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Best camera phone 2021: our picks for the best smartphone cameras right now

Best camera phone 2021: our picks for the best smartphone cameras right now

While we’d love to just recommend one camera phone and call it a day, this niche in the handset market is more complicated. The best camera phone won’t be the same for everyone, as different phones take very different approaches to photography, and that’s why this guide includes a full list of options.

Do you want the lens overload and extensive zoom of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra? The point and shoot simplicity of the iPhone 13 Pro? Or the excellent software of the Google Pixel 5?

Perhaps you want to get in close with macro shots, or maybe you’re more interested in selfies. Then there are other considerations like megapixel counts, low light performance, and more.

These are all things to consider when buying, so the choice can be overwhelming. But to help you decide we’ve put this guide together, highlighting the very best camera phones overall. These won’t all fit everyone equally, but we’ve included an overview of each, so you can see their strengths and weaknesses and make an informed decision.

If you just want the best of the best though, we’ve got you covered there too, as this list is ranked according to our own personal preference, so you’ll find our star pick in the number one slot.

But if nothing seems quite right don’t despair, because the Google Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro will be going on sale soon and are likely to make this list once we’ve put them through a full review. We’re also in the process of reviewing the iPhone 13 mini, so keep an eye out for that too.

Best camera phone 2021

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An iPhone 13 Pro in blue, against a white background

The iPhone 13 Pro (Image credit: Apple)
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An iPhone 13 Pro Max in gold, against a white background

The iPhone 13 Pro Max (Image credit: Apple)

1. iPhone 13 Pro / iPhone 13 Pro Max

The best camera phone

Weight: 204g / 240g | Dimensions: 146.7mm x 71.5mm x 7.7mm / 160.8mm x 78.1mm x 7.7mm | OS: iOS 15 | Screen size: 6.1-inch / 6.7-inch | Resolution: 1170 x 2532 / 1284 x 2778 | CPU: A15 Bionic | RAM: 6GB | Storage: 128GB/256GB/512GB/1TB | Battery: 3,095mAh / 4,352mAh | Rear camera: 12MP + 12MP + 12MP | Front camera: 12MP

Great performance
Strong battery life
Limited design changes
Notch still too large

The iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max are stunning camera phones, each packing a 12MP f/1.5 main sensor with big 1.9µm pixels, a 12MP f/1.8 ultra-wide, and a 12MP f/2.8 telephoto, with 3x optical zoom.

While they don’t have the lens numbers or optical zoom length of some phones on this list, their performance is sublime, and while they lack a dedicated macro lens, they’re still arguably better for macro photography than any rival.

Low light performance particularly impressed us in our tests, but whatever type of shot you’re aiming for, the iPhone 13 Pro or Pro Max should be able to do it justice.

The new Photographic Styles feature and Cinematic mode both impress too, though we suspect they might not be massively used by most buyers. But with an improved Portrait mode, the return of ProRAW, and a great point-and-shoot experience, the iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max are photography beasts.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

(Image credit: Samsung)

2. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

The best Samsung camera phone

Release date: January 2021 | Weight: 227g | Dimensions: 165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9 mm | OS: Android 11 | Screen size: 6.8-inch | Resolution: 1440 x 3200 | CPU: Snapdragon 888 / Exynos 2100 | RAM: 12GB / 16GB | Storage: 128GB/256GB/512GB | Battery: 5,000mAh | Rear camera: 108MP + 10MP + 10MP + 12MP | Front camera: 40MP

The best camera zoom
Mesmerizing design
Expensive – but justified
No microSD card slot

While the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra’s camera didn’t quite deliver on its promise, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra’s very much does.

As with everything in the S21 Ultra, the camera is top-end, with a 108MP f/1.8 main snapper, a 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide one, and – in a move that’s pretty much unheard of on phones – two telephoto cameras. These are both 10MP, but one has an f/2.4 aperture and allows for 3x optical zoom, while the other has an f/4.9 aperture and allows for a massive 10x optical zoom.

And the results are as impressive as the numbers – so much so that we labeled this the best camera zoom on a phone in our Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review.

Non-zoomed shots look great too, though sometimes not as good as the best rivals. But coupled with a wealth of camera modes, including new additions like Director’s View (which lets you shoot video with both the front and rear cameras at the same time), along with a highly capable 40MP front-facing camera, this makes for a smartphone photographer’s dream.

