We compared the cameras of the top Samsung, Apple, and Google phones by taking pictures from the observation deck of the tallest building in New York - and it's obvious Samsung's is best for people who care about photos

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We compared the cameras of the top Samsung, Apple, and Google phones by taking pictures from the observation deck of the tallest building in New York -  and it's obvious Samsung's is best for people who care about photos
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra iPhone 11 Pro Max Google Pixel 4XL smart phone

Crystal Cox/Business Insider

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  • I took the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max, and Google Pixel 4 XL nearly 2,000 feet above New York City, to the top of One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.
  • I tested out the cameras on each of those major flagship phones, including their ultra-wide, regular, and zoomed lenses. I also tried out the S20 Ultra's new insane 108-megapixel sensor and its 100x zoom. Spoiler alert, the photo quality on 100x zoom is bad.
  • From the photos, it's pretty clear that the Galaxy S20 Ultra has the superior cameras.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

With three smartphones in my pockets worth over $3,000 total, I rode an elevator up 102 floors and 1,776 feet to the top of One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.

These lucky phones included the Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max, the Google Pixel 4 XL, and the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra. The aim was to take a bunch of photos to test their cameras and compare them to each other.

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From the top of such a tall building, I was especially interested to see how well the ultra-wide cameras fared to capture the views, as well as the zooming capabilities of each phone.

Check out photos taken with each phone from the observation deck of One World Trade Center in New York City:

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Starting with the Galaxy S20 Ultra's ultra-wide camera. Keep in mind that photos were taken behind a glass wall, so there may be some reflection and glass glare.

Starting with the Galaxy S20 Ultra's ultra-wide camera. Keep in mind that photos were taken behind a glass wall, so there may be some reflection and glass glare.

Now here's the same ultra-wide photo taken with the iPhone 11 Pro Max.

Now here's the same ultra-wide photo taken with the iPhone 11 Pro Max.
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I wish I could take an ultra-wide photo with the Pixel 4 XL, but Google unforgivably denied Pixel fans an ultra-wide camera on its latest phone. So, Pixel 4 users are limited to a standard photo.

I wish I could take an ultra-wide photo with the Pixel 4 XL, but Google unforgivably denied Pixel fans an ultra-wide camera on its latest phone. So, Pixel 4 users are limited to a standard photo.

If you squint, you can just about see the Statue of Liberty. Perhaps the Galaxy S20 Ultra's zoom will help with that. Let's try 10x zoom.

If you squint, you can just about see the Statue of Liberty. Perhaps the Galaxy S20 Ultra's zoom will help with that. Let's try 10x zoom.
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Now here's the iPhone's effort at 10x zoom, its maximum zoom range. There's zero doubt that the S20 Ultra photo above is significantly better.

Now here's the iPhone's effort at 10x zoom, its maximum zoom range. There's zero doubt that the S20 Ultra photo above is significantly better.

Now here's the Pixel 4 XL's best try at its maximum 8x zoom. Google claims it uses software magic to make zoomed photos look better, and while it's better than the iPhone's photo, it's nowhere near as good as the S20 Ultra's.

Now here's the Pixel 4 XL's best try at its maximum 8x zoom. Google claims it uses software magic to make zoomed photos look better, and while it's better than the iPhone's photo, it's nowhere near as good as the S20 Ultra's.
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But wait! The S20 Ultra still has more zoom left in it. Here's the Statue of Liberty at 100x zoom. It's ... not a good photo. In fact, the S20 Ultra's 100x zoom took bad photos every time I tried it.

But wait! The S20 Ultra still has more zoom left in it. Here's the Statue of Liberty at 100x zoom. It's ... not a good photo. In fact, the S20 Ultra's 100x zoom took bad photos every time I tried it.

Here's a photo taken with the S20 Ultra' regular camera with the default 12-megapixel setting.

Here's a photo taken with the S20 Ultra' regular camera with the default 12-megapixel setting.
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Now here's the iPhone 11 Pro's photo from the regular camera.

Now here's the iPhone 11 Pro's photo from the regular camera.

And here's the Pixel 4 XL's photo from its regular camera.

And here's the Pixel 4 XL's photo from its regular camera.
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Let's have another look at how well each phone can zoom. Here's the S20 Ultra's 10x zoom on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Let's have another look at how well each phone can zoom. Here's the S20 Ultra's 10x zoom on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Now here's the iPhone 11 Pro Max's 10x zoom on the Brooklyn Bridge. It's nowhere near as sharp as the S20 Ultra's above.

