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The Best Camera Phones for 2021

From Selfies to Portraits

Your phone is the camera you always carry. And if you haven’t upgraded it in a few years, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much phone camera performance (particularly low-light image quality) has improved. In fact, we’ve pretty much reached the point that you can leave your old point-and-shoot at home as long as you’ve got a good camera phone in your pocket.

But not all phone cameras are created equal. We put every phone we review through a rigorous series of camera evaluations in our test lab to determine which are the best shooters on the market. We’ve gathered the top camera phones here. You’ll never have to worry about carrying a separate camera if you’ve got one of these in your pocket, and each is also a stellar smartphone in its own right.

One think we’re finding frustrating right now is that many of the best cameras are on smartphones that aren’t available in the US. There’s intense camera innovation going on from manufacturers like Huawei, Oppo, and Xiaomi, but for various reasons they don’t sell phones in the US and their phones don’t work very well on our networks.

In the US, the usual suspects of Apple, Google, and Samsung have the best cameras. Higher-end phones perform better, of course, but we’ve included a few less expensive phones on the list, notably the Google Pixel 4a, the Samsung Galaxy A71 5G, and the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G, which have the best cameras you’ll find in their price range.

The most important factor in any photo isn’t the camera—it’s the photographer. No matter what phone you have, following our camera expert Jim Fisher’s tips and tricks for camera phone photos can make your images better.

Pixel 4a

The Google Pixel 4a takes a great shot with a single lens.

Trends and Accessories

A few years ago we saw the trend of phones with lots of lenses blossom, and it’s still in full bloom. Many phones now have a standard lens, a magnifying zoom lens, and a wide-angle lens. An infrared time-of-flight sensor can help judge depth for bokeh and augmented reality apps. Less successful lenses and sensors we’ve seen include color filters (you can do this very well in software) and macro lenses (just not very good, so far). Google has been able to resist this trend somewhat by using smart software for a better digital zoom than you’ll find on other phones.

Side-by-side shots of a building at night, taken with two different phones

We include comparison shots in our reviews to help you choose between similar devices.

Super-high-megapixel camera phones are becoming more popular, but they’re largely available in non-US markets. Here in the US, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra boasts a 108MP sensor. The advantage of very high megapixels is that you can zoom and crop images after the fact, or do lossless digital zooming in your camera app without having to use an extra magnifying lens. The disadvantage is that the individual pixels can sometimes be very small, creating problems for color capture or low-light photography.

Super zoom goes along with both of those previous trends. Phones are now combining zoomed-in high-megapixel images, optical zoom lenses, and software to give you 30x, 50x, or—in the case of the Galaxy S21 Ultra—100x zoom. In general, anything much higher than 10x shows heavy digital zoom artifacting. But a good 10x zoom, as you get on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, is still a big step forward from what we used to have.

Four photos of a skyscraper at increasing zoom levels

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra can zoom very far in while maintaining decent picture quality.

Large sensors are separate from high megapixels. A bigger sensor means a phone can capture more light; it’s better all around in terms of color, detail, and low-light performance. The downside is that big sensors tend to have a very short plane of focus, so it can be harder to get a whole scene in focus when some items are close to the lens. The latest Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max, OnePlus 8 Pro, and Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra all have large sensors.

The most advanced Night modes now combine several frames over time to brighten up pictures. They appear to have long, multi-second exposures, but they use AI software to reduce blur by aligning the various images together. (You still don’t want to use them for moving subjects.) Google’s Pixel phones, Apple’s iPhones, and Samsung Galaxy S phones have the best Night modes.

Bring all of that together with a good Pro mode. A growing number of phones in all price ranges offer manual settings that allow you to tweak virtual exposure, aperture, and the focus point to get exactly the shot you want.

Why do so many photographers rely on iPhones? The availability of third-party camera apps plays a big role. Some are available for Android, but apps used by professionals still tend to come out first and be more quickly updated on iOS. Our guide to how to take better pictures with your iPhone goes into detail.

How About Video?

In the era of TikTok and Instagram Stories, video is more important than ever. Here are some features to look for.

Optical image stabilization is always better than electronic or digital image stabilization, creating less jittery videos. Many high-end phones now use both, giving a Steadicam-like effect.

The corner of the iPhone 12 Pro Max, showing many camera lenses

The iPhone 12 Pro Max lets you record video in Dolby Vision HDR.

While 1080p video is still good enough for most people, many phones can record in 4K, and 8K recording is pretty common on flagships. 8K requires a massive amount of storage—about 600MB per minute—and right now, its primary use is for editing videos on a PC after the fact, especially if you want to be able to crop and zoom. If you’re not sure how to do that, see our tips for how to get your images off your phone.

Slow motion can make for some exciting effects; while most phones can now capture up to 240fps (1/8 speed), some can go up to 960fps (1/32 speed). Keep an eye on how long a phone can capture slow-mo for, though, because it can be tricky to grab a scene if you only have 0.2 seconds of recording time. Many phones also have other video tricks like time lapse, hyperlapse, and video bokeh.

Do You Need a Standalone Camera?

For the ultimate in image quality, the best possible low-light performance, or killer optical zoom, you’ll still want a dedicated SLR or mirrorless camera. Our list of the Best Digital Cameras is a great place to start. And be sure to check out our Beyond-Basic Photography Tips.

If you don’t need to take professional shots, however, a top smartphone camera will suit you just fine, and you can’t go wrong with any of our picks here.

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