Huawei Mate 40 Pro

(Image credit: Huawei)

3. Huawei Mate 40 Pro

The best low-light camera phone

Release date: November 2020 | Weight: 212g | Dimensions: 162.9 x 75.5 x 9.1 mm | OS: Android 10 | Screen size: 6.76-inch | CPU: Kirin 9000 5G | RAM: 8GB | Storage: 256/512GB | Battery: 4,400mAh | Rear camera: 50MP + 12MP + 20MP | Front camera: 13MP

Great camera
Excellent design
Limited apps
Large selfie camera cut-out

You might be surprised to see the Huawei Mate 40 Pro here – after all, it’s a phone that we only gave 3.5 stars to, and it’s nowhere near our best smartphone list. But the reason we can’t rank it higher in general is everything to do with its limited app situation (due to not having access to the Google Play Store) and nothing to do with its cameras.

In fact, its cameras are exceptional. It has a 50MP f/1.9 main camera, a 12MP f/3.4 periscope one (with 5x optical zoom), and a 20MP f/1.8 ultra-wide one.

While that’s not quite as many lenses as some rivals, it’s got all the most important kinds accounted for, and they all perform very well in our experience.

From portrait shots to wide landscapes, zoomed photos, and close up subjects, we found in our review that the Huawei Mate 40 Pro could cope brilliantly with just about every kind of photo. It even does a great job in low-light conditions.

And while our focus is the rear snappers, the Huawei Mate 40 Pro also has a decent setup on the front, with a 13MP f/2.4 camera joined by a time-of-flight (ToF) sensor for sensing depth.

There are loads of photography modes and tools available on the Huawei Mate 40 Pro as well, from a light painting feature to a dedicated moon photography mode.

OnePlus 9 Pro

(Image credit: OnePlus)

4. OnePlus 9 Pro

The best camera phone for ultra-wide shots

Release date: March 2021 | Weight: 197g | Dimensions: 163.2 x 73.6 x 8.7mm | OS: Android 11 | Screen size: 6.7-inch | Resolution: 1440 x 3216 | CPU: Snapdragon 888 | RAM: 8/12GB | Storage: 128/256GB | Battery: 4,500mAh | Rear camera: 48MP + 50MP + 8MP + 2MP | Front camera: 16MP

The best OnePlus camera phone
Great power
Middling battery life
No microSD support

OnePlus phones aren’t often included on this list, and while the OnePlus 9 Pro still doesn’t threaten the top spot, it’s by far the best camera phone the company has put out at the time of its launch.

It has a 48MP f/1.8 main camera, an 8MP f/2.4 telephoto one (with 3.3x optical zoom), a 50MP f/2.2 ultra-wide one, and a 2MP monochrome one, for boosting black and white shots. Of those, the ultra-wide is arguably the most notable, as it has a freeform lens design that reduces the ‘barrel’ distortion often found at the edges of ultra-wide shots taken on other phones.

The cameras on the OnePlus 9 Pro were also developed in collaboration with Hasselblad, though that collaboration mostly only extended to color calibration and the design of the camera app. We expect more from this partnership on future OnePlus phones, but even here the results are noticeable in our experience, with accurate colors in photos.

And while the OnePlus 9 Pro has powerful manual controls, it also works well when taking photos in auto, so this is a strong point-and-shoot choice. With video recording at up to 8K quality too, and a capable 16MP front-facing camera, the OnePlus 9 Pro is a good all-rounder as far as photography goes – and in most other ways.

Huawei P40 Pro

(Image credit: Huawei)

5. Huawei P40 Pro

The best older Huawei camera phone

Release date: April 2020 | Main camera: 50MP (f/1.9) | Telephoto: 12MP (f/3.4) | Ultra-wide: 40MP (f/1.8) | OIS: Yes | Front camera: 32MP | Weight: 209g | Dimensions: 158.2 x 72.6 x 9mm | Battery size: 4,200mAh | Max video quality: 4K 60fps | Storage: 128GB / 256GB / 512GB | Memory card slot: Yes

Phenomenal battery life
Brilliant cameras
Frustratingly limited software
Big camera bump

The Huawei P40 Pro is one of the best camera phones you can buy for under $1,000 / £900, it’s that simple.

Recommending it comes with its own set of caveats given the Huawei/Google situation though. That’s why despite its extensive list of stellar features, you definitely need to read our P40 Pro review before picking one up. Irrespective of its software limitations though, its camera will knock your socks off.

The P40 Pro’s Leica-branded imaging system is spearheaded by a brand new 50MP sensor, which uses RYYB (red yellow yellow blue) sub-pixel formation, like the 40MP P30 Pro before it. Huawei claims this makes its cameras better able to handle dark scenes like a champion, and we can attest to the fact the P40 Pro absolutely can. 

