Everyone’s a photographer now, and it’s little wonder with the best camera phones you can buy capable of competing head-on with premium compact cameras and even DSLRs thanks to some very smart software. From the excellent iPhone 12 Pro and Apple’s stellar colour balance to Samsung’s 10x zoom packing S21 Ultra, and Xiaomi’s specced out Mi 11 Ultra – there’s no shortage of options.
The question fast becomes, how do you decide between all the excellent camera phones and which is the best for you? Is your priority to pick up the best budget camera phone? Do you need the best wide-angle lens? Something the OPPO Find X3 Pro can deliver with its 50MP secondary camera. Or are you more of a video fan, in need of high-speed 120 frames per second 4K capture? For you, the new OnePlus 9 Pro with Hasselblad tuning is just the ticket.
Obviously, for those making a full-time living from photography, grabbing one of the best cameras out there is still crucial (or even going for one of the best cameras drones, if you want to elevate your photography). But your smartphone can act as an excellent backup, and could even pack some tricks up its sleeve missing from higher-end dedicated snappers like 8K video if you opt for a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.
While the best camera phone for many will be the iPhone 12 Pro Max, packing excellent app support and delivering a rich user experience, the real versatility of the Android world becomes evident when you start talking about camera nuances. With rear displays for higher-quality selfies, microscope cameras for detail previously unseen to beautifully blurry backgrounds, and shallow depth of field smartphone photography, we’ve tested hundreds of handsets to pull together our list of the best 10 camera phones available in 2021.
The best camera phones available now
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra does everything you need it to do. Its big, bright, bold, beautiful benchmark of a screen will dazzle you while watching your favourite content. And with S Pen support (S Pen sold separately), not to mention the most versatile camera system available, it’s also a creative suite unto itself, allowing you to shoot 8K video and snap pics with its 108MP stills camera and 10x zoom.
With a top-of-the-line processor, wireless charging, water resistance, and a smart interface, it’s difficult to find fault with the Galaxy S21 Ultra if you can get past its high price and hefty frame. The phone even doubles up as a desktop experience thanks to DeX, Samsung’s big-screen user interface, which fires up when you connect it to a computer or a monitor.
In turn, with fewer shortcomings than possibly any flagship phone on the market, Samsung is once again back on top of the Android world, and owing to its versatility, many will prefer the S21 Ultra as a package to the iPhone 12 Pro Max.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max ranks right near the top of the list as one of the very best camera phones in the world. It has a 12MP f/1.6 main camera, a 12MP f/2.2 telephoto one (along with 2.5x optical zoom), a 12MP f/2.4 ultra-wide camera, and a bonus LiDAR scanner, for great Night Mode portraits.
Night and low light shots is something the iPhone 12 Pro Max clearly excels in, made possible by its large sensor. Night Mode itself can be used with both the main and ultra-wide sensors too, which is another handy bonus for low light photographers.
A new feature Apple has introduced is HDR3, which combines multiple exposures to create the best possible shot, which can be applied in all lighting conditions.
Throw in a bunch of great editing features and Dolby Vision video, it’s plain to see this is by far the best camera setup Apple has ever produced. For most people, this is the absolute best smartphone camera experience currently available, as it doesn’t have the major app problem that the Huawei Mate 40 Pro has.
First things first - the Mate 40 Pro has one tragic flaw, and it’s a deal breaker for most people. Thanks to the Google trade ban in the US, you can’t access Google’s own app store. Huawei’s store is still playing catch up, and you’re likely to be frustrated with certain apps not working, even if you can easily download them online.
Having said that, the Mate 40 Pro is still the best cameraphone in the world, offering the best overall complete package. Both regular and ultra-wide angle shots look superb in both well-lit and dark conditions, while the 5x optical zoom performs remarkably well even in lower light too. Focusing is fast and snappy, and the front-facing selfie camera also cram in larger groups, thanks to its wide angle lens.
Throw in super-stabilised video with impressive HDR for good measure, and you have a smartphone with a camera that’s capable of excelling at any task you care to throw at it. If you care about photography more than anything else, this is the current smartphone to beat.
The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini serve up the exact same camera experiences, and are both a noticeable step down from the iPhone 12 Pro models. They lost both the telephoto lens and LiDAR scanner, and have a 12MP f/1.6 main camera, a 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide one, and a 12MP f/2.2 snapper on the front.
Despite losing a few features to their Pro brothers, all of the cameras perform well, and continue to beat most other handsets in low light environments. Smart HDR3 is still included, making use of AI to enhance images, while Dolby Vision also remains for adding more flair to your recordings.
If we’re talking about hardware alone, then the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra has everything it takes to be the best camera phone on our list. It’s got the largest camera sensor ever seen on a smartphone, creeping up to the 1-inch sensor size seen on pro-grade compact cameras. The result of such a large sensor is photos with beautifully shallow depth of field. Of the three cameras around the back, each is around 50MP in resolution, so whether you’re zooming or going ultra-wide, you won’t need to compromise on photo quality.
It isn’t just the camera sensors that are exceptional on the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra. On the phone’s hefty rear camera bump around the back, there’s a second screen so you can take selfies and group shots with the best camera on the handset.
What’s the price you pay for such fantastic photography capabilities you might be wondering? Well, the phone isn’t exactly affordable, costing £1,199 (around $1,670). In addition to its imposing price is an imposing physique; the Mi 11 Ultra weighs 234g, making it one of the heaviest smartphones currently on the market.
While you get plenty of power for the price (and weight) of the phone, not to mention stacks of storage and one of the best screens to ever grace a smartphone, the Mi 11 Ultra does have a few niggles. It gets very warm when gaming on it – bordering on too hot to handle if graphics settings are ramped all the way up. In turn, this pricey camera champ is really a phone for someone happy to invest a bit of time (and money) getting to grips with its nuances. Once you do, you’ll get some class-leading photos, but if you’re after an easy life, or just really like wearing skinny jeans, you’d be better off with another camera phone.
