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Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra vs S22 Ultra: Night mode and zoom shootout
The Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra represents what is arguably peak smartphone right now. Between the overclocked Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor, QHD+ 120Hz screen, and deep S Pen integration, there’s a lot to like here.
Samsung has also upgraded the main camera hardware, going from the S22 Ultra’s 108MP shooter to a 200MP primary sensor. Otherwise, you still have a pair of 10MP zoom cameras (3x and 10x) and a 12MP ultrawide lens, making it one of the best camera phones on the market on paper.
We’ve already put Samsung’s 200MP camera through its paces. But how does the S23 Ultra fare against its predecessor when it comes to low-light camera performance and zoomed-in snaps? To test, we pit Samsung’s latest S23 Ultra camera vs the S22 Ultra. (More specifically, we used the Exynos model of the latter.)
Galaxy S23 Ultra vs S22 Ultra cameras in low light
Samsung is touting its “Nightography” capabilities once again with the Galaxy S23 Ultra. The 200MP main lens is capable of 16-cell pixel binning, combining data from 16 adjacent pixels into one, therefore spitting out a 12MP shot. By comparison, the Galaxy S22 Ultra bins at a ratio of 9 to one, transforming its 108MP snaps into 12MP. The difference is that the resulting pixel size is 2.4μm for the S23 Ultra versus 2.0μm for the S22 ultra. Let’s take a look at the shots below to see if that makes much difference. You can find the full-res snaps at this Google Drive link.
Take a look at these standard skyline photos first (no night mode). There’s no big difference without cropping in, but once you do, you’ll see a significant step up for the Galaxy S23 Ultra. The S22 Ultra’s shot shows far more noise, particularly when looking at the sky. But this noise also creeps up when inspecting the buildings.
The situation is very different when we take a look at the second set of images, which takes place in dimmer light. The S22 Ultra delivers a brighter image with more realistic hues, while the S23 Ultra brings out sharper details, albeit with more saturated colors and a darker exposure.
Image quality is a lot closer when we enable night mode on both phones, as the S22 Ultra delivers a notably brighter shot for the skyline scene.
Brighter doesn’t always mean better, though, as the S22 Ultra’s noise reduction here gives us the Vaseline effect on some elements, which you can spot in the cropped image below. The S23 Ultra offers more detail on a close inspection, but I’d say the brightness works in the older phone’s favor when looking at the scene overall.
In any event, the two comparisons show that the S23 Ultra isn’t quite a slam-dunk upgrade over last year’s Ultra. Its biggest fault is a lack of exposure in dimly lit scenes.
Galaxy S23 Ultra vs S22 Ultra camera: Zoom comparison
The two phones have identical telephoto camera hardware, namely a 10MP 3x telephoto camera and a 10MP 10x periscope shooter. This means that Samsung will be relying on the image signal processor and software to improve matters.
There’s not much to choose between these snaps at first blush, particularly the first comparison. But the street scene does give us more to go on when we pixel-peep.
For one, you’ll notice a more contrasted look from the S22 Ultra, resulting in darker shadows. Your mileage will vary in this regard. Otherwise, the Galaxy S23 Ultra delivers more resolvable detail (noticeable on the street sign on the right-hand side), but we’ve also got some ugly grain in the background that’s simply not present in the S22 Ultra snap. Background grain isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you were taking a photo of the street sign itself, but this is a shot of the general scene. Check out the comparison below for a better idea of what we mean.
Shooting at 5x is a major challenge for the S22 Ultra and S23 Ultra. The phones don’t have a dedicated 5x camera, so they rely on image fusion between the 3x shooter and the 10x camera.
Our first takeaway is that the S22 Ultra pumps the contrast again while the S23 Ultra brings a comparatively washed-out look. Take a closer peek and you’ll notice more noise in the S22 Ultra image, particularly in the windows, and there’s a more aggressive sharpening pass too. Either way, both are quite soft and a phone with a dedicated 5x lens, like the Pixel 7 Pro, will deliver a much better image.
10x and beyond
Of course, one of the most enduring Ultra features is a 10x periscope camera, and we have the same 10MP shooter on both phones. Yes, right down to the same f/3.4 aperture and 1.12-micron pixel size. But is the Galaxy maker able to wring out better image quality at the native 10x or hybrid 30x levels?
Starting with 10x, the answer is “mostly.” Our first comparison shows that the Galaxy S23 Ultra delivers a major improvement to white balance accuracy and a sharper, less noisy image overall. The disparity in image clarity and noise is particularly noticeable when looking at the bricks at the top and bottom of the pictures.
Moving to the 10x cityscape comparison, the S23 Ultra does a good job of taming noise in the sky, while also lifting darker shades. Unfortunately, this brightening does have the side-effect of exposing more noise in some places. The newer model does however offer better white balance.
Switching to 30x hybrid zoom, there’s not much to choose between the two phones either. There’s adequate detail but both phones also display noise in the sky if you crop in a little. Interestingly, the S23 Ultra dialed down the contrast to the point where the building’s shadows are lost, but this does make the subject appear more lively.
So, which one is better?
Going into this shootout, we thought the S23 Ultra would’ve been able to deliver steady gains over the S22 Ultra. But Samsung’s processing on the new phone seems to be a mild upgrade at most, at least compared to the Exynos S22 Ultra we’re using. We’re seeing more accurate white balance, improved hybrid zoom quality, and slightly more detail retention in our zoom comparisons. But this all comes at the expense of more noise at times, which can overpower any of these aforementioned gains. Meanwhile, our low-light shootout shows that while the S23 Ultra delivers a cleaner image, Samsung needs to work on improving exposure in darker parts of the image.
The good news is that the company should be able to improve matters via a software update, and it’s believed that a camera-focused update is indeed on the way. Nevertheless, you can’t go wrong with either handset if you value low-light snaps and zoomed shots.