Samsung is going big on cameras, bigger than ever before. With three new devices in the Galaxy S20 family, Samsung is throwing everything at these new cameras in an attempt to catch-up and better its rivals.
Samsung has been offering great cameras for many years, but in the past few years, while focusing on its Dual Aperture system, hasn't had the excitement that rivals like Huawei and Oppo have.
So is Samsung back in the game? Here's everything you need to know about Samsung's new Galaxy S20 smartphone camera systems.
Triple and quad camera systems
Although all the new Galaxy S20 devices have that raised black camera bump in the corner, there's a big difference between the S20 and S20+ and the S20 Ultra. The S20 Ultra is a lot more aggressive in its approach, hitting some of the biggest specs we've seen in a smartphone camera.
That sets the S20 Ultra on a very different path. So let's break down what each of these phones contains.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra cameras in depth
- Main: 108MP, 0.8µm, f/1.8 OIS
- Ultra wide: 12MP, 1.4µm, f/2.2
- Telephoto: 48MP, 0.8µm, f/3.5 OIS
- DepthVision lens
- Front: 40MP, 0.7µm, f/2.2
Galaxy S20 Ultra main camera
In the past Samsung has stuck to using 12 or 16-megapixel cameras. For the past couple of years, the main camera offered a Dual Aperture lens, able to switch from f/1.5 to f/2.4 depending on the conditions. This system has now been totally scrapped, with a new 108-megapixel sensor instead, with an f/1.8 aperture.
It's a different philosophy, with Samsung chasing resolution in the way that Huawei and Xiaomi have done in the past and looking to use pixel combining to get the results that you want. Natively the pixels on this sensor are 0.8µm, but Samsung will use pixel combining to result in a 12-megapixel photo, with an equivalent 2.4µm pixels instead - that's the theory, anyway.
The aim is to increase the signal-to-noise ratio and improve the ability of the sensor to capture light. We've seen good performance from Huawei particularly in doing this, although there's still some argument around whether it's better to have pixel combining or just to have a sensor with bigger pixels. Note that the regular Galaxy S20 has pixels that are 1.8µm - amongst the largest you'll find in a smartphone - which seems to be a polar opposite approach to that taken in the Ultra.
You can force the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra to take 108-megapixel photos, but you have to manually select that option - we suspect most people will stick to the default 12-megapixel output.
Galaxy S20 Ultra telephoto camera
This is Samsung's biggest telephoto camera on a phone, seeing it switch to using a periscope system. That aligns the lenses at 90 degrees and directs the light through a prism, meaning the camera can be physically larger because it's no constrained by the thickness of the phone.
We've seen these lenses in the Huawei P30 Pro and Oppo Reno 10X Zoom in the past.
Here, Samsung has stacked a 48-megapixel sensor behind it, again using pixel combining, taking the native 0.8µm to a 12-megapixel 1.6µm image instead. There's also optical image stabilisation, with the prism able to move to counter some of the handshake.
Samsung says that the S20 Ultra offers 10X Hybrid Optic zoom - we've asked what the actual optical value is, but we haven't received an answer. We know that Samsung is using AI to improve the zoomed images from this camera.
The headline feature is the 100X zoom, but there are zoom increments all the way through the range out to 100X. In reality, having tested the 100X zoom system, it's impossible to handhold because the slightest movement equates to a massive swing at the end of that focal field, so it needs support. Even on a tripod, we found it bounced for some time before settling.
One interesting feature is that once you get out to the longer zooms, a preview box appears in the corner, showing you what you're zooming in on - this makes it a lot easier to find exactly the point you want to look at.
Perhaps the limitation of this system is that the aperture comes out at f/3.5. It's not letting in a huge amount of light, suggesting that this system is only really going to be effective in daylight conditions. We've tested the 100X zoom indoors and the results weren't great - but there's a lot more testing that we'll need to do with it.
If nothing else, this lens does give you all that flexibility to choose those zooms up to 100X and somewhere in the middle you're likely to get the quality you want. We'll be testing this in some detail to see how it performs out in the real world.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra ultra-wide camera
The ultra-wide camera on the S20 Ultra is the only camera it shares with the S20 and S20+, a 12-megapixel camera. There's no pixel combining here, it's just a straight shooting ultra-wide camera.
You can either tap to it in the viewfinder or you can pinch, with it also being referred to as 0.5x zoom - in the same way that Apple did on the iPhone 11 Pro.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra selfie camera
The front camera on the S20 Ultra is again using the pixel combining technique, to take the 40-megapixel 0.7µm sensor over to 10-megapixel 1.4µm. Again, it's a big resolution play and in this case, the difference in the result from the Ultra compared to the other S20 devices is that it equates to 1.4µm while the others are 1.22µm.
The question is whether that will gives you a drastically different image quality, or if it's simply to look good on the spec sheet, with bigger numbers.
