It’s never been easier to take great photos on the fly. Everyone has a smartphone now, and the camera technology inside these pocketable devices has improved tremendously in the last few years. We share more than two billion photos every day on Facebook alone.
The ability to quickly capture and share precious memories is important. The smartphone is usually the camera we have on hand, so it has to perform well. If you’re wondering what the best camera phones are, then wonder no longer, because here are our top picks.
Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL
Why should you buy this? It’s the best smartphone camera we’ve used, and the best Android phone on the market.
Who’s it for? Anyone who rates photography as a top priority in their smartphone.
How much will it cost? $650+
Google put enormous effort into rebuilding the camera experience for its Pixel smartphones and it shows. The main camera is lightning fast to focus and it produces sharp, detailed photos in a wide range of circumstances. The HDR+ captures multiple shots and combines them to cut out the noise and produce the best possible image. Point and shoot with the automatic settings and you’ll enjoy great results most of the time.
The main camera in the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL is the same and it’s rated at 12.2-megapixels, but it’s not the hardware that impresses here. Eschewing the trend for dual lenses, Google pulls off the same tricks using software expertise to achieve a bokeh effect, blurring out the background for great portrait shots. The aperture is f/1.8 and there is support for phase detection and laser autofocus, as well as HDR and optical image stabilization (OIS).
The video capability is also top notch, with support for 4K video at 30 frames-per-second, or full HD at 120 frames-per-second. The front-facing camera is rated at 8-megapixels and it will serve selfie fans well, easily outperforming most of the selfie camera competition with the clever software-based Portrait Mode.
As mentioned, the automatic settings are great, but you can also tweak the exposure, focus lock, white balance, and more if you want. Another major advantage for the Pixel 2 phones is that Google offers free full resolution storage for all the photos and videos you shoot in Google Photos (without digging into the free 15GB Google offers everyone).
In our in-depth smartphone camera shootout, the Pixel 2 XL claimed the crown with spectacular dynamic range, great color accuracy, brilliant details, and overall reliable performance in all types of lighting conditions. It’s also our pick as the best Android smartphone right now, but if you don’t care about the larger screen and bezel-less design, you can save yourself some cash and get the same excellent camera by opting for the Pixel 2.
The best iPhone camera
Why should you buy this? It’s the best smartphone of the year, with an impressive main camera.
Who’s it for? Apple fans who want the best smartphone camera.
How much will it cost? $1,000+
Why we picked the iPhone X:
Apple’s iPhone X sports the best camera performance we’ve ever seen in an iPhone. It’s a great all-rounder that you can just point and shoot with, but it also boasts powerful optical and digital zoom, thanks to that dual camera. If you find yourself wishing you could zoom in on distant subjects and still get a decent shot, then this is the phone for you.
It has a dual main camera, both rated at 12-megapixels with f/1.8 and f/2.4 apertures. There’s also optical image stabilization (OIS), phase detection autofocus, and support for HDR. It can record 4K video at up to 60 frames-per-second, or full HD at up to 240 frames-per-second. The front-facing camera is rated at 7-megapixels and it takes great selfies.
The natural color reproduction is excellent, though colors with the iPhone X camera are a touch more saturated than they were on the 7 Plus. The camera in the iPhone 8 Plus offers almost all the same benefits as the iPhone X, but Apple’s flagship has a slightly faster, secondary telephoto lens with OIS.
The DSLR-like bokeh effect is the best we’ve seen from a smartphone so far. The iPhone X also boasts Portrait Lighting, which offers different lighting effects for your subjects, making it the perfect phone for capturing stunning shots of your loved ones. Apple has also improved low-light performance, and turned HDR mode on permanently for maximum detail and perfect exposure.
The camera app is really accessible, but anyone seeking in-depth control will be disappointed. There’s no manual mode for pro photographers, but you can always use an app from the App Store.
Regardless, the iPhone X boasts a fantastic camera that’s easy to use. It also offers the best 2x zoom and bokeh effect of any phone on the market.
