The iPhone 13 now sits atop our list of best camera phones. But will its reign be short-lived? After all, the new Pixel phones are here from Google, which has a reputation for producing outstanding devices for capturing photos.
The Google Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro will face some stiff competition for the title of best camera phones. The iPhone 13 models took a big step forward, not only with improved hardware, but also new video capture features that put Apple's devices at the head of the class for camera phones.
Those devices lead a pretty impressive list of phones, as our testing has helped us find camera phones that capture memorable images and once-in-a-lifetime shots you'd miss with less-capable devices. When we review handsets, we look for camera phones that meld intricate optics and sensors with software algorithms that rely upon math and science to extract the best possible light, color and detail out of every scenario. It's not just about the number of lenses on the back, either — some phone makers make the most of artificial intelligence to improve post processing on your photos.
After hundreds of hours of testing and many head-to-head photo comparisons, these are the best camera phones you can buy right now.
Editor's note: We crowned our picks in the Tom's Guide Awards 2021 for the phones category, though those awards came out prior to the release of the iPhone 13.
What are the best camera phones?
The new king of camera phones is the iPhone 13 Pro Max, followed very closely by the smaller iPhone 13 Pro. Featuring a triple 12MP setup with larger sensors on the wide and ultrawide cameras, plus 3x optical zoom on the telephoto lens, the new Pro models earn their names with spectacular photos and videos.
If you want to look beyond Apple's phones, plenty of the best Android phones feature impressive cameras of their own. The OnePlus 9 Pro, Galaxy S21 Ultra and even the lower-cost Pixel 5a all rely on multiple rear lenses and high-end photo processing features to deliver the best shots. And with the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro now official, you can probably look to those for an excellent camera experience.
In fact, the Pixel 5a is our pick for those who really want to maximize their photography on-the-go but spend as little as possible; Apple fans can turn to the iPhone SE, which is one of the best cheap phones out there, because it guarantees phenomenal image quality despite costing less than half the price of a premium device. You can also include the Samsung Galaxy A52 among those top low-cost options.
The best camera phones you can buy today
The biggest iPhone 13 is also the best camera phone you can buy. Apple went all out with the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s hardware, increasing the sensor size for the main and ultrawide cameras and adding autofocus to the latter. That ultrawide can act as a macro camera, photographing subjects up to 2 cm away. The sensor-shift OIS introduced last year on the iPhone 12 Pro Max returns this year and the telephoto received a boost to 3x.
Apple also improved its computational photography, especially when it comes to low-light. Also new this year are Photographic Styles — basically real-time filters — and Cinematic mode. The latter is portrait video on steroids, boasting dynamically shifting focus to create a truly professional video experience.
This is the phone to get if you want the best camera experience.
Read our full iPhone 13 Pro Max review.
Nipping at the heels of its bigger brother, the iPhone 13 Pro is a very close second on this list of the best camera phones. It sports the same hardware as the iPhone 13 Pro Max with the larger sensors, autofocus on the ultrawide camera and macro mode.
However, the iPhone 13 Pro is right in line with the Pro Max, getting sensor-shift OIS and the same 3x optical zoom. Photographic Styles and Cinematic mode also come standard. Basically, this is the phone to get if you want the best camera experience but in a smaller package. The 6.1-inch display is still gorgeous and features 120Hz ProMotion for ultra smooth animations and transitions.
The battery life is even awesome, going for almost 12 hours in our battery life test, meaning you can take plenty of pictures and videos.
Read our full iPhone 13 Pro review.
While Apple and Google duke it out, the latest Galaxy S21 Ultra does everything it can to cement Samsung’s place as the camera phone to get when you want to zoom in for finer details. Samsung has equipped the Galaxy S21 Ultra with a pair of telephoto lenses — one with a 3x optical zoom, the other with a 10x — and the results impressed us in our testing. Support for a 100x digital zoom returns, too, and now there’s a Zoom Lock feature to help you keep those shots in focus. A laser focus sensor also complements the main 108MP lens.
