A smartphone is the camera you always have on hand. And if you haven’t visited the market recently for an upgrade, you’ll be quite surprised by how much camera phones have improved. Larger, more advanced sensors, better chipsets, and processing have thoroughly changed the playing field.
In some ways, we’re now at a point where smartphones have dominated the entry-level camera market outcasting dedicated cameras. And given their power, there’s yet been a better opportunity to invest in the right phone. Now whether you’re in the market for a direct upgrade or looking for the maximum power available, there’s plenty of options.
Table of Contents
But, buying the right phone for you will likely be somewhat overwhelming considering the asking price these days and, arguably, the oversaturated market. Even so, smartphones are a powerful supplement and, often, a capable replacement for a bulky DSLR. With that, in today’s post, we will cover the top ten best camera phones, perfectly apt to enhance your photography. And we’ll also cover a detailed guide on the factors to consider when shopping between various makes and models.
Sony Xperia 1 II
Initially released in the spring of 2020, Sony’s Xperia 1 II aims to sway professionals looking for a capable albeit pocketable tool. It uses a triple-lens configuration with a 16mm ultra-wide, 24mm wide, and 70mm telephoto lens and a slowest aperture of f/2.4. And the primary and telephoto lenses also have optical stabilization to reduce handshake.
The Xperia 1 II debuts Sony’s Real-time Eye AF phase-detection autofocusing system, taken from their mirrorless camera line. And this allows the device to provide class-leading focusing that’s fast and accurately tracks subjects within the frame. And with 20 FPS burst shooting, it’s a powerful contender for capturing fast-paced sports or wildlife. Additionally, Sony’s factory-calibrated its wide 21:9 DCI Cinema Display, prioritizing accuracy, and faithful reproduction. Interestingly, its display also acts as a secondary monitor for their interchangeable lens cameras, a rare but helpful feature. And the included Photo Pro and Cinema Pro apps provide full manual control and professional level functionality over photos and videos. Other bonuses include 5G connectivity, IP68 sealing, 100% DCI-P3 color, Gorilla Glass, a dedicated shutter button, quick charging, a headphone jack, fingerprint reader, and a microSDXC slot.
Overall, Sony’s Xperia 1 II ups the initial high bar set by its predecessor. It’s a powerful tool for creators that offers pro-level camera capabilities inspired by Sony’s premium RX100 and Alpha camera lineups. And if you value accuracy over the wow factor or enjoy the shooting experience, this is the device to consider.
Apple iPhone 12
Initially released in the fall of 2020, Apple’s iPhone 12 is the family’s base model. It uses a dual-lens configuration with a 13mm ultra-wide and 26mm wide-angle lens with a slowest aperture of f/2.4. And the primary lens also has optical stabilization to reduce shake.
This year, the iPhone sports a brand new design and performance to up the standards in the lineup. Namely, the primary camera now boasts an f/1.6 maximum aperture, the largest yet, for superior low light performance. Apple also added Smart HDR, the Night Mode, and Deep Fusion, enhancing detail and contrast to produce sharper low light images. But, a key selling feature is the updated Super Retina display, which offers HDR10 support and Dolby Vision certification. This combination allows the display to show true blacks with superior color depth closely matching the source material, a rarity at this price. Other bonuses include a new Ceramic Shield display, IP68 sealing, 5G support, and the MagSafe ecosystem.
Overall, while the base iPhone 12 lacks the telephoto lens or LiDAR scanner and other wow-factors as the Pro model, it’s a powerful release nonetheless. And one that happens sporadically in Apple’s lineup. It fundamentally brings innovative technology, and it’s a solid all-around for the price that’s certainly no slouch.
Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra
Released in the fall of 2020, Samsung’s Galaxy Note20 Ultra offers more screen real estate and best in class zoom capabilities. It features a triple-lens configuration with a 108MP 26mm wide-angle, 13mm ultra-wide, and 120mm 5x telephoto lens with a slowest aperture of f/3.0.
Boasting a fresh premium design, the Note20 is prime for extreme close-ups, where its telephoto lens offers a 5x zoom natively or steps up to 50x digitally to capture far-reaching subjects. Its S pen also works brilliantly for those who like editing, allowing quick and accurate touch ups on the go, or remotely capturing photos. But, crucially, it’s the first Note with a 120 Hz refresh screen that now sports HDR10+, which is among the best in class. Plus, it also boasts a faster lens and a larger sensor than S20 Ultra, improving image quality. Other bonuses include a fingerprint reader, Gorilla Glass, IP68 sealing, a microSD slot, DCI 8K video, Super Steady Stabilization, the Single Take Mode, 5G connectivity, and wireless charging.
