Photography

Samsung Galaxy S21 / S21+ Review: Familiar Territory


Samsung prefers to keep its best camera features for its top flagships, and that’s why the Galaxy S21+ and Galaxy S21 have more in common with each other than the Galaxy S21 Ultra.

While they are the less feature-laden siblings to Samsung’s premium Ultra, these two phones are arguably the more popular choices because of their respective prices. Together, they retain the same camera array between them, putting more of an emphasis on size as the key difference.

Much of Samsung’s software computation, and virtually all the shooting modes, apply to these two, so it’s more than possible to get good shots with them. The only catch is that you do need to learn how to make the most out of what’s already there.

Design and Build

Every year or two, Samsung learns a lesson in design and rectifies it with something easier on the eyes. The glossy backs of previous phones always made for nice product shots until they were filled with fingerprints and smudges, ruining the otherwise shiny façade.

That’s no longer the case because the Galaxy S21+ and S21 use a matte back that maintains a nice sheen, albeit without any major gloss. The resulting finish is not only nicer to look at, but also easier to grip. Then there is the camera array, which is nicely placed into a two-tone layout that feels less like a camera bump and more like a proper extension of the phone’s design.

The two phones are considerably different in physical size, with the Galaxy S21+ sporting a 6.7-inch Dynamic AMOLED, while the smaller S21 has a 6.2-inch Dynamic AMOLED. They complement otherwise striking designs, making them both look and feel premium, even if they aren’t at the top of Samsung’s current lineup. The company did compromise in one key aspect and that was to reduce screen resolution to 2400 x 1080. This was the default in last year’s Galaxy S20+ and S20, which also offered 3040 x 1440 as an upgrade option. This time, that upgrade isn’t offered but these newer models have an adaptive 120Hz refresh rate that makes for smoother scrolling and swiping throughout.

Both devices run on the same Snapdragon 888 processor as the S21 Ultra (though there is an Exynos variant in other markets), and with the 8GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage, they combine for very efficient performance. You just lose out on the microSD card slot, forcing you to look to the cloud for storage expansion, especially if you plan to take a lot of photos and video.

Camera Features

Samsung didn’t change much up here on the outside. These two phones use the exact same image sensors and lenses their predecessors did a year ago. It’s the 12MP Sony IMX555, followed by the 64MP GW2 telephoto lens. The only difference lies in the 12MP ultra-wide Sony IMX563, which is different from the previous models’ offering. For those wanting selfies, it’s the same 10MP front-facing camera using the IMX374 going on two years now. 

The familiarity might seem like a step back, but Samsung thinks its advanced software pushes the whole array forward. It’s tough to make that argument, though, especially when those same software features will inevitably make their way to the previous models too (and already have).

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Software Features

To keep in line with other changes Samsung made to its software running on its One UI 3.1 platform as an overlay on top of Android 11, the camera app is in line with the other S21 models, save for the few extras the Ultra is equipped with. For starters, it essentially renamed Live Focus and Live Focus Video into Portrait and Portrait Video mode, respectively. AR Doodle moves into the main list, while Bixby Vision gets relegated to the sidelines. The red dots next to them indicate those are newer modes to these phones.

The main menu layout sticks to the typical options, but you can always customize that and add what you want by just holding on a selection and dragging it to the main bar below. You can also rearrange the selections to get the layout you want.

By now, these have become a familiar set for any Samsung user. Pro mode gives you manual control with both the standard and ultra-wide lenses. Night mode is back for low-light photography, and so are specific ones, like Food, Single Take and Director’s View. More on those in a bit.

Pro Mode

Samsung plays up some of these more than others and speaks especially highly of the Scene Optimizer it offers in its main Photo mode that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to gauge a scene and adjust composition to suit it for the best photo. As always, however, the results vary, so it’s not always something you can trust.

Image Quality

Main camera

Again, for the sake of congruency, there are parallels between these two phones and their Ultra sibling. The most obvious from the start is the reduced saturation. Samsung leans more heavily on HDR to better interpret a scene, which leads to more color-corrected output. The best part is that it doesn’t matter if Scene Optimizer is on or not because Samsung’s software treats colors pretty consistently. It also dialed back the skin smoothening from the past.

The photo above is a good example of that. There’s a hint of sunset with a myriad of tones and colors, none of which come out looking exaggerated. Samsung does have a tendency to sometimes overexpose after first tapping to focus, but a slight tick downward on the exposure slider can mitigate that quickly.

Neither of these has the 108MP large sensor the Ultra has, so there is no way to shoot an image that large and crop into it afterward. That also means night and low-light shots won’t be as good because a 12MP shot pulls in more light through larger micron pixels in that same sensor. These two phones are hamstrung that way, forcing you to improvise more on what you capture in those situations.

Wide-angle

It’s great to have an ultra-wide lens on any phone, and it can be one of the more creative options because of how it can warp perspective when you get above or below a subject. Then there’s the natural benefit of squeezing more into one frame without physically moving back. The only caveat is that the same issues from last year apply, which is some fringing at the edges, and the heavier ‘lean’ on subjects closer to the frame’s edges.