The story with Samsung’s new phone isn’t just about hardware, though. The Galaxy S21 Ultra features a number of new software tricks that help you get more creative with your photos. The Simple Take feature from last year has been improved to now generate slow-motion videos when you press the shutter button. Director’s View lets you capture video from both the front and rear cameras simultaneously, and you can also switch between the S21’s different lenses on the fly.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s ability to record 8K video makes it a great device to have if you capture a lot of video and those zoom lenses put the iPhone on notice. This is a great camera phone to have if you’re an Android fan.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S21 review.
The Pixel 5a from Google is, by far, the best camera experience under $500 as our Google Pixel 5a vs. iPhone SE shoot-out proves. New to Google's phone this year is the addition of a 16MP ultrawide camera. The Pixel 4a from last year only had a 12.2MP camera, though it alone was extremely good.
But the Pixel 5a also has a serious hardware upgrade to help it process photos faster and better. The Snapdragon 765G in the 5a is the same processor you’ll find in the Pixel 5 or Pixel 4a 5G. While it’s not the best or newest Snapdragon around (and it’s easily beaten by the A13 Bionic in the iPhone SE), it’s still powerful enough to perform some serious photography magic.
The $100 price hike from the Pixel 4a stings a bit, but the hardware upgrades, bigger battery, and larger screen all make up for it. But the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro are here and we're getting ready to test the cameras. It's quite possible they'll appear on this list.
Read our full Google Pixel 5a review.
Past OnePlus phones have usually been a step or two behind the rest of the best camera phones. But that’s changed with the OnePlus 9 Pro, thanks to a partnership with camera specialist Hasselblad. OnePlus and Hasselblad are locked up in a multi-year deal to improve OnePlus’ cameras, with the 9 series reaping the benefits first.
That translates to better colors in photos taken with the OnePlus 9 Pro, as the post-processing has improved dramatically with this phone. Some features can behave unpredictably — we had mixed results shooting in low-light — but overall, we were pleased with the photos we took with the OnePlus 9 Pro, which now has both the hardware and software to keep up with the iPhone and the Pixel.
You can see for yourself by checking out our OnePlus 9 Pro camera face-off, in which we look at how the new OnePlus phone compares to the best camera phones from Apple and Google.
A cheaper phone, the OnePlus 9, also benefits from the Hasselblad partnership, though that phone lacks the Pro’s 8MP telephoto lens.
Read our full OnePlus 9 Pro review.
The best iPhone for the average person, the iPhone 13 features notable improvements over its predecessor. Not only is the battery life significantly better, but the cameras got some upgrades, too. First and foremost, the sensors are larger now, letting in more light to help with indoor and night photos.
Besides just the excellent cameras, you get the Photographic Styles and Cinematic mode that the Pro models have. Though you lose out on the telephoto lens and wider apertures, you nonetheless get a fantastic photography experience for a very reasonable price. Apple even upped the base storage to 128GB while keeping the cost to you the same.
Read our full iPhone 13 review.
The Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro are looming, and the Pixel 5a offers the same camera setup and chipset as the Google Pixel 5. So maybe it's time for that latter phone to fade into the background.
Before it's replaced, though, let's recognize the Pixel 5's stellar photo-processing software, which has made the phone a popular choice for best camera phone. The level of detail, particularly in mid- and low-light shooting scenarios, on display with this device is class-leading. Google's Night Sight feature typically outshines Apple's phones, as Google continues to roll out new software features like improved astrophotography.
Even with those benefits, it's worth waiting for the Pixel 6 if you can. A Pro version of the new phone is set to feature a triple camera array that includes a telephoto lens. If you can hold out for a few weeks at most, the Pixel 6 might be a better option as a camera phone, with hardware that finally meets the standard set by Google's software.
Read our full Google Pixel 5 review.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra narrowly loses out to the previous phones on this list because of Samsung's occasionally wonky post-processing, but rest assured — this is still an amazing camera phone.
The Note 20 Ultra's primary 108-megapixel sensor, which showed promise in the Galaxy S20 Ultra early last year but was hampered by glitches, has been improved with the use of a new dedicated laser auto focus sensor. The 12-MP telephoto uses a folded lens design to achieve 5x optical power, which obliterates the 2x optical zoom of the iPhone 12 Pro and can deliver lossless 10x zoom as well as up to 50x digital zoom.
