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Friday, April 16, 2021

The best camera phones for 2021

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The best camera phone is the Huawei P40 Pro. The quad-lens array on the back of Huawei’s flagship is simply the best you can find right now, and shows what a high-quality, versatile camera module can do when it’s paired with some truly excellent software. It’s the best camera phone around — but it’s not the only option. If you prefer an Apple device, want something with Google services, or simply 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 cameras 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: Huawei P40 Pro

Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends.com

Why should you buy this? It’s the best photography experience you can get on a smartphone right now.

Who’s it for? Anyone who wants the absolute best camera they can fit in their pocket.

Why we picked the Huawei P40 Pro:

We’ve come to expect some impressive camera phones from Huawei, but we didn’t think they could get much better than the Huawei P30 Pro. We’ve never been happier to be wrong, and the Huawei P40 Pro is, without doubt, the best camera phone you can buy right now.

The P40 Pro’s strong camera starts with some impressive hardware. Huawei has gone all-out, and it shows. The P40 Pro is equipped with a 50-megapixel main lens with a 1/1.28-inch sensor, a 40-megapixel ultrawide-angle lens, a 12-megapixel telephoto lens, and a 3D depth-sending sensor. Each lens has been tuned by photography giant Leica, but the telephoto lens is of particular interest — it’s a periscope zoom that allows for an optical zoom of up to 5x, providing clearer zoomed-in shots.

But the hardware is only part of the story, and Huawei’s software is the cherry on top of the cake. It takes the telephoto lens’s 5x zoom to provide a 10x Hybrid zoom, and can even use A.I. stabilization to take the zoom all the way to 50x. While 50x zoom photos aren’t the best snaps you’ll ever take, images taken at 10x zoom will often be more than good enough to share on social media.

It also provides an impressive bokeh background blur, whether artificially generated in Aperture or Portrait mode, or naturally generated by the large sensor. The artificially generated bokeh is extremely well placed, with excellent edge detection, while the natural bokeh effect kicks in when you get close to subjects. There’s also a monochrome mode that allows you to take some seriously artistic and atmospheric shots.

Weirdly, the Night mode is almost an afterthought — but that’s only because the camera’s normal mode performs so well. It’s there, and it’s worth experimenting with, but you may find you prefer the shots taken by the normal camera mode over those produced by Night mode.

We’ve gushed over the P40 Pro’s ability with stills, but what about video? Huawei’s monstrous flagship has some serious chops in that area too. It can record 4K video at 60 fps, and can even handle slow motion up an achingly slow 7,860 fps. The software keeps the video stable while you move, and there’s even an extensive and powerful video editor built into the Gallery app.

The Huawei P40 Pro‘s downsides remain chiefly that it lacks Google’s core services as a result of the ongoing issues with the U.S. — but if that doesn’t bother you, this is definitely the strongest camera phone you can buy right now.

Read our full Huawei P40 Pro review

Best Apple camera phone: Apple iPhone 11 Pro or 11 Pro Max

iPhone 11 Pro Max camera ui
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this? It’s the best Apple smartphone you can buy, with a complete camera package.

Who’s it for? Anyone wants the best photography experience from an iPhone.

Why we picked the iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max:

2018’s iPhone XS offered the best camera performance we had ever seen in an iPhone, but Apple has upped its game, and as a result, the iPhone 11 Pro now claims that accolade. 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.

Read our full iPhone 11 Pro review and iPhone 11 Pro Max review

The best Android camera phone: Google Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL

pixel 4 xl camera close up
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

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.

Why we picked the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL:

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, the Pixel 4 is 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.

Read our full Pixel 4 review and Pixel 4 XL review

The best cheap camera phone: Google Pixel 3a

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

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 can be 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 and battery, then consider the Pixel 3a XL at $480.

Read our full Google Pixel 3a review

The best Samsung camera phone: Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

Why should you buy this? Samsung went all-out with this feature-packed Galaxy smartphone.

Who’s it for? Anyone who prefers a Samsung smartphone.

Why we picked the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra:

It’s clear from glancing at the Samsung Galaxy s20 Ultra that the camera was considered a big deal. For one thing, the new camera module is a massive squircle that takes up almost a full quarter of the device’s rear casing — but there’s a reason for that. Samsung has really gone to town with the S20 Ultra’s new camera module and has squeezed in a 108-megapixel main lens, a 48-megapixel telephoto lens, a 12-megapixel ultra-wide lens, and a depth-sensing time-of-flight sensor that boosts portrait mode shots. That drive for high numbers is repeated around the front, where you’ll find a 40-megapixel selfie lens poking out through the punch-hole in the display.

It shows improvements to Samsung’s last flagship range across the board, and the 108-megapixel capture mode is worthy of particular comment. The extremely high megapixel count means you can crop the image down and still have perfectly shareable images. It’s not all about the hardware though, and Samsung has thrown in a few new software tricks, too. Space Zoom was the headline feature when the phone was announced, and it’s easy to see why — a 100x hybrid zoom. Alright, it sounds more impressive than it is, and any images you take at 100x zoom aren’t likely to be great — but the work in that area means shots at lower zoom levels compete with, and often surpass, those produced by similarly powerful camera phones. You’ll also find the excellent Single Take feature, which pulls stills, GIFs, and other shareable images from a single 10-second video. Existing features, like Night Mode, have also seen some improvements.

So why hasn’t Samsung’s new phone supplanted other phones in this list? Simply put, they’re still better. The iPhone and Pixel still provide a better experience when shooting at night, and the Galaxy phone still has some outstanding issues with over-aggressive image processing. An update is expected to help ease those out, but for the moment, it puts those other phones ahead. It’s also worth noting the S20 Ultra has some strong video credentials, with 8K video recording and Super Steady mode helping to keep lower resolution recordings steady.

There’s even more to write home about outside of the camera. The S20 Ultra is a truly massive phone, with a gorgeous 6.9-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X display, a Quad HD+ resolution, and support for a 120Hz refresh rate to help use feel super-smooth. Performance is bolstered with the cutting edge Snapdragon 865, up to 16GB of RAM, and up to 512GB of storage. 5G support is built in, if you’re lucky enough to be near a 5G connection. However, this titanic phone doesn’t come cheap, and prices start at an incredible $1,400. If you’re happy to accept different hardware, then the Galaxy S20 Plus offers similarly great photos without the sky-high megapixel counts.

Read our full Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 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.


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 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.

Video recording

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.

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 triple-lens setups with astronomical megapixel counts.

What is a dual-camera phone?

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.

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.

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. 

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, it’s rare for us not to have a gaming controller, camera, or smartphone in our hands for most of the day. Our smartphone testing processes can take as long as a week.

We see this amount of time as a sufficient period to test out a phone’s durability and functionality in everyday conditions.

Our smartphones are always on us, and we need to use their cameras for any number of recreational, artistic, or official enterprises. The best way to test these cameras is by going to as many different locations as you can; shooting as many pictures and videos as possible.

There’s no better way to get a good idea of how camera quality compares between models. We don’t always agree on a favorite camera and sometimes leave it up for a debate. These debates often devolve into photo shooting contests and similar analyses.

Editors’ Recommendations

This srticle was first published on Digital Trends

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