The best camera phone for 2021
The standout feature on a new phone is usually the camera. And in 2020, phone-makers have maximized the features and quality of their camera software and hardware more than any year in recent memory. Apple launched the iPhone 12 family with a new faster aperture lens on the main camera of all four phones. The iPhone 12 Pro Max takes its cameras to “11” with even more hardware and software improvements that deliver excellent photos and videos. Google, with its computational photography-powered Pixel 5 and Pixel 4A, can go toe-to-toe with the best Apple photos, but the new phones don’t seem to push year-to-year improvements enough.
Other Android phones offer some of the most exciting new camera features. Samsung has its Galaxy Note 20 Ultra with its 5x optical zoom and 8K video — both are features the iPhone 12 and Pixel 5 don’t have. Sony packed its Xperia 1 II and the even smaller Xperia 5 II with settings and an interface that mimics its highly successful Alpha mirrorless camera line. The Google Pixel 4A, 4A 5G and 5, meanwhile, have one of the most user-friendly camera apps on the market.
As you read through comparisons of cameras on different phones, it’s important to keep in mind that there isn’t a “perfect” phone camera. There are definitely phones that excel at a specific feature when compared to others — the zoom on Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, or Google’s impressive Night Sight option for shooting after dark. There are also some phones that offer impressive specs on paper, like high megapixel sensors or multiple rear cameras — but more doesn’t necessarily mean better. I’m most interested in how the cameras perform in everyday situations in terms of features, ease of use, image quality and price.
Read our guide to help find the best phone camera for your needs.
Apple’s $1,099 iPhone 12 Pro Max has a triple-rear camera array featuring a main wide-angle camera, a 2.5x optical zoom telephoto camera and a 0.5x ultra-wide angle camera. Those three cameras combined with Apple’s Smart HDR, Deep Fusion and Night Mode processing yield tremendous photos with excellent dynamic range and detail. The 12 Pro Max even has Apple’s new ProRaw photo format aimed at professionals and camera enthusiasts. ProRaw gives you the customization of a raw file infused with the iPhone’s computational photo smarts. The results are impressive. The 12 Pro Max also excels at video capture especially in terms of video image quality. Thanks to a new larger sensor on its main camera and a lidar sensor to help with autofocus, the behemoth iPhone is one of the best when it comes to recording video in low-light situations. To top things off, its front-facing camera performs at the same level as the main rear camera and offers a Portrait Mode and Night Mode. The iPhone 12 Pro Max offers the best overall camera experience you can currently buy.
When the $700 Google Pixel 5 launched in October, many people hoped Google would update the cameras even more drastically. But in use, the 5G-equipped phone takes sharp and vibrant pictures with a strong HDR effect, so photos have excellent detail and contrast which appear cinematic. It comes equipped with a wide-angle and ultrawide-angle camera (which replaced the telephoto camera on last year’s Pixel 4). Portrait Mode and the Night Sight feature are capable of dramatic and striking results. Its video shooting quality is improved over the Pixel 4, but the iPhone 12 Pro Max is still leaps ahead and hence a better all-around performer.
Over the past few years, the top Android phones have largely caught up to the iPhone in terms of photos, but one area Apple still dominates is in video capture. The iPhone 12 Pro Max records the best quality video straight out of the camera of any phone we tested. Even though videos top out at 4K (instead of the 6K and 8K we see on some Android phones) the image quality of the videos are consistently sharp with excellent dynamic range especially in HDR. Video performance in low light is helped by the 12 Pro Max’s large main camera sensor, sensor based stabilization and lidar sensor for autofocus. It’s no wonder filmmakers including Steven Soderbergh and Rian Johnson reach for an iPhone to record a film or personal project.
It would be easy to brush off the $729 iPhone 12 Mini based on its petite size. But it has the same wide, ultra wide and selfie cameras found on the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro. And takes the same excellent photos and videos as both, too. While the iPhone 12 Pro Max has the best camera technology Apple has ever made, the iPhone 12 Mini offers the best dollar-to-performance ratio for any new iPhone camera we tested. But only get the Mini if you’re comfortable with a smaller phone. Otherwise, you should consider paying a bit more and getting the “regular” sized iPhone 12.
Pixel 4A 5G
There are plenty of “last year’s” phone models that have been discounted to under $500, but at $449 the Google Pixel 4A 5G — released in October 2020 — was designed from the ground up to be affordable and have an identical camera system (wide and ultra wide rear cameras) as the $700 Pixel 5. Google is one of the only phone manufacturers that doesn’t compromise on cameras when it comes to more wallet-friendly phones. The Pixel 4A 5G takes excellent photos and has a Portrait Mode and Night Sight mode the latter of which can be used for astrophotography (that’s shooting the stars in the night sky).
