Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (Exynos) Camera Review: Effective but not Flawless
Samsung has been the world’s largest phone manufacturer for many years. They are widely recognized and appreciated for their camera hardware and have been rated among the finest when it comes to camera performance, often seen locking horns with Huawei, Apple, and Google in the battle for the pole position. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra features an advanced camera with attention-grabbing specs on paper. Features such as the 108MP primary camera, a 5x periscope camera, laser autofocus, and more pit it against 2020’s best smartphones for photography. While our Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review speaks of how the smartphone is ahead of the curve for most use cases, especially if you are a prosumer, this article focuses on how well the cameras on the smartphone perform.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Series Camera Specifications
|Specification||Samsung Galaxy Note 20||Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra|
The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has a lot to offer in terms of cameras. It comes with triple rear cameras, primarily highlighted by a 108MP primary camera placed in the middle of the three sensors. The main camera is complemented by a 12MP ultra-wide-angle camera on the top and a 12MP periscope camera, which offers 5x optical zoom and up to 50X hybrid zoom, at the bottom. The hole-punch selfie camera on the front has a resolution of 10MP.
The primary 108MP camera utilizes a Samsung ISOCELL Bright HM1 sensor that was seen previously on the Galaxy S20 Ultra. It is an improved version of the 108MP Samsung ISOCELL HMX sensor that was originally launched in collaboration with Xiaomi and made its way to a bunch of their smartphones. The ISOCELL Bright HM1 is a 1/1.33″ sensor and surpasses most of the contemporary smartphone camera sensors including the 64MP Samsung ISOCELL Bright GW1. It comes only second to the 50MP RYYB sensor used on the Huawei Mate 40 Pro. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s primary camera has an f/1.8 aperture lens placed in front of the sensor, with an equivalent focal length of 26mm. The sensor has a pixel size of 0.8μm and the pixels are laid across a 3×3 grid that allows the camera to output 12MP images using 9-in-1 pixel binning. Laser autofocus is a welcome addition to this triple camera setup and helps with really fast focusing while capturing photos or in between videos. Lastly, the primary camera also features optical image stabilization (OIS) to counter shakes and jerks in photos as well as videos.
Above the primary camera lies a 12MP ultra-wide-angle camera that facilitates a 120° wide field of view. The 12MP ultra-wide-angle camera utilizes an f/2.2 aperture lens with a 13mm focal length. This 1/2.55″ sensor features pixels that measure 1.4μm in size. However, the ultra-wide-camera on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra lacks autofocus capabilities and cannot be used for macro photography — unlike counterparts from Huawei.
Alongside the wide and ultra-wide cameras, Samsung is relying on a 12MP periscope camera that supports 5x optical zoom, an increment from the 4x zoom on the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra. The f/3.0 lens that is paired to this periscope camera has a focal length of 120mm. The periscope camera setup is also optically stabilized and features focus tracking. Additional to the 5x optical zoom, this camera supports up to 50x hybrid zoom (which is a compound result of the 5x optical zoom and 10x digital zoom on top of it). As Samsung progresses with a better periscope technology, they leave behind the gimmicky 100x Space Zoom announced on the Galaxy S20 Ultra. As we will see later in this review, the 50x zoom has some promising results while capturing astronomical bodies such as the Sun and the Moon.
Lastly, when it comes to its video capturing capabilities, the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra supports recording in up to 8K resolution at 24fps or 4K at 60fps. It can also record 120fps videos but the resolution for this functionality is capped at Full HD. In addition to the default video settings, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra comes with a Pro Video mode that allows users to tweak settings such as exposure, focus, ISO, shutter speed, and switch among the omnidirectional, front, and rear microphones while recording videos.
Before I dive into how each of these cameras performs in action, here’s a brief overview of the user interface of the Camera app on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra.