There’s no shortage of camera phones that do the same thing, but OPPO’s flagship Find X3 Pro has a unique party trick – its 3MP Microlens camera. Capable of up to 25x optical magnification (60x digital), the camera is nothing short of a microscope on the back of the phone. Matched with a ring light to illuminate the detail within the detail, the Find X3 Pro’s the only option for fans of tiny textures looking to snap at a granular level, picking up much more than a human eye can make out.
The rest of the camera phone also competes head-on with the best out there. The Find X3 Pro sports the same premium 50MP Sony sensor across both its wide and ultra-wide cameras. By not using lower-quality sensors for the secondary camera, the phone maintains a high level of detail and colour accuracy across more situations. Also of note, it also captures 10-bit content, showcasing a billion colours, whether taking photos or recording videos.
What’s also noteworthy is the OPPO Find X3 Pro’s design. This is a unique-looking smartphone with its smooth camera bump that elegantly rises while most phones protrude clumsily. Beneath its elegant glass and metal exterior, the phone also sports flagship internals like a Snapdragon 888 chipset, 256GB storage, and 12GB RAM, making for a super-premium experience, with only one key shortcoming – zoom range, which is why it hasn’t placed higher in our camera phone countdown.
Loaded up with a 48MP main camera featuring a custom Sony sensor, the tuning applied to photos taken on the OnePlus 9 Pro is a huge improvement over previous OnePlus phones, especially in challenging lighting. In fact, we’d go so far as to call it one of the best cameras around, especially if you’re not a fan of editing your snaps. Take a photo, and eight times out of 10, it’s Instagram-ready.
The special sensor is capable of capturing super-high framerate 4K footage at up to 120 frames per second – something many pro-grade cameras can’t do. And add to the mix an ultra-high-resolution ultra-wide camera, which captures expansive landscapes at 50MP resolution, and shoots close-up pictures thanks to autofocus (something seldom seen on ultra-wide cameras), and imaging is definitely one of the 9 Pro's fortés.
The OnePlus 9 Pro is also the first flagship from the Chinese phone maker to feature Hasselblad camera tuning, in addition to elements within the Pro mode that mimic the legendary camera icon's interface.
The phone’s specs are flagship across-the-board too, with Snapdragon 888-power matched with 8GB RAM, and a stunning Dynamic AMOLED screen matched with a 120Hz refresh rate for smooth scrolling and punchy visuals.
Also mightily impressive is the OnePlus 9 Pro's charging speeds. It powers up in around 30 minutes thanks to lightning-fast 65W charging. Even wirelessly, the 9 Pro charges quickly when matched with the official Warp Charge 50 Wireless Charger, and with a 4,500 mAh battery, you should get a full day out of it without any issues.
The fact the OnePlus 9 Pro’s price undercuts most flagships out there is yet another boon for the phone, placing it higher in our ranking than any OnePlus before it.
The Google Pixel 5 actually has a rather simple, less feature-packed imaging setup with only two lenses – a 12.2MP f/1.7 main camera, and a 16MP f.2.2 ultra-wide offering. That’s right, Google has opted for no telephoto zoom camera, which is a shame.
Despite this, the Pixel 5 uses the tools available very well, capturing crisp, detailed shots with accurate colours in good lighting, although performance drops somewhat in low light conditions. While the ultra-wide lens is great for cramming more into a single shot, there is some noticeable distortion at the edges.
An area in which the Pixel 5 really shines though, is its software, with features like Portrait Light brightening faces and subjects, along with a powerful set of in-built editing tools for perfecting shots after they’re taken.
The Note 20 Ultra is a camera phone behemoth on paper. Its main sensor resolution is a whopping 108MP, and its Galaxy S20 Ultra-beating optical zoom gets you as close to the action as the P40 Pro. That being said, the main reason the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G isn’t higher on our list is its automatic mode. Unless you switch to night mode or Pro Mode, it just isn’t quite where the competition from Huawei is in low light, and its focus falls short on occasion when capturing stills, even if it does pack best-in-class video autofocus.
The Note 20 Ultra’s night mode is also very good - a huge improvement over that of its predecessor. The phone also packs stellar zoom performance with a 120mm optical range and fantastic video capabilities. That said, as a point and shoot, the camera falls short when compared to the iPhone 11 Pro or the P40 Pro Plus.
Any quibbles, however, may not matter for creatives you just want to doodle. The Note-series, is the best out there if you’re a fan of putting pen to screen on your mobile. With its Wacom digitiser and 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity, you can fire up an app like Autodesk Sketchbook Pro and create multi-layered files on the go, then import them into Photoshop to work on when you get back to your studio. The S Pen’s iPad Pro matching 9ms latency and the screen’s 120Hz refresh rate combine beautifully with the phone’s Dynamic AMOLED technology to look spectacular - and its design is also something special too.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 may be the latest flagship from Samsung, but it’s actually pared right back when compared to the S21 Ultra. In fact, it’s almost like the S20, version two.
Despite looking incredibly fancy, its back panel is plastic, a first for the flagship line, which has been sporting glass on either side for generations. The cameras also sport the same specs as last year’s model, two 12MP sensors around the back, as well as a 64MP sensor, and there’s no optical zoom to speak of, just a digital zoom.
This confusingly capped spec-sheet is all part of Samsung’s plan to keep costs down, and indeed, the S21 isn’t as expensive as the S20 was when it launched. That said, with the S20 FE and other phones available for less and offering more on the camera front, this year’s entry-level Samsung flagship fails to make the splash its larger, pricier sibling the Galaxy S21 Ultra does.