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The best camera phones for 2021
The best camera phone is the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Apple’s newest and greatest iPhone is a photographic phenomenon, and the best phone to buy if you want to take really great photos. Despite the lack of an extreme number of megapixels or crazy periscopic zoom lenses from competitors, the iPhone’s four-lens camera is a real winner, providing incredible pictures under any circumstances. Apple really knocked it out of the park with the last big iPhone, and that makes it our favorite camera phone in 2021. But if you’re not a fan of Apple’s iPhone lineup for whatever reason, we have other options for you: the best Android phone, the best inexpensive phone and the best cheap phone you can buy.
We at Digital Trends are obsessed with photography, taking thousands of pictures every month, and we like to compare how different phones behave in natural environments. We always push the cameras to the limit and do live camera comparisons of different phones because we know that for most people this is an important feature.
Do you have different priorities? We have guides on the best smartphones in general, the best cheap smartphones, and the best small smartphones, so you can be sure to find the phone that’s right for you.
The best camera phone: the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max
Why you should buy it? Apple‘s iPhone 12 Pro Max is a stunningly effective all-around camera with the best low-light shooting performance we’ve ever seen.
Who is it designed for? Anyone who wants the best camera and an exceptional phone, and isn’t picky about the operating system.
Why we chose the iPhone 12 Pro Max:
If you look at the specs, it’s not immediately clear why the iPhone 12 Pro Max should be such a solid device. In a world of 108-megapixel lenses and 10x periscopic zooms, three 12MP lenses seem underpowered – but they’re not. The iPhone 12 Pro Max is the first time the iPhone Pro lineup has been split, as the 12 Pro Max camera is slightly different from the iPhone 12 Pro, and a larger sensor is key. The main 12MP sensor is 47% larger than the smaller iPhone’s sensor, and this enlarged sensor makes a huge difference. It transmits more light, which means better low-light and nighttime performance. It also allows for more effective natural background blur “bokeh.” The lens also has physical stabilization, as opposed to digital optical image stabilization (OIS), which is more common in smartphones. The result is a camera that’s effective in all circumstances, with less noise and blur than the competition, and unmatched color and contrast to boot.
The ultra-wide-angle camera is still excellent, and the 2.5x optical zoom doesn’t compare to the periscopic zooms we’ve been seeing lately, but it’s still a good performer for what it is. The 12-megapixel selfie lens on the front is also as good as we’ve come to expect from Apple. The iPhone 12 Pro Max also has good video capabilities, as Apple made a lot of Dolby Vision HDR videos during the iPhone 12 announcement.
But the iPhone isn’t just about its camera, it’s a master class in other areas as well. The design is simply gorgeous. Apple took the chance to update the iPhone lineup again, and this time it did so by replacing the curved edges with an angular, slab-like design reminiscent of older iPhone models. It’s a breath of fresh air, and it’s very nice. However, being a big phone, the 12 Pro Max is definitely big and heavy, so it may not fit you if you have small hands.
The increased weight and size means that it has a larger display, and that will probably be one of the main reasons you decide to buy such a large phone. The 6.7-inch display is bright, clear, and readable in any light. The notch is still present, but it’s easy enough to get used to, and you’ll probably forgive it in exchange for such a great screen. The only real drawback is the 60 Hz refresh rate. A higher refresh rate of 90 or even 120 Hz is increasingly common in Android flagships, and it’s sad to see it missing from such a well-known brand.
In terms of specifications, this is another strong manufacturer. The A14 Bionic processor is powerful enough to handle any task you put in front of it for years to come, and the 128GB, 256GB and 512GB storage options mean you won’t be short on storage space for images and video. Even under heavy load, it will last more than 24 hours on a full charge, so it’s unlikely to fail during photo shoots. It also comes with 5G support, which is important to protect the future as 5G becomes more prevalent.
Sure, it’s expensive, and $1,099 is a lot of money for a phone. But with one of the best all-around cameras, a stunning design and display, and a very powerful all-day battery, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is our pick for the best camera phone to buy right now. But it’s not the only smartphone with a great camera, and below are a few options if you’re not a fan of iOS or just want to spend less money.
The best Android camera phone: the Google Pixel 5
Why you should buy it. It’s the best all-around camera on an Android phone.
Who it’s for. Anyone who prefers an Android phone but still wants a strong camera.
Why we chose the Google Pixel 5:
Google Pixel phones have always been the best when it comes to cameras, and the Pixel 5 is no exception. Like the iPhone above, its performance goes well beyond its specs, being equipped with a modest dual lens consisting of a 12.2MP main lens and a 16MP ultra-wide-angle lens. The key is Google’s software, which has been customized on the Pixel 5. Portrait photography is a particularly good example of where Google’s software shines, and it not only creates great pictures, but it can also edit them. That means you can adjust background blur, remove background color, or even adjust the light source for portrait selfies. Best of all, this applies to both the rear camera and the 8MP selfie camera.
