I compared two of the year’s best phones in an extreme camera test

The Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max and the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra's rear panels.
Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max (left) and the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra. Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

Apple versus Samsung is perhaps the ultimate battle in smartphones, and the iPhone 15 Pro Max and the Galaxy S23 Ultra are the two brand’s top devices. If you want one, you may have also looked at the other, and even if not, who doesn’t want to see a tough camera battle between these two heavyweights?

We put the Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max’s camera to the test alongside the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra to see which comes out victorious.

Introducing the cameras

The Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max's camera module.
Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

These are two of the best, most expensive smartphones you can buy at the moment, with massive screens and the fastest processors, but the cameras are quite different from each other. The iPhone 15 Pro Max has a 48-megapixel main camera with optical image stabilization, a 12MP wide-angle camera with a 120-degree field-of-view, and a pair of 12MP telephoto cameras providing 2x and 5x optical zoom.

The main camera can be used to shoot at 24mm, 28mm, and 35mm, giving further flexibility, plus there’s a full resolution 48MP mode. I haven’t tested these against the Galaxy S23 Ultra. On the front is a 12MP camera with autofocus and image stabilization. Video isn’t part of the test, but we have some examples of its ability in this article; plus there is an in-depth test of the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s video performance here.

The Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra's camera.
Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

Moving on to the Galaxy S23 Ultra, it has a massive 200MP main camera (which shoots in 12MP by default, lower than the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s 24MP default), a 12MP 12-degree field-of-view wide-angle camera, and a pair of 10MP telephoto cameras for a 3x and a 10x optical zoom. Optical image stabilization is onboard, along with laser autofocus. The front selfie camera has 12 megapixels.

The photos in this test were taken across different days, all in auto mode. They have been resized for easier online viewing.

Main camera

The iPhone 15 Pro Max and the Galaxy S23 Ultra can often take very different photos, and I’m going to highlight a few here. It’s quite difficult to single out one main camera as better than the other in many situations, as the results are just a different take on the same scene with the same high level of quality and detail. However, in specific circumstances, such as when you get close up, there are notable differences between them.

Take a look at the basket of vegetables, where the iPhone 15 Pro Max shows so much more detail and texture, and the Galaxy S23 Ultra smooths the image out. Arguably, it does have a slightly sharper focus, but the lack of texture gives it an artificial look that isn’t as visually pleasing. The iPhone 15 Pro Max’s white balance is more accurate, too.

When I took the photo of the leaf, both phones activated the “macro” mode, enabling better focus on close-up objects. The iPhone 15 Pro Max’s mode can rob photos of any depth, but that doesn’t matter here. Instead, look at the difference in color and detail. The S23 Ultra’s photo is vibrant and sharp, while the iPhone’s photo is drab and poorly focused. The S23 Ultra captured the essence of the scene far more attractively.

The next shot was taken early in the morning when the autumn sun was low in the sky, and both have a different take on the environment. The iPhone is warmer and more natural, and it captured the blue in the sky that was slightly missed by the S23 Ultra. There is more noise in the S23 Ultra’s photo, and also some odd rainbow effects in the water, while the trees are overly processed. The iPhone’s photo is natural, and although noise is visible, the image hasn’t been overly sharpened.

Finally, the photo of the car shows most of the major differences between the two main cameras. The Galaxy S23 Ultra’s bold, vibrant colors play against the natural, sometimes slightly too muted colors of the iPhone, but Apple’s camera fights back with its sharper, less processed appearance. Both are good photos, but the iPhone 15 Pro Max suits my taste more here. However, when it switches to macro mode, the Galaxy S23 Ultra beats it every time.

It’s going to be a draw overall in this category, but personal taste means you may prefer the appearance of one over the other.

Winner: Draw

Wide-angle camera

Many of the attributes of the main camera are carried across to the wide-angle camera, but the effect is slightly altered. The iPhone 15 Pro Max’s exposure levels aren’t always quite right, and its natural tone isn’t always as pleasing here. In contrast, the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s vibrant tone and aggressive exposure levels make the pictures more exciting. Where it can be overpowering on the main camera, it can work better when shooting with the wide-angle.

The S23 Ultra has the edge in the photo of the church, but its exuberance when it comes to RGB colors spoils the second image, and the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s gentler touch better captures the scene. It was really cold, and this is carried over better by the iPhone, and the exposure and white balance bring out the clouds in the sky more effectively, too.

The final photo here shows why this category is also tricky to judge. The Galaxy S23 Ultra’s photo is visually more interesting at a glance, but when you look closely, there’s a lot of noise in the clouds and the water, which spoils the otherwise sharp and arresting photo. The iPhone’s photo is nowhere near as sharp and suffers from noise, but not quite as much as the S23 Ultra’s photo. It’s not ideal, but this has to be another draw, as neither consistently pulls ahead of the other.

