The 9 Best Smartphone Cameras of 2021

These picks give digital cameras a run for their money

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The Rundown
It incorporates a LiDAR sensor for better low light photos, better performance with AR apps, and better overall pictures.
Our testing showed that the rear camera system of the Galaxy S21 Ultra uses a 12MP primary sensor with dual pixel auto-focus.
The camera is excellent for astrophotography, with the ability to take good nighttime and distance photos.
The Google Pixel 5 offers a few additional perks, like a longer battery life and more RAM.
Best Unlocked:
OnePlus 9 Pro at Amazon
The OnePlus 9 Pro has an abundance of camera features ranging from Nightscape to Smart Scene Recognition and Cat/Dog Face Focus.
This is an excellent camera for close up shots, selfies, and for taking shots in bright light.
Best Budget Android:
Google Pixel 4a at Amazon
Features like electronic image stabilization make for a steadier image with less blur.
Our reviewer Andrew found the 12 mini’s cameras will produce vibrant images in just about any lighting.
Our reviewer Andrew found that the iPhone SE takes really good selfies, and the camera can handle different shooting scenarios.

With every passing year, phone manufacturers continue to boast about how their latest models have the best smartphone cameras. The newest phones offer multiple lenses, high MP sensors, and the latest technologies. From Instagram to Snapchat to TikTok, having a better camera is a prime selling point for modern smartphones because mobile photography is important to just about everyone.

Our experts reviewed the latest smartphones to find out which devices offered the best cameras. Read on to see our picks in different categories and price ranges. And if you're looking to master the ins and outs of phone photography, check out our tips for mobile photography.

Best Apple: Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max Pacific Blue
What We Like
  • Night mode is awesome

  • More zoom on the telephoto lens

  • Works well with AR applications

What We Don't Like
  • Expensive

Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro Max delivers some pretty impressive specs for serious mobile photographers, and while some may pan the triple-lens camera system as something that’s already been done by other smartphones, Apple continues to improve its rear-camera system, adding more and more perks with each passing generation.

The iPhone 11 Pro already had an impressive camera, but 12 Pro Max offers the best camera system yet. It incorporates a LiDAR sensor for better low light photos, better performance with AR apps, and better overall pictures. 

Compared to the already-impressive iPhone 11 series, the 12 Pro Max has more zoom on the telephoto lens, and a larger wide-angle sensor to allow in more light. The three-lens rear camera employs a main f/1.6 wide-angle, an f/2.4 ultra-wide, and an f/2.0 telephoto lens. In our testing, our reviewer Andrew Hayward noted that he was able to see more detail in nighttime photos with the 12 Pro Max.

Rear Cameras: 12MP Ultra-wide, wide, telephoto system | Front Camera: 12MP TrueDepth camera system | Video Recording: 4K resolution and 60 frames per second

“With its larger battery, enormous screen, and camera enhancements, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the ultimate iPhone, but ultimately more than most people probably need.” Andrew Hayward, Product Tester

Apple Iphone 12 Pro Max

 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Best Android: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
What We Like
  • Ultra-detailed photos

  • Excellent night photos

  • Advanced camera system

What We Don't Like
  • Expensive

Most smartphones today come with (at least) dual-lens camera setups. These generally include a primary sensor and a telephoto lens for achieving optical zoom. While that’s great, an ultra-wide lens is usually better, since it lets you capture more detail into every photo. Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra takes it a step further, adding another ultra-zoom camera alongside.

The front selfie-cam is 40MP, while our testing showed that the rear camera system of the Galaxy S21 Ultra uses a 12MP primary sensor with dual pixel auto-focus, as well as a 108MP ultra-wide module with an f/1.8 aperture, a 10MP telephoto camera with f/2.4 aperture, and another 10MP telephoto lens with f/4.9 aperture. Plus, with Super Resolution Zoom up to 100x and optical image stabilization, you get a clear image no matter how close-up you want to get. 