But perhaps the best thing to say about the Pixel 5 is that it’s one of the best point-and-shoot cameras you’ll find on a phone. It’s so adaptable and versatile that you’ll have a hard time taking a bad picture, and every picture is good enough to share right away without any tweaks. It’s a great camera for those who like to shoot once, and it excels at that. Video is impressive, too: it supports 4K video shooting at 60 frames per second and slow motion shooting at 240 frames per second.
Is the rest of the phone impressive? Yes and no. It doesn’t compare to the other flagships on this list in terms of performance just because Google decided to “downgrade” the processing power in order to lower the price. In fact, it’s not that big of a deal, and the Snapdragon 765G’s power is more than enough for most users. Add to that a solid battery life, and it’s a good performer overall. It also comes with 5G connectivity, which will become increasingly important as 5G becomes more prevalent. Another bonus is the Pixel’s version of Android, which is close to the stock version of Android and has a solid track record of updates. Expect Android updates as they come out, at least for a few years.
Design is another mixed bag. We like the metal body, and the front has a thin frame and a hole for the selfie camera. The display is bright and colorful, but the real advantage is the 90Hz refresh rate, which helps it feel smooth and jerky. However, the overall design is a bit bland and – dare we say it – boring. It’s not a design you’ll admire, and it won’t make your heart race like some flagship phones do. Still, if you value function over form, the Pixel 5 has a lot to offer.
Let’s talk about price. At just $699, the Pixel 5 is really a bargain for what it offers. Google removed all the bells and whistles from the Pixel 4, including the Project Soli gesture technology, but when it does so well for basic tasks at this price, you can say a lot in its favor. It’s an exceptional camera that comes with a pretty good phone. Looking for something more unusual? Well, keep reading.
The best all-in-one camera phone: the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Why should you buy it? This camera phone has everything you could possibly need.
Who is it designed for? Those who are seriously afraid of FOMO, or those who like to experiment with a great feature set.
Why we chose the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra:
Featuring an ultra-high-megapixel prime lens, an ultra-wide-angle lens and two telephoto lenses, the Galaxy S21 Ultra proves that when Samsung says “Ultra,” it means just that. The four-lens rear camera consists of a 108MP main lens combined with a 12MP ultra-wide-angle lens, a 10MP telephoto lens with 3x optical zoom, and a 10MP telephoto lens with a powerful 10x periscopic optical zoom. Add to that the usual OIS, 8K video recording and laser autofocus, and you have an impressively well-equipped package.
As you’d expect, it takes great pictures. Samsung has fixed some of its long-standing color balance and contrast issues, and that means the S21 Ultra takes some of the best pictures we’ve seen on Samsung phones. What’s surprising is how usable many of the zoom shots are. The 100x zoom is still not something you’ll want to share, but the signs through it are readable, and the wildlife shots taken at 30x zoom are actually very good. The high zoom levels in the Galaxy S20 Ultra were bad, and obviously Samsung has learned its lesson and greatly improved the S21 Ultra. Add to that video shooting features like Director’s Look and Best Shot, and you have a camera that can do a lot.
But, as with the iPhone 12 Pro Max, you get a lot of phone with this camera. It’s similar in size to Apple’s behemoth, but thanks to the S21 Ultra’s large camera node, it’s unfortunately heavy. Hold it firmly because it constantly wants to tip forward. Regardless, it’s a great phone. At the back, the camera nub is now built into the frame, and it’s certainly an eye-catcher. The 6.8-inch display is a stunning AMOLED panel with an adaptive refresh rate that varies from 9 to 120 Hz depending on what you’re doing.
The internal specs are just as high as the other elements. The Snapdragon 888 processor provides plenty of power, and the 12GB of RAM and 128GB of storage in the base package mean you get a lot for your money. The huge 5,000 mAh battery means you can get two days of light use, and the 25W fast charge means it charges quickly as well. Samsung OneUI for Android is fine, but slow updates are a big minus for Samsung phones in general. You have 5G, as well as some other Samsung features like Dex desktop mode and S Pen support, but wanting those features can be niche.
But you have to pay a serious price for all these features. The base version of the Galaxy S21 Ultra will cost you $1,200, which is a lot. For that you get a lot of gimmicks and features and one huge phone, but that’s a lot of money to pay for one phone. Does that price almost stop your heart? Then read on to see two much cheaper options that also offer relatively good cameras.
The best camera phone: the Google Pixel 4a.
Why you should buy it. It’s a fantastic camera phone, despite its low price.
