Best camera phone iMore 2021
Unless you're a professional photographer, you probably don't need an overpriced digital camera in your bag of tricks. Smartphone photography has taken over. Whether you're snapping stills of sunsets, using Snapchat, or taking videos, you need the best camera phone to make it happen. Our pick for this honor is the shiny new iPhone 12 Pro. It has dual 12MP sensors, takes spectacular photos day or night, and it's overflowing in Apple sleekness. The iPhone 12 Pro isn't the only camera phone we favor this year. These are the five that have risen to the top of the pack.
- Best overall: iPhone 12 Pro
- Best value: Google Pixel 4a
- Best zoom: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G
- Best mid-range: iPhone 12
- Best pocketability: iPhone 12 mini
Best overall: iPhone 12 Pro
The iPhone 12 Pro is Apple's latest iteration, and we think it's incredible. While its bigger brother, the iPhone 12 Pro Max has the edge on sensor size. We also think it's an unwieldy tank that's difficult to shoot with and carry around daily. The iPhone 12 Pro hits the sweet spot in the size category, and it has impressive specs under the hood.
The iPhone 12 Pro is packing a 12MP sensor on the back. There are three lenses in total: an ultra-wide, a telephoto, and a wide-angle. Theoretically, this means that no photo opportunity should be wasted. The newly included LiDAR scanner senses depth more accurately than earlier iPhones and gives you better low-light focus and improved night portraits. And of course, you can record HDR video or 4K. For selfies, there's a 12MP front camera.
In testing, we found exposure, dynamic range, autofocus, texture, and the lack of noise impressive. The tele-zoom photos struggle a little to bring out background details, but we think it still captures the best image quality of any camera phone today. Like all iPhones, saturation is turned up a notch. That's not much of an issue since you can play with your pics by making post-production adjustments in Apple's Photos app. Video is captured on a new version of Dolby Vision. HDR is on by default, and videos are bright, colorful, crisp in perfect lighting, and after the sun goes down.
If the camera is the most important part of your smartphone, we think the iPhone 12 Pro is the best choice for all photographers. Going with Apple also means you're buying into iOS, a mature operating system, and getting a sexy device that just feels good in your hand. Your pocketbook may or may not agree.
- Three cameras
- Excellent dynamic range
- Tele-zoom sometimes misses background details
Best value: Google Pixel 4a
The Google Pixel 4a is the best camera phone for decent specs at an affordable price point. Google has refined its popular Pixel lineup, and Android is moving in the right direction, so this isn't a phone you need to settle for when funds are tight. It holds its own well.
There's a 12MP sensor on the rear-facing camera. It comes complete with dual-pixel phase-detect autofocus to help you capture sharp images day or night and optical image stabilization so you can do away with the blur from handholding your device while shooting. The 4K video captures 30fps, and 1080p will net you 120fps. The front-facing selfie camera comes equipped with an 8MP sensor that's sufficient for Snapchat and quick selfies.
The iPhone SE and Google Pixel 4a have similar specs and prices, but we favor the newer Pixel for its clearer photos and excellent night photography images. The battery life could be better, and there's only a single rear camera. We still think investing in the Pixel 4a is money well spent.
- Dual-pixel AF
- Optical image stabilization
- Excellent night photography
- Battery life could be better
- Single rear camera
Best zoom: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G gets the nod for having the most impressive zoom. The 100x Space Zoom gives remarkable power and clarity from long distances, and it's leading the market in this department. You can take pictures from 300 feet away, and they'll come out looking like you were standing a mere three feet from your subject matter. If you need a big, powerful zoom, this is the best camera phone for you.
You'll also get Ultra Bright Night Mode to help you capture breathtaking shots after dark, and vivid video is brilliant without a flash and in low light. The primary back-facing camera has a 108MP camera and delivers 8K video. On paper, those are unheard of specs. In practice, though, it's more of a numbers game. Telephoto images are indeed brag-worthy. If you peek under the hood, though, you'll find the previous generation S20 had higher screen resolution, and it shows. The display is a downgrade, even though videos and stills look excellent. If you're a specs geek, you've been warned.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is at the top of the list of best Android devices this year, and it's earned that honor. With long battery life, IP68 waterproof rating, a 100x zoom, and 5G, this is a future-proof phone with a high-powered sensor that will be a hit for photographers of any skill level.
- 100x zoom
- 8K video
- Good night performance
- Display downgraded from S20
Best mid-range: iPhone 12
If you're ready to jump up to 5G but don't need all the extras in the iPhone Pro or iPhone Pro Max, we think the iPhone 12 will be a hit for you and your pocketbook. It has the same sensors as the pricier iPhone 12 models, minus LiDAR and telephoto, but it rings up a few hundred cheaper. Bonus: it now comes in purple!
The iPhone 12 gives you 12MPs on the front-facing camera and 12MP on the rear. The dual cameras on the back snap photos in wide-angle and ultra-wide-angle. There's no telephoto lens on this model, but you can zoom in at 5x. HDR video is capped at 30fps, about half that of the iPhone 12 Pro. The selfie cam can now do Night mode and Deep Fusion, high-end features borrowed from the iPhone 11. The iPhone 12 shines and outperforms even the iPhone 11 Pro in low light and bright sun.
This model is compatible with MagSafe charging, so you don't have to fiddle with charging cables if you prefer not to. There are tons of high-quality iPhone 12 cases that support MagSafe. Overall, the iPhone 12 is a capable phone suitable for those who take portraits, landscape photos, and selfies and want a high-end phone at mid-range pricing.
- Superb Night Vision
- 5x zoom
- No telephoto
- Lacks LiDAR
Best pocketability: iPhone 12 mini
If you're among the growing number of smartphone users who don't think bigger is always better, you're going to love the iPhone 12 mini. It has identical features to the well-regarded iPhone 12 but in a smaller form factor.
The iPhone 12 mini has the same super-smooth wide-angle and ultra-wide-angle lenses as the iPhone 12, TrueDepth, and video specs. Battery life isn't as robust as the iPhone 12, but that's expected with the smaller battery. You'll still get 15 hours of video playback from the iPhone 12 mini, and it will last through an entire day.
With a 5.4-inch display, the iPhone 12 mini is one of the best camera phones out there for those who don't want to carry a phone as heavy as a brick around all day but still want a capable camera. If you're a fan of iOS and prefer a pocketable phone, you want the iPhone 12 mini.
- Small enough to tuck in a pocket
- Same specs as iPhone 12
- Shorter battery life than iPhone 12
Choosing the best camera phone can be challenging, particularly if you're not tied to an operating system. Our top pick, the iPhone 12 Pro is overflowing with top-level features like three cameras, LiDAR, and 5G.
Casual and professional photographers will appreciate the ultra-wide lens, wide-angle lens, and telephoto. In combination with a LiDAR scanner, the iPhone 12 Pro senses depth accurately, giving you faster focus and improved portraits. Dolby Vision and HDR are also top in their class.
This is an investment, but the bump in features justifies the cost. The tele-zoom is good but could be better. Background details sometimes come out fuzzy. For this, we think a software fix may rectify the problem. Whether you're a casual photographer or a pro, the iPhone 12 Pro is a fine-tuned smartphone and the best camera phone available today.
Credits — The team that worked on this guide
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