The Note20 Ultra builds on the S20 Ultra's already great low-light performance and delivers even better image quality at night with improvements across the board. Dynamic range is wider, color saturation is even better preserved, and there's finer detail. Now, that last bit might be a result of less aggressive noise reduction, as the Note's shots do have more noise than ones from the old model, but that's a constant battle and we're leaning towards the 'more detail, more noise' approach adopted here.
Here's a comparison between the two phones' primary cam images.
Fire up Night mode and the pseudo-long exposures will deliver improved development in the dark areas and better contained highlights with less haloing around light sources - the usual stuff, done right.
The Note20 Ultra maintains a sharpness advantage here over the S20 Ultra, but there are other differences too. One that's very important when it comes to the usability of Night mode is that the Note will take its shots quicker than the S in the same scene, sometimes twice as fast and that's no small advantage. On top of that, the Note20 Ultra's Night mode photos are contrastier, next to the flatter S20 Ultra shots. It's safe to say we'd pick the note.
The ultra wide angle cam of the Note20 Ultra takes very similar shots to the S20 Ultra's. If we stare long enough, we might spot another instance of the 'more detail, more noise' principle at play, but it's a barely noticeable difference and it varies from scene to scene. Possibly a more visible bump in saturation is what we're seeing and that's appreciated. Overall it's a decent effort, but it's not quite up to the main cam's standard.
And a few side-by-sides for you to judge with your own eyes.
Night mode makes a dramatic difference here, filling in detail where photo mode paints voids of blackness. Greenery livens up really nicely, noise disappears, and, as a pleasant surprise, you're not sacrificing much detail in the lit up areas either.
Shooting with the ultra wides in Night mode, as we observed comparing the main cameras, the Note20 Ultra captures images faster than the S20 Ultra and produces photos with more contrast.
Which leads us to the one entirely new piece of kit on the Note20 Ultra, the telephoto. It's in the dark that we expected it to perform worse than the S20 Ultra, despite the slightly brighter aperture - its sensor is much smaller. It turns out we were right to be skeptical, though perhaps things aren't as grim as they were in our collective head.
For starters, the Note20 Ultra in Photo mode will switch to its main cam in scenes where the S20 Ultra will happily fire away with the periscope module. The Note will go for the tele too in brighter scenes, but it has reverted to a behavior we thought was behind us. In our experience the S20 Ultra would never not use the telephoto for zoomed in shots and it's an honesty we really respect.
So the photos taken from the actual telephoto camera (2, 3, 5) look good - they are sharp and detailed (if a little noisy), colors are lively, dynamic range is reasonably wide. The ones that end up captured on the main cam (1, 4, 6) are soft and blotchy, even at fit-to-screen zoom level - we'd go ahead and call them unusable.
In Night mode, on the other hand, it's the periscope back at it for every 5x scene. It makes a world of a difference in the scenes otherwise shot on the main cam, making the photos usable, dare we say, going on good. There's hardly an improvement in those other scenarios where the phone would have used the periscope in Photo mode anyway.
In a side-by-side Photo mode comparison between the two Ultras it's really no contest in particularly dark scenes, where the Note defaults to the main cam - the S20 Ultra is simply superior. Even in those instances where the Note does opt for the tele, the S20 ultra will get you cleaner images.
In a Night mode vs. Night mode scenario, the Note20 Ultra saves its face and delivers shots that are generally as good as the ones from the S20 Ultra. We wouldn't really call it a victory when you match the performance of an older model, but it's something. Perhaps the fact that the Note's Night mode capture is about twice as fast at these focal lengths should count in its favor too.
Ah, the 4x zoom level isn't doing the Note any favors, either. At this focal length and in these light conditions it's main camera only here and the photos just don't look any good, not in Photo mode and not in Night mode. The S20 Ultra, meanwhile, with its native 4x zoom telephoto clicks decent photos.
Things are looking for the Note at 2x. Since these shots are taken with the main cam on both phones, and the Note already proved superior at that, it's no surprise that its lead extends to this magnification as well.
Once you're done with the real world samples, head over to our Photo compare tool to see how the Galaxy Note20 Ultra stacks up against the competition.