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 2 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-plus
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 settings. 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 of 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-plus.
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-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 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. 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
Huawei P20 Pro
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.
How much will it cost? $1,100.
Why we picked the Huawei P20 Pro:
The Huawei P20 Pro boasts an innovative three-lens camera setup on the rear. There’s a 40-megapixel RGB color lens, an 8-megapixel telephoto lens, and a 20-megapixel monochrome lens. Huawei employs a technology called Pixel Fusion, to let four times the usual amount of light into a pixel, helping to create brighter photos. The camera system also uses all three lenses at once to greatly improve image sharpness.
There’s support for 3x optical zoom, with further digital enhancements as an option. 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 four seconds and, even when it’s handheld, the A.I. can edit out any blur or shake to produce an amazing, bright shot.
You can also capture stunning monochrome shots with the P20 Pro, there’s support for super slow-motion video, which captures 960 frames per second at 720p, and there’s 4D predictive motion-based autofocus for tracking subjects in real time. This is an incredibly feature-packed and versatile camera.
There’s also a 6.1-inch AMOLED Full HD display, an impressively large 4,000mAh battery, and Huawei’s own Hisilicon Kirin 970 processor, backed by 6GB of RAM with 128GB of storage. The big catch with the Huawei P20 Pro is that it isn’t officially available in the U.S. and it’s costly to import.
Our full Huawei P20 Pro review
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. We’re excited to see what its dual lens successor, the U12 Plus can do.
The LG G7 ThinQ pairs a standard 16-megapixel camera, with a f/1.6 aperture and optical image stabilization, with a 16-megapixel f/1.9 wide-angle camera. In good lighting conditions it captures stunning shots and we love the option to capture more with the wide angle lens which allows you to take 107-degree photos. There’s also a Super Bright Camera mode for shooting at night and a decent portrait mode.
If $1,000 is too much, or you’re not sold on the iPhone X design, you can enjoy almost the same quality of camera by buying the iPhone 8 Plus. It boasts two 12-megapixel cameras, one wide-angle lens with optical image stabilization and an f/1.8 aperture, and one telephoto lens with an f/2.8 aperture. It has the same excellent portrait mode and 2x optical zoom as its more expensive sibling. The only difference is that telephoto lens on the 8 Plus is a touch slower and it lacks optical image stabilization.
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.