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I've taken all my review photos with a phone for years and no one noticed — until I bought a Galaxy S21

Pixel 4a Galaxy S21 Camera Modules
Pixel 4a Galaxy S21 Camera Modules (Image credit: Ara Wagoner / Android Central)

I stunned all of my coworkers in a morning meeting a few days ago. We were talking about smartphone cameras and the Pixel 5a, and I brought up that I had to double back to the Pixel 4a from my Galaxy S21 for taking my Chromebox 4 review photos and it was far from the first time. "Wait, you take your review photos with a phone?" "I take all my article photos with a phone."

Cue the shock and awe.

I've been using my cell phone cameras for my article photos — yes, including my reviews — for as long as I've had two phones. While that was harder back in the earlier days when I was using my HTC 10 or Galaxy S6, ever since the original Google Pixel, I've had zero issues getting good photos of any phone, Chromebook, or accessory I've been writing about. Well, zero issues until I got the Galaxy S21 because I don't know what is up with the camera here, but it seems determined to not photograph any of my tech well.

Source: Ara Wagoner / Android CentralShot with a Pixel 4a (left) and Galaxy S21 (right)

I unboxed the Galaxy S21 on February 11 and have been using the camera heavily ever since. What I noticed less than two weeks later was that I'd have to take twice as many shots (or more) to ensure I'd have at least one workable photo, especially when photographing anything with a screen at close range. I'll clean the lens religiously, keep my arms as steady as possible, and experiment with distances, brightnesses, and backgrounds. Results are always the same: within four feet of my subject, the Galaxy S21 makes everything soft.

When I used the Galaxy S20 last year, I had a few hints of this problem, but it isn't half as bad as on the S21. And to be clear, this is a limited issue; wide shots and landscapes all look great. Selfies are fine, too, so long as I can keep my hands still long enough. Even shots of my various baking are fine, with just enough bokeh to seem tasteful. It's just product photography and photographing electronics, which isn't something most people do on a daily basis.

What's more dismaying is that I'm seeing a $350 Pixel 4a consistently outshoot my $800 Galaxy S21 for medium and close-range photography.

Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central

Granted, we've talked about the Pixel 4a's overall experience — and especially its cameras — forever ruining our palette for flagships. Last summer, the second the Pixel 4a arrived, I dumped my Galaxy S20 for it, and the second the Android 12 Open Beta comes to the Pixel 4a next month, I'm hopping back over, and I'm not the only one.

Consistency is key, especially for cameras.

It's still stunning that Google's software has allowed a years-old 12.2MP sensor to still offer up some of the best photos, especially when dealing with close-range subjects and macro photography. Samsung has stepped up its game when it comes to ultra-wide-angle and zoom photography, but at close range, it's still scrambling to compete with the Pixel's secret sauce.

When it comes to cameras, the limits of what a camera is capable of aren't nearly as compelling as what it can do consistently. The Pixel 4a's camera consistently cranks out crisp, clean photos, whether I'm snapping a 200ft castle or a 2-inch smartwatch, but the Galaxy S21 only handles the former.

The Galaxy S21 is capable of some great shots — and it may very well be the best Android phone you can buy today — but Samsung's consistency focuses more on vacation photos and selfies than on the everyday photos like photographing a rebate card or documenting the defects on that "brand new" laptop you just took delivery on. And in whatever "normal" looks like after this pandemic is finally over, that focus makes sense, but I hope that Samsung steps up its short game with the Galaxy Fold 3 and the Galaxy S22.

In the meantime, I'll be keeping my S21 close and my Pixel 4a closer.

Ara Wagoner was a staff writer at Android Central. She themes phones and pokes YouTube Music with a stick. When she's not writing about cases, Chromebooks, or customization, she's wandering around Walt Disney World. If you see her without headphones, RUN. You can follow her on Twitter at @arawagco.

15 Comments
  • selfies...the bane of humanity
  • Yet also one of the oldest forms of expression known to humanity. If not the oldest.
  • Selfies? What are you smoking, I want some
  • I wonder how the ultra would fare... The laser autofocus seems to do a pretty good job at close range.
  • The S21 doesn't have the best camera to begin with but it's still a pretty good camera on the standard S21 but if you truly want the absolute best camera in the market currently, especially in the S21 series then its clearly the Ultra as Samsung has made clear with the downgrades to the S21 and S21+.
  • The pixel drivel continues
  • Yep, Pixels are so overrated, my S20 FE 5G consistently beat iPixel 5 in a blind camera comparison lmao, and the S21 Ultra sure beats the 4a.
  • S20FE has a surprisingly strong camera. I love having a 3x optical zoom; great for taking pictures of people, as it gets rid of the barrel distortion present in the main camera. Night mode is also better than my pixel; it doesn't WAY overcorrect and make dark scenes look like mid-day. I keep looking at the Xperia 1 iii, but I wonder how much better it will really be over the S20FE (especially if I'm not shooting in manual mode).
  • this sounds so factual! A blind camera comparison where? Who competed in the challenge? Can you send me the raw data? If the S20FE is like any other samsung shooter, you may get a great shot but you'll probably have to take a few to get there. Whereas on my Pixel 4, I get great shots on the FIRST shot. Do I really want to sit there and take 8 pictures to get one that is in focus with good contrast? Nope, sure don't.
  • Sorry, I meant the iPixel 5 kept coming last on a blind camera comparison between my phone (S20 FE 5G), IPixel 5 and the overrated, overhyped and overpriced iPhone 12, it's embarrassing when a value flagship beats Google's "flagship" more like mid range flop. And Max Tech who did the comparison said it best, "what does everybody see in the Pixel cameras? They are overrated"
  • LOL...we must be getting closer to a new Pixel release...
  • Yeah, I use a S20 Ultra and I would turn on the 108MP mode for close shots and the pictures are super crisp. Even in standard MP mode it is clear, but that 108MP does wonders up close especially in good lighting.
  • Oh please, slow news cycle in android? You mean that the Pixel pictures are that good? Come on. I swear you guys try to find problems where there aren't just to make an article.
  • Welcome to Android Central...
  • I am distancing myself from my previous comments about Pixel phones, I think they're great and is still my favourite and most enjoyable Android experience and also the fact that a £350 Pixel 4a can compete with a Galaxy S21 in the camera department is mind blowing and makes you wonder why you need to spend nearly a grand to have a great camera.