Camera head to head: Lumia 950 XL vs Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G

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Having already pitched this year's new Samsung flagship darling (and arguably with good reason), the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G against the classic Lumia 950 XL, as usual for interest's sake, it's time to turn to imaging. The S21 Ultra claims the earth, but is its camera system as good as the marketing suggests? Upsampling and some computational strangeness do cast the odd doubt. And, as ever, a lot will depend on whether you need its mighty 10x periscope telephoto system.

950 Xl and S21 Ultra cameras

Lumia 950 XL and Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G cameras

Let's start with a few specs:

Lumia 950 XL (2015) Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G (2020)

Dedicated two-stage shutter button/launch key

20 MP (PureView oversampled to 8MP here)
f/1.9, 1/2.4", PDAF, OIS

108 MP, f/1.8, 1/1.33", PDAF, Laser AF, OIS
10 MP, f/4.9, 240mm (10x periscope telephoto), 1/3.24", dual pixel AF, OIS
10 MP, f/2.4, 70mm (3x telephoto), 1/3.24", dual pixel AF, OIS
12 MP, f/2.2, ultrawide, 1/2.55", dual pixel AF

(all output at 12MP, regardless of scene or zoom)

It's clear that the Lumia is outgunned, but as usual the PureView oversampling and (relatively) natural image processing should keep it competitive.

Notes:

  • I've shot at 8MP on the Lumia 950 XL (leaving headroom for some lossless 'PureView' zoom into the sensor and also getting the advantages of oversampling and noise reduction). Ditto, the S21 Ultra - of course - at 12MP, with 9 to 1 pixel-binning and PureView-esque software zoom up until 3x, when the optical will take over, assuming light is OK.
  • The 10MP telephoto cameras on the S21 Ultra still output at 12MP, by virtue of the processor building in data from multiple cameras (if needed), multiple frames, and treating almost any zoom factor as needing some computation. As a result, shots aren't quite as precise as you might think, though the imprecisions are somewhat masked by Samsung's usual processing excesses.
  • All photos were taken on full auto and handheld, as a regular user would do. No tripods or RAW editing sessions needed!

Let's pit the results against each other, using our Famed Interactive Comparator (FIC). All 1:1 crops are at 900x500 for comparison, though I've put up the originals on my own server, for you to download if you want to do your own analysis.

Note that the interactive comparator below uses javascript and does need to load each pair of images. Please be patient while this page loads, if you see a pair of images above each other than you've either not waited long enough or your browser isn't capable enough! You ideally need a powerful, large-screened tablet or a proper laptop or desktop. This comparator may not work in some browsers. Sorry about that.

On Windows 10 Mobile, use the 'AAWP Universal' UWP app, which handles the comparator very competently (see the tips in the app's help screens)

Test 1: Daylight landscape

One of my standard scenes, shot in UK winter in pretty good lighting (the sun was trying to come out elsewhere in the sky/scene, witness the background blue sky). Here is the overall scene:

Overall scene

You can grab the original photos from the Lumia 950 XL and Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, for your own analysis.

To look at the images in more detail here, here are fairly central 1:1 crops, from the Lumia 950 XL and then the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, just wait to make sure the page has fully loaded and then use your mouse or trackpad pointer to compare the images:

Lumia 950 XL 1:1 crop Galaxy S21 Ultra 1:1 crop

Both pretty good photos, though down here at the pixel level you can see the 'colour photocopy' effect that Samsung always ends up with. Yes, the Samsung's photo is brighter and more contrasty, but it still overdoes the edge enhancement, in my opinion. With a resulting loss in fine detail, e.g, in flowers, grass or shrubbery. And in faces, were I to find one to snap as a test. Detail is important and I don't understand why, with such a large and capable camera, Samsung has to resort to edge enhancement tricks at all. Meanwhile, the Lumia 950 XL reflects the somewhat overcast light pretty well, albeit with the usual slight yellow colour cast, and its pixels are a lot 'purer', the image looks more 'real'.

