Pixel 6 Pro vs. iPhone 13 Pro vs. Samsung S21 Ultra: Which zoom is better

the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro could be two of the best phones Google has ever made. The Pro model specifically has a gorgeous 6.7-inch 120Hz display, a not too extreme price tag of $899 (£849, AU$1,299) and, of course, the cameras. It’s always the cameras. The prominent camera bar on the back houses a trio of shooters: a 50-megapixel main camera, a 12-megapixel ultrawide, and a 48-megapixel telephoto camera that offers 4x optical zoom.

This last camera is particularly important. With the widespread adoption of Portrait mode and Night mode, zoom is becoming the primary phone camera feature for many businesses. This is particularly the case of Samsung, which marketed its last two Galaxy S headlights based on their 100x zoom.

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So how does the Pixel 6 Pro compare? I field tested it here in Sydney against the iPhone 13 Pro to discover. I found the iPhone generally performed better with optical zoom – that’s up to 3x, where the 13 Pro maxed out – but the Pixel was noticeably better when zoomed in further. I also compared the Pixel 6 Pro to the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra for longer zooms, and was surprised to see the Pixel 6 Pro outperform the zoom master.

iPhone versus Pixel: optical clash

Let’s start by comparing the iPhone 13 Pro directly with the Pixel 6 Pro at 3x zoom. This means that the iPhone 13 Pro uses its dedicated 3x optical telephoto lens and the Pixel 6 uses its main wide-angle camera and digitally crops to 3x.

My first example is a photo taken on a sunny day of a mural painted with vibrant colors and cricketers in action.

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To set the scene, I took this shot on the Pixel using the standard wide-angle lens at 1x.

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Zooming in up to 3x, we start to see how differently the iPhone and Pixel capture images. The iPhone takes warmer photos, especially in the different shades of green produced by each phone. Whether it’s good or bad largely depends on taste, so I’ll leave that aside for now. The Pixel photo appears to have applied Instagram’s Structure filter and increased it significantly: details that appear subtle in the iPhone image become pronounced in the Pixel photo. Notice the crack that runs between the melon artwork and the woman to its left.

I prefer the more natural, vibrant look of the iPhone, but you might prefer the detail that the Pixel’s processing brings out.

Then please enjoy this decaying piece of art I found in an alley.

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For reference, here’s a photo of the Google Pixel 6 Pro taken with its main camera at 1x.

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Below are photos taken at 3x on each phone. Again, the lighting conditions are perfect. This time, however, the results are less ambiguous. The iPhone 13 photo was brighter, had better contrast, and captured more. If you look at the rips and tears in the canvas, you’ll find a lot more detail in the iPhone photo. Detail depressing, in this case, but detail nonetheless!

Now let’s move on to a more complicated example. The photos below were taken at night, but in a lighted environment. This time it’s the Pixel shot that’s brighter, but not necessarily in a good way. The light is less balanced in the Pixel rendering, giving the iPhone version better contrast. (See the blacks in the cactus barrel.)

At the same time, however, the Pixel managed to pick up the details missed by the iPhone. Most notable are the cobwebs on the cactus to the right. It’s also an example of something I noticed a lot about the Pixel – its aversion to shadows. The Pixel’s cameras work hard to capture details in dark areas of the iPhone. And keep in mind that the Pixel 6 Pro uses its main camera and crops, which also gives it a little edge.

Below is not an enlarged photo, but I wanted to include it to illustrate the point on the Pixel 6 Pro. In the cactus photo above, you can see that it can backfire by lighting up areas in a way that looks unnatural. In the photos below though, it impresses by capturing a lot of information the iPhone missed.

When it comes to low light, I generally found the iPhone to do a better job, but not always. In the photos below of a mural, the iPhone managed to capture more light and detail. Note, however, that the Pixel photo has deeper colors.

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iPhone 13 Pro versus Pixel 6 Pro, 3x zoom.

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And where the Pixel can sometimes produce images that look over-processed during the day, at night I’ve found it’s often the other way around. In the stone cross comparison below, the iPhone version is brighter, but also has more noise and an unsightly tint compared to the Pixel.

Now let’s get closer to 4x on every phone. This means that the Pixel 6 Pro uses its 4x optical telephoto lens, while the iPhone uses its 3x telephoto lens and digitally crops to achieve 4x magnification. The difference is not major, but it is still noticeable. The digital zoom that takes the iPhone from 3x to 4x zoom results in remarkable processing and some loss of vibrancy.

