Ultras tend to be widely used in the office, but we did pry the S21 Ultra and the Note20 Ultra out of the hands of the guys daily-driving them and went for a little shootout.
In broad daylight, the differences between the main cameras aren't huge, but they're there. Detail levels are comparable, but the Note is showing sings of age and its photos are generally softer than the other two. The S Ultras tend to be closer in detail and sharpness, but we'd say we're seeing a bit extra noise on the new model. Again, the Note has slightly different color rendition - warmer, more saturated hues than the Ss.
The ultrawides look even more similar between the three phones. Perhaps the Note and the S22 are now closer in their color science, the S21 marginally different, while detail levels are essentially the same. Again, the S22 is a tad noisier, particularly in the skies.
Comparing the teles isn't as straightforward because of the Note's 5x zoom camera next to the 3x+10x combo of the S series models. We compared 3x magnifications from the S21U and S22U against the Note20U's 5x and then the 10x from the S models against what are digitally zoomed 10x shots on the Note.
At 3x, the S22U is cleaner than the S21U for a change, while detail is essentially the same. The Note gives you a noticeably different image, with subjects much closer and better detailed. None of the three cameras is particularly contrasty on a pixel level, but they're super good enough.
You might think that the Note would be losing big-time at the 10x level, having to use digital zoom and all that, but it's not too far behind the other two. Only slightly softer at pixel level, the Note's photos look easily as good at fit to screen magnifications. Comparing the S models, the new one's shots are sharper and noisier - a common theme.
In low light it is the S21 Ultra that is most often the noisiest, somewhat surprisingly, and it is more than once softer than the other two. The S22 Ultra's images are pretty grainy themselves, but are the most detailed. Mind you, these aren't overly pronounced differences and all phones will do a fine job at night.
With Night mode on, the hair-splitting continues, but newest remains the sharpest to our eyes and it has particularly well developed shadows. The Note becomes the softest here. It's interesting to point out the extra warmth and saturation in the S22U's rendition of street lights, to which the Note is close, but not quite there. The S21U is more neutral, more accurate.
The ultrawides are all noisy in one way or another, each trying to strike its own balance between softness and noise. The Note leans to the latter, the S models are more into heavier noise suppression and thus slightly less detail. Still, the new S is sharper than the old S. Little separates the three in terms of dynamic range or color.
With Night mode on, global properties remain very similar, though a scene may show up that the S22 Ultra will warm up slightly more than the others. The Note tends to be the softest here (seeming a trend with its Night mode) while it's really a toss-up between the other two.
At midrange zoom levels the S22 Ultra will most often be cleaner than its predecessor but not always as detailed. The Note is softer but it does provide a more zoomed in perspective.
Night mode makes the S22U's 3x images at least as good, but we'd say a little bit better than the S21U's. The Note is, again, not very competitive.
While the Note held up nicely at 10x during the day, it falls apart in the dark and its images are very soft and lacking in detail. The other two may have their deficiencies, but are noticeably better than the Note, and roughly on par between them.
Night mode doesn't do the Note much good, and it remains lagging far behind. The S22U and the S21U continue to be neck and neck, which is good news for the S22U since it manages to overcome the inherent disadvantage of its smaller sensor.