The $349 Google Pixel 4A was released in August 2020 and its cameras are ridiculously good. It has the Pixel 4’s stellar main camera but in a less expensive package. The Pixel 4A is capable of taking photos with a cinematic look and has one of the more intuitive camera apps on this list. And though it doesn’t have multiple rear cameras like the Pixel 4A 5G or Pixel 5, it’s still one the same level when it comes to image quality. The Google Pixel 4A is the absolute best value for a phone camera you can get.
By the nature of their build, foldable phones come with compromises. With literally half of the thickness of a regular phone, things like cameras need to be reconsidered. And that’s why it is particularly impressive that the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 has a great camera system. It’s not as good or versatile as camera system in the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, but if you don’t want to make a major sacrifice when it comes to photos and videos and you have your heart set on spending $2,000 for a foldable, the Z Fold 2 and its triple-camera system (wide, ultra-wide, telephoto) can’t be beat. Sorry Motorola.
Most flagship phones released in 2020 came equipped with a night mode feature that can combine a series of images taken over a few seconds (up to a minute) into a single photo. The benefit is you get a shot that has relatively low image noise, a brighter exposure and better details. Each night mode works a bit differently. The Google Pixel 5 and its Night Sight feature is our favorite. It produces stunning low-light photos that err toward an exaggerated “hyper-real” look versus the iPhone 12 Pro’s competing Night Mode, which makes pictures that appear slightly more true-to-life. The Pixel 5 also has a dedicated astrophotography mode that activates automatically when the camera senses the scene is dark enough. Meaning you can actually capture photos of a starry sky with just your phone. Google even added the ability to take a Portrait Mode photo while using Night Sight.
Sony is after creative types who want more control over their photos and videos. That’s why the company packed the $950 Sony Xperia 5 II with controls and tools from its popular Alpha line of full-frame mirrorless cameras. There’s a physical shutter button on the phone, Eye Autofocus (which can detect and track the eyes of your subject, including pets) and three preloaded apps that take full advantage of the triple rear cameras. One is the basic Xperia Android camera app. The other two are Photo Pro and Cinema Pro, which give you detailed controls over every aspect of your phone’s photo and video capture. The Xperia 5 II is essentially selling a more compact, more affordable version of the Xperia 1 II, which Sony released in May. But is also the first phone capable of recording 4K video at 120 frames per second for gorgeous and sharp slow motion.
Juan Garzon / CNET
Let’s be clear: No one needs a 50x digital zoom camera on their phone. But the 5x optical zoom on the other hand makes the telephoto camera on the $1,300 Samsung Galaxy Note 20 simply the best. Zoomed-in photos are sharp and full of detail. Even at 10x digital zoom, images from the Note 20 Ultra still look good. Compare that to the 2.5x optical zoom on the iPhone 12 Pro Max or the 3x optical zoom on the OnePlus 8 Pro.
Portrait mode uses a combination of camera hardware and computational photography to simulate an artistic blurry background (bokeh) in your phone photos. The results mimic what you’d get from using a mirrorless or DSLR camera and a fast lens. The $999 Motorola Edge Plus is a spec-behemoth and marks the first high end phone the Chicago-based company has made in years. Its portrait mode is outstanding. What makes it stand out to me over the portrait mode found on other phones is the way it transitions from the in-foucs person in the foreground to the simulated bokeh filled background. It doesn’t look as “cut-out” as portrait mode photos from the Pixel 5. The Edge Plus uses the phone’s 3x optical zoom and a time-of-flight sensor to gather depth information for portraits. That 3x optical zoom (longer than the optical zoom on all of the new iPhones 12) gives portraits a similar perspective as a mirrorless or DSLR camera. Rear portrait mode photos are especially gorgeous. I’m impressed overall by how natural Edge Plus portraits look.
Best phone camera for selfies
Asus Zenfone 7 Pro
The $850 Asus Zenfone 7 Pro (available outside the US) gives you three different high-resolution cameras (wide, ultra-wide, telephoto) for taking selfies. It accomplishes this trio of options by incorporating a swiveling camera module that flips over the top of the phone. So the cameras that are normally used on the back of your phone become your selfie cameras, too.
Many of us were forced to work from home in 2020 and for us that meant testing products and making videos at home. CNET editor Vanessa Hand Orellana’s go-to set up for at home video was the selfie camera on her $1,300 Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. She used it in Portrait Mode video to capture vlog-style videos where she is talking directly to the camera. The Note 20 Ultra’s screen served as her monitor. She noted that as long as you’re staring straight and squared off to the camera (from the required distance), and don’t add anything into the frame, it created a lovely background blur almost reminiscent of a DSLR/mirrorless camera.