Our reviewer Andrew noted that he was able to take hyper-detailed photos with the 108MP main sensor, and the ultra-wide and 3x telephoto lenses delivered exceptional photos as well.

Rear Cameras: 12MP Ultra Wide Camera (F2.2), 108MP Wide-angle Camera (F1.8) 10MP Telephoto Camera (F2.4), 10MP Telephoto Camera (F4.9) | Front Camera: 40MP Selfie Cam | Video Recording: 8k resolution

“In head-to-head comparison shooting with its closest rival, the iPhone 12 Pro Max, I couldn’t pick a clear winner between them.”Andrew Hayward, Product Tester

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Andrew Hayward / Lifewire

Best Value: Google Pixel 4a 5G

Pixel 4a 5G
What We Like
  • Ideal for astrophotography

  • Good camera software

  • Main and ultra-wide cameras

What We Don't Like
  • Only a two-camera system

Like the Google Pixel 3a, the Pixel 4a 5G has an impressive camera for a smartphone that comes at a budget price. The Pixel 4a’s rear camera system includes a 12.2MP dual-pixel camera with f/1.7 aperture and a 77-degree field of view, as well as a 16MP ultra-wide camera with f/2.2 aperture and a 117-degree field of view.

Our reviewer Andrew called the Pixel 4a 5g’s camera a “fantastic point-and-shoot camera.” He said the camera is excellent for astrophotography, with the ability to take good nighttime and distance photos.

Rear Cameras: 12.2 MP (f/1.7), 16 MP ultra-wide (f/2.2) | Front Camera: 8MP | Video Recording: 4K at 30 FPS

“The Pixel 4a 5G’s video shooting impresses, too, with crisp 4K resolution footage.” — Andrew Hayward, Product Tester

Google Pixel 4a

Andrew Hayward / Lifewire

What We Like
  • Ideal for astrophotography

  • Good camera software

  • Main and ultra-wide cameras

What We Don't Like
  • Only a two-camera system

The Google Pixel 5 has pretty much the same camera system as the Pixel 4a 5G, but we’re including it on the list because the phone itself offers a few additional perks like a longer battery life and more RAM. This means, you’ll get a 12.2MP dual-pixel main camera, a 16MP ultra-wide camera, and an 8MP selfie camera. 

You can take advantage of a few cool features that are available on both the Pixel 4a 5G and the Pixel 5, like enhancements to portraits, which let you adjust lighting even after taking a picture. Our reviewer Andrew praised the Night Sight feature, and was able to take clear photos in low light.

Rear Cameras: 12.2 MP (f/1.7), 16 MP ultra-wide (f/2.2) | Front Camera: 8MP | Video Recording: 4K at 30 FPS

"The results typically are more natural-looking than you’ll see from Samsung’s flagship cameras, for example, which tend to provide an overly vibrant look that not everyone will be fond of." Andrew Hayward, Product Tester

Pixel 5 Charger

 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Best Unlocked: OnePlus 9 Pro

OnePlus 9 Pro
What We Like
  • Multi-camera setup

  • Excellent video recording

  • Good software features

What We Don't Like
  • Expensive

The OnePlus 9 Pro has a four-camera setup that includes a Sony 48MP main camera, a 50MP ultra-wide camera, an 8MP telephoto camera that offers up to 3.3x optical zoom, as well as a mono camera. For taking selfies, the front camera is 16MP. 

The OnePlus 9 Pro has an abundance of camera features ranging from Nightscape to Smart Scene Recognition and Cat/Dog Face Focus, and it can capture RAW images and 8k video at 30 FPS. Our reviewer Yoona Wagener said that her favorite feature is the built-in macro mode, which was incredibly easy to use and required no special settings to activate.

Yoona also noted how vibrant outdoor photos came out on the OnePlus 9 Pro, and she appreciated the night mode for lower-light shots.

