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Can the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G replace your digital camera for vacation photos?


If you’re still determined to pack two trips’ worth of fun and adventure into your first summer getaway since COVID-19, then maybe it’s time to assess whether your smartphone will do justice to the two years’ worth of vacation memories you’re about to make.

I did. When we left for our epic island-hopping adventure in the British Virgin Islands earlier this summer, I brought the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G “call-camera” with me, and left my fancy, high-end digital SLR camera at home. And I came back happy.

I like to take good pictures. But I want the camera to do the work. So I never take the time to learn the pro features, whether that’s with my digital single-lens reflex camera and its many lenses or my smartphone. I just leave it in auto-focus.

Truth be told, I only have that fancy, high-end digital DSLR to shoot video, which is something I need to do for work sometimes. And ever since I bought it, I’ve taken it with me on vacation because it happens to take really nice pictures. 

If you’re considering upgrading your smartphone before embarking on your first vacation in nearly two years and wondering if it can do the job of your “real” camera, read on. 

Latest and greatest

There are three reasons I decided to take only a flagship smartphone like the S21 Ultra to the British Virgin Islands:

Lots of lenses: Lenses flat enough to fit into a smartphone aren’t nearly as flexible as camera lenses, which leverage their length for zooming. So smartphone makers have been closing the gap by building teams of specialist lenses to take quality photos in different conditions. The S21 Ultra has four rear cameras: wide, ultra-wide and two telephotos. Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro Max has three, forgoing the second telephoto lens.

Night mode: The S21 Ultra and iPhone 12 Pro Max are much better at low-light photography, which has been a challenge for smartphones. Both feature a specialty Night Mode, which results in better pictures – but also takes longer to focus.

Artificial intelligence performance: It’s one thing to pack all those lenses into the rear camera bump of a skinny smartphone. It’s quite another to be able to switch lenses on the fly – and even combine two of them for better quality zoom. And today’s flagship smartphones are plenty capable.

In fairness to my Panasonic Lumix DC-GH5 camera, it is four years old, and the S21 Ultra is barely halfway to its first birthday. Plus, I do handicap the GH5 with my stubborn insistence on auto-mode – that’s especially detrimental in low-light situations – as well as with my solitary 5x zoom lens, with its admittedly pedestrian 12-60mm focal length. For comparison, the S21 Ultra’s super telephoto lens has an equivalent focal length of 240mm.

With plenty of daylight, and for subjects in range, I do sometimes snap richer, more detailed pictures with the GH5 than the S21 Ultra. The GH5 would obviously compete better if I lugged more lenses along – and in the hands of a better photographer. But that’s the whole point here, isn’t it? I’m not a better photographer. And I won’t carry more lenses. Unless they fit in my pocket.

So how’d I do?

With such beautiful Caribbean subjects, from the breathtaking Devil’s Bay on Virgin Gorda to the secluded stretches of beach on remote Anegada Island, everyone came back with pictures to treasure. But as the only one with a flagship phone, I was able to coax more great shots in more situations.

I most often earned oohs and aahs from my boatmates when we compared long-distance shots, and when we looked at pictures taken in low-light conditions. There was also a subtler advantage: My pictures often had more detail than even those from a high-end, two-year-old smartphone. That gave me more flexibility to crop photos later.

I took a few pictures in Night Mode that came out blurry. The gentle rocking of the boat and Night Mode’s lengthy focus time clearly conspired against me on those.

What to do?

You’ll notice a big improvement in the number of scenes and situations you can capture with a current top-of-the-line smartphone like the S21 Ultra – even if your smartphone is less than four years old.

On the other hand, you’ll probably be content with the pictures you take with your existing phone – provided you don’t invite anybody along who is taking shots with the latest technology.

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