The iPhone 15 Pro Max has one of the best cameras it’s possible to get on a phone. Its main, 48-megapixel image sensor takes stunning photos, while its telephoto lens has been bumped up to 5x, making it great for taking more zoomed-in shots of distant subjects. It’s an overall photography beast, but it isn’t the only great camera phone to buy. Samsung’s Galaxy S23 Ultra has remained one of our top picks for photographers since it launched earlier this year. It can take great images under any conditions, and its 10x zoom offers even more creative options.
But how do these two phones compare when it comes to photo-shooting prowess? To find out, I put both devices through their paces in a series of tests in London and Edinburgh, including night mode imagery, zoom tests and portrait mode challenges.
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The long story short is that both phones are incredibly capable when it comes to taking photos that’ll wow your Instagram followers, but read on to see how each phone fares under different conditions.
Both phones have captured this bright, vibrant scene well with their main cameras. But the iPhone 15 Pro Max has produced more realistic colors in both the sky and in the main building to the left of the scene. The S23 Ultra’s sky looks particularly oversaturated , with a yellow tinge to the scene that I’m less keen on.
It’s the same story when switching to each phone’s wide-angle lens. The S23 Ultra’s shot is more vibrant, but it looks almost unnaturally saturated as a result. The iPhone 15 Pro Max’s shot looks almost a little drab by comparison, but I prefer its more faithful reproduction of colors.
Beyond a slight shift in white balance, there’s very little to choose between either shot here.
I focused closer-up on these pretty pink flowers using the main cameras on each phone, and the iPhone is the clear winner. It’s provided an attractive out-of-focus bokeh to the background, while keeping the subject looking nice and sharp, which helps the foreground flflowers stand out. The S23 Ultra doesn’t have the same depth effect and its colors are extremely saturated. The green leaves to the bottom left of the image in particular look almost toxic against the iPhone’s much more realistic tones.
Color balance isn’t an issue here, with both phones producing well-exposed shots and the vibrant artwork on this bridge looking well-produced in both images.
There’s not a lot of immediate difference here, so I really have to nitpick to draw any conclusion. On the one hand, I slightly prefer the brighter, higher-contrast exposure the S23 Ultra has managed. However, the iPhone 15 Pro Max has a more attractive shallow depth of field, with softer bokeh noticeable on the chairs and light sources in the background. As a result, we can call this one a tie.
Switching to the ultrawide cameras on both phones, the big difference is the shift in white balance on the S23 Ultra. Samsung’s phone has opted for an image with a strong magenta color cast that I’m not particularly keen on. While the iPhone’s shot is a little darker, its color tone is much more accurate.
Both phones have portrait modes that can be used with different lenses but still capture that attractive bokeh effect around your subject. Taken with the standard 1x lenses, the S23’s shot is wider than the iPhone’s, while also producing richer contrast and stronger colors. The iPhone’s looks quite washed out, either due to lens flare or simply through software processing, and the result is disappointing.
Things change when we look at the zoomed-in shots. The iPhone Pro Max’s 5x zoom lens has captured a lovely portrait here, with great exposure and a really natural-looking bokeh around the subject that could easily have been taken on a DSLR with a telephoto zoom. The S23 Ultra’s shot still looks good though, with rich contrast and deep colors.
The iPhone 15 Pro Max’s 5x zoom has delivered a much better-looking shot than the S23 Ultra’s 3x lens, with more natural-looking colors and exposure. Things improve for the S23 Ultra at 10x zoom though, with a far nicer color tone overall, not to mention being able to see more detail on the sign, thanks to the longer zoom range.
The S23 Ultra’s extended zoom range can be beneficial, especially for those occasions where you really want to fill your frame with a distant subject. However, I personally find 5x to be a real sweet spot. It allows me to find more interesting compositions than I could with a wide-angle lens, but without being too restrictive.