Who is it designed for? Anyone who likes a great camera but doesn’t want to spend a lot of money.
Why we chose the Google Pixel 4a:
We’ve now moved into a lower price point, and at $349, you might not expect much from the Pixel 4a camera. But you’d be making a big mistake if you discount Google’s budget camera. 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. Because Google’s strength is the camera software, not the hardware, this means that the Pixel 4a simply delivers exceptional performance that can rival many flagship smartphones. Google’s technology means you can’t take a bad picture in any light, thanks to Night Sight, which takes advantage of residual light, and there’s even an astrophotography mode for shooting the night sky with long exposures. It really is an impressive camera, which is an incredible value.
There are some drawbacks as well. The single lens means you lose some versatility with an optional telephoto lens or ultra-wide angle lens, but Google technology helps get around some of these problems with its excellent digital zoom and Google Photo’s ability to recognize and merge images of the same landscape to create larger shots. This software is a superstar, and we found it to be good enough to replace a real DSLR when taking product photos.
The lower price is reflected in other areas of the phone, most notably the design. It is made of black plastic, and the design is definitely boring. There is a hole in the display for a selfie camera, but that’s about all the phone is capable of. The specs also reflect the lower budget, but the Snapdragon 730G will run great if you don’t need to push it too hard. The battery is also quite good and provides a good day’s work, but there’s no 5G here – you’ll have to upgrade to the Pixel 4a 5G for that. On the plus side, you get Pixel Android, which is close to stock, and on top of that you get great Google updates. Expect prompt updates for years to come.
Indeed, the Pixel 4a is an exceptional camera built into a good budget phone – but it’s worth emphasizing just how good that camera is. If you’re looking for a phone with a great camera and don’t want to spend a lot of money, it’s worth buying this phone just for the camera and putting up with the flaws. You won’t find a better camera for $349 without spending a lot more money, which makes it the best value proposition on this list. But if $349 is still too much, read on for the cheapest camera phone worth buying.
The best cheap camera phone: the Nokia 5.3
Why you should buy it. It’s a versatile but limited camera phone for only $200.
Who is it designed for? People who want to play around with a versatile camera, but don’t want to spend a lot of money.
Why we chose the Nokia 5.3:
We’ll agree with you right away – the Nokia 5.3’s camera is disappointing compared to most phones on this list. But unfortunately, your options aren’t very good when you drop below $200. The Nokia 5.3 has a quad-lens camera, consisting of a 13 MP primary lens, a 5 MP ultra-wide angle lens, a 2 MP depth lens and a 2 MP macro lens. It’s a versatile and functional camera, but not particularly inspiring. The low megapixel count is striking on the macro and super wide-angle sensor, and the night mode is also disappointing. Still, it’s very hard to find a good camera at this price point, and we let the versatility of the four-lens camera override everything else to put it on this list. It’s a decent camera, but nothing to write home about.
The rear panel is plastic, but it doesn’t look or feel cheap, which is a real bonus at this price, and the 6.55-inch drop-cut display is quite decent, even if it lacks brightness and resolution is limited to 720p. The specs are also low, but the Snapdragon 665 processor works well enough, although it will struggle with the more intensive applications, which include YouTube. The 4,000 mAh battery provides enough power, and it lasts for more than a day of use. However, battery charging is likely to be slow, and fast charging is not provided at all. On the other hand, Android One runs as great as ever, and you’ll get fast updates on top of that.
The lack of power will affect you if you’re an avid user of your phone, but if you’re likely to only use the phone for basic tasks (and to take a few fun shots), the Nokia 5.3 will do just fine. But don’t expect anything exceptional from the camera. If you like taking pictures and using your phone to the best of your ability, it might be worth spending more money. If you can save some more time, the Pixel 4a is definitely a better choice. But if you’re sticking with a price under $200, the Nokia 5.3 will do just fine.
How to decipher camera phone specifications
There are a lot of camera-related specifications in our smartphones, so we give you a quick course on the basics.
The megapixel figure refers to detail. Simply put, the higher the number of megapixels, the more detail you will see in the picture. For a long time, the smartphone camera feature race has focused on the number of megapixels, but detail is more important for getting a great photo. It’s also worth noting that many cameras don’t shoot with the maximum number of megapixels by default, because that’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 because it turns out that not all megapixels are created equal. HTC coined the term “ultrapixel” to draw attention to the fact that it has more 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 fewer pixels. These are measured in micrometers, and theoretically the larger size catches the light better. For example, the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s primary camera lens has a pixel size of 1.7 micrometers.