The main camera’s lens is a pretty standard f/1.9 aperture on paper, but with a huge sensor size (for a smartphone) and OIS, combined with Huawei’s mighty electronic image stabilization, it’s still a low light star. This phone can pretty much see in the dark, even in automatic mode – something no other non-Huawei phones can do.

There’s also a 40MP f/1.8 ultra-wide camera, a 12MP telephoto camera that’s capable of 5x optical zoom or 50x digital zoom, and a time-of-flight (ToF) sensor for creating bokeh effects.

Photos taken on the P40 Pro are high on detail and low on noise. Unlike Samsung, Huawei’s photos don’t look overly sharpened, and while they aren’t as natural and neutral as those taken on the Oppo Find X2 Pro, many will prefer Huawei’s comparatively punchy style.

As far as zoom goes, while the P40 Pro may not get quite as close as the Galaxy S20 Ultra, the phone costs a lot less, and more importantly, delivers more consistent image quality across its cameras. 

The rest of the phone’s hardware is top-tier, it looks a treat and has plenty of power, so if (and only if) you’re comfortable with the Google-free software experience, the P40 Pro packs plenty to love.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

(Image credit: Samsung)

6. Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

The best camera phone in the Note range

Release date: August 2020 | Weight: 208g | Dimensions: 164.8 x 77.2 x 8.1mm | OS: Android 10 | Screen size: 6.9-inch | Resolution: 1440 x 3088 | CPU: Snapdragon 865 Plus / Exynos 990 | RAM: 12GB | Storage: 128/256/512GB | Battery: 4,500mAh | Rear camera: 108MP, 12MP, 12MP | Front camera: 10MP

Useful S Pen features
Great-looking screen
Slow charging
Photos still exhibit smoothing

The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has a high-spec camera, but it’s the telephoto camera that really stands out. This is a 12MP f/3.0 snapper with 5x optical zoom and 50x digital zoom.

Both of those specs are impressive, and while the S20 Ultra offers 100x digital zoom, that was little more than a gimmick, with the Note 20 Ultra actually bettering that snapper thanks to a wider aperture and larger pixels.

And while the telephoto camera is the highlight, the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s 108MP f/1.8 main camera and 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide one also performed well in our tests.

The Note 20 Ultra’s camera is also incredibly easy and fun to use, and it benefits from extras like 8K video and Single Take mode, which takes a bunch of photos and videos at the same time using the various lenses and modes, to increase the chance of you capturing something good.

Low-light photos aren’t quite as detailed as some of the competition, such as the iPhone 12 Pro Max, but otherwise this is an exceptional camera setup.

Google Pixel 5

(Image credit: Google)

7. Google Pixel 5

The best camera phone for editing with

Release date: October 2020 | Weight: 151g | Dimensions: 144.7mm x 70.4mm x 8mm | OS: Android 11 | Screen size: 6-inch | Resolution: 2340 x 1080 | CPU: Snapdragon 765G | RAM: 8GB | Storage: 128GB | Battery: 4000mAh | Rear camera: 16MP + 12MP | Front camera: 8MP

Camera software is better than ever 
Metal case is refreshing change from glass 
No telephoto 
Middling night photography 

The Google Pixel 5 isn’t a camera phone that wows with numbers. There are only two rear lenses for a start, giving you the choice of a 12.2MP f/1.7 main camera and a 16MP f.2.2 ultra-wide one. That also notably leaves the Pixel 5 without a dedicated telephoto lens.

However, we found that – particularly in good light – the Pixel 5 was capable of capturing crisp images with a strong color palette, and while low light performance is a step down, it still manages to capture accurate colors.

The ultra-wide lens also creates less distortion at the edge of images than many other ultra-wide options, and the Google Pixel 5 has a decent range of photo editing tools built in. Software features like Portrait Light also help the phone – letting you convincingly brighten faces and other subjects.

An iPhone 13 against a white background

(Image credit: Apple)

8. iPhone 13

The best Apple iPhone bang for your buck

Weight: 174g | Dimensions: 146.7 x 71.5 x 7.7mm | OS: iOS 15 | Screen size: 6.1-inch | Resolution: 1170 x 2532 | CPU: A15 Bionic | RAM: 4GB | Storage: 128GB/256GB/512GB | Battery: Up to 19 hours | Rear camera: 12MP+12MP | Front camera: 12MP

Strong battery life
Powerful internals
Minimal design changes
No 120Hz screen

The iPhone 13 has just two rear cameras – a 12MP f/1.6 main one and a 12MP f/2.4 ultra-wide (with a 120-degree field of view), but both of them perform well, and they’re an upgrade on the iPhone 12’s snappers.

