Best camera phones 2021 - buyer’s guide
Last updated: May 10, 2021 (Changelog)
The best camera phones are usually the best phones overall, and you'll mostly find flagships in this category - the likes of the latest Galaxies and iPhones typically deliver the highest image quality of the time. Other brands successfully compete here as well - Huawei's top dogs have also been consistently great camera performers and that hasn't changed, but as of mid-2019, they do come with caveats when it comes to their software usability and future. Google Pixels have lost the leading position they once held though we still have one to recommend if you're after that Pixel look. Xiaomi and Oppo have made great strides in the camera field too and often offer unusual hardware that delivers outstanding image quality. Finally, there's also a camera phone to get if you're on a budget - non-flagships can take nice pictures too.
Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra
- Impressive camera hardware across all three rear units
- Industry leading image and video quality across the board
- Rear display turns rear cameras into selfie cameras
- Great stereo speakers, super fast charging, thoroughly impressive display
- Phone is heavy and bulky as a whole, camera bump is hardly a looker
- Rear display has some untapped potential
- A tendency to underexpose with the main camera
Breaking a streak of Galaxy title holders, the Mi 11 Ultra is our latest Editors' choice for cameraphone. It packs a unique combination of top-class hardware and puts it to good use, producing great results across virtually all scenarios.
If we're to point out a single flaw of the Mi 11 Ultra's photos, that would be the main camera's underexposed output. Other than that we have nothing but praise for the Mi 11 Ultra's primary camera stills both in daylight and after dark. The ultrawide has autofocus and an extreme field of view and takes some of the best UW images, no matter the light. The 5x tele is spectacular at its native zoom level but can also rival 10x units like the one on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, so you're not really sacrificing reach either.
An unlikely gamechanger, the tiny 1.1 rear-facing OLED display lets you frame rear camera selfies, relegating the front camera to video calls. And the Mi's rear-camera selfies are, again, second to none, plus you get to use the AF-ing ultrawide for some weird perspective shots.
Video recording is another strong suit of the Mi 11 Ultra. Actually usable 8K footage, properly excellent 4K and nearly tripod-level stabilization mean the Mi is as great for video as it is for stills. We're only hoping Xiaomi unlocks the rear display for video use, it wasn't available at review time.
The Mi 11 Ultra makes few compromises in the other departments as well. You get a wonderful display, top-quality stereo speakers, speedy charging and actually not bad battery life within the flagship scene. The best camera phone is a mighty good phone overall.Read full review
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G
- Big-sensor main cam gathers a lot of light
- The two teles make for one of the most versatile zoom setups available
- Ultrawide cam now has AF
- Excellent selfies
- All-round great video recording, top-quality stabilization
- Unimpressive zoom action around the 2x mark
- Portraits can be better
- Output is slightly noisier than usual
The Galaxy S21 Ultra has it all - a huge sensor main cam, an autofocusing ultrawide (the first Samsung to offer it), and not one but two telephotos. It replaced the Note20 Ultra as our favorite cameraphone but ultimately got dethroned by the Mi 11 Ultra.
The S21 Ultra remains an excellent option, of course. Its main camera's 108MP Nonacell sensor bins pixels 9-to-1 producing wide dynamic range in both good light and at night and this latest generation also makes for sharper photos. The high-res imager also enables 8K video recording - not our favorite feature, and not as good as on the Mi, bit it's there if you want to use it. What this sensor isn't spectacular at is short-range zoom - one of the few downsides of the S21 Ultra's camera system.
3x zoom and up, however, is where the S21 Ultra excels thanks to its pair of tele cams. Both modules put up a great performance at their native focal lengths and inbetween magnifications aren't too bad either. Going past the 10x level isn't out of the question, though 100x moon shots are perhaps best left for the marketing teams.
This Ultra's ultrawide is one better than all the others Samsung's put out to date. It's slightly sharper than before, but more importantly it adds autofocus, further extending its range of usability.
The 40MP selfie camera is also among the best ones we've seen - hardware is seemingly identical as on the S20 Ultra, but the processing a big leap in the right direction.
