The best camera phone is the Apple iPhone 11 Pro or the iPhone 11 Pro Max. The triple-lens main camera is truly versatile, combining a standard wide-angle lens with a telephoto lens and an ultra-wide-angle lens, each rated at 12 megapixels, and enhanced by Apple’s image processing know-how. You also get a 12-megapixel front-facing camera. If you prefer an Android device, 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 camera shootout comparisons with different phones because we know it’s an important feature for most people.
Best camera phones at a glance:
- Best camera phone: Apple iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max
- Best Android camera phone: Google Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL
- Best cheap camera phone: Google Pixel 3a
- Best Samsung camera phone: Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus
Apple iPhone 11 Pro or 11 Pro Max
Why should you buy this? It’s the best smartphone of the year, with a complete camera package.
Who’s it for? Anyone who rates photography as a top priority in their smartphone.
Last year’s iPhone XS offered the best camera performance we had ever seen in an iPhone, but Apple has upped its game this year and the iPhone 11 Pro sports the best camera performance we’ve ever seen in a phone. It’s a great all-around camera that you can just point and shoot with, but it also boasts a wonderful portrait mode, powerful optical and digital zoom, and incredible low-light capabilities. If you want to make sure you get a great shot in any environment, then this is the phone for you.
It has a triple-lens main camera, all rated at 12 megapixels. The standard wide-angle lens has an f/1.8 aperture, there’s a telephoto lens with an f/2.0 aperture, and there’s a new ultra-wide-angle lens — the first in an iPhone — with an f/2.4 aperture. If you’ve used the dual-lens camera in the iPhone XS, then you’ll be familiar with the zoom capabilities, but the new ultra-wide-angle lens brings new options to the table with a 120-degree field of view that enables you to pack more into your shots.
The natural color reproduction is excellent, and the iPhone 11 Pro’s telephoto lens also features a much 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 high-contrast scenarios pose no threat; the camera can even recognize different parts of a scene, like a face or a flower, and apply the right tweaks to make the most of them, instead of applying blanket changes across the whole image.
The DSLR-like bokeh effect is the best we’ve seen from an iPhone so far and you can adjust it after snapping a photo. The iPhone 11 Pro also enables you to snap portrait shots with the telephoto lens, which can help you get in closer to your subject. The camera 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.
So far, so good, but where Apple has really turned things up to 11 is with the Night Mode. Pioneered by Huawei and Google, amazing low light photography is fast becoming a desirable smartphone trait and Apple has nailed it with the 11 Pro. The Night Mode is triggered automatically when needed and takes a longer exposure, which, provided you hold still, produces amazingly detailed shots.
Apple has also made some major video improvements, particularly with stabilization, so you can shoot seriously smooth footage. It’s capable of capturing 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 12 megapixels and it takes great selfies and supports the same portrait mode as the main camera.
The camera app is very accessible, but anyone seeking in-depth control might be disappointed. There is no manual mode for pro photographers, though you can always use an app from the App Store.
Overall, the iPhone 11 Pro boasts a fantastic camera that’s easy to use. If you prefer a larger screen, then you can opt for the iPhone 11 Pro Max, which has exactly the same camera suite.
Google Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL
Why should you buy this? It’s one of the best smartphone cameras we’ve used, and one of the best Android phones on the market.
Who’s it for? Android fans who want the best smartphone camera they can get.
Google continues to put enormous effort into the camera experience for its Pixel smartphones — and it shows. The main camera in the Pixel 4 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 4 and Pixel 4 XL is the same dual-lens shooter. There’s a 12.2-megapixel main lens with an aperture of f/1.7 and that’s paired with a 16-megapixel telephoto lens that has an f/2.4 aperture and enables 2x optical zoom. There’s also support for phase detection and laser autofocus, as well as HDR and optical image stabilization (OIS). The HDR Plus, which captures multiple shots and combines them to cut out the noise and produce the best possible image, is now live, so you can see what the final shot will look like post-processing on screen before you snap, allowing you to make adjustments as required.
Google continues to bolster the hardware with software expertise, so you can get great shots in low light with Night Sight, achieve a bokeh effect, blurring out the background for portrait shots you’ll want to share, and zoom in with digital help well beyond the 2x optical zoom offered by the new telephoto lens. Google’s use of A.I. is pushing computational photography to a whole new level, and it consistently delivers some of our favorite photos.
Around front, Google has switched back to a single lens, with an 8-megapixel lens that has an f/2.0 aperture and a wide field of view. It’s a slight step back from the Pixel 3 which had a dual-lens front-facing camera, but it still performs well. Selfie fans are sure to be pleased with the results and you can usually fit in groups of people or more of your background when you want to.
The video capability doesn’t reach the same heights, with support for 4K video at 30 frames per second, or full HD at 120 frames per second. The Pixel 4 lags a little behind phones like the iPhone 11 Pro and Galaxy Note 10 Plus in this department.
As mentioned, the automatic settings are great, but the updated camera app enables you to make quick tweaks; you can simply tap to lock on a subject and then adjust the brightness and contrast via two easy sliders. That goes some way towards making up for the absence of a Pro mode option.
It’s easy to take great photos with the Pixel 4 and it improves on its predecessor, with spectacular dynamic range, great color accuracy, brilliant details, and overall reliable performance in all types of lighting conditions. Compared directly with the Pixel 3, it’s more capable at zooming in with that telephoto lens, portrait and low light performance are slightly better, and there’s a new long-exposure astrophotography mode that allows you to shoot the stars in the night sky.
Google Pixel 3a
Why should you buy this? It offers 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 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 fps.
The Pixel 3a also sports a 5.6-inch OLED screen that is 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
Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus
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 Note 10 Plus:
The Samsung Galaxy Note 10 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/2.1 aperture, a 16-megapixel ultra-wide-angle lens with an f/2.2 aperture, and a time-of-flight sensor (VGA f/1.4) which helps capture better depth for portrait mode photos and videos (called Live Focus). 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.
It’s an impressively versatile package and the Note 10 Plus camera also excels at shooting video with excellent stabilization, 4K capture at 60 fps, and all sorts of fun extras including Super Slow Motion, Zoom-in Mic, and Live Focus.
Around front, the Note 10 Plus makes do with a solitary 10-megapixel lens with an f/2.2 aperture. Selfie fans may prefer the S10 Plus, which has a dual-lens front-facing setup combining 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. But the main camera in the S10 Plus lacks the time-of-flight sensor and has a smaller aperture in the telephoto lens.
Inside the Note 10 Plus there’s a Snapdragon 855 processor with 12GB of RAM. You’ll find 256GB or 512GB of storage with room for expansion via MicroSD card. The 6.8-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 Note 10 is a bit cheaper and has the same main camera minus the time-of-flight sensor.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus review
Research and buying tips
- How to decipher camera phone specs
- Can people hack your phone camera?
- How have camera phones changed photography?
- What is a dual-camera phone?
- Are camera phones better than DSLRs?
- What is a good megapixel count for a camera phone?
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 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.
For video recording, you want to look at two things: 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.
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.
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.
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 is 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.
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.
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 results 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.
- The best smartphones for 2020
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- iPhone 11 Pro Max review: Turning everything up to max
- Google Pixel 3 review