So pros and cons for both. Neither are perfect. But a draw overall.

(Note that you can achieve a slightly purer image on the S21 Ultra by going 'all manual' and using Pro mode, but a) that's a pain, and b) you don't get to use the telephoto cameras at all. So that's a no go.)

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL: 9 pts; Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G (2020): 9 pts

Test 2: Daylight landscape, gentle zoom

The same scene, but with 2-3x zoom (there's a 3x preset on the Samsung, for obvious reasons, but it's a guess on the Lumia!) You can grab the original zoomed photos from the Lumia 950 XL and Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, for your own analysis.

To look at the images in more detail here, here are fairly central 1:1 crops, from the Lumia 950 XL and then the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, just wait to make sure the page has fully loaded and then use your mouse or trackpad pointer to compare the images:

Lumia 950 XL 1:1 crop Galaxy S21 Ultra 1:1 crop

An obvious win for the optical zoom here, with more actual detail and despite the 10MP to 12MP upsampling. With multiple frames typically taken (for HDR reasons), there's data to spare, to help out. Plus the colour's right, while the Lumias yellow colour cast looks even more wrong in crop form here, away from surrounding greenery.

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL: 8 pts; Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G (2020): 10 pts

Test 3: Landscape no. 2

Another of my standard scenes, shot in freezing and overcast weather. Here is the overall scene:

Overall scene

You can grab the original photos from the Lumia 950 XL and Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, for your own analysis.

To look at the images in more detail here, here are fairly central 1:1 crops, from the Lumia 950 XL and then the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, just wait to make sure the page has fully loaded and then use your mouse or trackpad pointer to compare the images:

Lumia 950 XL 1:1 crop Galaxy S21 Ultra 1:1 crop

The S21 Ultra does better here, there's so much detail to latch onto and the edge enhancement likes it all. I'm even going to award it a draw, since the extra clarity helps, even if some of it is artificial.

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL: 9 pts; Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G (2020): 9 pts

Test 4: And now with zoom

The same scene, but this time with lots more zoom if available. I wanted to test the S21 Ultra's 10x periscope lens, etc. You can grab the original zoomed photos from the Lumia 950 XL and Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, for your own analysis.

To look at the images in more detail here, here are fairly central 1:1 crops, from the Lumia 950 XL and then the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, just wait to make sure the page has fully loaded and then use your mouse or trackpad pointer to compare the images:

Lumia 950 XL 1:1 crop Galaxy S21 Ultra 1:1 crop

Stunning detail from this genuine 10x folded lens camera. Even with the upsampling to 12MP (and then cropping here), the quality is still pretty good, here seeing small dents, rivets, the pitot detail, the barbed wire. Impressive.

Back in Lumia land, the 950 XL was never renowned for its zoom (1.5x lossless only) and so it had no chance here.

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL: 5 pts; Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G (2020): 10 pts

Test 5: Daylight close-up

Up close with artificial flowers in a graveyard. You can grab the original photos from the Lumia 950 XL and Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, for your own analysis.

Here are scaled crops, from the Lumia 950 XL and then the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, just wait to make sure the page has fully loaded and then use your mouse or trackpad pointer to compare the images:

Lumia 950 XL scaled Galaxy S21 Ultra scaled

Now this is fascinating, in terms of colour science. The Lumia's shot is too pale, the S21 Ultra's too dark and too blue. How can I be sure? Because I took a reference shot with my iPhone 12 Pro Max and that was squarely between the two extremes! [Also, the graveyard is only 3 minutes walk from my office!]

Both are crisp enough with decent focussing on the petal textures, so I'm going to have to go with a draw.

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL: 8 pts; Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G (2020): 8 pts

Test 6: HDR

A typical 'into the sun' HDR test. You can grab the original photos from the Lumia 950 XL and Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, for your own analysis.