Now, rear-cam portraits aren't as good as we'd like - the 108MP cam's zooming capability isn't great and zoomed-in Portrait mode is what the S21 Ultra defaults to. We're also seeing a bit more noise across the board in the S21 Ultra's photos and video - not too bad, but uncharacteristic of Samsung's ways. Still, the good far outweighs the bad.Read full review
Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max
- Some of the most advanced auto HDR, Deep Fusion, Night Mode and whatnot
- Most versatile capture on the market, best stabilization
- Just 2.5x on the long end
- Over-processed photos
- No AF on the selfie cam
- No AF on the ultra wide cam
The iPhone 12 Pro Max would be our top pick for video capture as it can record at all sorts of resolutions at all sorts of frame rates with its three cams and even do it simultaneously. It can even do this in Dolby Vision format. How cool is that?! It also boasts one of the smoothest video stabilization systems you can find in a phone no matter if it's just EIS, OIS+EIS or IBIS+EIS, and the videos too can benefit from Apple's HDR ensuring class-leading dynamic range.
The Night Mode has been expanded and it now works on the ultrawide and selfie cameras, too. You can also use it in Portrait Mode. We are not thrilled about the image processing, or shall we say over-processing, but that could be avoided of perfect quality is a must and you have the skills to work with RAW.
Some other beefs we have with the iPhone include the lack of autofocus on the selfie cam and the ultra wide. Then there's the 2.5x optical zoom, bested by quite a few competing offerings by now. And you get no charger and no headphones, let's not forget that. Still, the iPhone remains one of the most competent camera phones around.Read full review
Oppo Find X3 Pro
- 256GB 12GB RAM $ 1,177.77
- Large sensor main and ultrawide cameras gather a lot of light, take great photos and video in all conditions
- Unique microscope module
- Wonderful display, super fast charging, great stereo speakers, posh design
- No OIS on the telephoto camera, 2x zoom is short for a flagship
- The selfie camera is unremarkable
- Battery life is so-so
Oppo makes compelling cameraphones in the high-end segment and the latest Find X3 Pro is one such offering. It relies on the proven formula for using large sensors on the main and ultrawide modules (not the largest though), adds a conservative 2x zoom tele, and spices things up with a microscope.
The primary camera and the ultrawide are great in all light conditions. The tele may not have as much reach as the 5x periscopes of a lot of competitors, but does a solid job in daylight. The microscope, meanwhile, is a different take on the 'macro' trend, and it's one that could be just the right thing for you.
Of course, the Find X3 Pro doesn't disappoint when it comes to the fundamentals. Expect a marvellous display, top-tier performance, and blazing fast charging (battery life is on the low end of the spectrum, however). The fancy curvy design doesn't hurt either.Read full review
OnePlus 8 Pro
- Excellent quality from the camera, packs unusually large 48MP sensor
- 3x tele offers more reach than the mainstream 2x
- AF on the ultra wide cam
- Selfie camera is not on a po-up module
- Pure-bread flagship with S865 and 120hz 1440p HDR10+ OLED
- No AF on the selfie cam
We're keeping the 8 Pro on this list, despite the fact that the OnePlus 9 Pro is already available. The latter is expensive and not necessarily better than the 8 Pro camera-wise.
The main camera of the OnePlus 8 Pro packs uses a large 1/1.43" 48MP sensor with omnidirectional-PDAF, Laser-AF, and OIS. But the snapper isn't just jam-packed with tech, it also delivers amazing photos and videos day and night. Then the 8 Pro also tempts with a 3x zoom telephoto, which may be shorter than the 5x periscopes that dominate the market, but it still reaches further than the recent iPhones. Finally, the 8 Pro's ultrawide angle cam has autofocus, adding close-ups to the list of things the OP can do and did before Galaxies and iPhones (that last one still can't, for that matter).
We are not fans of the fixed-focus selfie cameras but AF selfie cameras are hard to come by even in 2021 models.Read full review
Asus Zenfone 7 Pro
- 256GB 8GB RAM $ 686.13
- Unique motorized camera assembly
- Versatile triple camera with great photo and video quality
- The main camera is your selfie camera, too!
- Powerhouse chipset, great battery life
- Heavier than most, thick too
- The motorized camera may not be everyone's cup of tea
Asus launched a new Zenfone 8 Flip this May, but we can't recommend its camera over the Zenfone 7 Pro's. See, Asus has made no improvements as far as photo and video quality is concerned. Worse, the new main camera has lost the optical image stabilization. So if you are after the Asus' signature Flip camera, it's fair to say that you'd better off buying last year's Zenfone 7 Pro, which also has the benefit of being cheaper.
