Is the Galaxy S20 Ultra an adequate or desperate measure?

You may have seen Samsung’s ads for the Galaxy S20 Ultra. The marketing proclaims that the souped up flagship is a “pro-level studio wherever you go” with a “complete pro kit of camera features.” With a 108-megapixel sensor and 100x zoom on its rear as well as a 40-MP selfie camera, the S20 Ultra promises to be a phone capable of capturing high-quality content ripe for YouTube.

Since Engadget’s video production team has had to adjust to life during a pandemic, many of us have had to shoot footage from home. I have an aging DSLR with a finicky lens, so I decided to see if the S20 Ultra is truly able to deliver the high-quality content that Samsung boasts.

I’m not currently reviewing anything, but I want to be prepared for the future when inevitably I’ll have to become a one-woman film crew. Plus, I have long wanted to try creating makeup review videos and other vlogs for Instagram, YouTube or even Twitch. What better time to get started on my long-neglected side hustle ideas?

But first, work. I used the S20 Ultra to capture B-roll of a Galaxy S20 for an imaginary review video, getting pans and other clips of the phones, otherwise known in the biz as “beauty shots.” The footage I got was generally bright, thanks to the large windows In my well-lit apartment. I sent the files to our (talented, kind and infinitely patient) video producer Brian Oh to evaluate, asking him to ignore my lack of skills.

He said the 8K footage was acceptable, although he noted that it looked “jittery” due to a low 24 fps frame rate. Using the S20 Ultra’s manual mode, I switched over to shoot in 4K at 60 fps — the highest resolution and frame rate combination you can pick. Those results were much better, and Brian said he wouldn’t mind using the footage if he was producing for the web. Overall, though, he said that while the quality of the S20 Ultra’s clips were acceptable, he would still only use them as a last resort.

In other words, during these desperate times, the S20 Ultra’s rear camera is a decent desperate measure. A quick note on Samsung’s Pro Video mode: It only allows me to control things like shutter speed, ISO, exposure compensation, autofocus and white balance. Don’t expect the full suite of tools you’ll find on a DSLR, but the basics are there.

I also shot a makeup test to see how well the S20 Ultra could show blemish-covering foundation on my less-than-perfect skin. I’ve been dissatisfied with the quality of most makeup reviews on YouTube because it’s nearly impossible to see how well or poorly the product they’re applying adheres to their skin or settles into fine lines. I wanted to see if a high-res camera like the S20 Ultra’s could render my pores and spots clearly.

I ordered a ring light tripod kit from Amazon to try and mimic the super bright, no-shadow look that so many YouTubers adopt. But I also wanted to make sure that I had enough light on my face because I knew from experience that the S20 Ultra can sometimes produce noisy footage.

I tried using the rear cameras first, since I wanted to see how well my terrible complexion would be rendered in 8K. But since I don’t have an 8K screen, I could only play the footage back in 4K on my ThinkPad X1 Carbon. For both the beauty shots of the S20 as well as my face, I’m still not convinced that 8K video is practical, since so few people own compatible devices and the download time for such large files is excruciatingly long.

Even in the lower-res 4K playback, I could already see the scars and dark spots on my skin more clearly than in footage shot on my Pixel or older Galaxy flagships. I also wanted to get some establishing shots of the New York City skyline. Samsung’s Super Steady software did a decent job of reducing motion and shakiness as I panned outside my window. It almost felt like drone footage. Sadly, it only works for full HD capture.

If you’re trying to film yourself, though, you’ll probably be relying on the front facing cam more often than not. The S20 Ultra’s is 40-megapixels and can shoot in 4K — that’s pretty high-res for a selfie video. I used this to shoot my makeup tests, since I wanted to be able to see my face easily while filming, and I didn’t have a monitor to show what the rear sensor was capturing in real time. I’d also have to use this to shoot my standups for a review, since I’d need to make sure I remain in focus.

