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The best camera phones for 2021

The best camera phone is the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Apple’s newest and largest iPhone is a photographic phenomenon, and the best phone to buy if you want to take some really great photos. Despite not sporting the extreme megapixel counts or crazy periscope zoom lenses of its competitors, the iPhone’s quad-lens camera is a real winner, providing incredible stills in every circumstance. Apple has really knocked it out of the park with the latest big iPhone, and that makes it our favorite camera phone so far in 2021. But if you’re not a fan of Apple’s iPhone range for any reason, we have other choices for you, with the best Android phone, best value phone, and the best cheap phone you can buy too.

We’re 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 cameras to the limit and do direct camera shootout comparisons with different phones, because we know it’s an important feature for most people.

Have different priorities? We’ve got guides for the best overall smartphones, the best cheap smartphones, and the best small smartphones, so you can be sure to find the right phone for you.

Best camera phones at a glance:

Best camera phone: Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

iPhone 12 Pro Max
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this? Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro Max is a stunningly effective all-rounder with the best lowlight performance we’ve ever seen.

Who’s it for? Anyone who wants the best camera performance and an exceptional phone, and isn’t fussy about their operating system.

Why we picked the iPhone 12 Pro Max:

Glancing at the spec sheet, it’s not immediately obvious why the iPhone 12 Pro Max should be such a solid performer. In a world of 108-megapixel lenses and 10x periscope zooms, three 12MP lenses seem underpowered — but it’s anything but. The iPhone 12 Pro Max marks the first time the iPhone Pro line has been split, as the 12 Pro Max has a slightly different camera set-up to the iPhone 12 Pro, and key to that is an enlarged sensor. The main 12MP sensor is 47% larger than the smaller iPhone’s sensor, and that larger sensor has a huge impact. It lets in more light, which means a boost in lowlight and Night Mode photography. It also allows for a more effective natural “bokeh” background blur. The lens is also physically stabilized, unlike the digital optical image stabilization (OIS) more common in smartphones. The result is a camera that’s effective in any circumstance, with less noise and blur than competitors and unrivaled colors and contrast to boot.

The ultrawide camera is still excellent, and the 2.5x optical zoom isn’t the match of the periscope zooms we’ve been seeing recently — but it’s still a good performer for what it is. The 12MP selfie lens around the front is also just as good as we’ve come to expect from Apple. The iPhone 12 Pro Max also sports good video capabilities too, with Apple making a lot of the Dolby Vision HDR video in the iPhone 12 range’s announcement.

But the iPhone isn’t just about its camera — it’s a masterclass in other areas too. The design is sublime. Apple has taken the chance to refresh its iPhone range again, and has done so this time by replacing curved edges with an angular, slab-like design that’s reminiscent of older iPhones. It’s a breath of fresh air, and most welcome. However, being a large phone, the 12 Pro Max is certainly big and heavy, so it might not be the phone for you if you have small hands.

That increased weight and size does mean it comes with a larger display, and this is likely to be one of your main reasons for springing for such a large phone. The 6.7-inch display is bright, crisp, and readable in any lighting conditions. The notch is still there, but it’s easy enough to get used to, and you’re likely to forgive it that in exchange for such an utterly gorgeous screen. The only real downside is the 60Hz refresh rate. Higher refresh rates of 90 or even 120Hz are increasingly common in Android flagships, and it’s sad to see it missing from such a prominent brand.

Specs-wise, it’s another strong performer. The A14 Bionic processor is strong enough to handle anything you throw at it for years to come, and options for 128, 256, and 512GB of storage means you’re not going to lack in space for images and videos. You’ll get well over a day’s use from a full charge, even on high use, so it’s unlikely to conk out during your photography sessions. It also comes with 5G, which is important for future-proofing as 5G becomes more common.

Sure it’s expensive, and $1,099 is a lot of money to spend on a phone. But with one of the best all-around cameras, a stunning design and display, and a very strong all-day battery, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is our pick for the best camera phone you can buy right now. But it’s not the only smartphone with an excellent camera, and there are several options below if you’re not a fan of iOS, or just want to spend less money.

Read our full iPhone 12 Pro Max review

The best Android camera phone: Google Pixel 5

Google Pixel 5
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this? It’s the best all-around camera on an Android phone.

