They all kind of look the same, perform the same, have similar battery life, and have access to most of the same apps.
But when it comes to the camera, handset makers each have a unique alchemy of sensors and computational photography algorithms, leading to a wide spectrum of strengths and weaknesses.
Some are great in low-light situations, while others excel at video or taking selfies. Some, like our best smartphone cameras, tend to be strong in every category.
When considering what qualities make for an excellent smartphone camera, we considered phones which had a reputation for the following:
- Image processing that doesn’t leave photos looking too artificial or oversaturated
- Low-light performance
- Easy-to-use camera software
- Ability to get the shot you want the first time
- Video quality
- Overall phone quality
And in situations where a phone was offered in multiple sizes but offered the same features, we opted for the one with the bigger screen. Bigger screens are not only a better de facto viewfinder, they’re better for showing off your work to other people.
So before you ask people to ‘say cheese’ take a look through our picks.
1. Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max
BEST SMARTPHONE CAMERA OVERALL
Like everyone else, Apple fell behind Google in the smartphone camera wars in 2018 when Google trotted out its AI-powered image processing in the Google Pixel 3. But since then, Apple has come roaring back, beefing up its own computational photography game to turn the shooter in the iPhone 12 Pro Max into the best smartphone camera. This smartphone camera may only have a 12-megapixel sensor for its main lens instead of a 48- or 108-megapixel sensor, but megapixels aren’t everything. Instead, Apple loaded the 12 Pro Max with a sensor that is physically bigger. So while it may not have more megapixels than before, the images have better color, detail and lighting.
Apple also continues to prove that image post-processing is as important as the raw hardware, and in this regard, you won’t find a smartphone camera that is as easy to use, can effortlessly produce final images with as much detail and create natural-looking color tones as this phone. Like the best smartphone cameras, it comes with a pair of 12-megapixel telephoto and ultrawide cameras to give you added versatility and performance and is also one of the best smartphones for capturing 4K video. The iPhone 12 Pro Max also supports Apple’s ProRAW file format, which allows smartphone photographers to snap photos with their iPhone that aren’t compressed and retains more image data to be used when adjusting the photo’s levels in Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop.
2. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
While Apple has looked to software in recent years to make the photos from its cameras stand out, Samsung has always relied on raw hardware power to get the most out of its cameras. The camera system on the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is no exception, and thanks to a total 5 lenses, which includes a 108-megapixel main shooter, it’s one of the best smartphone cameras around. As a result, this one of the few cameras that can compete with the iPhone 12 when it comes to sharpness, autofocus speed, detail, bokeh, low-light handling and versatility. Plus, with one of the best displays you can find on a smartphone in 2021, all those photos you take will look amazing when it comes time to view them.
3. OnePlus 8 Pro
BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK
When comparing performance to price, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better all-around camera experience than you’d get with the OnePlus 8 Pro. Equipped with a pair of 48-megapixel sensors for the standard and ultrawide cameras, along with an 8-megapixel telephoto sensor and a 5-megapixel “color filter” the OnePlus 8 Pro easily holds its own with any of the best smartphone cameras. The best part is that it comes in at a price that is hundreds of dollars cheaper than a few of the phones on this list.
4. Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
BEST SAMSUNG OPTION
Accounting for raw power alone, you won’t find a more capable device than the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. With a massive 108-megapixel, 1/1.33-inch sensor for its main camera and a pair of 12-megapixel sensors powering its telephoto and ultrawide cameras, this phone’s imaging hardware is equipped to handle anything you throw at it. While these same sensors and lenses were used in the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, which had some major autofocus issues, the laser autofocusing system in the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra seems to have remedied those problems.
But specs aren’t everything, and when it comes down to the final image, Samsung’s image processing has always been a matter of personal preference. Samsung’s algorithms have traditionally yielded photos that look a bit more artificial, due to oversharpening, washed-out lighting, or parts of the photo that look completely blown out. But some may prefer this extra vibrant look, or just prefer using a Samsung phone. If so, you’ll likely be thrilled with the performance of the Note 20 Ultra.
5. Google Pixel 5
BEST GOOGLE OPTION
Google was the first company to show that you don’t need an all-powerful camera sensor to produce stunning photos, instead relying on cutting-edge software tricks to outperform the competition. While other smartphone makers have started catching up with Google in that regard, the Pixel 5 is still capable of capturing images that stand up against any of the best smartphone cameras. While the Pixel 4 may share the same 12.2-megapixel sensor as the Pixel 4, it still offers improved performance thanks to an ultra wide-angle lens, a more powerful CPU which will make your zoom photos sharper.
6. Sony Xperia 1 II
BEST FOR VIDEO
We live in an era where entire movies can be shot with a smartphone camera, and so looking at your phone as a serious device for capturing video is nothing to scoff at. For the serious smartphone videographer, manual controls and color accuracy are a huge boon. With the Xperia 1 II, you not only get a camera with an impressive 12-megapixel, 1/1.7-inch sensor, color-accurate 4K display and 24mm equivalent lens that offers a wider frame by default, but with manual video controls baked into the default camera app.
Sure, there are third-party apps that will grant you the same freedom, but sometimes that can be an experience full of bugs. With the Xperia 1 II, you’re getting full-featured software from the company that manufactures some of the best camera sensors in the world and knows the ins and outs of that hardware best.
7. Google Pixel 4a
BEST BUDGET SMARTPHONE CAMERA
Because of Google’s philosophy of pairing affordable, less-powerful camera hardware with its top-tier, AI-assisted image processing algorithms, it’s able to offer a camera experience with its budget Pixel phones that is nearly on par with the flagship Pixels. The $350 Pixel 4a may not have a telephoto lens (so zoomed-in photos won’t look as good) or the Pixel Visual Core chip contained in the phone (which means it will take a little longer for images to process), but the rest of the camera package is identical to what you’d get with the Pixel 4.
The end result is that photos snapped with the Pixel 4a are close enough in quality that you don’t have to feel compelled to spend a few hundred extra dollars if the Pixel camera is the main thing you’re after.
8. Apple iPhone SE
BEST BUDGET IPHONE OPTION
One of the best benefits of computational photography is that you don’t have to spend $1200 on a phone to get a very good camera attached. While the iPhone SE may not match the iPhone 11 Pro Max as the absolute best smartphone camera, you can spend just $399 and get image performance that rivals the standard iPhone 11 in most scenarios. The biggest trade-off will come with low-light photography, with which the iPhone SE is noticeably less capable. But despite the iPhone SE having a lens and sensor that are two years older, the differences between it and the iPhone 11 are minor enough that it feels like splitting hairs at times.
9. Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
BEST FOR SELFIES
For those of you who are mostly interested in “doing it for the gram,” there isn’t a better front-facing “selfie” cam than the one found on the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra. Boasting a 30-megapixel sensor, this camera will provide enough pop to always have you looking your best wherever you may be shooting from. But more traditional photographers should be warned: While the Galaxy S20 Ultra has the same impressive sensors as the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, it lacks the laser autofocus system, and has had major problems in that regard. Samsung has fixed some of the autofocusing issues through software updates, but you still may not find it to be at the level you’d want.
10. Moto Edge Plus
If the Samsung Note 20 Ultra is giving you sensor envy, but you don’t want to spend quite so much on a phone, consider the Moto Edge Plus, which offers excellent camera performance for a little bit less. Like the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, it has a 108-megapixel sensor capable of collecting the finest details. The camera on the Moto Edge Plus may not have quite the same reputation as ones from Apple or Samsung, but it’s still one of the best smartphone cameras you can buy.