While the quality of the 4K videos was slightly sharper than I’m used to seeing from my Pixel 3, it was a little less crisp compared to clips from the S20 Ultra’s rear cameras. Still, I was pleased to see that the front sensor clearly captured the liquid foundation’s lack of coverage on my face. Compared to a lot of videos I’ve watched on YouTube where you can barely see a difference before and after someone’s applied powder, this was a nice change. Granted, many makeup influencers use lights that make their sets look more professional, but also subdue the appearance of imperfections.

Like any hip, trendy influencer worth their salt, I also used the S20 Ultra to stream an Instagram Live session with all five of my eager followers. The camera delivered detailed footage to my audience, and you could make out individual strands of my hair, as well as faint acne scars on my face. Instagram Live streams at full HD, though, so the S20 Ultra’s higher-res cameras don’t help very much in this scenario.

My biggest problem with the S20 Ultra is that it has trouble keeping focus locked on a subject. I didn’t encounter this issue as much during my original review, but now it’s becoming more obvious. Samsung had promised a software fix in an upcoming over-the-air update. But here we are, more than a month later and there is still no fix.

In my Instagram Live and selfie videos, the S20 Ultra’s autofocus system struggled to keep locked on to my face. This happens sometimes with other cameras too, whether they’re smartphones or DSLRs. But for the most part, they find their subject and refocus in a couple of seconds. It took the S20 Ultra a whopping 20 seconds to get my face back in focus after it lost track of me during my Instagram Live stream. That’s an embarrassingly long time to keep apologizing to an audience who might be waiting to see just how well a primer or concealer prepped your skin.

The S20 Ultra lost focus a second time during the Live video, this time it took eight seconds to refocus. That’s slightly less egregious, but still pretty bad. And the fact that it happened twice within a four-and-a-half minute window is troubling. Samsung needs to deliver a solution soon.

Aside from the autofocus woes, I was also a little bummed that I wasn’t able to get nice depth of field with the cameras on either side of the phone. That is a telltale trait of the professional level video that DSLRs deliver. It’s a look that’s hard for smartphone cameras and their smaller sensors to recreate without software trickery. Despite packing larger sensors than its predecessor, the S20 Ultra didn’t produce much bokeh.

Professional producers will all tell you this: Good audio is one of the most important components of a high-quality video. Although you’ll probably get better sound if you use an external mic, lavalier or even an attached boom, I wanted to see how the S20 Ultra’s internal mics performed. After all, it’s supposed to be a pro studio in one. Surprisingly, the onboard mics were pretty effective. I sat about arm’s length away from the phone, and my voice came through clearly. Granted, my room was very quiet and there wasn’t much noise to fight against, but my deadpan narration came through loud and clear with little echo. Considering my small studio apartment has very bare walls that don’t absorb muffle noise, I was impressed by the minimal echo. If you want a more intimate vibe for your voice, I’d recommend pairing a Bluetooth mic.
I uploaded my footage to a Google Drive folder to share with Brian, and the high-res files took forever to send through. As for my makeup clips, I tried to cut them together using Samsung’s native video editor, but that app is way too basic to produce what I had in mind. You can splice separate files together, trim them, add text and soundtracks. But if you wanted to split a clips’s image from its audio track to overlay some B-roll on top, forget it. This editor only supports a single-layer timeline. It feels more like Instagram’s upload tool than a proper editing app.

The S20 Ultra’s front and rear cameras capture adequately clear and bright videos that will satisfy Instagram viewers. That is, when it manages to stay in focus. The footage is more detailed than most smartphones deliver. But for a more discerning audience on a platform like YouTube, Twitch or Vimeo, for example, the S20 Ultra isn’t really a substitute for a DSLR. It certainly isn’t the “pro-level studio wherever you go” with a “complete pro kit of camera features” that Samsung claimed it is. For now, as we make do with what we have to prioritize our team’s safety, I might use the S20 Ultra to shoot B-roll. But ultimately it’s, at best, a temporary stand-in until we get back to normal. As for my makeup vlogging dreams: After a disastrously awkward Instagram Live session, I’ve decided to stick to writing.

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