The Camera user interface on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is identical to what you see on the rest of Samsung devices — with some additions over the top. One of the first things to notice other than the standard Photo and Video modes is the option for the “Single Take” mode. If you click too many pictures across modes and then waste time deciding on the most appealing ones, the Single Take mode is programmed to do that automatically on your behalf. It gives you 10 seconds to try out different poses and then automatically chooses the image you look the best in. The images are also automatically retouched for better colors and sharpness, so you can upload them to Instagram, Snapchat, or any other app without having to apply a filter first.
In addition to the standard features that are laid out upfront and easily accessible from the main screen, there is a host of features nestled under the heading of “More.” Out of these, Live Focus modes indicate what we know as the Portrait or the Bokeh mode on devices from other brands. Meanwhile, Slow Motion and Super Slow-Mo represent video recording at 120fps and 240fps whereas the Pro and the Pro Video modes imply Manual modes for photos and videos.
Let us start by seeing how the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra performs in daylight.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra: Camera Quality Review
This camera review aims to objectively look at the performance of the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. These images are taken using different modes but with default settings to see how the camera performs without meddling with the settings before every operation.
Primary Camera with the default settings
Thanks to the large Samsung ISOCELL Bright HM1 sensor, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s primary camera captures nearby objects very crisply. Because the 108MP resizes images to 12MP by combining 9 pixels into a single pixel, images capture a good amount of light, and that in turn, leads to good image quality in the Photo mode with default settings. In addition to ample lighting, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s 108MP primary camera also captures colors very well. Minute details stand out on the images that are illuminated by a bright light source such as the sun.
On top of the impressive image quality, Samsung’s AI-based scene detection algorithms enhance the exposure and the colors on the images. Due to these improvements, certain parts of the images might appear oversaturated on certain displays. However, unlike Samsung’s signature aggressive image processing on mid-range devices, details on these images are distinguishable and free from any oil painting effect.
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra gets a good start in this review thanks to the primary camera’s performance in brightly-lit scenarios. However, since this is not the only parameter to judge, I should reserve our observations until the end. Next, I evaluate how the noteworthy smartphone performs when I compare the output of the standard 12MP mode to the full resolution capture in the 108MP mode.
12MP vs 108MP
While 108MP has been touted to be a real advantage in the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s photography, the real benefit lies in having bigger pixels instead of just more pixels. With the help of pixel-binning, the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra combines a grid of 3×3 pixels into a single pixel. These bigger pixels capture much more light than usual, have much better details in 12MP as compared to the same shot in 108MP as a consequence of better lighting. I took a few images in 12MP as well as the 108MP modes to compare how the smartphone performs in both of these modes.
12MP images are on the left while the corresponding 108MP images are on the right
The 12MP images on the left are quite evidently more exposed than their corresponding 108MP images on the right. As a result of the higher brightness, the 12MP images have crisper details when you look at them holistically. The 108MP images taken against light also suffer from darker shadows. 108MP images are usually massive in terms of file size and weigh around 40MB as compared to a 12MP image which is usually around 5MB. To prevent the file size from increasing any further, HDR is disabled for 108MP images, leaving them at a clear disadvantage against 12MP images.
The 108MP images take an edge over the 12MP images if you want to zoom into them and crop out a small section. However, there are two requisites to achieve this fruitfully — firstly, the scene should be brightly lit; and secondly, the phone should be held as stable as possible since 108MP images usually take longer to process and are thus, susceptible to shaking.
Clearly, the 12MP mode will be preferred by most users for most scenarios because 12MP images capture more details as well as more uniform lighting, and take relatively less time to capture and process.
While we are still on the topic of light in images, low light or night can easily hamper the quality of your photographs despite the great camera hardware that the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has to offer. So, in the next section, I discuss the quality of low light pictures and how the inbuilt Night Mode impacts them.
Like many other smartphones, the quality of the images taken with the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra takes a hit in low light. Textures get blurred and objects become unidentifiable as a result of low light. In addition, there is a major addition to visual noise. All of these issues are addressed to some extent with the help of the inbuilt Night Mode. Here are some of the sample images taken with the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra with and without the Night Mode.
