Best camera phones of 2019

Which smartphone has the best camera? We found the sharpest shooters

The best camera phone is the Google Pixel 3 or Pixel 3 XL. The single-lens, 12.2-megapixel main camera may not sound impressive, but Google employs artificial intelligence (A.I.) to squeeze amazing results from it. You also get a dual-lens front-facing camera that pairs 8-megapixel sensors. If you prefer something from Apple, want more versatility, or have a limited budget, we have some alternatives for you below.

We are photography mad at Digital Trends, snapping thousands of photos every month, and we love to compare how different phones perform in the wild. We always push the camera to the limit and do direct comparisons with different phones because we know it’s an important feature for most people.

Best camera phones at a glance:

Best camera phone

Best Android camera phone: Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL

Pixel 3 taking a photo
Simon Hill/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this? It’s the best smartphone camera we’ve used, and one of the best Android phones on the market.

Who’s it for? Anyone who rates photography as a top priority in their smartphone.

Why we picked the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL:

Google continues to put enormous effort into the camera experience for its Pixel smartphones — and it really shows. The main camera in the Pixel 3 is lightning fast to focus and it produces sharp, detailed photos in a wide range of settings. Point and shoot with the automatic settings and you’ll enjoy great results most of the time.

The main camera in the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL is the same and it’s rated at 12.2 megapixels. 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), 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 HDR Plus captures multiple shots and combines them to cut out the noise and produce the best possible image.

With the Pixel 3, Google added yet more software trickery called Night Sight, enabling a less grainy digital zoom, enhanced low-light performance, and the ability to select your ideal shot. Google’s use of A.I. is pushing computational photography to a whole new level and it consistently delivers our favorite photos.

Around front, Google has embraced the dual lens trend, with a front-facing camera that pairs two 8-megapixel lenses, one with an f/1.8 aperture, and a wider angle lens with an f/2.2 aperture. Selfie fans are sure to be delighted with the results and the easily adjustable slider allows you to fit in groups of people or more of your background, easily outperforming most of the selfie camera competition.

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.

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 of the Pixel 3 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).

It’s easy to take great photos with the Pixel 3 and it improves on its predecessor, winning a number of camera shootouts, with spectacular dynamic range, great color accuracy, brilliant details, and overall reliable performance in all types of lighting conditions. The Pixel 3 is also one of our favorite Android smartphones, but if you don’t care about the ugly notch and want a larger screen, you can get the same excellent camera by opting for the Pixel 3 XL.

Read our full Pixel 3 review and Pixel 3 XL review

The best iPhone camera

Apple iPhone XS or XS Max

iPhone XS review
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

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.

Why we picked the iPhone XS and XS Max:

Apple’s iPhone XS sports the best camera performance we’ve ever seen in an iPhone. It’s a great all-around camera 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 lens main camera, both rated at 12 megapixels with f/1.8 and f/2.4 apertures respectively. There’s also optical image stabilization (OIS), phase detection autofocus, and support for HDR.

The natural color reproduction is excellent, and the iPhone XS camera also features a larger sensor than its predecessor which allows for better low light performance with less grain. Thanks to Smart HDR, which stitches together multiple frames, bright lights no longer appear overexposed and it’s much better at dealing with high-contrast scenarios than the iPhone X was.

The DSLR-like bokeh effect is the best we’ve seen from an iPhone so far and you can now adjust it after snapping a photo. The iPhone XS also boasts Portrait Lighting, which offers different lighting effects for your subjects, making it a great phone for capturing stunning shots of your loved ones.

It can also 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 camera app is really accessible, but anyone seeking in-depth control will be disappointed. There is no manual mode for pro photographers, though you can always use an app from the App Store.

Overall, the iPhone XS boasts a fantastic camera that’s easy to use. If you prefer a larger screen, then you can opt for the iPhone XS Max, which has exactly the same camera suite.

Read our full iPhone XS review and iPhone XS Max review

The best low-light camera

Huawei P30 Pro

Huawei P30 Pro review
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

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? Anyone who wants a really versatile camera.

Why we picked the Huawei P30 Pro:

The Huawei P30 Pro boasts an innovative three-lens camera setup on the rear. There’s a 40-megapixel lens with an f/1.6 aperture, a 20-megapixel ultra-wide lens with an f/2.2 aperture, and an 8-megapixel telephoto lens with an f/3.4 aperture. There’s even a time-of-flight sensor to accurately measure depth. If you’re wondering how it differs from the P20 Pro, there a few general improvements in the hardware and the 20-megapixel lens has been switched from monochrome to wide-angle.

Ridiculously feature-packed is the only way to describe this camera. Clever artificial intelligence recognizes each scene and picks the ideal settings, while also ensuring that your shots are properly framed and fully stabilized. Daytime shots are excellent, but things get even better at night. A dedicated Night Mode opens the aperture for several seconds and, even when it’s handheld, the A.I. can edit out any blur or shake to produce an amazing, bright shot.

There’s also support for super slow-motion video, which captures 960 frames per second at 720p, and a Super Macro mode for extreme close-ups. Huawei’s Kirin 980 dual-NPU A.I. chip allows you to apply cinematic filters in real-time when you shoot video, enabling you to do things like blur the background or make everything except for your subject black and white.

There is also a 6.47-inch AMOLED display, an impressively large 4,200mAh battery, and the entry model comes with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. The big catch with the Huawei P30 Pro is that it isn’t officially available in the U.S. and it’s costly to import.

Read our full Huawei P30 Pro review

The best cheap camera phone

Google Pixel 3a

google-pixel-3a-xl-camera
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this? It offers really impressive camera performance at a very low price.

