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The best camera phones for 2021

The best camera phone is the Google Pixel 6 Pro. It’s a fairly close-run contest, but ultimately, Google’s latest phone pip’s Apple’s iPhone 13 Pro in our head-to-head contest, awarding the Pixel the title of best camera phone. The Pixel 6 Pro’s pictures are eye-poppingly attractive, colorful, and instantly shareable, making it one of the best camera phones around. But if you’re not a fan of Google’s Pixel for any reason, we have other choices for you, with the best Apple 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: Google Pixel 6 Pro

Google Pixel 6 Pro from the back.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this? The Pixel 6 Pro comes in a new, fiercer avatar that is ready to take on the iPhone 13 Pro and the Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Who’s it for? Anyone who wants a reliable camera phone with excellent editing features and the openness of Android.

Why we picked the Google Pixel 6 Pro:

Google reinvented smartphone photography with the introduction of the first Pixel smartphones five years ago. Although it has always been counted among the best camera phones, Google’s advantage in the space started falling through the cracks as its competitors — including Samsung, Apple, and Huawei — started advancing with aggressive improvements in the camera hardware and features. With mounting pressure, Google has finally launched a new generation of Pixel smartphones with significant improvements to the camera hardware.

The new Google Pixel 6 Pro comes with a new linear triple camera bay which features a 50-megapixel primary camera, a 12MP ultrawide-angle camera, and a 48MP periscope camera with 4x optical zoom. Starting with the primary 50MP camera, it uses a Samsung ISOCELL GN1 sensor which measures 1/1.31 inches. Google claims the sensor can capture 2.5x more light than the Pixel 5‘s primary camera. Pair that to Google’s exceptional computational photography, the new main sensor can yield really striking colors in nearly all lighting conditions.

Along with the primary camera, there’s a 12MP ultrawide angle camera with a 115-degree wide span of view. Besides wider images, the ultrawide-angle camera can be used alongside the primary camera to correct blurred images using a Pixel 6 range-exclusive feature called Face Unblur. Besides the ultrawide-angle camera, the Pixel 6 Pro also gets a 4x periscope camera featuring a 48MP sensor inside. The 4x periscope has an edge over the 3x telephoto on the iPhone 13 Pro but you can expect somewhat of a sluggish performance when compared to the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s 10x periscope.

Besides improvements to the camera hardware, the Pixel 6 Pro brings a variety of new software enhancements and features, which are powered by Google’s in-house Tensor chipset. The Tensor is specifically designed for on-device A.I. processing and it powers features such as Face Unblur, Magic Eraser, Action Pan, realistic facial color tone mapping, and much more. These features ensure that you can get some breathtaking images irrespective of your skills with a camera.

In terms of its photography skills, the Pixel 6 Pro is more than comparable to the iPhone 13 Pro and if you have an eye for detail, you might be able to pick one winner easily. When it comes to video, the Pixel range finally catches up by, once again, using A.I. features including HDRNet for vivid and punchy colors in videos.

Other than its dexterity with the camera, the Pixel 6 Pro’s Tensor chip is claimed to bring advantages in terms of processing capabilities over Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 as well as Samsung’s Exynos 2100. The Tensor chip also facilitates other A.I. features such as offline translation, voice typing in any text field with Google Assistant, Live captions, etc. Among its biggest software advantage is Android 12 with three more years of subsequent Android generation updates, and an additional two for security updates — bringing the tally to five years.

The Pixel 6 Pro is also the first Pixel to feature 120Hz but it is not adaptive as on the Galaxy S21 Ultra or the iPhone 13 Pro. At the moment, the Pixel 6 Pro suffers from stuttering and scrolling lag despite a higher refresh rate.

But overall, if you aspire for an ultimate camera experience with cutting-edge A.I. and camera features, the Google Pixel 6 Pro barely has any competition at the moment.

