iPhone 12 Pro Max vs Samsung Note 20 Ultra: the best smartphone cameras tested

The iPhone 12 Pro Max versus the Samsung Note 20 Ultra

 The smartphones of yesteryear had inferior cameras to your traditional point and shoot, but all that has changed.

With every generation of new phones, Apple and Samsung pack in more camera features that make their devices ever closer to professional grade snappers – and this year has been no exception. 

This week, Apple releases the iPhone 12 Pro Max, its largest smartphone ever with a 6.7 inch screen. It also comes with its most powerful camera ever.

To put the new device through its paces, we compared it to the top of the range model from Apple’s main rival, Samsung. We used Samsung’s huge Galaxy Note 20 Ultra to test it out.

The first photo here is from the grounds of Fulham Palace. I like how the iPhone captures the colour of the old brick gate, and to the eye it is a more accurate shot.

However, in this shot, I used the Samsung Note 20’s incredible 108MP setting. This creates a photo of incredible detail, and zooming in on the trees shows the leaves are still clear. However, the file size is enormous, making this impractical for regular shots.

The iPhone accurately captured the colours of the brickwork

The Note Ultra was able to capture intense detail with its camera

It was a gloomy day on the Thames path. In this second shot of the Albert Bridge, I tried out the iPhone and Samsung with their wide-angle shots. This produces a greater sense of scale and width to the frames.

I think the iPhone does slightly better here. The detail on the bridge and the colours of the sky are captured more accurately, to my eye. Apple’s primary sensor is now 47pc bigger on the 12 Pro Max.

The iPhone offers wide-angle shots with its 0.5x camera

How the same shot came out on the Samsung

This next photo tries out Portrait mode on the iPhone and Live Focus on the Samsung. Both photos create a “bokeh” effect, blurring out the background slightly to help the subject stand out.

Again, I think the iPhone manages to capture a more life-like shot, but Samsung’s photo is perhaps more social media ready. In the iPhone image, the green of the jacket appears correct throughout, but on the Samsung image, the left side is almost over-white.

You get the same, washed out effect in selfie photos too. Samsung’s selfie camera left me looking like a pale ghost. 

You can notice big differences between Portrait Mode and Samsung's Live Focus

Live Focus appears to add more whites to the image


The real battleground in smartphone snaps right now is in low light photography. Both the iPhone and Samsung feature a variant of Night Mode. Apple says the new Pro Max lets in up to 87pc more light, creating even more detailed low-light shots. Samsung’s night mode uses 30 frames captured over a few seconds and then combines them into a single, well-lit photo.

It was a misty, dark night, but here I think the iPhone captures more detail with somewhat less blur, and gets the character of the almost brown/red sky overhead. 

Another trick the iPhone offers is shooting video using night mode. This uncanny feature almost makes it seem possible to see in the dark.

For those using a tripod, both cameras are also set up to take long exposure shots of the night sky or busy nightlife. 

The iPhone's night mode captured the misty red of the sky

Samsung's night mode offered a darker picture

Finally, I tested the zoom capabilities of both phones. The iPhone 12 Pro Max has a telephoto lens capable of 2.5x zoom, augmented digitally to zoom up to 12x. The huge camera module on the Samsung Note 20 Ultra, meanwhile, provides up to 5x physical zoom augmented with software to zoom up to 50 times.

That capacity and its huge camera made short work of the photo I took. This church tower from across the Thames was taken at 10x zoom on both cameras. You can clearly see the Samsung has simply captured far more detail than the iPhone.

The iPhone only has 2.5x optical zoom

The Samsung's superior zoom really shows in this picture

 Video features

As well as regular camera snaps, both phones also come packed with video features for professionals to size up.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max, as well as its follows in the iPhone 12 line-up, come with Dolby Vision for film footage. That is the kind of quality you would expect from TV filming and is a major step up in the kind of formats you can shoot on a phone.

It offers up to 60 frames per second filming at 4K, which again is impressive, although it will quickly eat up your storage.

The Samsung, however, is also very capable. It can film at up to 8K definition, meaning you can get incredible detail in video shots. Samsung also packs its phones with a nifty feature called Single Take. This lets you simply hold your phone out, and the camera takes a series of shots capturing "meaningful moments". This would be great to record footage at a party, or a sports match when those are allowed to take place again.


The last two times we compared the flagship iPhone to the flagship Samsung it was practically a dead heat in terms of camera capabilities. This year, I think the iPhone 12 Pro Max edges it slightly, but with some exceptions.

The leaps forward in zoom made by Samsung mean their phone is perfect for hobbies that maybe once required you to have a point and shoot camera. 

However, I still think the iPhone has the edge in portraits and people, with the Samsung still erring on the side of adding brightness effects to photos that do not need them.

The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra starts at £1,179, while the iPhone 12 Pro Max starts at £1,099.