Rear Cameras: 48MP Main camera (f/1.8), 50MP ultra-wide camera (f/2.2), 8MP telephoto camera (f/2.4), and a 2MP monochrome camera | Front Camera: 18MP | Video Recording: 8K at 30 FPS

“Overall, it’s quite easy to capture bright and crisp images with the OnePlus 9 Pro.” — Yoona Wagener, Product Tester

OnePlus 9 Pro

Lifewire / Yoona Wagener

Best Mid-Range: Samsung Galaxy A71 5G

 Samsung Galaxy A71 5G
What We Like
  • Multi-lens rear camera

  • Good for close ups

  • Great selfie cam

What We Don't Like
  • Not as great in low lighting

Samsung's Galaxy A71 packs four cameras, three of which are actively usable. There’s a 48MP main sensor joined by a 12MP ultra-wide sensor, a 5MP macro sensor, and a 5MP depth sensor that’s there only to capture data for the other cameras. The front camera is a 32MP selfie camera with f/2.2 aperture. This is an excellent camera for close up shots, selfies, and for taking shots in bright light. But, it’s not as good for producing a natural result in low-lighting.

Oftentimes, people see three or four camera systems on smartphones and automatically assume they’re better than their two-camera counterparts, but this isn’t necessarily true. So many factors go into a camera’s quality, from MP to aperture to pixel sizes and software. Even though we liked the Galaxy A71 5G’s camera system, we didn’t like it as much as some of the two-camera phones we encountered. The camera still impressed us enough to make this list though.

Rear Cameras: 64.0 MP (F1.8), 12.0 MP (F2.2), 5.0 MP (F2.2), 5.0 MP (F2.4) | Front Camera: 32MP | Video Recording: 4K at 30 FPS

“It’s a better-than-average mid-range camera setup, but the Google Pixel 4a 5G still beats it on nuance and consistency.” Andrew Hayward, Product Tester

Samsung Galaxy A71 5G

Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Best Budget Android: Google Pixel 4a

The Pixel 4a is our pick for best value Android.
What We Like
  • Excellent value

  • Clear pictures

  • Good front camera

What We Don't Like
  • Only one main camera

The Google Pixel 4a’s camera is different from the 4a 5G in that it lacks the second ultra-wide camera. It does, however, features the main 12.2MP dual-pixel camera and the front 8MP selfie cam. This doesn't mean the camera on the Pixel 4a doesn’t produce high-quality images, though. Even with the 12.2MP dual-pixel cam, you can capture 4k video at up to 30 FPS, and features like electronic image stabilization make for a steadier image with less blur. 

The Pixel 4a boasts Autofocus with dual pixel phase detection, a 77-degree field of view, and an f/1.7 aperture on the rear camera, which allows you to take pictures up close and at a distance in a variety of different lighting conditions.

Our reviewer Andrew found the camera to be an exceptional point-and-shoot camera, producing strong results in various lighting conditions (even low light).

Rear Cameras: 12.2MP (f/1.7) | Front Camera: 8MP | Video Recording: 4K at 30 FPS

“The Pixel 4a continues the trend from its predecessor and does more with a single back camera than some competing phones do with a larger array.” Andrew Hayward, Product Tester

Google Pixel 4a

Andrew Hayward / Lifewire

Best Compact: Apple iPhone 12 mini

iPhone 12 Mini
What We Like
  • More affordable than other newer iPhones

  • Fits in pocket

  • Excellent stabilization features

What We Don't Like
  • Only a dual-camera array

The iPhone 12 Mini doesn’t have the advanced three-camera system you’ll find on the Pro Max, but you will get the same camera as you can get on the regular iPhone 12. It includes a 12MP wide-angle sensor and a 12MP ultra-wide sensor with a 120-degree field of view. You can record 4K video at up to 60 FPS, and the front camera is a 12MP TrueDepth Camera like you’ll find on the Pro models.

Our reviewer Andrew found the 12 mini’s cameras will produce vibrant images in just about any lighting, and he was able to get a detailed picture during day or night.