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With a tighter f/2.2 aperture, results get worse the lower the light gets, but there’s room for creativity here. You can use it on a number of other modes, including Night, Pro, Panorama, and Hyperlapse. This is also the same ultra-wide camera the Ultra uses, so there is no tangible benefit between any of the three models in that regard.

Telephoto and Hybrid Zoom

The 64MP telephoto lens is totally different than what Samsung equipped in the Ultra. These two phones use the same hybrid zoom their predecessors did last year. That is, taking a 1.1x optical zoom and combining that with digital zoom to crop the image and create the equivalent of a 3x zoom. By default, the telephoto lenses on these cameras have a 76-degree field of view — only marginally better than the 79-degrees the standard lens has, at least optically speaking.

Action photo captured with Hybrid Zoom

That’s totally different than the Ultra, which actually sports a proper optical zoom, and explains why results aren’t the same. Still, you could expect worse from such a setup, but instead, Samsung’s software helps fill in some gaps. At 3x, photos aren’t bad at all, especially in optimal lighting. At 5x and 10x, the digital zoom is more evident, and not always in a good way. The lower the light, the worse it gets.

30x Zoom

Samsung markets this feature as something to write home about, but it really shouldn’t.

It’s awful, not just for any sensible photographer, but really for any amateur snapping pics on these phones. Over 90% of it is simply a digital zoom, and it really falls off the proverbial cliff when compared to a 10x zoom. There’s far too much texture in the shot, and chromatic aberration will creep up.

Pro Mode

I’ve long considered this mode to be the secret weapon in Samsung’s camera arsenal. It offers a good set of tools, and some of the features that apply to the standard wide and ultra-wide lenses work with it too. For instance, the Macro mode that pops up with the standard lens when you move about 10cm or 3-inches from a subject works the same in Pro. When you want to save in RAW, this is also the only mode that actually lets you do that.

Taking a page out of Google’s playbook, there are sliders to adjust highlights, shadows, contrast, saturation, and tint — all on top of the shutter speed, ISO, white balance, focusing already there. The shutter speed also drops down as low as 30 seconds, so you can try your hand at long exposure photography.

Night Mode

I mentioned earlier that the Galaxy S21+ and S21 use a smaller main sensor than the Ultra does, and how it can affect low-light shots. Plain and simple, these two won’t match the kind of nighttime output the Ultra manages. Not only that, but there’s no real way to control the exposure, other than to go from auto or max. If the scene comes out too light or too dark, you could try Pro mode to see if you can get something better that way. Plus, you can also save in RAW for more flexibility editing later on.

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The good news is that Night mode works with all three lenses, so you can at least try them all when it comes to capturing something in low-light. Night mode’s advantage is that it emulates long exposure photography in a handheld way. If you were to do the same in Pro mode, you would need a tripod or flat surface to avoid any jitter that blurs the shot.

Video Features

You won’t record anything in 8K here with either phone, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s shooting in 4K at 24fps and 60fps that’s more impactful, and footage looks good most of the time. Single Take got an upgrade that uses all three lenses to take up to 15 different stills and video clips, including boomerang, background music, and stylized versions of the same clip.

Director’s View is a new feature across the S21 lineup that allows you to access all the lenses easily from the same interface to quickly change perspectives — you know, like a director. You can switch it up to split the front-facing camera with the standard wide rear lens, or have all of them active at once. It’s interesting, yet requires experimentation to see what you can do with it.

Pro Video is the more interesting one because it applies the same manual controls to video that Pro mode does for stills. Samsung added 24fps as a shooting option, adding a more cinematic way to shoot.

A Familiar Toolkit That (Mostly) Delivers

Last year, the Galaxy S20 Ultra felt mired in issues and gimmicks that pulled it further toward the features and performance of its other siblings. That’s not the case this year, where the S21 Ultra is noticeably better in a number of areas. Samsung didn’t come out with any surprises on either the S21 or S21+ and it’s hard to say that they will shoot that much better than their S20 alternatives. Granted, the phones themselves do look better, and the 120Hz refresh rate is great, but the cameras aren’t breaking new ground.

That said, they do shoot well enough, only it’s worth diving into the various modes to get more out of the cameras available. Sticking to just Photo mode and Scene Optimizer isn’t good enough. For quick snaps, sure, but your best shots will probably come from testing things out elsewhere.

Are There Alternatives?

Other than the previous Galaxy S20 equivalents, which basically feature the same camera hardware, there are plenty of other competitors. Google’s Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a are cheaper options that may not have as many lenses or modes but feature some of the best computational software anywhere. The iPhone 12 is also in the same ballpark, with better output than past Apple devices.

Should You Buy It?

Maybe, so long as your reasons include the non-camera features (like the improved design and screen refresh rate), if this is an upgrade, or you’re new to Samsung devices and don’t want to spring for Samsung’s more expensive S21 Ultra. The cameras don’t give you anything you can’t get on other Samsung phones, but the combination they each offer is still worth consideration.





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