The motorized Flip Camera is no gimmick - on the contrary - it offers a flagship camera quality, plus it makes for the most capable selfie cam on the market. Not having a cutout on the 90Hz AMOLED display is a nice bonus, too.
So, the Zenfone 7 Pro's triple main/selfie camera has a high-res 64MP primary shooter with OIS, a 12MP ultrawide snapper with large pixels and autofocus, while its 8MP 3x tele offers some of the sharpest photos we've seen at that zoom level. The video capture isn't lacking either. Overall, this Zenfone not only offers excellent main, but also selfie camera experience.
The Zenfone 7 Pro packs the Snapdragon 865+ chip, which is still one of the best on the market. It has stereo speakers, offers good battery life and charges pretty fast. Oh, and the Zenfone 7 Pro is at least €100 cheaper and prone to become even more affordable in the weeks post the Zenfone 8 Flip launch.Read full review
Google Pixel 4a 5G
- 128GB 6GB RAM $ 499.99
- Photos have that 'pixel look'
- Ultrawide cam instead of telephoto
- Yet, 2x zoom is available via Google's Smart Zoom
- Competitors have caught up with the computational photography
- Super Zoom is better than digital zoom, but is no optical zoom
- Still no AF on the selfie cam
- Not that cheap
Then there's the new Pixel 4a 5G, which we chose instead of Pixel 5 for having the same camera but on a cheaper price. Some time ago the Pixels were a straight-up recommendation when it comes to taking photos on the phone, but that's no more. The competition has already caught up with Google's computational photography and the Pixels are beginning to look underequipped. See, this year Google added the user-requested ultrawide camera, but it came at the place of the telephoto shooter.
Google promised that its new Super Zoom based on AI will make up for the missing telephoto - we were talking about the king of the computational photography after all. Well, the zoomed photos are surely better than the typical crop and upscale, but they are not on par with any optically zoomed ones. It seems that Google's computational magic is finally running out of steam.
Still, we are putting this Pixel as a niche choice, as the Pixel series have enough following across the globe, plus Google's software support is quite a valuable thing for the fans craving for the latest Android versions.
We don't have a full review of the Pixel 4a 5G, but the Pixel 5 has the same camera and you can see what to expect by checking out our Pixel 5 camera review.Read camera review
Realme 8 Pro
- Great daylight photo and video quality
- Surprisingly good zoom action at 3x from the main camera
- All of the small goodies - 3.mm jack, tri-card slot (with microSD), FM radio, NFC
- Low-light image quality isn't as great and Night mode is pretty slow
- 60Hz screen in a see of HRR ones, aging chipset
The Realme 8 Pro is the third consecutive model in the lineup to make it to our cameraphone shortlist in the Value category. While hardly flawless, the 8 Pro offers a 108MP main camera that does a great job at its native magnification in both stills and video, but also delivers excellent 3x zoom images - with no dedicated tele. Lowlight performance is good for the class, if not strictly amazing in isolation, but it's the sluggish Night mode that put us off.
It's got a lot going for it outside of its camera, including solid battery life, speedy charging and a full set of nice-to-haves. The AMOLED display scores points for brightness, but is one of few panels stuck at 60Hz, most competitors offer at least 90Hz. The Snapdragon 720 chipset is also a bit long in the tooth.Read full review
Most recent updates
May 10, 2021: Replaced the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra with the Mi 11 Ultra as our Editor's choice. Replaced the Realme 7 Pro with the 8 Pro. Removed the Huawei P30 Pro (now 2 years old and hard to find), the Mi Note 10 (old and hard to find), and Mi 10 Ultra (local to China and now replaced by the 11 Ultra).
Feb 16, 2021: Replaced the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra with the Galaxy S21 Ultra as our Editor's choice.
Jan 05, 2021: Replaced the Realme 6 Pro with Realme 7 Pro.
Nov 27, 2020: Replaced the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra with the Galaxy Note20 Ultra as our Editor's choice. Replaced Apple iPhone 11 Pro with 12 Pro Max. Replaced OnePlus 7T Pro with OnePlus 8 Pro. Replaced the Pixel 4 XL with Pixel 4a 5G as the former is no longer on sale. Added the Zenfone 7 Pro, Xiaomi Mi 10 Ultra, and Huawei P40 Pro.