Images with Night Mode off (left) vs. Night Mode on (right)
There is a glaring distinction between the images taken without the Night Mode (left) and those taken with the Night Mode (right). This is accomplished by decreasing the shutter speed marginally, thereby allowing more light to reach the sensor. In response to this change and more light entering the sensor, you see clearer details on images taken with the Night Mode as compared to without it.
The ultra-wide-camera expands the horizon quite significantly, allowing a 120° wide field of view (FOV). Although this FOV is slightly narrower as compared to the 123° wide view on the Galaxy S20 series, the wider view definitely makes a considerable difference over the primary camera’s 79° wide FOV. The 1/2.55″ ultra-wide-angle sensor is much smaller than the primary wide-angle camera and the lens paired with it has a smaller aperture of f/2.2. Due to these two factors, the amount of light that falls on and is captured by the ultra-wide-angle camera is less than the primary camera and as a result, the images may appear to have darker shadows.
In the case of a light background — like the sky in two of the images below — the Camera app compensates for poor shadows by increasing the exposure of the entire frame, often diluting the colors in the background. While this pattern is seen on all smartphones with an ultra-wide-camera, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s camera AI algorithms improve the color to a great extent while processing the image.
Here are two images that compare the performance of the ultra-wide-angle and the primary cameras:
Ultra-wide-angle images are on the left, standard images are on the right
Even when there is no sky in the frame, the colors of the images captured using the primary camera are more saturated. Objects appear far crisper and more detailed on the images taken with the primary camera. Here’s another example:
The smaller lens aperture and the smaller sensor deteriorate the image quality further in low light. The edges of the buildings appear blurry while objects like the plants fade into darkness on the image captured with the ultra-wide-angle camera. Similarly, the pavement in the image below appears fuzzy while a significant image noise envelopes the apartments in the background.
The low lighting, fuzziness, and noise can be fixed majorly if you use Night Mode on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s ultra-wide-camera. Both of the images below are taken with the ultra-wide-angle camera — with and without the Night Mode. The Night Mode effectively salvages the dim parts of the frame and adds a significant amount of details. While some parts of the image may appear overexposed, you can fix that in post-processing.
Lastly, when you compare the Night Mode images from the ultra-wide-angle and the primary cameras, the latter has unmistakably better quality — leave everything and just look at the moon in the image below.
Due to its hardware limitations, the ultra-wide-angle camera uses a relatively longer shutter time to capture the image. In addition, the image taken with the primary camera has a neutral color profile as compared to the ultra-wide-angle camera.
5x Periscope Camera
The 12MP periscope camera on the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra adds more flavor to its photography abilities. It increases the focal length of the camera and facilitates optical zoom at 5x. On top of the optical zoom, you can zoom in digitally up to an additional 10x. The combined effect of this optical and digital zoom (known as hybrid zoom) is 50x zoom on top of what the primary camera can capture. The series of images below compare the different levels of zoom — ie. 1x using the primary camera and 5x, 10, and 50x using the periscope camera on the smartphone.
From left to right: Images at 1x, 5x, 10x, and 50x zoom
In another set of images, Ben Sin, our Senior Editor, captures the mesmerizing skyline of Hong Kong City. You can see that the distinction between the subjects captured in the 1x and the 50x image is huge. The vibrant roof seen in the 50x image is not even easily visible in the first image.
I have cropped the particular section out of each of the images above to compare how the periscope camera captures the rooftop as compared to the primary camera. As you can see, the lines and edges are easily visible and clear despite 50x zoom even though the colors may appear oversaturated as compared to the version at 12x zoom. The latter also has some shadows. In contrast, it would be unavailing to even consider the first image in this series as viable competition for the other two, solely within the context of this section.