Who’s it for? Anyone who’d prefer an Android phone, but still wants a strong camera.

Why we picked the Google Pixel 5:

Google’s Pixel phones have always been top performers where the camera is concerned, and the Pixel 5 is no exception to that. Like the iPhone above, its performance goes far beyond what its specs suggest, being equipped with a modest dual-lens setup comprised of a 12.2MP main lens and a 16MP ultrawide lens. Key to that is Google’s software, which has been tuned up for the Pixel 5. Portrait shots are a particularly good example of where Google’s software shines, and not only does it produce excellent shots, but they’re exceptionally editable as well. That means you can adjust the background blur or remove the background color, or even adjust the light source for Portrait selfies. Best of all, this applies whether you’re using the rear camera module or the 8MP selfie camera.

But perhaps the best thing you can say about the Pixel 5 is that it’s one of the best “point-and-shoot” cameras you’ll come across on a phone. It’s so adaptable and versatile that you’ll struggle to take a bad picture, and every photo is good enough to immediately share without any tinkering required. It’s a great camera for those who like to shoot once, and that’s where it excels. Video is similarly impressive, with support for 4K video capture at 60 frames-per-second, and 240 fps slow-motion too.

Is the rest of the phone as impressive? Yes and no. Specs-wise, it’s not equal to the other flagships on this list, purely because Google chose to “downgrade” the processing power in order to push the price-tag down. In reality, it’s not that big a deal, and the Snapdragon 765G has more than enough power for most users to get by with ease. Add the solid battery life as well, and it’s a good overall performer. It also comes with 5G connectivity, which is going to become a bigger deal as 5G continues to become more common. Another bonus is the Pixel version of Android, which is close to stock Android, and a solid update record. Expect Android updates as they come out, and for a good few years at least.

The design is another mixed bag. We like the metal body, and the front has slim bezels and a hole-punch for the selfie camera. The display is bright and colorful, but the real draw is the 90Hz refresh rate, which helps it to feel smooth and snappy. However, the overall design is a bit bland, and — dare we say it — boring. It’s not a design that you’re going to admire, and it won’t make your heart skip a beat the way some flagship phones can do. Still, if you appreciate function over form, then the Pixel 5 has a lot going for it.

Let’s talk price. At just $699, the Pixel 5 is a real bargain for what it offers. Google trimmed out all the bells-and-whistles from the Pixel 4, including the Project Soli-powered gesture tech, but when it does the basics this well at this price, there’s a lot to be said for it. It’s an exceptional camera, with a pretty good phone attached. Looking for something with a few more gimmicks to get excited about? Well, keep reading.

Read our full Google Pixel 5 review

The best feature-rich camera phone: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Why should you buy this? It’s the camera phone with everything you could possibly want.

Who’s it for? Those with serious FOMO, or anyone who likes to experiment with a big range of features.

Why we picked the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra:

With a super-high megapixel main lens, ultrawide lens, and two telephoto lenses, the Galaxy S21 Ultra proves that when Samsung says “Ultra”, it means it. The quad-lens rear camera is comprised of a 108MP main lens, combined with a 12MP ultrawide, 10MP telephoto with a 3x optical zoom, and a 10MP telephoto lens with a mighty 10x periscope optical zoom. Add the usual OIS, 8K video recording, and laser autofocus, and you’ve got an impressively well-specced package.

As you might expect, it takes some great shots. Samsung has fixed some of its long-standing issues with color balance and contrast, and that means the S21 Ultra produces some of the best stills we’ve seen from a Samsung phone. What’s surprising is how usable many of the zoomed stills are. The 100x zoom still isn’t something you’ll want to share, but signs are legible through it, and shots of wildlife taken at 30x are actually pretty good. The Galaxy S20 Ultra‘s high zoom levels were poor, and it’s clear Samsung learned its lesson and improved heavily for the S21 Ultra. Add video features like Director’s View and the Best Shot into the bargain, and you’ve got a camera that’s crammed with action.