That’s why I prefer the iPhone 15 Pro Max in this scenario rather than the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s closer 10x zoom. This largely comes down to personal preference, of course, but I find the iPhone’s zoom (as I did with the Pixel 7 Pro’s 5x zoom) much more useful on a day-to-day basis.
Both the iPhone 15 Pro Max and Galaxy S23 Ultra can take excellent shots after dark, and these images from the main camera are fine examples. That said, the S23 Ultra’s image has a more yellow color cast to the image, while the iPhone 15 Pro Max maintains slightly finer details, especially in some of the brickwork on the buildings. The S23 Ultra’s image noise processing has smoothed out some of those details.
That detail smoothing is especially noticeable in this nighttime image of the front of a building. While the iPhone has clearly reproduced the details in the brickwork, with noticeable texture on the sandstone blocks, the S23 Ultra has recognized that texture as image noise and so has attempted to smooth it out. The result is an odd-looking smoothed appearance that lacks any of the realism of the iPhone’s image.
This scene is more of a mixed bag. The S23 Ultra has kept some of the bright highlights under better control, while the iPhone has achieved a brighter sky that gives better separation to the tops of the buildings. I don’t really feel either one is especially better than the other here.
Switching to the ultrawide lenses on both phones, it’s immediately obvious that the iPhone’s image is brighter, both in the sky and in the river below. However, it’s a less detailed image, with the S23 Ultra achieving sharper details on the buildings, better control of highlights and less image noise in the river.
However, I much prefer the iPhone’s 5x zoom shot at night to either the 3x or 10x zoom shots from the S23 Ultra. The iPhone has achieved a pin-sharp image here, with great colors and exposure, with even the bright clock face on the left being clearly visible. At 3x, the S23 Ultra is already losing some detail, and at 10x the image is disappointingly mushy and lacking in detail.
The S23 Ultra’s familiar magenta color cast is visible again in this night mode shot, with the iPhone generally producing more natural tones. Both shots are almost equally bright however, with almost nothing to choose between them in terms of clarity and detail.
While the iPhone’s ultrawide night mode shot isn’t quite as sharp as the S23 Ultra’s, Samsung’s phone suffers from some unpleasant noise artifacts in the sky — green-looking blobs where the digital processing clearly hasn’t performed as it should. It’s a disappointing result for the S23 Ultra here, as its shot is otherwise the better of the two.
The night mode zoom results here are the same as I found in the other test. The iPhone 15 Pro Max’s 5x zoom has produced a sharp and clear image with a good handle on image noise. The 3x shot from the S23 Ultra suffers from unpleasant noise artifacts, and the 10x is extremely muddy and lacking in detail.
iPhone 15 Pro Max vs. Galaxy S23 Ultra: Which takes better photos?
It’s been a very close-fought battle between these two powerhouse phones, and the reality is that either phone is superb for photographers wanting to take beautiful images under any conditions. It’s only when you really study the details of each shot side-by-side that you can you tell much difference. And even then, a lot of those perceived differences are subjective. Still, with both phones costing well into four figures, it’s important to nitpick at these details to make sure your money is well spent.
Overall I prefer the images from the iPhone 15 Pro Max. It delivered more-accurate colors in almost all my tests, with the S23 Ultra frequently producing unrealistic color casts from the auto white balance. Samsung’s phone also produces oversaturated images — something that’s been common on Samsung phones for generations — while the iPhone keeps its colors more true to life.
I also prefer the 5x zoom on the Pro Max, which produces better-looking images than the S23 Ultra’s 3x lens and is generally more useful than the Ultra’s 10x lens. And in night mode, I found the iPhone to deliver overall better-looking shots, especially when using the zoom.
But bear in mind that I’m a professional photographer, so what I value in images is accurate color tone and a more neutral-looking image that I could boost manually with contrast or other adjustments in editing apps. If you prefer more vibrant, contrasty images to share with family and friends straight from your phone, then Samsung’s phone may be the better option.