in this section.

iPhone 12 Pro Max (left); Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (right).

Moving on to a darker scene. The first thing I must mention is that the iPhone 12 Pro Max, like last year’s iPhone 11, turns on night mode by default as soon as the scene gets dark enough. You can turn off night mode on an iPhone, but it’s a two-step process. The point is Apple wants night mode to take over automatically without the user even noticing; whereas pretty much all Android phones still require you to manually select night mode. In the below set, the 12 Pro Max turned on night mode. I did not turn on night mode for then Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, yet the two shots turned out about evenly well-lit.

Perhaps because the iPhone 12 Pro Max needed to use computational tricks (night mode) to produce the shot whereas the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra could just snap the shot with its larger image sensor, Samsung’s shot is slightly superior when it comes to balance — the neon “Petix and chill” sign is a bit blown out on the 12 Pro Max.

This next set is even darker. While there is light coming through from behind the glass door (left side of the photo), the plant on the patio (right side of photo) was almost pitch black to my eyes. Since the iPhone 12 Pro Max turned on night mode, it beats the Note 20 Ultra’s regular shot.

To even the playing field, I took another shot with the Note 20 Ultra’s night mode on, and here it becomes much closer — the plant is still better lit in Apple’s photo, but it also blows out the light coming from inside the apartment.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max vs Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra — Test 3: Ultra-wide camera, day shot

Both the iPhone 12 Pro Max and Galaxy Note 20 Ultra sport very wide ultra-wide cameras with a field-of-view of 120-degree. In this first test, I took both in a moving cab in really quick point-and-shoot style, and the 12 Pro Max just completely nails the shot in terms of sharpness and exposure. The Note 20 Ultra blows out the light quite badly coming from outside the cab.

But I suppose this is because the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra needs longer to process a scene and produce a balanced shot, because when I took another set later in a still room, where I gave more time for the viewfinder to aim at the scene before snapping, the Note 20 Ultra finds much better balance. There was a bit of a green tint through the window in that room, which is accurately represented in the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s shot, but again, I like that Samsung decided to make changes and produce a shot with colors that are more visually appealing.

In terms of distortion correction or sharpness in the edges of the shot, both ultra-wide sensors are about even, so during the day at least, this really comes down to whether you like natural colors or punchier colors.

Test 4: Ultra-wide camera, night or low light shot

The real test for the ultra-wide camera is in low light situations because that’s where these sensors have historically struggled. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s ultra-wide has better hardware that is more suitable for light intake, with a 1/2.55″ sensor and an f/2.2 aperture, while the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s ultra-wide is a 1/3.6″ sensor with a f/2.4 aperture. Despite the fact that the iPhone 12 Pro Max turned on light mode automatically, the Note 20 Ultra’s shots are just better lit and sharper.

ultra-wide samples

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max (left) vs Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (right)

In moderately dark shots, both phones’ ultra-wide produce great shots — a clear step up from last year’s iPhone 11 phones or Galaxy Note 10 series.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max (left) vs Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (right)

Test 5: Portrait/bokeh shot

The iPhone 12 Pro Max shoots portraits with a 2.5x telephoto lens, while the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra uses its main camera, which means if taken from the same spot, the 12 Pro Max’s portrait has a closer crop.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max (left) vs Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (right)

Both phones can produce excellent edge detection with a natural creamy bokeh effect. I do find the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s bokeh blur to be slightly more realistic looking but that’s mostly subjective. However, if you zoom closer in the second set, you’ll see that the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s shot loses a lot of details on my face — likely because this was a challenging portrait against harsh backlight.

iPhone 12 Pro Max (left); Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (right).

iPhone 12 Pro Max (left); Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (right).

For inanimate objects, both do a solid job, but neither can rival what the Google Pixel 5 can do, as both Apple and Samsung’s phones usually require a couple of seconds to lock focus on an inanimate object. Overall, I like the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s portrait abilities by a hair.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max (left) vs Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (right)

Test 6: Zoom shots

Despite all the hype Apple gave to its new telephoto lens, which offers a 2.5x optical zoom instead of the 2x Apple has used for years, this is still a lopsided win for Samsung because the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra uses Periscope zoom technology which is just superior to traditional telephoto lenses. It’s not just that the Note 20 Ultra can zoom up to 50x while the iPhone 12 Pro Max tops out at 12x, but even at 5x, 12x range, the Note 20 Ultra’s shots are just sharper and more detailed. The below set, for example, are both 5x shots.

And at 12x:

At night, the same story repeats itself.

Despite all the hype Apple gave its new telephoto lens for 2.5x zoom instead of the 2x zoom, this is still a lopsided win for Samsung

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max vs Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra –Test 7: Selfies

As has been the case for years, Apple’s selfies are more realistic and natural when it comes to processing skin tones, while Samsung applies a beauty filter that smoothens and lightens skin. As someone with flawed skin, I often prefer Samsung’s handling, as it’s more flattering in smoothing out all my skin flaws, but I totally understand why some (or many) prefer the iPhone’s realistic approach.

Where the iPhone 12 Pro Max wins big is in selfies in low-light environment, because as is the case with all its other lenses, night mode turns on automatically. You don’t even have to think, just point and shoot. In the last sample, taken in a really dark patio, both selfies struggle with details and noise, but it’s particularly bad on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. Still, I’d take a small hole-punch cut-out over a notch any day.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max (left) vs Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (right)

Test 8: Video

The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra can shoot video in up to 8K resolution and it features other specialty modes like “Live Focus video,” which applies a bokeh effect in video form. Even if both of these work well — they do not — these are niche gimmicks anyway. The thing most consumers want in a video is great stabilization for moving videos, and proper exposure. On both fronts, the iPhone 12 Pro Max wins hands down over the Note 20 Ultra, with the lead widening at night.

Conclusion: Samsung wins the techie niche areas, Apple wins in areas that may matter more to average consumers

When it comes to main camera performance, it’s too close to call. I generally like the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s color science better, and images are slightly sharper if you really want to crop in, but Samsung’s phone also has a slight shutter lag and doesn’t handle dynamic range as well if not given enough time to process. The Note 20 Ultra then wins the zoom lens by miles while edging out another win in the ultra-wide sensor too.

    Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
    The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has one of the best screens and best cameras on the market. It's 108MP camera can produce sharp and brightly lit photos, while that Periscope zoom lens can get up to 50x.

However, the iPhone 12 Pro Max takes better portraits, selfies, and videos, and I’d argue that, to average consumers, these are more important than 12x zoom, or ultra-wide shots at night. I think if I have to pick a winner in this camera comparison — I’d give the win to the iPhone 12 Pro Max, by a hair.

    iPhone 12 Pro Max
    Apple's latest and biggest features a new camera hardware that includes a larger image sensor and a longer telephoto zoom lens. It's definitely one of the most capable camera system of the year.

Still, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra camera is really good — the most well-rounded camera system in Android.

About author

Ben Sin
Ben Sin

I'm a senior editor at XDA Developers. I have been a journalist for a decade, the last five years covering the mobile tech scene closely, reviewing just about every phone and attending trade shows and launches. I also run a gadget review channel on YouTube.