Samsung’s Galaxy S20 Ultra Has a 100X Zoom Camera. So We Tested It With a Private Eye.

Samsung’s new high-end flagship phone has a camera with unprecedented digital zoom…so is it crazy cool, super-creepy, or both?

Samsung's Galaxy S20 Ultra provides up to 100X digital zoom, but who needs that kind of snooping power? A private investigator, that's who. WSJ's Joanna Stern teamed up with a New York-based detective to test it and compare it to other phones and ultra-zoom cameras. Photo illustration: Alex Kuzoian for The Wall Street Journal

That’s definitely me, scratching (not picking!) my nose on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Charles Street. Even though the photo was snapped from inside a car…more than 150 feet away...using a smartphone, anyone who knows me would recognize me.

I would have had no idea it was taken, of course, if I hadn’t put New York-based private investigator Michael McKeever up to it. As you’ll see in the video, I had him follow me around with the new Galaxy S20 Ultra for half a day. How else was I supposed to test the craziest—and yes, creepiest—zoom camera on a smartphone to date?

The Wall Street Journal recruited New York City private investigator Michael McKeever to help test the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra's ultra-zoom camera.

Photo: Kenny Wasuss/The Wall Street Journal

The $1,400 Galaxy S20 Ultra, which goes on sale March 6, is being marketed for its “Space Zoom” capabilities. In addition to wide and ultra-wide cameras, its telephoto lens with a folded zoom provides 10X optical and 100X digital zoom.

2020欧洲杯APPTranslation: Really clear photos from really far away.

The Galaxy S20 Ultra’s cameras allow you to get closer and closer until you get…too much information? Shots here began with the wide camera, then used the telephoto camera’s new zoom features.

Photo: Michael McKeever

We’re at a point where the line between traditional “optical zoom” and “digital zoom” are blurred. In olden times, a camera had one sensor, and lenses moved to magnify the picture. Now, you have several sensors and lenses, each one set to a different magnification. Where the iPhone 11 Pro’s telephoto 2020欧洲杯APPhas a “2X optical zoom” when it jumps from its wide-angle lens to its telephoto lens, the Galaxy S20 has a “10X hybrid optical zoom,” jumping from the ultrawide to the telephoto lens—the lenses themselves don’t move in either case. Going from 10X to 100X? That requires some software and engineering tricks.

In fact, the S20 Ultra stacked up better next to the with a lens the length of a Diet Coke can. Both, for instance, allowed Mr. McKeever to read text in a 14-point font on my laptop screen from a little over 15 feet away.

2020欧洲杯APPThis zoom is not without its faults. Once you hit anything past the 30X, you better hope your subject is a statue. The view finder is super-shaky, and it’s hard to tell what you’re looking at in the scene. The quality of anything past 30X is grainy, too. And good luck trying to make out anything in low light.

It often takes too long to lock focus on a subject, no matter which camera you’re using. Samsung Electronics Co. plans to release an update that helps “improve the camera experience.”

Things got really blurry with the 100x digital zoom on the Galaxy S20 Ultra.

Photo: Michael McKeever

But to me there’s really only one question about the Ultra: How much smartphone camera is too much smartphone camera?

According to a Samsung spokesman, the enhanced digital zoom is there for when you find yourself further back from the main scene—like at a sporting event, concert or live show.

But as always, there’s a gap between what companies want us to do with their products and what people actually do with them.

2020欧洲杯APPAm I really that paranoid that photos are being snapped of me when I’m not looking? Truth is, with surveillance systems, camera-equipped doorbells and tiny Nest cams all over, they already are! Are most people going to buy this phone for its spy cam features? Probably not.

The Ultra illustrates how much further the cameras on our phones—and all around us—still can improve without getting noticeably bigger. This is a reminder that our phones are powerful, discreet tools… with major privacy implications.


What would you do with a 100X zoom camera? Can you think of any practical uses in your own life? Join the conversation below.

2020欧洲杯APPThe good news? We’re not all trained private eyes. “Eric Clapton is not a great guitar player because he bought the most expensive guitar in the world. It has to do with the skill of the operator,” Mr. McKeever said.

2020欧洲杯APPFeel better now?

Write to Joanna Stern at

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