Samsung recently announced a trio of attention-grabbing smartphones at its annual Galaxy Unpacked event. As you might imagine, the Galaxy S22, Galaxy S22+, and Galaxy S22 Ultra all sport a capable array of cameras: The S22 and S22+ offer ultra-wide, standard, and 3x zoom views, while the S22 Ultra offers an additional 10x optical zoom lens.
The zoom lenses close one of the remaining gaps in features between smartphones and compact cameras, which are slowly dwindling out of favor. Many smartphones already perform better in low light than affordable dedicated cameras—for example, the night shot modes from Apple, Google, and Samsung all produce results well beyond what you can expect from point-and-shoots.The S22 Ultra's camera stack includes a 10x zoom, not found on the regular S22 or S22+(Photo: Molly Flores)
The competitiveness between modern smartphones and most point-and-shoots is one of the reasons we focus our camera coverage on enthusiast gear and lenses. But when it comes to flagship phones intended to serve as your sole camera, it's worth seeing how they stack up to dedicated imaging devices. With that in mind, we took the new Galaxy S22 devices on a photo walk to see how well they fare.
Galaxy S22 and S22+ vs. S22 Ultra Cameras
The S22 and S22+ have the same rear camera setup, including an ultra-wide 0.6x lens for broad views, a standard 1x lens with a bright aperture for low-light shots, and a 3x telephoto for portraits. The S22 Ultra adds a 10x optical lens to the mix, making it a bit more versatile for trips to the zoo, or in my case, to a local trail with birds, squirrels, and other suburban wildlife. It also offers 100x digital zoom, but image quality drops off quickly beyond the 10x optical setting.The S22 Ultra's 10x zoom lens is handy for snaps of wildlife, but you still need to get pretty close (about 10 feet away in the case of this photo)(Photo: Jim Fisher)
The sensors behind the main lenses are a differentiating factor, too. The S22 and S22+ use a 50MP sensor for capture, but the best results come from a pixel-binned 12MP mode. More pixels aren't better here—the 50MP is fairly grainy, with ugly noise in shadows (and the molded plastic optics aren't that high-res). The story is very much the same with the S22 Ultra; it swaps in a 108MP sensor, but also pixel bins output down to 12MP.
The rear cameras all support 4K video recording at up to 60fps. You can also record at 8K locked to 24fps. With the S22 and S22+, the 8K view is as wide as the 1x lens, but the S22 Ultra only uses a portion of its main camera for video, so the angle of view is narrower. The 8K feature is more to grab headlines than a practical choice, though—we prefer the 4K footage, especially because you can zoom in and out and use all of the lenses for 4K capture.
(We have a story with additional details about the differences between the three handsets if you're interested in more than just their imaging capabilities. Screen size and battery life are among the biggest factors.)
The design here matters for photography, too. When I'm shopping for a phone that I plan to use as a camera, I favor one with a larger screen and a slightly thicker build, as I find it difficult to hold an ultra-slim phone straight-on with a subject. In this regard, all three Galaxy S22 models pass the size test (especially the S22+ and the S22 Ultra), though my preference is still to pick up a camera with a proper shutter release and even a modest bump for a handgrip. A case can help you keep your hand steady, and is also a good idea for phones with an ultra-wide lens; without one, you're more likely to capture a stray thumb or finger in the frame.
The volume rocker, usable for zoom or to snap photos, is located on the left side when you hold the phone in landscape orientation(Photo: Molly Flores)
You change camera settings via an app. The big touch screen is a boon for after-shot edits, but I'm always let down when it comes to using it for manual settings and creative photography. Tapping the icons on the screen to swap between zoom settings isn't as natural as using a rocker or twisting the barrel of a lens to set the view. And although you can use the volume rocker to set the zoom (or use it as a shutter release), it's in the wrong place for right-handed photographers. Lefties will be happy to see it under their dominant index finger when holding the camera in landscape orientation, however.
Samsung Galaxy S22 Lineup
Samsung Galaxy S22 Review4.0Excellent$799.99 at VerizonSee It
Samsung Galaxy S22+ Review4.0Excellent$999.62 at AmazonSee It
Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra Review4.0Excellent$1,199.62 at AmazonSee It
Computational Imaging Tools Run Circles Around Small Cameras
The Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor that drives the S22 is far more powerful than the image processors in dedicated cameras. It makes sense—a phone's processor handles everything from 5G connectivity to the latest mobile games, whereas most digital cameras simply don't have those processing needs.
Samsung leverages the extra processing power to supplement comparatively meager optics—these computational photography features allow the S22 to punch above its weight and deliver better photos than you'd expect from a phone.HDR capture gets better results when photographing subjects with mixed lighting and against a strong backlight(Photo: Jim Fisher)
The basic computational features are all here. You get an HDR boost for day-to-day photography for one. This long-running feature is pretty common for smartphones. It tunes image output to show a wider range of brightness, with more details visible in the shadows and less chance of blowing out highlights. Modern smartphones handle tough landscape scenes with dramatic lighting effortlessly. You can turn Auto HDR off if you prefer (via the camera app's settings), but most casual snappers should leave it on.Night shot works with the three main rear lenses, but not the S22 Ultra's 10x zoom; this sample is from the 1x lens on the S22+(Photo: Jim Fisher)
Low-light imaging gets a boost with a multi-shot night mode. When the phone detects a dark scene, it shows a crescent moon icon in the app to let you know it's ready for low-light capture. The phone gets brighter, low-noise images in the dark by blending multiple short exposures. The process takes a couple of seconds, but the results are striking. For the cleanest, sharpest results, try to find a cooperative subject—ask your model to hold still, and expect passing cars to show motion trails. The S22 is a better low-light camera than most point-and-shoots, save for 1-inch sensor models with F1.8 lenses like the vlog-friendly Sony ZV-1. Night mode is available on the 0.6x, 1x, and 3x lenses, but not the S22 Ultra's 10x optical zoom one.I used the Petzval-inspired swirl bokeh effect for this portrait mode image I captured with the S22 Ultra's 1x lens(Photo: Jim Fisher)
Additionally, a portrait mode helps you achieve a blurred-background look, also called the bokeh effect. You can use the 1x or 3x lenses here (the 0.6x has too wide a view to map depth and blur out backgrounds), but to get the best results, you should stay around three to five feet away from your subject. If you snap a shot outside of that range, the S22 still snaps the photo, you just won't get the option to blur the background.