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra doesn't deliver better photos than Apple's premium iPhones in every instance; for example, it overly smooths faces in portrait shots, and has a tendency to blow out highlights. But there isn't much separating the overall image quality of these phones, plus the Note 20 Ultra offers arguably more versatility, thanks to that high-megapixel lens and peerless zoom power. But then, at the Note's still lofty price, you'd expect nothing less.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review.
You could easily select the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra as your go-to camera phone, and it would be an excellent choice. The S21 Ultra produced the best photos of any of the Galaxy S21 models released this year. However, at $1,199, it's not cheap. But Samsung released three S21 models and if you're still looking for a big phone, then you should check out the $999 Galaxy S21 Plus.
While it lacks the insane zoom capabilities of the S21 Ultra, the Galaxy S21 Plus still outdoes the other phones on this list for sheer zoom quality. And it takes nice regular photos to boot, even if Samsung likes to over-expose a bit in post and apply too much face smoothing in portraits and selfies.
If you'd prefer a smaller, more pocketable device, the Galaxy S21 has the same camera setup as the S21 Plus, just in a smaller body. It also costs less at an appealing $799.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus review.
The $400 iPhone SE packs the iPhone 8's 12-megapixel, ƒ/1.8 single-lens camera, but also benefits from Cupertino's A13 Bionic processor to kick its computational photography powers into high gear.
The results simply speak for themselves. The Pixel 4a has an advantage when it comes to nighttime photography, as well as shallow depth-of-field portraits and digital zoom. That said, the iPhone SE is nearly as capable in many scenarios, as it benefits from many of Apple's sophisticated imaging techniques, like Smart HDR and Semantic Rendering.
Because the iPhone SE lacks ultrawide or telephoto lenses, it's not perfect — though, alongside the Pixel 4a, its camera is far and away better than those inside the vast majority of other, similarly-priced models you can buy today. Overall, if you need a new handset and don't have much to spend — and especially if it has to be an iPhone — there's simply no better deal out there right now.
Read our full iPhone SE 2020 review.
How to pick the best camera phone for you
There are many factors to consider if camera quality factors heavily into your smartphone purchasing decision. A good way to start is by asking yourself what kinds of photos you see yourself taking. Not all multi-lens cameras are created equal — some have ultrawide lenses for stunning landscapes, others have telephotos for zoomed-in shallow-depth-of-field portraits, and others still have both. The newest flagships from the likes of Samsung and Huawei even have periscope-style lenses that can achieve up to 10x lossless zoom, rivaling the power of DSLRs.
Something else to consider: Megapixels don’t matter as much as aperture. Cameras with a wider aperture (lower ƒ-stop numbers translate to wider lenses) let in more light, which greatly helps produce better shots in the dark. The high-megapixel sensors found in the latest devices are nice, but it's a common misconception that pixel count directly translates to better-looking photos.
Do you need a portrait mode that allows for bokeh backgrounds? That’s where the subject of the photo is in sharp focus, while an artistic blur blankets the rest of the scene. Although it started as a feature exclusive to multi-camera phones, the single-lens iPhone SE is capable of capturing bokeh-effect portraits. Some devices even let you adjust the strength of the blur before and after you take a shot.
Front camera specs are important, too. In a world where we’re taking more selfies than ever, you shouldn’t overlook a phone’s front camera. Some front cameras, like the ones on the iPhone 12 and Pixel 5, can actually perform the same portrait mode effects that rear cameras pull off. Some phones, like the older Galaxy S10 Plus, feature two front cameras, with the second lens pulling in more background details.
Finally, don’t forget about video. Your cameras shoot more than just still images. Consider what resolution the camera captures video at along with the frame rate. A word to the wise, though: Be wary that ratcheting up the resolution will result in clips that take up much more space on your smartphone's internal storage.
How we test camera phones
We put the market's leading handsets through a variety of common shooting situations, such as landscapes, portraits and selfies in daylight and at night. Then, we analyze each set of images on a color-calibrated monitor to see which smartphone had the best combination of color accuracy, clarity and contrast. We also perform in-depth camera comparisons between the top phones, using each handset in their auto mode to take a wide range of photos in different conditions. After declaring a winner in each round, we name an overall winner of that face-off.
In each of our smartphone reviews, we also factor in any special features, such as dual lenses and what they enable, Portrait Modes, and other special modes, before we come to a conclusion.