The best low-light camera
Galaxy S9 or S9 Plus
Why should you buy this? It’s one of the best smartphones around with a camera that outshines the competition in low light.
Who’s it for? Samsung fans who want a versatile camera.
How much will it cost? $720+
Why we picked the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus:
The camera in Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S series was due for an upgrade, and it finally got one with the S9 and S9 Plus. Both these devices feature a 12-megapixel lens with a variable aperture. Based on available light, the camera can switch automatically between a large f/1.5 aperture that lets in lots of light or a smaller f/2.4 aperture that lets in less light, but captures greater detail when lighting conditions are good.
Photos taken during the day are detailed, with good color accuracy, and there’s virtually no discernible shutter lag. At night the S9 and S9 Plus really come into their own. We’ve been impressed with the color accuracy, though there’s sometimes a loss of detail. But what has really blown us away is the “multi-frame noise reduction,” which snaps 12 shots and compiles them to eliminate as much noise as possible. This clever system cuts out the graininess you see in photos taken in low light with other phones, like the Pixel 2.
There are some differences between the S9 and S9 Plus in the camera department. The S9 Plus sports a second, 12-megapixel camera that offers 2x optical zoom and a Live Focus mode, much like the Portrait Mode on the iPhone. This dual-camera system is much like what we saw on the Note 8, with OIS on both lenses, and it allows you to capture loads of detail, even if your subject is far away. If you’re after the best bokeh effect for portrait shots, we still think the Pixel 2 and iPhone X get better results.
Although the auto mode will choose the best settings without input, photographers can dig into the Pro mode and tweak settings to their heart’s content, even switching the aperture if they want to. One other camera option worth mentioning here is the ability to capture slow motion video and super slow motion at 960 frames per second at 720p. It takes some getting used to, but it’s a lot of fun.
While we still feel the Pixel 2 XL has the edge overall, the Galaxy S9 Plus runs it very close indeed. For party people or anyone else who prizes great low-light shots, it may be the best choice.
If the best of Google, Apple, and Samsung don’t do it for you, then there are a host of other excellent contenders for the best camera phone title. Our next pick for impressive all-round performance has to be the HTC U11. Proving once again that a dual-lens setup is not essential, the U11 has a single 12-megapixel main camera with a large f/1.7 aperture, capable of capturing loads of detail and realistic colors. It’s fast to focus and also boasts OIS, HDR Boost, and a Pro mode.
The Huawei Mate 10 Pro was a surprisingly good release towards the end of the year. Huawei has a partnership with Leica and the dual-lens camera in the Mate 10 Pro impressed us. It combines a 12-megapixel lens with a 20-megapixel monochrome lens, both with large f/1.6 apertures. That means it can offer 2x optical zoom, a good bokeh effect, and black and white photos without the need for a filter.
While it didn’t match up to our top picks, the LG V30 still has a very capable dual-lens camera that combines a 16-megapixel, f/1.6 lens with a 13-megapixel, f/1.9 lens. Instead of shooting for a bokeh effect, the second lens in the V30 camera offers wide angle shots that enable you fit a lot more in. The V in the V30 name stands for video, so you’ll also find some interesting effects and options for shooting video with this phone, most notably LG offers something called Cine Video mode.
The best budget camera phone
Why should you buy this? It offers great performance at a very low price.
Who’s it for? The budget-conscious.
How much will it cost? $200
Why we picked the Honor 7X:
Trying to find a decent camera at the budget end of the smartphone market is a bit like trying to find a needle in a haystack, so the Honor 7X from Huawei’s subsidiary is worthy of praise. Although it’s not as fast as some of the top-range camera phones, the camera app in the Honor 7X could not be easier to use and in decent lighting, the automatic settings get good results most of the time.
The main camera is rated at 16-megapixels, so it can capture a lot of detail, but it’s also backed by a secondary 2-megapixel lens to help you achieve a bokeh effect with blurred backgrounds. The main lens has an f/2.2 aperture and it supports phase detection and HDR.