Samsung Galaxy S20 and S20+ cameras in depth
- Main: 12MP, 1.8µm, f/1.8 OIS
- Ultra wide: 12MP, 1.4µm, f/2.2
- Telephoto: 64MP, 0.8µm, f/2.0 OIS
- DepthVision lens (S20+ only)
- Front: 10MP, 1.22µm, f/2.2
Samsung Galaxy S20 and S20+ main camera
The main camera on the Galaxy S20 and the Galaxy S20+ is the same, a 12-megapixel sensor with 1.8µm pixels. This is pretty exciting in itself, although may slip into the shadow of the Galaxy S20 Ultra with all its big numbers.
This camera is important because the native pixel sites are larger than most - the iPhone 11 Pro, for example, has 1.4µm pixels, as does the Pixel 4. Indeed, so did the Samsung Galaxy S10. In theory, the Galaxy S20 and S20+ should let in more light, boosting the capture capabilities.
We're also pleased to see that the Dual Aperture system has been dropped. We never really felt that the f/2.4 part was necessary and the f/1.5 part could sometimes be a little too shallow on the depth of field. The f/1.8 is a good average.
A word on the DepthVision sensor
There's a blank space in the camera bump on the Galaxy S20 and that's because it doesn't have the DepthVision sensor. That's the fourth part of the quad arrangement and something that the S20+ and the S20 Ultra both have.
These sorts of additional sensors have been popular for some time, used by manufacturers to boost the information on depth. That's supposed to aid the portrait modes and bokeh effects, although we've never really been convinced by them.
Many budget phones throw in a second depth sensor that appears to do almost nothing - and we've seen some of the best portrait shots come not from these sensors, but from better AI. The Pixel 4 is a good example of this.
So we don't think that the Galaxy S20 is missing out for not having this sensor. Indeed, to us this is just something to put on the spec sheet to differentiate between models and of little practical use.
Samsung Galaxy S20 and S20+ telephoto camera
Moving on to the telephoto lens and Samsung is back to the big numbers, with a 64-megapixel sensor. Again, this has tiny pixels at 0.8µm, but we suspect that Samsung will use some pixel combining on this lens to give you a 16-megapixel image from a 1.6µm super pixel (Samsung hasn't actually confirmed this, but we'll seek to get an answer).
The headline figures here are 3X Hybrid Optic - again we don't really know what Samsung is classing as optical zoom here and how much is AI recovery, etc - and then a 30X digital zoom, or Super Resolution as Samsung wants to call it.
Like the S20 Ultra, you can pinch to access this zoom or you can tap through different zoom lengths up to the 30X. Again, we've tried this zoom and you need to have a very steady hand to reduce movement at the far end, despite the optical image stabilisation.
In reality, the 30X zoom might be a lot more practical use than the 100X zoom of the S20 Ultra and the f/2.0 aperture might make it more useful in lower light conditions.
Samsung Galaxy S20 and S20+ ultra-wide camera
The ultra-wide camera in the Galaxy S20 models is the same - so there's nothing to add here above what we said about the S20 Ultra.
Samsung Galaxy S20 and S20+ selfie camera
The front camera on the S20 and S20+ is a lot more conventional than the Ultra, with a10-megapixel sensor with f/2.2 aperture and 1.22µm pixels.
We'd expect it to be a decent performer - indeed, we suspect it's the same camera as found in the Galaxy Note 10.
Samsung Galaxy S20 series camera features
Aside from the core hardware, Samsung has made some adjustments to the camera app. The biggest introduction is a new camera mode called Single Take.
Single Take will let you capture images from all of the cameras on the back, over a short period of time, and then serve you up a gallery of images to choose from. This will include the top shot identified by Samsung's AI, but also mixtures of video, wide or different views.
It's a clever way of allowing the user to capture a scene in a variety of ways, allowing for movement and over a short period of time. So, for example, if you're taking pictures of your cat, it will allow for movement and mean you're not tied to one single moment in time to capture the perfect image.
Single Take also works on the front camera, so you can do the same with selfies, meaning you don't have the nail the perfect look straight away.
Elsewhere, the Samsung Galaxy S20 series will support 8K video capture, with Samsung saying it has improve shake reduction in video too, so make capture smoother overall. You can also take still images - at 36 megapixels - directly from the 8K video. That's likely to be another reason why all of these cameras contain at least one high resolution sensor.
You'll be able to share 8K video to a compatible TV or to YouTube, but you'll also be able to share downscaled versions with friends.
Having played with all the new phones and had the chance to use most of these features, there's no doubt that Samsung is really ramping up the camera side of its devices. What we haven't had the chance to do is to really test these phones in a wider context, away from the demos that Samsung setup for us.
So a lot of questions remain, especially around the Galaxy S20 Ultra. It has massive specs, but it's a very different approach for Samsung. It will need to deliver on the promises of quality and effectiveness to be able to compete.
The Galaxy S20 and the S20+ are a little more conventional, but also have a lot of potential. What's going to be really interesting is to look at the difference between the S20+ and the S20 Ultra to see how much of a difference the high resolution approach makes.
The Samsung Galaxy S20 series will be available from 13 March.