But like the iPhone 12 Pro Max, you’re getting a lot of phone with all that camera. It’s of a similar size to Apple’s behemoth, but thanks to the oversized camera nodule, the S21 Ultra is unfortunately top-heavy. Keep a tight hand on it, because it’s constantly wanting to topple forwards. That aside, it’s a beautiful phone. Around the back, the camera nodule is now incorporated into the frame, and it’s a striking look for sure. The 6.8-inch display is a stunning AMOLED panel, with an adaptive refresh rate that moves between 9 and 120Hz, depending on what you’re doing.

The internal specs are as high-level as the other elements. The Snapdragon 888 processor gives you loads of power, while 12GB of RAM and 128GB of storage space as basic options certainly mean you get a lot for your money. A huge 5,000mAh battery means you’ve got two days of battery use on light use, and 25W fast charging means it’s fast at recharging too. Samsung’s OneUI skin for Android is okay, but slow updates are a big negative for Samsung’s phones as a whole. You’ve got 5G included, as well as some of Samsung’s other features like Dex desktop mode and S Pen support, but the desire for those features can be niche.

But all those features come at a serious price. The basic version of the Galaxy S21 Ultra will set you back $1,200 — which is a lot. You do get a lot of gimmicks and features for that, and one huge phone, but it’s a large amount of money to pay for a single phone. Did that price almost stop your heart? Well, then read on to see two much cheaper options that’ll also offer comparatively good cameras.

Read our full Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

The best value camera phone: Google Pixel 4a

Google Pixel 4a Camera Module
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this? It’s a fantastic camera phone, despite its low price.

Who’s it for? Anyone who enjoys a great camera experience, but doesn’t want to spend a lot of money.

Why we picked the Google Pixel 4a:

We’ve moved into the lower price brackets now, and at $349, you’d be forgiven for not expecting much from the Pixel 4a’s camera. But you’d be very wrong to discount Google’s budget snapper. The rear camera may only contain a single 12.2MP lens, but it’s the same lens we’ve seen on Pixel phones for years and it’s just as good here as it was in previous Pixel flagships. As Google’s strength lies in camera software rather than hardware, that means it’s simple for the Pixel 4a to deliver exceptional performance that rivals quite a few flagship smartphones. Google’s technology means you’ll struggle to take a bad picture in any light, thanks to the Night Sight feature that takes advantage of any residual light, and there’s even an Astrophotography mode to take long exposures of the night sky. It’s genuinely a show-stopping camera, and represents incredible value.

There are some downsides. The single lens means you’re missing out on some versatility from having an additional telephoto or ultrawide lens, but Google’s tech can help to sidestep some of those issues with an excellent digital zoom and Google Photo’s ability to recognize and stitch together images of the same landscape to create larger images. It’s a software-superstar, and we found it good enough to take over for an actual DSLR when it came to shooting product photography.

The lower price does reflect in other areas of the phone, most notably in the design. It’s made from black plastic, and the design is definitely on the boring side. There’s a hole-punch in the display for the selfie camera, but that’s as fancy as the phone gets. Specs also reflect the lower budget, but the Snapdragon 730G will function just fine as long as you don’t need to push it too hard. The battery is also good enough, managing a good day’s life, but there’s no 5G here — you’ll need to upgrade to the Pixel 4a 5G for that. On the plus side, you do get Pixel Android, which is close to stock, and you’ll get Google’s strong update record to boot. Expect years of prompt updates.

Really, the Pixel 4a is an exceptional camera tied into a good budget phone — but it’s worth highlighting quite how good that camera is. It’s absolutely worth buying this phone for the camera alone, and putting up with the shortcomings, if you’re looking for a great camera phone and don’t want to spend a lot of money. You won’t find a better camera at $349 without spending a lot more money, making this the best value proposition on this list. But if $349 is still a touch too much money, read on for the cheapest camera phone worth buying.

Read our full Google Pixel 4a review

Best cheap camera phone: Nokia 5.3

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this? It’s a versatile, but limited camera phone for just $200.

Who’s it for? People who want to play with a versatile camera, but don’t want to spend a lot of money.