The S22's camera app also functions as an editing suite (Photoshop in your pocket, to put it simply). Touch-based editing is intuitive, and you can easily swap color photos to black-and-white or a filtered look; crop the frame; adjust exposure; and make other edits, all from your camera roll. I especially like some of the edit options available for portrait effect shots—you can change the shape and intensity of the background blur, for example. A swirly Petzval lens option mimics the effect from zooming a lens during a longer exposure, a favorite of wedding photographers.
As for how the S22 stacks up to the other top camera phones on the market, we didn't have the iPhone 13 Pro and Pixel 6 Pro on hand for this round of testing. But in our review of the Galaxy S22+ we noted, "Google's Pixel 6 Pro has slightly better cameras. Images [we] took with that phone have more vibrant colors, making photos from the S22+ appear comparatively washed out."
And for the Galaxy S22 Ultra: "In daylight, Samsung's tendency to pump up colors is even more noticeable here than with models in the S21 series. You may prefer that look, but otherwise, iPhone 13 models produce images with more natural colors. The S22 handles shadows better than the S21, however."
Recommended by Our Editors10 Easy Tips and Tricks for Better Smartphone PhotosThe Best Camera Phones for 2022Which Samsung Galaxy S22 Model Should You Buy?
Where Smartphone Cameras Win (And Where They Don't)
The debate over whether smartphones can replace standalone point-and-shoot cameras was, for most of us, settled long ago. Snapshooters who reached for affordable and easy-to-use cameras in the past have switched over to handsets from Apple, Google, OnePlus, and Samsung. Smartphones double as ideal, take-everywhere cameras that don't require you to think about aperture, shutter speed, ISO, or other photo enthusiast settings.The 3x lens comes in handy when you can't get too close to your subject, but isn't enough for most wildlife(Photo: Jim Fisher)
I'm especially happy to see quality ultra-wide lenses become more prevalent on smartphones—they add some versatility for landscape and travel that you don't get from dedicated pocket cameras, most of which only go as wide as the 1x lens on a smartphone.
I'm still not sold on smartphone ergonomics, however. I spend plenty of time scrolling through news feeds, managing my financials and daily life, and playing casual games on my smartphone. But I very rarely pick it up to take a photo—a camera is simply a better fit for the types of images I like to make. If you're like me, you may still want to get a dedicated camera. (Then again, I review cameras for a living, so my photography needs might be different than yours.)The 0.6x lens comes is useful for scenes where you want an extra-wide view(Photo: Jim Fisher)
It's easy enough to find a larger one with swappable lenses—those are the types of cameras pros and shutterbugs still snap up. But low-cost, pocketable compacts are quickly going the way of the dinosaur, and Michael Crichton isn't around to bring them back to life. At press time, the lowest-cost, in-stock point-and-shoot from a name brand is the $400 Panasonic Lumix ZS70. The ZS70 has a lot of zoom power—its lens covers a 30x range—but it doesn't keep up with the S22's computational imaging features.
Most modern small cameras rely on larger image sensors and shorter, higher-quality zoom lenses to keep footing more equal with multi-lens phones. They're the type of compact cameras that photo enthusiasts still buy. Cameras like the Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III ($749) and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 VA ($999) are quality alternatives, and a good fit if you struggle with smartphone ergonomics.
The Best Alternatives to Smartphone Cameras
Olympus Tough TG-6 Review4.0Excellent$449.00 at AmazonSee It
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 VII Review4.0Excellent$1,298.00 at AmazonSee It
Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III Review3.5Good$749.00 at AmazonSee It
Sony ZV-1 Review3.5Good$749.99 at Best BuySee It See all (4 items)
Budget shoppers who prefer a standalone camera aren't totally left in the cold, but should set their sights on a bridge model. You get an excessive amount of zoom power for your money from one of our favorite budget options, the $399 Panasonic FZ80, and if you want a bit better viewfinder and lens, the Canon SX70 HS is our favorite mainstream bridge for $599. Both have lenses that open up to around 20mm—not quite as wide as the 0.6x lens on the S22, but still very useful. And while the 10x lens on the Ultra is an impressive feat for a phone, the FZ80 and SX70 HS zoom in much closer, at 60x and 65x respectively.Image quality suffers when you use the S22 Ultra's 30x digital zoom—you're better off with a bridge camera if you're chasing zoom power(Photo: Jim Fisher)
If you have a flagship smartphone like the S22, or any newer iPhone, Galaxy, Pixel, or OnePlus model, there's not much reason to add a separate pocket camera to your gadget stash. Shutterbugs, photo enthusiasts, and other specialists may still find one, however. If you're among that set, make sure to read through our top full-frame picks if you're looking for a serious camera. Don't forget about compact, niche options like the Fujifilm X100V and Ricoh GR III series, either.
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