Video capture only goes up to 1080p at 30fps, so that’s a potential weak spot if you like to shoot a lot of video. There’s an 8-megapixel selfie camera that works just fine. Surprisingly, there is also a professional mode on the Honor 7X that lets you dig into settings and you can even alter the focal point in photos later one, thanks to the wide aperture mode. It’s a great all-round package at this price.
Low-light performance isn’t great, which is par for the course with a budget phone. The lack of OIS and the time it takes to process HDR shots, means you’ll want a steady hand. Rushed, spontaneous shots won’t turn out so well on the Honor 7X.
Still, it’s the best camera on a phone in this low price range. We’ve reviewed a wide variety of cheap phones, and we’re often disappointed with the cameras. As camera technology improves, features and improvements trickle down into more affordable phones, and the Honor 7X exceeds expectations.
How we test
We are constantly glued to our smartphones here at Digital Trends. Every phone we test serves as our daily driver for at least a week, often a lot longer. That means we use the cameras in the smartphones we test for everything, from capturing social events in our lives to capturing video at trade shows or shooting photos for articles. We know how important the camera in your smartphone is, so we always test them thoroughly, snapping shots in as many different environments as we can to get a good comparative picture of how they stack up.
We’re constantly debating the best and it’s not unusual for conversations to spill into impromptu camera tests where we shoot the same landmarks with different phones and then analyze the results and argue about them some more.
How to decipher camera phone specs
There are a lot of technical specifications related to the cameras in our smartphones, so here’s a quick crash course to explain the basics.
The megapixel rating relates to detail. In simple terms: the higher the megapixel count, the more detail you’ll see in the picture. For a long time, the smartphone camera specs race focused on megapixel count, but there’s more to capturing a great photo than detail. It’s also worth noting that many cameras do not capture at the maximum megapixel settings by default, because it’s often more detail than you need. Most manufacturers are now working to improve other aspects of their cameras.
Sensor size is another thing to consider, as it turns out that all megapixels are not created equal. HTC coined the term “ultrapixel” to draw attention to the fact that it had bigger megapixels than some competing camera phones, so even with a 4-megapixel camera it could potentially get better results than an 8-megapixel camera with smaller pixels. They’re measured in micrometers and bigger is theoretically better at capturing light. For example, the Galaxy S8 camera has a 1.4 µm pixel size.
The aperture is the hole that light travels through to hit the sensor and it’s important for low-light performance. The smaller the number is, the larger the aperture. So, the f/1.7 aperture in the Galaxy S8 camera is slightly bigger than the f/1.8 aperture in the iPhone X. Changing the amount of light that gets in by fiddling with the aperture also enables photographers to tweak the depth of field. It helps you to capture shots where the subject is in focus and the background is blurred.
Optical image stabilzation (OIS)
Optical image stabilization (OIS) helps to keep the camera steady, so if your hands are shaking, it will be less noticeable on a camera phone that has OIS support. It’s compensating for the movement in your hands.
High dynamic range (HDR)
High dynamic range (HDR) is a technique whereby the camera takes multiple shots of the same subject in different exposures and then combines them in post-processing to create one single shot, which is usually brighter and more detailed than a non-HDR shot. It requires some processing power, so you’ll find it might be a bit slow on budget devices like the Honor 7X, but it’s always desirable if you want the best possible photos.
For video recording you want to look at two things: the resolution and the frames-per-second (fps).
The resolution is simply how much detail is captured. For 4K video it’s 3,840 x 2,160 pixels. For Full HD it’s 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. Phones will not record 4K by default because the files are huge, but there are some special moments you might want to capture in maximum resolution – bear in mind that higher resolutions in TVs and other devices will increasingly become the standard in the next few years.
When you see a high frame rate, such as the iPhone X’s ability to shoot Full HD at 120fps, that means you can create slow-motion movies. You can slow the footage down to show detailed moments that would be a blur at a lower frame rate.