Overall, Samsung’s Galaxy Note20 Ultra stands out amongst rivals with best-in-class zoom, outside of Huawei, and represents a complete package from Samsung. And it’s the ideal choice if you want an everything phone with a superb camera, high-end specifications, and power that pushes the bounds.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
Initially released in the spring of 2020, Samsung’s Galaxy S20 Ultra is the current Android behemoth. It features a 3-lens configuration with a 108MP primary 26mm wide-angle lens, a 13mm ultra-wide, and a 103mm telephoto lens. And it offers dedicated optical stabilization and a 40MP front-facing camera to boast.
This year, Samsung upped the standards with a powerful 120 Hz refresh HDR10+ Quad HD+ screen with deep, rich colors and class-leading detail. And they’ve also added their best camera setup yet, affording the phone a distinct advantage in the market that none can replicate. Simply put, this camera produces unrivaled detail, gradations, and flexibility in post-processing for cropping. Additionally, it obtains the Single Take Mode, which captures ten seconds of video to generate various still or GIF images. And it’s a quick and useful way to generate ideas. Other bonuses include 100x Hybrid zoom, 8K video, Gorilla Glass, IP68 sealing, Super Steady Stabilization, a fingerprint reader, 5G support, and a microSDXC slot.
Overall, while the Galaxy S20 Ultra is lavish, it’s arguably the top Android device around. And it proves itself as a powerful all-rounder, ideally suited for those wanting utmost quality.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro
Initially released in the fall of 2020, Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro takes photographic capabilities to an unseen level. It features a triple-lens configuration with a 13mm ultra-wide, 26mm wide, and a 52mm telephoto lens with a slowest aperture of f/2.4. It also offers optical stabilization and a front-facing camera with True Depth technology.
On paper, it houses much of the same capabilities as the base model. But, Apple’s upped things by adding more RAM, a LiDAR scanner for augmented reality, and an updated camera configuration. The new LiDAR scanner also assists with autofocus to capture clear, in-focus night time portraits with proper blur. Additionally, the Night Mode is now accessible across all cameras, even selfies. But, crucially, this model now features a 52mm 2x optical zoom lens, a perfect compliment for portraits. And it even sports HDR10, Deep Fusion enhancement, and Dolby Vision for deep blacks, vivid whites, and true to life image quality. Plus, Apple introduced the ProRAW file format, a RAW equivalent, that preserves image information for added post-processing flexibility. Other bonuses include 5G support, IP68 sealing, Ceramic Shield coating, and the MagSafe ecosystem.
Overall, while similar to the base model, the iPhone 12 Pro brings about useful upgrades that mature the lineup. And it’s a powerful device with an exceptional camera setup, ideal for those wanting a bit more quality.
OnePlus 8 Pro
Initially released in the spring of 2020, the OnePlus 8 Pro is a proper flagship and doesn’t cut corners. It features a quad-lens configuration with a 48MP wide, an 8MP telephoto lens along with the new color filter lens. It also offers a 3x optical zoom and optical stabilization.
With its quad-lens configuration, the 8 Pro obtains the biggest camera upgrade ever onto an OnePlus device. But, OnePlus has gone further. In this case, it offers a 30x digital zoom, a powerful Nightscape mode to lighten dark images, and a surprisingly larger sensor that captures stunning bokeh. Plus, shooting in the high-resolution 48MP modes also captures an ultra-wide-angle with more resolution and superior freedom. Yet, they’ve even added the dedicated color filter lens, with four unique effects to add an exciting flair to your images. And together these provide a wealth of capabilities, power, and flexibility. Additionally, the phone houses one of the top displays on Android. And it’s 6.7-inch QHD+ 120 Hz screen is not only large but also detailed with top-level accuracy and HDR10+ support. Other bonuses include 5G connectivity, Gorilla glass, wireless charging, and IP68 sealing,
Overall, the OnePlus 8 Pro mixes the biggest names in the mobile space. And it packs their most advanced technology and top-tier capabilities into a single device. It’s expensive, sure, but there’s plenty of value to justify the cost here.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max
Released in the fall of 2020, Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro Max is their best camera phone to date. And it ups the already class-leading Pro model. Like the 12 Pro, it features a triple-lens configuration, with a 26mm wide, 13mm ultra-wide, and 2.5x telephoto lens with a slowest aperture of f/2.4. It also offers optical stabilization and a front-facing camera with True Depth. However, it now houses a larger sensor and better processing, improving low light performance and image quality.
Sure. on paper, it obtains much of the same general capabilities as the 12 Pro. But, it boasts the longest battery life in the current lineup, thanks to the largest chassis. The screen itself is also larger, now at 6.7-inches, providing unrivaled real estate, immersion, and detail. Additionally, they’ve re-designed the lenses, reducing artifacts, and improving image quality. Otherwise, it does still offer the LiDAR scanner for augmented reality and assists in focusing. Additionally, it does receive the Night Mode to capture bright images in dark scenes, Smart HDR 3 for more detailed photos, and HDR10 with Dolby Vision for life-like videos. Other bonuses include 5G connectivity, the MagSafe ecosystem, IP68 sealing, and the Ceramic Shield coating.
Overall, while the 12 Pro Max offers modest upgrades over the already excellent 12 Pro, those upgrades matter, and it’s Apple’s most powerful phone to date. There’s little doubt that it houses their best technology and improvements. And it’s a distinct competitor in this space, particularly if you want the best Apple offers.
Google Pixel 4a
Initially released in the fall of 2020, Google’s Pixel 4a gives you Google’s best at an affordable price. It features a single 12MP rear lens, making it a minority these days. But, it does have a blazing fast aperture of f/1.7 and an excellent 7x digital zoom.
While the camera setup may look rather unimpressive, the phone holds its own compared to triple and quad-configurations. And the single lens configuration simplifies capturing great images every time. Just point and shoot, and Google’s intelligent processing will ensure you get great photos in most scenarios. The camera also produces excellent background blur purely through AI and its powerful Night Sight mode remains among the best in class. Plus, you can even apply the effect to photographs after the fact, even from other devices. Additionally, the 4a obtains Live HDR+, allowing you to use dual exposure controls to make specific adjustments to problem areas in the frame for more balanced shots. Other bonuses include a fingerprint reader, a headphone jack, HDR support, and gorilla glass coating.
Overall, Google’s Pixel 4a, while simple, gives you Google’s best in a one-hand-friendly package. It offers slick Google Assistant support, a clean interface, and an impressive photography experience, despite only using a single camera. And while not as convenient or flexible in some ways, it’s a solid contender at this price point for budget-conscious users wanting a fuss-free shooting experience.
Huawei P40 Pro
Released in the spring of 2020, Huawei’s P40 Pro holds the reins of the top Android camera phone. It features a triple-lens configuration with a 50MP 23mm wide, 18mm ultra-wide, and 125mm or 5x optical zoom telephoto lens with a slowest aperture of f/3.4. And this camera setup boasts a Leica designation, 3D Depth sensor, and optical stabilization.
The P40 also boasts quite an impressive 32MP dual-lens front-facing camera and a larger than the average sensor, which generates pleasing bokeh. And interestingly, Leica’s even included a monochrome mobile, which delivers their satisfying, yet, historic aesthetic. But, it doesn’t stop there, no. The P40 even includes a whopping 50x digital zoom that’s entirely usable up to 10x for a tremendous change in perspective. And from a video standpoint, it debuts 720p slow-motion video at a staggering 7,860 FPS. All culminated into a single device with class-leading ergonomics amongst Android devices. Other bonuses include a fingerprint reader, Nano Memory, Gorilla glass, 5G connectivity, and IP68 sealing.
Overall, Huawei’s P40 Pro is one of the top camera phones money can buy and the industry’s current benchmark in camera technology. If you’re a die-hard Android user that values the telephoto ability for portraits and outstanding image quality, this is your device. Sure. its predecessor seemed like a difficult act to follow, but Huawei’s upped the standards.
Google Pixel 5
Released in the fall of 2020, Google’s Pixel 5 is a powerful all-rounder with a modest and attractive price. It features a dual-lens configuration with a 16MP ultra-wide-angle and a 27mm wide-angle with a slowest aperture of f/2.2.
