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When it comes to flagship smartphone cameras, I think we’ve reached a good baseline where no matter which flagship you use, you can expect high-quality photos. There’ll always be slight differences in the way each phone handles things like white balance or shadows, and lighting will always play a part in photo quality, but overall, none of the current crop of flagships will leave you disappointed. This applies to their primary cameras and is also true to an extent with the ultra-wide cameras. However, the telephoto cameras in today’s flagships aren’t all the same, and that’s going to be the focus of today’s test.
While most flagships today come with at least one telephoto camera, only a handful feature a periscope-style zoom lens which allows them to achieve incredible levels of magnification. The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is currently the one of the best examples of a very good superzoom smartphone, with its ability to zoom up to 100X.
However, recent additions such as the Mi 11 Ultra and the Vivo X60 Pro+ also boast of impressive zoom capabilities at much lower prices, which got us thinking — can they beat, or at least come close to beating, the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s zoom performance?
|Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra||Mi 11 Ultra||Vivo X60 Pro+|
|Optical zoom||3X||5X (periscope)||2X|
|Max zoom (digital)||9.9X||120X||4.9X|
|Optical zoom||10X (periscope)||–||5X (periscope)|
|Max zoom (digital)||100X||–||60X|
Let’s quickly go over the specs of all the telephoto cameras in our comparison. The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, as you might already know, has two 10-megapixel telephoto cameras. The first one offers 3X optical zoom, while the second has a periscope lens and offers 10X optical zoom. The latter lens is what lets it achieve a dizzying 100X digital zoom. The Mi 11 Ultra has only the one periscope-style telephoto camera capable of 5X optical zoom and a crazy 120X digital zoom.
Vivo’s flagship X60 Pro+ also has two telephoto cameras. The first is a 32-megapixel camera with a 2X optical zoom lens, which Vivo calls a portrait lens. The second 8-megapixel periscope camera has a 5X optical zoom, and it can go all the way to 60X. This may not be as headline-grabbing as the maximum zoom on the other two phones, but we’ll let the images do the talking.
Going purely by specifications, the Vivo X60 Pro+ has the widest aperture among all the periscope cameras, which technically, should help it capture better low-light photos. Time to see what’s what.
Daylight test (10X zoom)
We begin the test at 10X magnification. I have ensured that all three phones are using their telephoto cameras and are not digitally zooming in using their main cameras, which does happen at lower zoom levels at times.
Looking at our first curated scene of the figurine, details are great across all three phones but the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra produces the most natural-looking colours, closely followed by the Mi 11 Ultra. The colours in the Vivo X60 Pro+ sample are a bit too warm and are not true to the scene.
In the second batch taken outdoors, the S21 Ultra and Mi 11 Ultra tie for first place as both produce excellent details on our subject, good background separation, and good colours. The image from the X60 Pro+ is bright but it does lack detail.
Daylight test (20X zoom)
At 20X magnification, the Samsung and Xiaomi phones continue to nail focus on our subject, but the Galaxy S21 Ultra takes a clear lead. The details are rather impeccable for this zoom level and the flowers and leaves are easily identifiable. Details begin to blur in the shot from the Mi 11 Ultra, but it’s still somewhat usable. The Vivo X60 Pro+ is unable to reproduce good details, and even the textures on the building behind our subject looks unnatural upon closer inspection.
Our second subject is a vehicle, which should be a little less challenging for these cameras as we climb higher up the zoom levels. The Vivo X60 Pro+ has the best exposed image of the three, which earns it a point. It does oversharpen the photo a bit, but as long as you don’t magnify it further, it does offer the best details in the shadows.
Daylight test (40X zoom)
We now jump to 40X magnification. Looking at our flower subject, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra continues to offer the best details, colours, and background separation. The Mi 11 Ultra does a commendable job but is unable to resolve the textures on the flowers or leaves. The Vivo X60 Pro+ fails to capture good details and our subject looks like a mushy blob of colours.