Now here's the iPhone 11 Pro Max's 10x zoom on the Brooklyn Bridge. It's nowhere near as sharp as the S20 Ultra's above.
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And finally, the Pixel 4 XL's maximum 8x zoom. It's a little better than the iPhone's photo, but still nowhere near as good as the S20 Ultra's.

And finally, the Pixel 4 XL's maximum 8x zoom. It's a little better than the iPhone's photo, but still nowhere near as good as the S20 Ultra's.

For good measure, here's another 100x zoom photo from the S20 Ultra to prove that just because you can doesn't mean you should.

For good measure, here's another 100x zoom photo from the S20 Ultra to prove that just because you can doesn't mean you should.
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The S20 Ultra also has a full 108-megapixel sensor. But such large photos at this size generally look pretty similar to a standard 12-megapixel photo. Here's a photo taken with the S20 Ultra's 108-megapixel camera.

The S20 Ultra also has a full 108-megapixel sensor. But such large photos at this size generally look pretty similar to a standard 12-megapixel photo. Here's a photo taken with the S20 Ultra's 108-megapixel camera.

But with so many megapixels, the camera captures more detail, even of distant objects. Here's a crop of the photo above.

But with so many megapixels, the camera captures more detail, even of distant objects. Here's a crop of the photo above.
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Now here's the same crop of the iPhone 11 Pro Max's photo with its 12-megapixel camera. The iPhone's 12-megapixel sensor simply doesn't capture as much detail of far-away objects as the S20 Ultra's 108-megapixel camera.

Now here's the same crop of the iPhone 11 Pro Max's photo with its 12-megapixel camera. The iPhone's 12-megapixel sensor simply doesn't capture as much detail of far-away objects as the S20 Ultra's 108-megapixel camera.

And here's the Pixel 4 XL's crop. If you scroll back up to the S20 Ultra's photo, you'll really how much sharper it is than the iPhone and the Pixel's crops.

And here's the Pixel 4 XL's crop. If you scroll back up to the S20 Ultra's photo, you'll really how much sharper it is than the iPhone and the Pixel's crops.
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I had to take some selfies while I was so high in the NYC skyline. Here's the S20 Ultra's selfie camera at work. It captured the skyline behind me, but it didn't focus my face, and left my face shadowed.

I had to take some selfies while I was so high in the NYC skyline. Here's the S20 Ultra's selfie camera at work. It captured the skyline behind me, but it didn't focus my face, and left my face shadowed.

Here's the iPhone 11 Pro Max' selfie camera in action. It did better than the S20 Ultra to capture my face, but the NYC skyline behind me looks pretty bad.

Here's the iPhone 11 Pro Max' selfie camera in action. It did better than the S20 Ultra to capture my face, but the NYC skyline behind me looks pretty bad.
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And here's the Pixel 4 XL's. Without a doubt, the Pixel took the best selfie. It captured everything is almost perfect lighting, focus, and detail.

And here's the Pixel 4 XL's. Without a doubt, the Pixel took the best selfie. It captured everything is almost perfect lighting, focus, and detail.

So what does this all mean?

So what does this all mean?

Well, for one, the iPhone doesn't like taking photos from behind a glass wall. Something about the glass messed around with its colors, but it's still a fair test. The glass walls at One World Trade Center's observation deck didn't seem to be a problem for the S20 Ultra and the Pixel 4, and they're better cameras for it.

With that said, the Pixel 4's lack of an ultra-wide camera was glaring while taking photos at the top of One World Trade Center, which begs for ultra-wide photos due to the sheer views.

It's clear that the S20 Ultra's cameras are pretty great — from the ultra-wide, to the 10x zoom, to the regular 12-megapixel mode, and to the 108-megapixel mode. The versatility and performance is absolutely there, and there's very little compromise.

I should mention that the 100x zoom on the Galaxy S20 Ultra is a bad gimmick. Just because Samsung could didn't mean it should have added that feature, or marketed it at all. With that said, a lens that's capable of 100x zoom means it's more capable at lower zooms, like 10x. The iPhone 11 Pro and Pixel 4 cameras max out at 10x, and they don't perform nearly as well as the Galaxy S20 Ultra.

At the end of the day, I'd want to carry around the Galaxy S20 Ultra instead of the iPhone 11 Pro or the Pixel 4 for its great cameras. However, I wouldn't be doing my job right if I didn't mention the $1,400 price tag for the Galaxy S20 Ultra. With that price tag in mind, the iPhone 11 Pro and Google Pixel 4 will do just fine for most people who aren't willing to spend so much.

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