These images were taken from Ben’s Huawei Mate 40 Pro vs Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra camera comparison, where the Note 20 Ultra appears to emerge as a better performer when it comes to the periscope camera’s performance. Do check it out if you are confused between those two phones.
The Sun and the Moon at 50X Zoom
50x zoom is also a vital tool if you like to capture the Moon during its different phases as I’ve done below. The first image in this series is of a rising sun during dawn while the remaining feature the Moon during different times in the evening.
I was also able to capture the bloody moon recently and fiddling with different magnification levels incited a realization — while the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s 50x zoom is apt for capturing the astronomical bodies close to the Earth, images taken at 40x (or slightly lower) have far more clarity than images clicked at 50x. You can also crop the 12MP image to a smaller size in order to make the Sun or the Moon appear bigger.
Portraits aka Live Focus
Samsung calls its portrait mode, Live Focus, owing to the fact that you can preview the background blur in the viewfinder even before you capture the image. You can also tweak the level of blur in these images. The two images of Ben below depict the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s abilities to take these Live Focus images.
While the first image is fairly sharp with an accurate distinction between the background and the foreground, the smartphone has failed to focus properly in the image on the right. The only plausible reason for that is the strong light coming in from the background and falling on Ben’s face and right shoulder, which may have confused the laser autofocus.
Remember, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra uses software to meter the difference in depth of the background and the foreground unlike iPhones that utilize the 2x telephoto camera for the same purpose. Talking of the iPhone, Ben has an extensive Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra vs iPhone 12 Pro Max camera comparison that you should read if you cannot decide which one to buy between the two smartphones.
Moving on to the front 10MP camera, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra takes selfies with two different settings for the field of view in spite of just one camera. The default mode has a narrower 68° FOV while the wide-angle selfie mode has an 80° FOV, which is the actual FOV of the camera. Actually, the image is cropped at a lower resolution of 6.5MP instead of 10MP. In practical usage, this cropping does not affect the quality of the images as you can see below.
The 10MP selfie camera captures good details on your face and the clothes you are wearing. However, in spite of turning down artificial beautification off, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra smoothens the skin visibly and that may or may not be liked by everyone. Google recently announced that it will be turning off Face Retouching on the Google Camera by default as artificial enhancements may set unrealistic beauty standards and impact the mental wellbeing of users who see others with “flawless skin” on social media. Samsung and other manufacturers are yet to take a step in this direction but it would be nice to see them do that.
Even though Samsung dropped autofocus from the selfie cameras on its flagships, it adds an artificial blur to the background. If you want a stronger blur effect, you can instead choose the Live Focus Mode helps add a faux bokeh by blurring the background. Except for minor fails in terms of edge detection, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra does a decent job in separating the background from the foreground.
Lastly, when it comes to selfies in the dark, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra may not be able to produce very charming results. While the smartphone supports Night mode for the front camera, it may not do a very impressive job in terms of eliminating noise from images taken in the dark.
Conclusion – Performance that justifies its price
The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra features extravagant camera hardware while really powerful software algorithms complement it. The large 108MP primary sensor can accommodate a lot of light and thus, allows a lot of scope for changes in the post-processing stage. One thing to note here is that the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra may not be as fast as a Google Pixel smartphone when it comes to clicking photographs; you would need to take your time, find the right frame, sometimes adjust the lighting, and then take a picture. But the results you get will often be better than a Pixel, primarily due to the large sensor.
The auxiliary cameras including the 12MP ultra-wide-angle and the 12MP periscope cameras perform well in most cases and that is expected from a flagship device. Irrespective of their performance, these cameras — especially the periscope camera, require some time for you to warm up especially if you are coming from another flagship, like an iPhone that does not support a similar feature just yet.
Overall, the images that the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra takes are pleasant but a few weaknesses here and there restrain me from calling it the best camera setup among flagships.
Can’t make up your mind about which flagship phone to buy for its cameras? Read the following comparisons by our Senior Editor, Ben Sin: