Best camera phones of 2021
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Some phones perform better in low light, others have dedicated Night Modes that are way ahead of the competition, and then there are those that are mediocre for stills, but are great for video. It's not easy picking the best of the best, especially if you don't get the chance to try out many, many phones for yourself. With so much choice, what do you have to look for, if you want the best smartphone camera?
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How we choose the best smartphone camera
These days, the bar for a top-performing camera on a phone is quite high. To be competitive, a device has to have a good sent of lenses and sensors backed up by software that can get the most of them. The end result must be a photo that has sharpness, good color balance, adequate exposure, realistic saturation and a great amount of detail.
It's especially important how the camera handles scenarios that test its HDR — very bright spots shouldn't be just white spots and dark shadows must contain details. Speaking of darkness, low-light photography is where most sub-par cameras struggle and we can't have any of that when it comes to the best smartphone cameras in 2021. The goal with low-light photos is not which phone can take the brightest shot with little or no light sources around. A photo has to be, above all, nice to look at.
That being said, here are the best-performing cameras on the smartphone market right now:
Best camera phones, a summarized list:
Now, let's take a deeper look at these phones!
iPhone 12 Pro Max
Apple finally decided to make use of the extra space the larger Pro Max offers internally and equipped it with a larger main sensor than the regular iPhone 12 Pro, as well as a slightly better zoom camera. Of course, at 2.5X optical zoom, it's far behind what other phones of this list have to offer, but the advantages of the iPhone 12 Pro Max as a camera come from its consistently good photos and ease of use. The new iPhones also have Night mode available for all cameras, including the selfie one, so even your ultra-wide-angle photos will look nice in low light.
The video recording capabilities of the iPhone 12 Pro Max are also significantly improved, keeping it on top of the smartphone food-chain in that regard. Yes, it doesn't have 8K recording, but your 4K will look stunning, which is what matters more. Not to mention that people that are already using an iPhone most likely won't even consider phones from other brands. So, if you're looking for the best iPhone camera, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the one to get.
To learn more about it, check our iPhone 12 Pro Max Review.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
As its predecessor, the Galaxy S21 Ultra exists to dominate the smartphone camera world. And, at least on paper, it's hard to argue with that. It has a 108MP main sensor, a 12MP one for the ultra-wide camera and not one but two telephoto cameras, one with 3X and one with 10X optical zoom. The Galaxy S21 Ultra checks all the hardware boxes. Software improvements are on board as well. The Snapdragon 888 chip allows you to take a picture from all sensors at once or switch between each on the fly while video recording, with a life feed from each sensor making your choice easier.
Of course, everything comes with a price. At $1,199, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is $200 cheaper than the S20 Ultra, but it's not exactly affordable, so many would have to settle for something more humble. Luckily, we have just the right phone for them as our next recommendation.
Google Pixel 5
The Pixel 5 camera doesn't look impressive and that's because it's not. At least not hardware-wise. A 12MP main sensor and a 12MP one for the ultra-wide camera are all the Pixel 5 has to work with. But by leveraging Google's AI platform and advanced computational photography algorithms, the Pixel 5 is capable of delivering some amazing results. From Night Sight, to Super Res Zoom, to Live HDR+ and Dual Exposure controls, the Pixel 5 has a lot of camera features on offer, all the while treading a delicate line between accessibility and fine control. But no matter the situation and lighting conditions, it rarely produces something that can even remotely be described as "bad".
It can't compete with 10X zoom photos, of course, but in your day-to-day life, you'll be more than happy with the photos the Pixel 5 produces, day and night. And best of all, it costs way less than $1,000.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra might lack the super-zoom capabilities of the S21 Ultra, but it has a great camera system nonetheless. Nothing extreme, just the cameras you're most likely to use in your everyday life. The photo quality is excellent , easily rivalling that of the phones mentioned above. And if you're the type of person that spends a lot of time editing and retouching photos right on their phone, the included S Pen will make that job much easier. It can also be used as a remote shutter trigger, which is a very cool feature
OnePlus 9 Pro
he OnePlus 9 Pro comes with a triple camera that uses a new 50MP ultra-wide, wide-angle, and telephoto cameras. The ultra-wide camera utilizes a Sony IMX766 sensor with less noise and very little distortion around the edges of the frame in comparison with similar phones — OnePlus says the difference is as stark as 1% vs 10 and even 20%. However, it’s worth noting that the ultra-wide camera of the OnePlus is also much narrower than its competitors, which is especially obvious when shooting video. As an added bonus, it doubles as a quite versatile macro camera. The rest of the camera setup comprises a 48MP main camera with a custom Sony IMX789, with tons of improvements that aim to make it focus faster, deliver more color information, less noise in daylight or nighttime shots, and finally, less motion blur in videos.
To learn more about the OnePlus 9 Pro, make sure to read our full OnePlus 9 Pro review.
Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra
Should you consider the Mi 11 Ultra if you're on the market for a new flagship phone and don't want to buy into the Apple-Samsung duopoly? It's a step in the right direction for Xiaomi, though it's clear as day that there's more work to be done as the flagship still suffers from the same 'illnesses' that have plagued Xiaomi's flagships seemingly forever.
Possibly the biggest selling point of the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra is its imposing camera system, which promises grandeur with its outstanding hardware. For starters, the Mi 11 Ultra comes with a large 1/1.12″ Samsung-made quad-Bayer sensor sitting beneath the 50MP optics of the main camera; that’s one of the biggest sensors fitted on a smartphone recently. The supplementary ultra-wide and 5X telephoto both clock in at 48MP and have smaller 1/2” sensors.
For further information about the X2 Pro, check our Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra review.
Huawei P40 Pro Plus
We have just mentioned that with no Google apps, we cannot recommend Huawei phones at the moment, but we have to speak about this phone just because it is a little technological masterpiece. It was the first one in the world to feature a 10 times native zoom lens of the periscope kind that gives you unprecedented zoom quality. Not only that, it has a secondary 3 times telephoto zoom lens for those who still want great clarity at more reasonable zoom levels.
Samsung has more or less matched these zoom capabilities with the S21 Ultra, but the two companies have very different approaches to sensors, so if the P40 Pro Plus is an option for you, especially at a lower price since it's almost a year old now, it's worth considering.
To find out more about this phone, check our Huawei P40 Pro Plus review.
Sony Xperia 1 II
Yes, a phone by Sony recommended in 2021! Sony's mobile division hasn't been doing very well in the past few years, but the Xperia 1 II is an excellent camera phone that has some tricks up its sleeve that no other device on this list has. For example, Sony uses the impressive object tracking technology from its professional Alpha series of camera on this phone, so you can tap on an object in the viewfinder and focus will stay locked on that subject. Super awesome if you happen to record a lot of videos of skating or other sporty activities. The main camera here is a 12 megapixel one and we should also say that Sony is making the sensors for many of the phones on this list, so expect excellence and no less. Images look detailed, colors look balanced without being over the top, and overall, the Xperia 1 II is an excellent camera to consider. For more information, check our Sony Xperia 1 II review.