On paper, it loses some more advanced features, namely Soli Depth sensors and the telephoto lens. But, it’s a wise move and strategic change to reduce cost and make the phone more affordable. Together, the result is a streamlined device that delivers a neat, easy to use package that continues the line’s traditions. Even so, the phone still boasts a fast 90Hz display, superior battery life, and refined usability. And despite its large 6-inch display, it measures in as one of the thinnest phones on the market. Other bonuses include Gorilla glass coating, IP68 sealing, 5G connectivity, and a fingerprint reader.
Overall, while not wow impressive like some rivals, the Pixel 5 becomes the best all-rounder and offers unbeatable value. It delivers a fuss-free experience along with superior battery life and general power. And if you’re looking for a capable point-and-shoot or wanting flagship performance without breaking the bank, this is easily your best option.
What are the best accessories for these camera phones?
How to pick the best camera phone
When looking at a camera phone, you’ll want to consider several main factors if you plan on heavily relying on it as your primary camera. But before anything else, ask yourself, “what kinds of photos am I taking?” This question will be the guiding light to help determine which camera lens and sensor combination are best, as not all are created equally. Instead, some phones offer ultra-wide lenses for landscapes, others telephoto for portraits, and a few provide mega zooms rivaling the power of a bridge or DSLR camera.
But with that question answered, now let’s consider each of the individual factors.
Above all else, you’ll want to consider the lens’s aperture, which determines the amount of light it captures—the smaller the number, the better the low light image quality. While many would suggest the megapixel count of the sensor is of utmost importance, it pales compared to the lens’s speed. And a higher megapixel camera doesn’t always directly translate to better images.
Next, you’ll want to consider how much depth of field you want, also known as background blur. Some devices do this with multi-camera lenses, others through software by taking multiple images. Each has its pros and cons. But, if you plan on taking a lot of portrait shots, then a dedicated telephoto lens is best.
Next, if you’re a big fan of selfies, then consider the front camera. Here you’ll want to look for cameras that can perform similar portrait effects as the rear camera. And lastly, consider the camera’s video capabilities and its resolution and frame rate. Most cameras capture 4K video at 30 FPS. But, several offer 60 FPS video and higher resolutions than 4K.
Below you’ll find some other factors that may also be important in your search.
The benefit of a super high-resolution camera is that you can crop images afterward and maintain image quality. Additionally, you can also perform a large digital zoom in-camera without needing a dedicated telephoto lens while preserving detail. However, these sensors have some minor disadvantages as the pixels are relatively small. And small pixels reduce color accuracy and low light performance.
Many phones now offer combined zooming capabilities with a high-megapixel sensor, software, and optical zoom, providing 30x or even 100x zooms. And this feature allows you to get much closer to distant subjects without physically moving. But, in general, going above 10x results in reduced image quality, so there’s a trade-off here.
Most phones offer dedicated Night Modes, which combine several images in-camera to brighten dark images through software processing. But, they capture these images using long-exposures, which causes blur and ghosting when capturing moving subjects. Even so, if you shoot a lot of night photos, it’s a helpful feature.
The Pro Mode allows advanced photographers to manually tweak camera settings to fine-tune exposure, focus, and aperture. And this mode is a must to get a more creative shot than the camera’s automatic mode alone.
For those who are more serious about video, you may want to consider looking for a phone with an optically stabilized lens. Optical stabilization will help reduce camera shake and produce smoother videos. Additionally, you may also want to consider a higher resolution than 4K, which would provide more freedom to crop or zoom in post-processing. And if slow-motion is essential, look for phones that record above 120 FPS, as some phones offer 960 FPS for ultra-slow motion videos.
Are camera phones better than DSLRs? Do I need a stand-alone camera?
In some ways, yes. Recent technological improvements in software and hardware have dramatically improved camera phones. And the entry-level camera market is responding accordingly. But, as a phone, they physically cannot offer the same ergonomics and handling as a proper DSLR. And ultimately, outside of quality, their convenience becomes their key disadvantage.
Additionally, the sensor size remains another separator. Even the best phones by design cannot offer a sensor matching that of a full-frame camera. And a full-frame sensor will always produce superior image quality, with all other factors being equal. So if you want the ultimate image quality and low-light performance, a dedicated DSLR or mirrorless camera is your best bet. Otherwise, if you don’t need professional image quality, a camera phone is a reliable option.
Last Updated on September 17, 2023 by Photography PX Published January 18, 2021