Here are scaled crops, from the Lumia 950 XL and then the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, just wait to make sure the page has fully loaded and then use your mouse or trackpad pointer to compare the images:

Lumia 950 XL scaled Galaxy S21 Ultra scaled

I could have predicted these shots - the S21 Ultra has slightly better dynamic range (newer sensor, way more processing power) but also a larger lens and thus more prone to flare and internal reflections. In fact, the telltale green ball is there in both shots (direct sunlight bouncing around within the glass layers in the optical stack), but it's larger in the S21 Ultra's.

Still, two cracking HDR attempts and another draw.

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL: 8 pts; Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G (2020): 8 pts

Test 7: Sunny detail

With the sun (at last) out, here's another landscape data point. Here is the overall scene:

Overall scene

You can grab the original photos from the Lumia 950 XL and Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, for your own analysis.

To look at the images in more detail here, here are fairly central 1:1 crops, from the Lumia 950 XL and then the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, just wait to make sure the page has fully loaded and then use your mouse or trackpad pointer to compare the images:

Lumia 950 XL 1:1 crop Galaxy S21 Ultra 1:1 crop

A big win for Nokia/Microsoft's PureView tech here against the over-saturated, edge-enhanced mess that's Samsung in the last few years. Look at the grass, look at the graphic sign (lit by the sun), look at the hanging branches to the left of the dark green sign, Samsung's pixel-level algorithms just make a complete mess of this. 

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL: 10 pts; Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G (2020): 7 pts

Test 8: ...and now zoomed x2-3

The same scene, but with 2-3x zoom (there's a 3x preset on the Samsung, for obvious reasons, but it's a guess on the Lumia!) You can grab the original zoomed photos from the Lumia 950 XL and Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, for your own analysis.

To look at the images in more detail here, here are fairly central 1:1 crops, from the Lumia 950 XL and then the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, just wait to make sure the page has fully loaded and then use your mouse or trackpad pointer to compare the images:

Lumia 950 XL 1:1 crop Galaxy S21 Ultra 1:1 crop

Excuse me while I vomit. Sorry. But both zoomed photos are pretty horrible at the pixel level. The Lumia 950 XL has no real zoom pretensions and you can see the fuzziness and the artefacts. While the 3x optical zoom on the S21 Ultra has its output completely ruined by the edge enhancement - things are not too bad on the signs, but just look at the way the illuminated bare branches behind the signs are exagerated in ugly fashion.

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL: 6 pts; Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G (2020): 7 pts

Test 9: ...and now zoomed x10!

The same scene, but with 10x zoom on the S21 Ultra. I'll leave the 950 XL on 2x as it's already fuzzy enough. You can grab the original zoomed photos from the Lumia 950 XL and Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, for your own analysis.

To look at the images in more detail here, here are fairly central 1:1 crops, from the Lumia 950 XL and then the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, just wait to make sure the page has fully loaded and then use your mouse or trackpad pointer to compare the images:

Lumia 950 XL 1:1 crop Galaxy S21 Ultra 1:1 crop

Having a genuine 10x optical zoom on a phone camera system is still pretty impressive, though I would take issue with all the processing here. If we had 'just' a 10x periscope lens and seeing what it could do then I'd be happy, but look closely here and you can see (again) the 10MP to 12MP upsampling, meaning fuzziness at the pixel level. You can see it around the edges of the sign lettering.

Still, not bad for a standard phone form factor.

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL: 5 pts; Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G (2020): 9 pts

Test 10: Low light test

In very low light, deliberately, think a corner of a dimly lit living room, here showing my recently completed Eagle LEGO model at about 20cm! Here is the overall scene, looking much brighter than it really was:

Overall scene

You can grab the original photos from the Lumia 950 XL and Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, for your own analysis.

To look at the images in more detail here, here are fairly central 1:1 crops, from the Lumia 950 XL and then the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, just wait to make sure the page has fully loaded and then use your mouse or trackpad pointer to compare the images:

Lumia 950 XL 1:1 crop Galaxy S21 Ultra 1:1 crop

The Lumia 950 XL does pretty well for a PDAF-based 2015 phone camera system. But the (laser) focussing on the S21 Ultra is more precise, plus the sensor and apertures are larger. Then add in the white brick colour being more accurate in the Samsung shot (despite the warmth of indoor lighting) and this is an overall win for the much newer phone camera.

