I tested the iPhone 15 vs. Samsung Galaxy S24 in a zoom photo face-off — here's the winner

 Iphone 15 vs galaxy s24 zoom camera face-off.
Iphone 15 vs galaxy s24 zoom camera face-off.

The iPhone 15 may have bragging rights over the Samsung Galaxy S24 after our 200-photo camera face-off found Apple's device to be the better camera phone overall. But there's one area you'd think that Samsung's handset still holds an advantage — zoom shots.

After all, the Galaxy S24 has a dedicated telephoto lens while the iPhone 15 is limited to just main and ultrawide cameras in its rear array. The 10MP telephoto camera on the Galaxy S24 supports a 3x optical zoom, and with the aid of digital zooming, you can get as close as 30x to your subject. (We'd recommend using a tripod for those shots, as longer zooms are especially susceptible to shaky hands.)

When it comes to zoom shots, the iPhone 15 isn't fighting at a total disadvantage. Because Apple upgraded the main sensor on the iPhone 15 to 48MP, you're able to produce a 2x zoom by capturing an image and cropping in on the area you've zoomed in on — the result is a 2x shot at 12MP. It's not a true optical zoom, but it should have less noise and fuzziness than a purely digital zoom.

But will that 2x iPhone 15 shot look as good as the optical zoom the Galaxy S24 captures naturally? To find out, we took both devices out for a head-to-head zoom face-off to determine once and for all which is the best camera phone for close-ups.

We took a dozen photos, mostly at 2x, but with a few 3x shots mixed in to see whether the iPhone's use of digital zoom was more noticeable at that length. One of those photos was also shot at a 10x zoom — that's the limit of the iPhone 15's digital zoom — to see what happens when we push Apple's phone as far as it can go.

Here's what we found out.

iPhone 15 vs. Samsung Galaxy S24: Letters (2x zoom)

When I test out zoom capabilities, I always try to get a photo of a sign or really any sort of lettering shot from a distance — I think if you can read the text clearly then you've got a pretty solid zoom lens.

Both the iPhone 15 and Galaxy S24 clearly capture the name of the local high school that I shot by tilting both cameras from ground level and shooting up at the sky at a 2x zoom. So that's not the deciding factor in this particular photo.

Rather, it comes down to colors. The iPhone managed to get more of the blue sky poking through the clouds, but I like the darker cast of the building in the S24 shot. It adds more contrast and makes for a more striking shot overall.

Winner: Galaxy S24

iPhone 15 vs. Samsung Galaxy S24: Plant life (2x zoom)

Again, color plays a big factor in which camera phone did a better job capturing a calla lily at 2x. The iPhone version is brighter, which would normally make it the more pleasing shot to my eye. But the white petals in the iPhone image are so bright that the yellow stamen blends into the background.

That's not the case with the darker Galaxy S24 image. I may not care for how shadowy the background wall looks in the Galaxy S24's effort, but I find the flower far more detailed, making the overall shot more effective.

Winner: Galaxy S24

iPhone 15 vs. Samsung Galaxy S24: Statue (2x zoom)

Among the 2x photo samples, it's hardest to pick a winner when considering these dueling photos of a fighter jet converted into a statue. The jet looks crisp and finely detailed in both photos and the lettering on its side is equally easy to read, regardless of which phone captured the image. Even details like the lawn surrounding the statue are fairly similar.

But if I had to pick between the photos — and isn't that the point of a face-off? — I'd give the nod to the iPhone 15. It's those buildings in the background of the shot — they appear brighter in the iPhone 15 photo, and that provides a nice contrast than what the S24's dedicated telephoto lens manages.

Winner: iPhone 15

iPhone 15 vs. Samsung Galaxy S24: Building (2x zoom)

There was a strong wind blowing the day I photographed my local city hall at 2x, so I'm going to ignore any differences in the flags, as those could be caused by the strengths of the particular gusts when I tapped on the shutter. Instead, I'm looking for other smaller details that separate the two otherwise evenly matched photos.

Those factors tilt things in the iPhone 15's favor. It's a little bit easier to read the City Hall text on the lefthand side of the building while the trees in fron the right side of the building look a bit sharper and more detailed. Even the flagpole stands out a little more, thanks to the iPhone featuring brighter colors.

Winner: iPhone 15

iPhone 15 vs. Samsung Galaxy S24: Person (2x zoom)

My daughter posed for a 2x zoom from both phones, and the iPhone's lighter hand won the day. While both phones did well with the color of her skin, the Galaxy S24 seemed to get a little aggressive with smoothing out her face. You can spot more freckles in the iPhone 15 shot. While we're on the subject of color, the iPhone 15 did a better job recreating the faded fabric of her blue sweatshirt, whereas it's a little too uniformly dark in the S24 image.