Winner: Draw

Telephoto cameras

A direct comparison isn’t possible in our telephoto category, as both cameras provide different levels of optical zoom. We will start off with a pair of galleries showing the differences between the capability of both cameras’ optical zoom modes. Above is a gallery showing the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s 1x, 2x, and 5x photos and the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s 1x, 3x, and 10x photos, allowing you to understand the differences in how close you can get to an object.

Next, let’s look at individual modes, starting with the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s 10x optical zoom against a 10x digital zoom taken with the iPhone 15 Pro Max. It won’t come as a surprise that the S23 Ultra wins, shooting a sharper, more detailed photo than the iPhone. However, the iPhone’s 10x digital image isn’t a disaster and would still be acceptable apart from when it’s put alongside the S23 Ultra’s brilliant image.

What happens when we switch the roles and force the S23 Ultra to take a 5x digital zoom photo next to the iPhone’s 5x optical? The results are above. Neither is fantastic quality, and the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s 5x mode gets close enough to the iPhone’s optical 5x that it won’t bother many people leaning toward the S23 Ultra. The iPhone’s colors are more realistic, but as the S23 Ultra doesn’t rob the photo of that much detail or sharpness, it’s forgivable and fixable with an edit.

In the final shot, I compared the 2x and the 3x cameras and did have to change position slightly to compensate for the different zoom levels, so there isn’t as much difference in composition. It’s another win for the Galaxy S23 Ultra, which has none of the noise from the iPhone’s photo, has a better white balance, and has a much sharper focus. The S23 Ultra has easily taken the win in this category.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra

Night mode

The iPhone 15 Pro Max’s nighttime shots are generally less noisy and better balanced than the S23 Ultra’s. Still, occasionally, the Samsung phone can take an atmospheric shot that seems beyond its ability. The shot above shows the sky is less blue, the lights less blown out, and far less smoothing on the stone monument from the iPhone. It’s also not as bright as the S23 Ultra’s photo, providing more atmosphere.

I also prefer how the iPhone has handled the sign in the next picture, with its blacker board, textured pavement, and wood, plus a great tone on the wall behind to bring out the shadows more. It’s more realistic and not as cold as the S23 Ultra’s photo, which is a little too bright and stark and emphasizes the effect of the yellow street lights more.

However, the Galaxy S23 Ultra excels in the final photo here. The exposure is exactly right, bringing out more detail in the church while keeping the surroundings in shadow, and with really great colors in the grass, stone, and trees. The iPhone’s photo just doesn’t capture the scene in the same way. However, this was a one-off for the S23 Ultra, and the iPhone 15 Pro Max otherwise always took better-balanced, less noisy lowlight images.

Winner: Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max

Selfie camera

The two selfie cameras take very similar photos, with one big difference between them. The S23 Ultra lightens my skin tone compared to the iPhone, which looks less accurate to my eyes. The level of detail from both is quite similar, but blacks tend to be deeper from the S23 Ultra due to the way it balances the contrast levels.

Is one better than the other? Like some other categories here, it may come down to personal taste. I like the iPhone 15 Pro’s selfie camera and appreciate how you can use the same easy-to-master Portrait mode effects from the rear camera, and the edge recognition is always very effective. The S23 Ultra’s bokeh effect doesn’t usually have the same subtleness, but often its brighter photos are more flattering and fun. It’s another draw.

Winner: Draw

Both winners, and both are brilliant

The Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max and the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra's screens.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

The camera battle between the Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max and the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra is a draw, with both winning a single category each and drawing in the other three. What’s fascinating is that the two cameras did take different photos, resulting in a different interpretation of the scene. However, as both were technically very accomplished, the “winner” will mostly be about personal preference.

Samsung’s brilliant telephoto camera was the runaway winner, though, and easily beat the iPhone 15 Pro Max — even managing to get really close to Apple’s optical zoom when shooting digitally. If you like to experiment, the S23 Ultra’s telephoto camera lets you get really creative and is a genuine reason to choose it over the iPhone. The Galaxy S23 Ultra isn’t so accomplished in lowlight, though, and Apple’s software enhancements improve most images taken in darkness a lot when compared.

The Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max and the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra's cameras.
Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max (left) and the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra. Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

If it’s about personal preference, what is my personal preference after taking more than 100 photos with both cameras? It’s an incredibly hard choice.

The iPhone 15 Pro Max’s camera takes photos that I find more visually appealing than the iPhone 14 Pro, and I love its overall natural tone. Still, the S23 Ultra’s telephoto camera is simply unmatched. If I were forced to use only one camera, it would probably be the Galaxy S23 Ultra due to this, but I’d really miss the iPhone 15 Pro Max when I wasn’t using the telephoto.

Editors’ Recommendations

Courtesy by: Digital Trends

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