Who’s it for? The budget-conscious.

Why we picked the Google Pixel 3a:

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 Google Pixel 3a is well worth looking at. It boasts the same 12.2 megapixel lens as the regular Pixel 3, with an f/1.8 aperture and OIS. All it lacks compared to our favorite camera phone is the Pixel Visual Core, which, coupled with the slower processor in the 3a, means that image processing takes a while longer.

There’s also just a single-lens 8-megapixel front-facing camera in the Pixel 3a. While the camera performance in the Pixel 3a doesn’t quite match up to the Pixel 3, it’s still extremely good, offering plenty of detail and vibrant colors. It does really well with close-ups and portrait shots and even manages to impress in low light environments, which is where budget phones tend to fall down.

You’ll find support for video recording up to 2,160p at 30 frames per second and 1,080p at 120 frames per second.

The Pixel 3a also sports a 5.6-inch OLED screen that’s sharp and bright. Inside, you will find Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 670 processor, with 4GB of RAM. There’s also 64GB of internal storage. Best of all, it runs Google’s Android, which means no bloatware, fast updates, and extras like Now Playing and Call Screen. The 3,000mAh battery should easily last you a day. If you like the look of the Pixel 3a, but want a bigger screen, then consider the Pixel 3a XL at $480.

Read our full Google Pixel 3a review

The best Samsung camera phone

Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus

Galaxy S10 Plus
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this? The camera in this lightning fast Android smartphone can do it all.

Who’s it for? Anyone who prefers a Samsung smartphone.

Why we picked the Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus:

The Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus is one of the best smartphones you can buy and it has a camera with no real weaknesses. It combines a 12-megapixel lens with optical image stabilization (OIS) and variable aperture, with a second 12-megapixel telephoto lens sporting an f/2.4 aperture, and a 16-megapixel ultra-wide-angle lens with a f/2.2 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. There’s also a solid portrait mode, 2x optical zoom, and A.I. smarts that can optimize scenes and detect flaws.

Around front, the S10 Plus pairs a 10-megapixel lens with an f/1.9 aperture and an 8-megapixel lens with an f/2.2 aperture to capture depth data. That combination makes for wonderful selfies.

We’ve been impressed with the color accuracy, though there is 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.

Inside the S10 Plus there’s a Snapdragon 855 processor with 8GB of RAM. You’ll find 128GB of storage with room for expansion via MicroSD card. The 6.4-inch AMOLED screen is flawless and there’s an in-display fingerprint sensor. This phone also scores an IP68 rating, meaning it can be submerged in water without damage. If you find it a little too big, then the Galaxy S10 is a bit cheaper and has the same main camera, though it only has a single-lens selfie camera.

Read our full Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus review

Research and buying tips

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.

Megapixels

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

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.

Aperture

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 S9 camera is slightly bigger than the f/1.8 aperture in the iPhone XS. 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 stabilization (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 Nokia 7.1, but it’s always desirable if you want the best possible photos.

Video recording

For video recording, you want to look at two things: The resolution and the frames-per-second (fps).

Resolution

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.

Frames-per-second (fps)

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.

Can people hack your phone camera?

It is technically possible, but it’s not very likely. While people occasionally find ways to exploit vulnerabilities in phone software, it’s usually necessary to trick you into downloading malware or to physically get a hold of your phone and install malware on it in order to access your phone’s camera. The best way to reduce the threat is to stick to the official app stores for app downloads and secure your phone with other measures, such as your fingerprint or a PIN. If your phone is acting strangely and you see activity in the call log or camera gallery that wasn’t you, then you may have a malware problem. Check out our guide on how to remove malware from an Android phone.

How have camera phones changed photography?

They say the best camera is the one you have with you. The fact that we all have smartphones in our pockets, all day, every day, has led to an explosion in photography. We snap and share more photos than ever before and the smartphone has played a major role in the reinvention of digital photography. The history of the camera phone only stretches back to 2000 and we’ve gone from a single lens rated at 0.35 megapixels to triple-lens setups with astronomical megapixel counts.

What is a dual camera phone?

Phones have long had a separate front and back camera, but they are both single-lens cameras. A dual camera phone is one with two cameras side by side. They’ve been around in phones for over a decade, but they’ve really taken off in recent years as a way to capture depth and create a bokeh effect, where the subject is in sharp relief and the background is blurred. Most dual camera phones have a main lens and a secondary lens for depth-sensing, but some include a secondary lens for capturing wide angle shots or zooming in.

It’s also becoming increasingly common to see triple-lens camera suites that offer greater versatility, but there’s no hard limit. The Nokia 9 PureView, for example, has five 12-megapixel lenses that all capture an image when you hit the shutter button and the five images are then combined to create a more detailed single image.

Are camera phones better than DSLRs?

You may be wondering just how good are smartphone cameras? They’re improving rapidly thanks to innovation in hardware and software, but there are certain physical constraints that make it tough for them to compete with DSLR cameras. Phones still have to fit in your pocket. The truth is that the best smartphone cameras still fall way short of the best DSLR cameras.

What is a good megapixel count for a camera phone?

As mentioned above in our camera specs explanation, megapixels determine the level of detail in a photo. The higher the megapixel count, the higher the potential level of detail. However, it’s important to note that good cameras are about a lot more than megapixel counts and it’s very common for camera phones to use techniques like pixel binning, which result in data from four pixels being combined into one. With this technique a 48-megapixel camera will actually produce 12-megapixel photos, but they’re much higher quality than a 12-megapixel camera might produce.

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.

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