I think the deciding factor for me was the way each camera phone handled my daughter's hair. It looks sharper in the iPhone shot, while the Galaxy S24 allows some loose strands to blend in with the background, particularly on the left side of the shot.

Winner: iPhone 15

iPhone 15 vs. Samsung Galaxy S24: Landscape (2x zoom)

This landscape zoom down by the waterfront comes down to balance. The colors in the iPhone 15 photo feel a little out-of-whack — that yellow stripe on the cargo ship doesn't stand out the way it does in the S24 photo, and those cranes in the background of the photo on the left look a little fuzzy to my eye.

I do think the clouds in the iPhone shot feel better defined, and the surface of the water glimmers a bit more. But for the best image overall, I think the Galaxy S24 takes the better-focused zoom.

Winner: Galaxy S24

iPhone 15 vs. Samsung Galaxy S24: Night shots (2x zoom)

I took a pair of 2x zooms at night — one of a mural and one of the facade of a local watering hole. The iPhone 15 outshines the Galaxy S24 in both shots, which says as much about the phones' respective night modes as it does about their zoom capabilities.

The mural benefits from the brighter tone that the iPhone 15 adds via its night mode. There's nothing particularly wrong with the Galaxy S24 zoom, but it does appear darker, and the ship at the center of the mural doesn't stand out as much as it does in the iPhone 15 shot.

The shot of the Fireside Bar is one of the S24's more disappointing efforts. Whereas the iPhone 15 retains some detail on the neon sign, the S24's photo is washed out due to the lighting. The lettering on the right side of the building is fairly dark, too. While the iPhone 15 struggled with that street light, it managed to photograph those other elements just fine.

Winner: iPhone 15

iPhone 15 vs. Samsung Galaxy S24: 3x zoom shots

Three photos from earlier return when it's time to see how well both phones handle a 3x zoom — the portrait of my daughter, the shot of the waterfront and a close-up of the flags outside of city hall. You would think the Galaxy S24 has the advantage here, since it's still relying on an optical zoom to produce a 3x shot; the iPhone has to turn to a digital zoom to compete.

However, the same problems that the S24 faced when photographing my daughter with a 2x zoom continue at 3x — her skin is overly smooth and she doesn't look as sharp against the background tree as she does in the iPhone's shot. You can also make out freckles in the iPhone 15 image, and colors are better balanced.

I think the flag photos are fairly evenly matched, with one notable exception — the red stripe on the bottom of the California state flag is a bit more true-to-life in the iPhone 15 image. The Galaxy S24 gives that red a bright, satiny tone, as opposed to the darker, richer red of the iPhone shot.

One photo where the Galaxy S24 maintains its edge at 3x is the one down at the waterfront. The colors remain more pleasing to the eye, and everything's in sharper focus. That said, the S24 shot comes dangerously close to being over-exposed on the right side of the photo, but overall, I prefer that image to what the iPhone 15's digital zoom manages.

Winner: iPhone 15

iPhone 15 vs. Samsung Galaxy S24: 10x shot

I'll be honest — when I bumped up the zoom to 10x to shoot the San Francisco skyline from across the bay, I wasn't impressed by what either phone produced. Both shots are fuzzy and look like they were taken through gauze. There's a building in front of the Salesforce Tower — that's the large structure on the left side of the shot — that's so indistinct, it's been subsumed into the larger building of both shots. Even the bits in the foreground that should be in focus look blurry.

The Galaxy S24 gives the entire scene an unnatural cast, but at least structures like the Transamerica Building stand out more against the sky than they do in the iPhone 15 shot. The Bay Bridge is more visible, too, so I guess that gives the S24 the edge in this battle of regrettable photos.

Winner: Galaxy S24

Verdict: iPhone 15 vs. Samsung Galaxy S24 zoom face-off

galaxy s24 2x zoom photo
galaxy s24 2x zoom photo

The iPhone 15 wins more categories in our zoom face-off, even when you take into account the thoroughly underwhelming 10x zooms that the Galaxy S24 captured. That makes me think that camera hardware is less important than the photo-processing software your device maker can pack into a handset. And it's quite clear Apple is very accomplished in that respect.

With few exceptions, the iPhone 15 zooms are very well balanced with brighter colors and impressive contrast, even without a dedicated zoom lens to help things along. You can opt for the iPhone 15 rather than the Galaxy S24 and its telephoto lens and still get zoom shots that hold up well against the competition.

That said, past photo comparisons have produced better results for the S24 when we zoom to 3x and beyond, so I'm willing to concede that a dedicated telephoto lens will give you greater flexibility than a phone equipped with just a main camera and an ultrawide shooter. But that certainly wasn't on display in this round of testing.

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