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL: 8 pts; Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G (2020): 9 pts

Test 11: Night time highlights

Some lit-up pots in a porch on a dark night. Here is the overall scene:

Overall scene

You can grab the original photos from the Lumia 950 XL and Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, for your own analysis.

To look at the images in more detail here, here are fairly central 1:1 crops, from the Lumia 950 XL and then the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, just wait to make sure the page has fully loaded and then use your mouse or trackpad pointer to compare the images:

Lumia 950 XL 1:1 crop Galaxy S21 Ultra 1:1 crop

You're going to think me mad, but... I'm awarding the Lumia the win here. True, the paving slabs are blown out, but look at the natural details and colours in the flowers in the pots. Look at the car - in the S21 Ultra version, the edges are all enhanced to the point of it looking cartoonish. Samsung has GOT to get its image processing under control. What's the point in 9-to-1 binning on a huge 108MP sensor when the results are processed in such child-like, crude fashion?

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL: 9 pts; Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G (2020): 8 pts

Test 12: Zebra time!

A brightly illuminated crossing on a dark street at dead of night. Challenging extremes of lighting. Here is the overall scene:

Overall scene

You can grab the original photos from the Lumia 950 XL and Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, for your own analysis.

To look at the images in more detail here, here are fairly central 1:1 crops, from the Lumia 950 XL and then the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, just wait to make sure the page has fully loaded and then use your mouse or trackpad pointer to compare the images:

Lumia 950 XL 1:1 crop Galaxy S21 Ultra 1:1 crop

The edge enhancement from Samsung is again at play, turning a wet road (it had just rained) into something with sand-paper-like texture. Is it just me that hates this? Plus, look at the moon-like halos around all the street lamps. All created by the desire for more contrast, more edges. Ghastly.

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL: 9 pts; Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G (2020): 8 pts

Test 13: Dead of night

Very low light on a suburban street. The ultimate low light test. Here is the overall scene:

Overall scene

You can grab the original photos from the Lumia 950 XL and Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, for your own analysis.

To look at the images in more detail here, here are fairly central 1:1 crops, from the Lumia 950 XL and then the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, just wait to make sure the page has fully loaded and then use your mouse or trackpad pointer to compare the images:

Lumia 950 XL 1:1 crop Galaxy S21 Ultra 1:1 crop

Similar crops here - there's also an enhanced 'Night' version from the S21 Ultra, but it's again cartoony, so I've shown the standard mode version here. A bit more noise than the Lumia 950 XL's, but otherwise pretty close. A little more detail, but some of it is artificial, etc. A score draw overall. Both phone cameras did well under almost impossible shooting conditions, and all handheld, remember!

Microsoft Lumia 950 XL: 9 pts; Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G (2020): 9 pts

Verdict

For the record, the scores add up as:

  • Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G (2020): 111 pts (/130)
  • Lumia 950 XL (late 2015): 103 pts 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the full on 10x zoom allowances push the S21 Ultra to the win - if you need to zoom in a lot regularly then this isn't a bad shout. But it's still far from perfect - both the telephotos upsample and lose quality, plus there's all that Samsung sharpening, edge-enhancing and contrast improvement. ALL of which should be dialled down, but probably won't be, in updates. Plus, not tested above, there's a rather good ultra-wide camera, which adds imaging value.

But the Lumia 950 XL holds its own. If I ignore then 10x zoom examples above, the Lumia actually wins overall by a single point, impressive for a phone camera system that's five and a half years older! Whereas the iPhone 12 Pro Max manages a better score without crazy zoom - and Samsung could play in the same ball-park if only it would dial back its crazy image processing algorithms. Someone ping Samsung's imaging head, please, I can't believe they keep making the same mistake over and over, each year!