Rear Cameras: 12.2MP (f/1.7) | Front Camera: 8MP | Video Recording: 4K at 30 FPS

“While I’d rather have a telephoto zoom camera on the back instead of ultra-wide, you can still do a lot with these little cameras.” Andrew Hayward, Product Tester

Apple Iphone 12 mini

 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Best Budget Apple: Apple iPhone SE (2nd generation)

iPhone SE
What We Like
  • Budget price

  • Sturdy design

  • iPhone quality

What We Don't Like
  • Not as good as other iPhone cameras

The iPhone SE is not going to give you the same level of camera that you’d get with other new iPhones, or even with many of the Google or Android phones on this list, but it’s still a reliable point-and-shoot smartphone camera.

It’s only a single-camera configuration, so you don’t get separate wide-angle and telephoto sensors, but you do get the benefits of having Apple’s quality and software. The main camera is a 12MP wide camera with f/1.8 aperture, while the front camera is 7MP with f/2.2 aperture. 

Our reviewer Andrew found that the iPhone SE (2020) takes really good selfies, and the camera can handle different shooting scenarios, but you shouldn’t expect it to be on-par with the cameras in the iPhone 12 series.

Rear Cameras: 12MP (f/1.8) | Front Camera: 7MP | Video Recording: 4K at 60 FPS

“When indoors or with less light available, the iPhone SE isn’t quite up to par with the iPhone 12, which is better able to handle an array of shooting scenarios and pump out a strong result.” Andrew Hayward, Product Tester

Apple iPhone SE (2020)

Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Final Verdict

For phenomenal photos and excellent video, it's tough to beat the iPhone 12 Pro Max (view at Amazon). However, for those not currently bought into the Apple ecosystem, Samsung's Galaxy S21 Ultra (view at Best Buy) is an excellent alternative for Android fans.

About Our Trusted Experts

Erika Rawes has been writing professionally for more than a decade, and she’s spent the last five years writing about consumer technology. Erika has reviewed roughly 150 gadgets, including computers, peripherals, A/V equipment, mobile devices, and smart home gadgets. Erika currently writes for Digital Trends and Lifewire.

Andrew Hayward is a prolific Chicago-based tech writer that has lent his expertise to Polygon, TechRadar and Macworld among others. He is a smartphone expert with a journalism degree from Lewis University.

Yoona Wagener has a background in content and technical writing. She has written for BigTime Software, Idealist Careers, and other small tech companies.

FAQs

Does phone camera quality get worse?

If you don’t update your software on your phone and protect your camera lenses, your smartphone camera quality can get worse over time. To protect your smartphone camera’s quality, continue to update your software to the latest version, clean your lenses, and consider adding a screen protector to the camera lens portion of your phone.

How do you know if your smartphone has good camera quality?

If you have a phone with more than one camera lens on the back, your phone likely has a pretty good camera. This is not to say single-lens configurations aren’t good, as some single-lens rear cameras are effective at taking clear pictures, but many modern smartphones have a main camera, a wide-angle lens, and a telephoto lens. 

How can you improve your phone camera quality?

You can improve your phone’s camera quality by taking photos in optimal lighting conditions, taking advantage of software that enhances photo quality, and by keeping your lenses free from dirt and debris.

What to Look For in the Best Smartphone Cameras

Megapixels

More megapixels means higher fidelity, so higher generally means better. You'll want this number to be no lower than 12 if you're looking for a new phone explicitly for a solid camera.

Lenses

The amount of lenses that get slapped onto a camera seems to increase exponentially with each generation, but what kind of lenses matters just as much as how many. Depending on your typical subjects, you may want a phone with ultra-wide angle or telephoto lenses for more options.

Extras

Some fun features you may want to keep an eye out for include high-speed or slow-motion video, as well as HDR. While the absence of these isn't a deal-breaker, having these little extras can really sweeten the deal when looking for a good camera.

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