The aperture is the opening through which light enters the sensor, and it is important for low-light performance. The smaller the number, the larger the aperture. For example, the f/1.7 aperture in the Pixel 5 camera is slightly larger than the f/1.8 aperture in the main lens of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. Changing the amount of light entering the camera by changing the aperture also allows photographers to adjust the depth of field. This helps to take pictures in which the subject is in focus and the background is blurred.
Optical Image Stabilization (OIS)
Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) helps keep the camera steady, so if your hands are shaking, it’s less noticeable on an OIS-enabled camera phone. It compensates for the movement of your hands.
High Dynamic Range (HDR)
High Dynamic Range (HDR) is a technique in which the camera takes several pictures of the same subject with different exposures, and then combines them in post-processing to create one picture that is usually brighter and more detailed than a picture without HDR. This technology requires some processing power, so it can be a bit slow on budget devices like the Pixel 4a, but it’s always desirable if you want the best photos possible.
There are two things you should pay attention to when recording video: Resolution and frames per second (fps).
Resolution is simply how much detail is captured. For 4K video it is 3,840 x 2,160 pixels. For Full HD, it’s 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. The larger size is often better, but keep in mind that you need a 4K TV or monitor to see the benefits, and 4K and 8K videos take up a lot of space on your phone’s hard drive, so it’s best not to keep it in 4K mode by default.
Frames per second (fps).
When you see high frame rates, such as the iPhone X is capable of shooting Full HD at 120 frames per second, that means you can create slow-motion videos. You can slow down to show detailed moments that would be blurry at a lower frame rate.
Can people hack into your phone’s camera?
Technically it’s possible, but unlikely. While people sometimes find ways to exploit vulnerabilities in your phone’s software, usually to gain access to your phone’s camera you have to trick you into downloading malware or physically taking possession of your phone and installing malware on it. The best way to reduce this threat is to stick to official app stores to download apps and protect your phone with other measures such as a fingerprint or PIN. If your phone is behaving strangely and you see activity in your call log or camera gallery that doesn’t belong to you, you may have a malware problem. Check out our guide on how to remove malware from your 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, every day, every day, has led to an explosion in photography. We take and share pictures more often than ever before, and the smartphone has been instrumental in reinventing digital photography. The history of the camera phone didn’t start until 2000, and in that time we’ve gone from a single 0.35 megapixel lens to four-lens units with an astronomical number of megapixels.
How many lenses should a phone have?
It used to be accepted that a phone should have two lenses, one in the front and one in the back. Now, however, it’s not uncommon to see phones with multiple lenses on each side. A multi-camera phone is a phone with more than one camera lens in one unit. They have been used in phones for over a decade, but have become widespread in recent years as a way to add versatility to your phone’s camera setup. A simple depth sensor or telephoto lens in a dual-lens module can provide more background blur for portraits, while wide-angle lenses allow you to capture much wider areas in your photos.
Camera kits with three or even four lenses are also increasingly common, offering more versatility but no hard limits. The Nokia 9 PureView camera, for example, has five 12-megapixel lenses that capture an image when the shutter button is pressed, and then those five images are combined to create a more detailed single shot.
Are cameras better than DSLRs?
Perhaps you’re wondering how good smartphone cameras are? They are improving rapidly thanks to innovations in hardware and software, but some physical limitations prevent them from competing with DSLRs. Phones still have to fit in your pocket. The truth is that the best smartphone cameras still fall short of the best DSLRs when it comes to most shots.
What is a good number of megapixels for a phone camera?
As we mentioned in our description of camera specifications, the number of megapixels a camera can capture determines how detailed the final product will be; the higher the number, the higher the level of detail. However, a large number of megapixels is not the only determinant of a good camera, and this is well illustrated in several of our models.
For example, camera phones today often use “pixel binning,” a unique process in which data from four pixels is combined into one. This process increases the level of detail while maintaining the same number of megapixels.
For example, if you had a 48-megapixel camera with pixel binning, the output would be a 12-megapixel photo, but it would be much better than what a regular 12-megapixel camera could do.
How we test
At Digital Trends, we’re constantly holding a game controller, camera, smartphone, or some other technological device for most of our workday. Not holding something in our hands is a rare occurrence. When we experiment with smartphones, it usually takes about a week.
We consider this period of time to be an appropriate length of time, sufficient for proper testing. We study the endurance and performance of each phone under typical conditions.
It’s no secret that we use our smartphones all the time. They are always at arm’s length. We love to use the camera, whether it’s for recreation, artistic hobbies or professional business purposes. A surefire way to appreciate these cameras is to visit as many places as possible, take as many pictures as possible and record as much video as possible.
You won’t get an accurate idea of the quality of different models unless you test and compare them to each other. It’s hard to determine your favorite camera, so sometimes we just leave it up to discussion. Often these discussions lead to intense photo competitions and new observations.