Read our full Google Pixel 6 Pro review

The best Apple camera phone: Apple iPhone 13 Pro

iPhone 13 Pro camera review
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this? The Apple iPhone 13 Pro is not only one of the most powerful phones of 2021 but will also surprise you with its photo and video capabilities, which are amongst the best for a phone.

Who’s it for? For those who don’t want to miss the right moment grappling with different camera modes and desire the best performance that a phone can offer in 2021.

Why we picked the iPhone 13 Pro:

The iPhone has always been a frontrunner in the race for the best smartphone camera despite not sporting the most well-specced camera hardware. In a market where brands compete in megapixel games, the iPhone 13 Pro’s 12MP primary shooter aims to dominate the space with excellent image processing and software features. Despite being identical in resolution, the iPhone 13 Pro’s primary camera is notably different from the iPhone 12 Pro’s. It comprises a new Sony IMX703 sensor. The IMX703 is a 1/1.65″ sensor, which makes it about 25% bigger than the primary sensor on the iPhone 12 Pro Max and about 85% bigger than the iPhone 12 Pro. Besides this, the lens used in the camera setup is also a bigger (f/1.5) aperture. Both — the bigger sensor and the bigger aperture — attribute to more light and therefore, clearer images clicked by this primary 12MP camera.

Unlike previous generations, the iPhone 13 Pro and the iPhone 13 Pro Max also feature the same cameras. This will finally relieve users who prefer smaller phones but have had to purchase the bigger Pro Max model because of its superior cameras.

The iPhone 13 Pro’s camera captures plenty of details and a rich flurry of colors. One of its notable advantages is how well it captures shots against direct sunlight. In response to any movement, the lens on the camera moves, making the optical image stabilization more effective than on the iPhone 12 Pro.

While the iPhone 13 fulfills the requirements for most people, it trails behind the iPhone 13 Pro because of the latter’s extra third camera. The other two cameras on the iPhone 13 Pro include a 12MP ultrawide-angle and a 12MP telephoto camera. Both of these cameras have also seen pronounced upgrades over the previous generations. The iPhone 13 Pro’s ultrawide-angle camera has a much bigger aperture which allows more light, and consequently brighter and sharper images. The sensor now offers phase-detection autofocus (PDAF), which adds another benefit to the ultrawide-angle camera. The iPhone 13 Pro’s ultrawide-angle camera doubles down as a macro camera that can capture images from a minimum distance of 2cm. The results can be pretty compelling but you might feel a bit frustrated as the phone may keep switching between the ultrawide-angle and the macro mode. Thankfully, a dedicated macro mode button will soon be added through a software update but till then, you might have to remind yourself of the iPhone 13 Pro’s price if you encounter the urge to smash your phone on the ground too often.

Like the ultrawide camera, the telephoto has been upgraded too. It now features a 3x optical zoom setup, which is still admittedly a laggard as compared to the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra’s 10x periscope lens setup (which is also rumored to repeat on the rumored to reappear on the Galaxy S22 Ultra). But, tests during our comparison with the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra‘s secondary 3x telephoto camera indicate the iPhone 13 Pro does better while focusing.

Under low light, the iPhone 13 Pro’s automatic night mode does not shy from impressing, even if there is some visible lack of detail compared to shots taken in the day. For videos, Apple has introduced the Cinematic mode, which can be used with both — the front and the back cameras. Cinematic mode is essentially a portrait mode but for videos and Apple even demonstrated its use case with a short ad film that was shown at the iPhone 13 launch event. Following the iOS 15.1 update, the iPhone 13 also gets support for ProRes video recording that allows for relatively lower compression and better image quality than standards codecs like H.264 and H.265.

Besides offering one of the best cameras you can find on a smartphone, the iPhone 13 Pro is also one heck of a performer, thanks to Apple’s A15 Bionic chip. The Pro models also feature LTPO AMOLED displays which finally bring higher refresh rates than 60Hz. Besides ProMotion, the iPhone 13 Pro’s display technology allows for dynamic refresh rate switching to suit the content or app. Unfortunately, ProMotion is currently limited to a handful of third-party apps but we expect more app developers to add support over the coming month.