For one thing, you get bigger 1.7µm pixels on the main camera, which in our review we found made a noticeable difference to the picture quality. There’s also sensor shift OIS, which does an excellent job of stabilizing images so they come out sharp even when the phone isn’t held perfectly still.

In general we found images also had less noise than those taken with an iPhone 12, and when it comes to video we were quite fond of the new Cinematic mode, which adds a bokeh effect and smartly shifts the focus between subjects.

With a new Photographic Styles mode for stills too, plus a capable 12MP f/2.2 front-facing camera, there’s a lot to like here, it’s just a shame there’s no telephoto lens. For that you’ll have to opt for a Pro model – or a different company’s phones.

Samsung Galaxy S21

(Image credit: Samsung)

9. Samsung Galaxy S21 / S21 Plus

The best non-Ultra S range camera phone

Release date: January 2021 | Weight: 169g/200g | Dimensions: 151.7 x 71.2 x 7.9 mm / 161.5 x 75.6 x 7.8 mm | OS: Android 11 | Screen size: 6.2-inch / 6.7-inch | Resolution: 1080 x 2400 | CPU: Snapdragon 888 / Exynos 2100 | RAM: 8GB | Storage: 128GB / 256GB | Battery: 4,000mAh / 4,800mAh | Rear camera: 12MP + 64MP + 12MP | Front camera: 10MP

Fantastic, versatile camera
Cheaper than the Galaxy S20
No microSD support
Screen isn’t the best

The Samsung Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Plus have a different camera configuration to the S21 Ultra, hence these phones ranking lower in our best camera phone list, but it’s still a very impressive setup on each handset.

There’s a 12MP f/1.8 main camera, a 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide one, and a 64MP f/2.0 telephoto, making for a setup that’s basically the same as the Samsung Galaxy S20‘s – but that phone’s cameras still impress, and there are software improvements here.

Those improvements include things like new modes for Single Take. This mode lets the phone take a variety of photos and videos using all three cameras with a single button press, and now it includes a slow-mo option.

There’s also now a Director’s View mode, which lets you shoot with the front and rear cameras at the same time.

So you have a lot more options for your photographer’s toolkit, and away from the new features we found the core camera experience was still great, whichever lens you’re using – though the 3x hybrid optical zoom here is no match for the 10x offered by the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.

iPhone 12 Pro

(Image credit: Apple)

10. iPhone 12 Pro

The best smaller iPhone camera

Weight: 189g | Dimensions: 146.7mm x 71.5mm x 7.4 mm | OS: iOS 14 | Screen size: 6.1-inch | Resolution: 1170 x 2532 | CPU: A14 Bionic | RAM: 6GB | Storage: 128GB/256GB/512GB | Battery: Unknown | Rear camera: 12MP + 12MP + 12MP | Front camera: 12MP

Varied color choices 
Clear and vibrant screen 
No charging block in box 
Battery could be better

At first glance the cameras on the iPhone 12 Pro look much the same as those on the iPhone 12 Pro Max, and it’s true that they’re not much different, but the iPhone 12 Pro Max does have the edge, thanks to a larger sensor on the main snapper, and improved zoom on the telephoto.

Still, the iPhone 12 Pro comes very close to matching it, and at a lower price. It has a 12MP f/1.6 main snapper with OIS, a 12MP f/2.0 telephoto camera with OIS and 2x optical zoom, and a 12MP f/2.4 ultra-wide camera. Like its larger sibling it also has a LiDAR scanner, which can be used to power augmented reality experiences and take Night Mode portrait shots.

As with the iPhone 12 Pro Max, we found Night Mode in general was really impressive here, allowing you to take bright, detailed shots where other phones would struggle, and you can use Night Mode with both the main and ultra-wide lenses.

The 12MP selfie camera also performs well, and there are handy features like Dolby Vision for video, and Smart HDR 3 for improved image processing.

How we tested

We’ve fully reviewed every phone on this list and that includes extensively testing all of their cameras, so we know exactly how they perform. That allows us to look beyond specs and create a ranking based on how these camera phones are in practice. We’ve also considered price, value and features when deciding on a ranking.

What should I look for when buying a camera phone?

When choosing a camera phone you should consider the types of photo you want to take. If you want to photograph wildlife or other things you can’t easily get close to then a telephoto lens is essential, while for landscapes a good ultra-wide is your friend. Check out our reviews to see how camera phones perform in practice too, as some sound better than they are.

Which phone has the best camera?

The best camera phone changes regularly, but our current top pick will be sitting in the number one spot of this guide. That doesn’t mean it will be the best choice for everyone though – consider what you actually need from your camera phone before choosing one.

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Source: TechRadar

Belen De Leon