02 Sep The Best Camera Phones for 2021
Your phone is the camera you always carry. If you haven’t upgraded it in a few years, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much phone camera performance (particularly low-light image quality) has improved. In fact, we’ve pretty much reached the point where you can leave your old point-and-shoot at home as long as you’ve got a good camera phone in your pocket.
But not all phone cameras are created equal. We put every phone we review through a rigorous series of camera evaluations to determine which are the best shooters on the market. We’ve gathered the top camera phones here. You’ll never have to worry about carrying a separate camera if you’ve got one of these in your pocket, and each is also a stellar smartphone in its own right.
From Selfies to Portraits
One think we’re finding frustrating right now is that many of the best cameras are on smartphones that aren’t available in the US. There’s intense camera innovation going on from manufacturers such as Huawei, Oppo, and Xiaomi, but, for various reasons, they don’t sell phones in the US, and their phones work poorly on our networks.
In the US, the usual suspects of Apple, Google, and Samsung have the best cameras. Higher-end phones tend to perform better, but the gap is closing, especially if you primarily take photos in good light. We’ve included some less-expensive options on our list, notably the Google Pixel 4a and the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G, which have the best cameras you’ll find in their price range.
The most important factor in any photo isn’t the camera—it’s the photographer. No matter what phone you have, following our camera expert Jim Fisher’s tips and tricks for camera phone photos can make your images better.
The Google Pixel 4a takes a great shot with a single lens.
Trends and Accessories
A few years ago we saw a blossoming trend of phones with lots of lenses, and it’s still in full bloom. Many phones now have a standard lens, a magnifying zoom lens, and a wide-angle lens. Monochrome or infrared time-of-flight sensors can help judge depth for bokeh. Less successful lenses and sensors we’ve seen include color filters (you can do this very well in software) and macro lenses (slowly improving). Google has been able to resist this trend somewhat by using smart software for a better digital zoom than you’ll find on other phones, but the Pixels’ small sensors are starting to show their age.
The OnePlus 9 Pro has the best wide-angle lens we’ve ever tested.
Although super-high-megapixel camera phones are becoming more popular, the options are scant in the US. The 108MP sensor on the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is a notable exception. The advantage of very high megapixels is that you can zoom and crop images after the fact, or do lossless digital zooming in your camera app without having to use an extra magnifying lens. The disadvantage is that the individual pixels can sometimes be very small, creating problems for color capture or low-light photography.
Super zoom is also popular. Phones are now combining zoomed-in high-megapixel images, optical zoom lenses, and software to give you 30x, 50x, or—in the case of the Galaxy S21 Ultra—100x zoom. In general, anything much higher than 10x shows heavy digital zoom artifacting. But a good 10x zoom, as you get on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, is still a big step forward from what we used to have.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra can zoom very far in while maintaining decent picture quality.
Large sensors are separate from high megapixels. Unfortunately, most of the phones solid in the US fall behind their international competition. The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra’s 1/1.33-inch primary lens and Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max’s 1/1.34-inch lens are among the biggest you can buy in the States. Compare those with the Huawei P40 Pro’s large 1/1.128-inch primary sensor and the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra’s massive 1/1.112-inch primary sensor and you’ll see we still have a ways to go. Larger sensors are arguably more important than a higher megapixel count because they capture more light in a shorter amount of time. That translates into less blur and sharper photos.
The most advanced Night modes now combine nearly a dozen successively shot frames to brighten up photos and improve clarity. They appear to have long, multi-second exposures, but they use AI software to reduce blur by aligning the various images together. (You still don’t want to use them for moving subjects.) Google’s Pixel phones, Apple’s iPhones, the OnePlus 9 duo, and Samsung Galaxy S phones all have excellent Night modes.
Bring all of that together with a good Pro mode. Most phones have manual settings that allow you to tweak virtual exposure, aperture, and the focus point to get exactly the shot you want. Some are better than others, and the Sony Xperia 5 II boasts one of the most comprehensive Pro modes we’ve seen on a phone. If you’re just getting into smartphone photography, take some time to learn how manually adjusting things like aperture, ISO, and shutter speed can improve your photos. If you need a fast shot, however, all the phones on our list use machine learning and other software tweaks to take incredible photos without any manual tweaks.
Why do so many photographers rely on iPhones? The availability of third-party camera apps plays a big role. Some are available for Android, but apps used by professionals still tend to come out first and be more quickly updated on iOS. Our guide on how to take better pictures with your iPhone goes into detail.
How About Video?
In the era of TikTok and Instagram Stories, video is more important than ever. Here are some features to look for.
Optical image stabilization is always better than electronic or digital image stabilization, creating less jittery videos. Many high-end phones now use both, giving a Steadicam-like effect.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max lets you record video in Dolby Vision HDR. (Zlata Ivleva)
While 1080p video is still good enough for most people, many phones can record in 4K, and 8K recording is pretty common on flagships. 8K requires a massive amount of storage—about 600MB per minute—and right now, its primary use is for editing videos on a PC after the fact, especially if you want to be able to crop and zoom. If you’re not sure how to do that, see our tips for how to get your images off your phone.
Slow motion can make for some exciting effects; while most phones can now capture up to 240fps (1/8 speed), some can go up to 960fps (1/32 speed). Keep an eye on how long a phone can capture slow-mo for, though, because it can be tricky to grab a scene if you only have 0.2 seconds of recording time. Many phones also have other video tricks like time lapse, hyperlapse, and video bokeh.
Do You Need a Standalone Camera?
For the ultimate in image quality, the best possible low-light performance, killer optical zoom, or a good macro shot, you’ll still want a dedicated SLR or mirrorless camera. Our list of the best digital cameras is a great place to start. And be sure to check out our beyond-basic photography tips.
If you don’t need to take professional shots, however, a top smartphone camera will suit you just fine, and you can’t go wrong with any of our picks here.