The iPhone 13 series also comes with 5G as standard and you can now get up to 1TB of onboard storage. The only downside is that Apple is still using a proprietary Lightning port instead of the more standard USB Type-C jack and does not seem too eager to budge from its position. Other than that, iOS is still arguably different from Android and you might have to hike up a steep learning curve if you have never used an iPhone or iPad before.

Other than that, the iPhone 13 Pro is still worth the $999 that you spend on it. You get world-class performance, better displays with a smaller notch, and excellent cameras that make it one of the best cameras phones launched this year.

Read our full iPhone 13 Pro 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 5a 5G

Pixel 5a showing camera and fingerprint sensor.
Ajay Kumar/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this? It’s the king of budget camera phones with its flagship-grade cameras.

Who’s it for? Anyone who wants one of the best camera phones but doesn’t care about other blingy features.

Why we picked the Google Pixel 5a 5G:

While the original Pixel lineup may have failed to stir up any major excitement in Android users until the Pixel 6 series, Google’s mid-range A-series phones, starting with the Pixel 3a in 2019, have been among the company’s best sellers. Last year, the Pixel 4a was one of our top choices to be listed as the best camera phones, and we can’t think of any reason better than its $349 price tag. Later on in the year, the Pixel 4a 5G launched with the Pixel 5, sidelining the Pixel 4a due to its lack of 5G connectivity. Google launched the Pixel 5a earlier this year and unlike last year, we get a single 5G model in 2021.

The Pixel 4a 5G, the Pixel 5, and the new Pixel 5a 5G look exactly the same in images, so it is quite a challenge to tell them apart, especially if you’re not aware of the caveats. We don’t blame you, the three phones are very similar and have only minor differences such as the screen size and the battery capacity. In both of these areas, the new Pixel 5a 5G dominates the other two. But before that, let’s start by talking about its cameras and the advantages it brings over the 4G Pixel 4a.

Firstly, the Pixel 5a 5G uses the same 12.2MP primary camera that we have seen on the series since the first generation of Pixel phones. Despite the static hardware, Google adds new software features and improvements year on year that make each generation better than the previous one. Because the Pixel 5a benefits from the same camera software Google uses on its flagship smartphones, it offers accurate and vivid colors. The images are very sharp and portraits are on par with the more expensive Pixel 5.

The Pixel 5a also moves a step further from the Pixel 4a 4G, which featured a single camera, and sports a secondary 16MP ultrawide-angle. Notably, the secondary camera has a fixed focus and that may mean the details are not fine as we see on the primary camera but Google’s photography algorithms patch up for any insufficiencies to quite an extent.

Another major advantage with the Pixel 5a 5G is its support for a bevy of low light photography features including Night Sight and Astrophotography. Besides that, you also get access to several premium Google Photos features that are otherwise only available to users with paid Google One subscriptions.

A glaring advantage of the Pixel 5a 5G over the Pixel 4a/4a 5G/5 is its much bigger 4,680mAh battery which can go up to one and a half or even two days. The long battery life can also be attributed to the display’s 60Hz refresh rate, which might be a buzzkill if you have already used phones with a higher refresh rate. If not, then this might not bother too much. The phone is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 765G mobile platform, which means it is 5G-ready. You should also be able to play major Android games on it but be prepared for some setbacks because of the older chipset.

In terms of its pricing, the Pixel 5a finds a sweet spot between the $349 Pixel 4a and the $499 Pixel 4a 5G. It is priced at $499 in the U.S. or 51,700 yen in Japan. Sadly, those are the only two countries where you can buy this phone. For other regions, you can check out the Pixel 5a alternatives we have listed.

Read our full Google Pixel 5a 5G 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 3840 x 2160 pixels. For Full HD it’s 1920 x 1080 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 120 fps, 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 smartphone 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 amount 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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