You can see the latter effect in the comparison below. The Pixel’s photo is slightly brighter, but the iPhone’s digital zoom makes its photo less saturated. For example, the green of the trees is much richer in the Pixel photo.

It is substantially the same for these photos of a head of a statue below. Notice again the Pixel’s tendency to lighten shadows, in this case on the individual’s face. But also see how much more vibrant the colors in the Pixel’s photo are.

In the photos below of a dog park sign, the iPhone’s digital zoom does some obvious image processing work. The blades of grass, the ripples in the water, and the texture of the panel all look artificially sharp.

The long view

When it comes to longer zooms, the Pixel 6 Pro is the winner – by a wide margin.

The comparison below is for iPhone 13 Pro and Pixel 6 Pro photos taken at 10x magnification. We return to the water fountain adorned with cricket figures, but from a greater distance. The difference is significant. The iPhone photo has more noise and is more blurry. (Also note: iPhone “10x” zoom was consistently deeper than Pixel and Samsung Galaxy’s “10x” zoom.)

Below are 10x zoom shots taken by the Pixel 6 Pro and the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, which built its mark on zoom. Considering how amazing the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is zooming, I was surprised to see that it was surpassed here at 10x zoom by the Pixel. The Pixel 6 Pro looked sharper and had more vibrant colors, as you can see in the field greens and water cooler. The Pixel 6 Pro digitally crops its 4x telephoto lens, but it has a neat software feature called Super Res zoom to enhance the image. The Galaxy S21 Ultra relies on its 10x optical zoom telephoto lens.

The photos below of my Booker DeWitt Funko Pop were taken in a less sunny environment. The Pixel 6 Pro photo looks much more balanced, both in color and lighting. The magnified iPhone photo has an unnatural warm glow. Improved clarity on the Pixel isn’t limited to Booker either. Compare the text on the spines of the books.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra did better than the iPhone, but still suffered from many of the same issues. It also had a warm, albeit less distorted, glow and less detail about both Booker and the books behind him. The Pixel wins again.

OK, hard mode. See that tree with lilac blossoms all the way across the field? Let’s zoom in 10x.

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For reference, I took this shot at 1x with the Pixel 6 Pro’s main camera.

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The photos below were taken with 10x digital zoom on the Pixel 6 Pro and iPhone. This is a difficult shot for any phone to capture, as the leaves of the trees provide plenty of opportunity for noise. And, boy, is there any noise. Still, the iPhone photo is more distorted, as you’ll notice the foliage is much thinner on the Pixel.

And below is a comparison of Pixel and Galaxy S21 Ultra images of the same scene taken at 10x. The Pixel’s photo outperforms the Galaxy’s, which looks flatter and less vivid in comparison.

The fact that the Pixel 6 Pro beats the S21 Ultra at 10x zoom is impressive, because deep zooms are what the S21 Ultra is known for. Note, however, that the digital zoom on the Pixel goes up to “just” 20x, compared to the Galaxy’s 100x.

For more on the Pixel 6 Pro, check out the details Pixel 6 Pro review by my colleague Andy Hoyle.

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The Google Pixel 6 Pro’s unique design, great software additions, superb camera quality, and solid overall performance have already earned the phone top marks in our full review. With performance to match its design, it’s the best phone Google has ever made. The main camera is on par with those of the best iPhones. And at $899 for the base 128GB model, it outshines its premium phone rivals on price. Read our Google Pixel 6 Pro review.

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The iPhone 13 Pro is the best phone produced by Apple and it received an outstanding rating in our review. The new smartphone adds a third rear camera with 3x optical zoom (up from 2x on the iPhone 12), a stainless steel body, and a ProMotion display with refresh rates up to 120Hz for smoother scrolling. Read our iPhone 13 Pro review.

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As Samsung’s elite flagship phone for 2021, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra features a brilliant 6.8-inch AMOLED display with an ultra-smooth 120Hz refresh rate that also supports the S-Pen stylus. from Samsung, an impressive rear camera with incredible zoom capabilities and 5G connectivity for faster data. It is powered by the high-end Qualcomm Snapdragon chip for amazing performance. It’s the best mobile technology Samsung has to offer, and it’s the Android phone for you if you want to put cutting-edge mobile phone technology in your pocket. Read our Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G review.

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