The Vivo does a bit better with the car tyre again, but even here, the symbol on the car’s wheel is barely recognisable and the texture of the tiles is washed out. The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has the best picture, but the Mi 11 Ultra does a slightly better job with the details in the shadows, which also earns it a point.
Daylight test (60X zoom)
The Vivo X60 Pro+ maxes out at 60X magnification, but as you can see, the result is anything but pleasing. The Mi 11 Ultra captures a slightly better photo but we have to hand it to the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra once again for managing to take the most usable shot. In our second batch at 60X zoom, the X60 Pro+ does redeem itself somewhat, but it’s still no match for the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which produces the best textures and colours. The image shot on the Mi11 Ultra is not bad, but it does look a bit hazy.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and Mi 11 Ultra can zoom in even further – up to 100X on the Samsung and up to 120X on the Xiaomi – but at these levels, image quality is not great and I didn’t find this capability very useful.
So far, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has a handsome lead with a total of seven points, followed by the Mi 11 Ultra with three points, and the Vivo X60 Pro+ with one point. Now, it’s time to see how these telephoto cameras fare in low light. Most smartphones tend to rely on their main cameras in low light, since these usually have larger sensors and wider apertures compared to the telephoto cameras. However at times, these phones will switch to the telephoto cameras if your subject is well lit or there’s enough ambient light. Most of them even let you use Night mode up to a certain magnification level for better results.
Low-light test (10X)
We start off at 10X once again, with a simple enough subject that’s well lit. The Vivo X60 Pro+ produces the cleanest image with little to no noise. The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra didn’t use its 10X optical zoom camera, oddly, and instead digitally zoomed in through its 3X telephoto camera. The end result is not a great-looking image. The Mi 11 Ultra takes the last spot here, with the grainiest photo.
Switching to a more controlled indoor environment, it’s the Mi 11 Ultra that produces the cleanest image even though it completely ignores the lamp when determining exposure. The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra does use its periscope camera here and it does the best job of metering the lamp, but overall, details are weaker. The Vivo X60 Pro+ tends to smoothen textures in an effort to reduce noise.
Low-light test (20X)
Samsung makes a strong comeback at 20X magnification, producing the cleanest photo with the best details of this batch. The Vivo X60 Pro+ also produces a noise-free photo but the details are very poor. The Mi 11 ultra captures a very grainy photo at this zoom level.
Switching to our figurine subject, it’s the Mi 11 Ultra that exposes the scene the best, closely followed by the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Low-light test (40X)
At 40X, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra continues to have the best image, although at this point, details begin to take a big hit. Still, the image is not as grainy as that of the Mi 11 Ultra or distorted as what the Vivo X60 Pro+ captured. Looking at our indoor test subject, the Galaxy S21 Ultra has the cleanest and most well-exposed photo of the three yet again.
Low-light test (60X)
60X is definitely not a zoom level that’s recommended at night, but if you have to use it then the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra delivers the best results among these three phones, in this scenario. The Vivo X50 Pro+ still manages noise very well but textures look a bit garbled. The Mi 11 Ultra produces a fairly unusable photo at this zoom level.
Looking at our figurine, all three photos are pretty poor but if I had to pick one, then the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has the most salvageable result of the three.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, the Mi 11 Ultra, and the Vivo X60 Pro+ all produce very good telephoto images as long as you’re shooting at their native magnification levels or at least close to them. However, when you start going beyond their comfort zones, you’ll begin to see the difference between a good zoom system and a really great one. The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra continues to be the phone to beat when it comes to zoom performance, scoring a grand total of 11 points in our comparison, and rightfully so, considering it costs a cool Rs. 36,000 more than Xiaomi’s and Vivo’s offerings. Xiaomi takes the second spot with a total of five points, followed by Vivo with two points.
Between the Mi 11 Ultra and the Vivo X60 Pro+, I think Xiaomi offers more reliable and consistent zoom performance. However, if you’re looking for the absolute best, then the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is still king of the hill.