Why we picked the Nokia 5.3:

We’ll level with you immediately — the Nokia 5.3’s camera is a disappointment compared to most of the phones on this list. But unfortunately, your options are not good when you go down into the sub $200 arena. The Nokia 5.3 has a quad-lens setup, comprised of a 13MP main lens, a 5MP ultrawide lens, a 2MP depth lens, and a 2MP macro lens. It’s a versatile and functional camera, but not a particularly inspirational one. The low megapixel count plagues the macro and ultrawide sensor, and the Night Mode is a disappointment too. Still, it’s very hard to find a good camera at this price, and we’ve allowed the versatility of the quad-lens camera to trump everything else to place it on this list. It’s a decent camera, but nothing to write home about.

The back panel is plastic, but it’s not cheap looking or feeling, which is a real bonus at this price, and a 6.55-inch display with a teardrop notch is decent, even if it does lack in brightness and is limited to 720p in resolution. Specs are similarly low, but the Snapdragon 665 processor performs well enough, though it will struggle with more intensive apps, which includes YouTube. The 4,000mAh battery provides plenty of juice, and well over a day’s use. However, charging back up is likely to be a slow task with no fast charging at all. On the plus side, Android One is as excellent as ever, and you’ll get prompt updates to boot.

The lack of power will hurt if you’re an avid user of your phone, but if you’re likely to only use your phone for basic tasks (and snapping the odd fun picture) then the Nokia 5.3 will do just fine. But don’t expect anything too exceptional out of the camera. If you’re a snap-happy person who loves to use their phone to the fullest, well, it might be worth considering spending more money. If you can save for a little while longer, then the Pixel 4a is definitely a stronger pick. But if you’re sticking below $200, the Nokia 5.3 will do just fine.

Read our full Nokia 5.3 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 iPhone 12 Pro Max’s main lens has a 1.7 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 Pixel 5’s camera is slightly bigger than the f/1.8 aperture in the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra’s main lens. 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 Pixel 4a, but it’s always desirable if you want the best possible photos.

Video recording

For video recording, you want to look at two things: 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. Bigger is often better, but keep in mind you need a 4K TV or monitor to see the benefit, and 4K and 8K videos take up a lot of space on your phone’s hard drive, so it’s good to not keep it on 4K by default.

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 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 quad-lens setups with astronomical megapixel counts.

How many lenses should a camera phone have?

It used to be that you’d expect two lenses on your phone — one at the front, and one at the back. However, now it’s not uncommon to come across phones with multiple lenses on either side. A multi-camera phone is one with more than one camera lens in a single module. They’ve been around in phones for over a decade, but they’ve really taken off in recent years as a way to add versatility to a camera phone’s setup. A simple depth sensor or telephoto lens in a dual-lens setup can offer greater background blur in a Portrait shot, while wide-angle lenses give you a way to capture much wider areas in images.

It’s also becoming increasingly common to see triple- or even quad-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 certain physical constraints 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 when it comes to most shots.

What is a good megapixel count for a camera phone?

As we mentioned in our camera specs explanation, the number of megapixels your camera can capture determines how detailed your final product will be; the higher the count, the higher the detail level. However, a high megapixel count isn’t the only determiner for a good camera, and that’s shown to great effect by several of our picks.

As an example, camera phones nowadays often use “pixel binning,” a unique process that combines data from four pixels into a single one. This process raises the detail level while also maintaining the same number of megapixels.

If you had a 48-megapixel camera with pixel binning, for example, your output would be a 12-megapixel photo, but it would be far better than anything a regular 12-megapixel camera could produce.

How we test

Here at Digital Trends, we’re always holding a game controller, camera, smartphone, or some other tech device for the majority of our workday. Not having something in our hands is an infrequent occurrence. When we experiment with smartphones, it usually takes us about a week to complete.

We view this period of time as an appropriate duration that’s long enough to allow for proper testing. We examine each phone’s endurance and performance in typical conditions. 

It’s not a secret that we are constantly using our smartphones. They are always a hand’s reach away. We love using the camera, whether for recreational use, artistic hobbies, or professional business purposes. A surefire way to assess these cameras is to travel to as many locations as possible and take as many pictures, and record as many videos as you can. 

You won’t get an accurate idea of how quality varies between different models unless you test them out and compare them with each other. It’s hard to determine our favorite camera, so sometimes we simply leave it up for discussion. Many times these discussions lead to intense photo shooting competitions and more observation.

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