While some people place performance, value for money or battery life above all else when choosing a new phone, for many it’s a device’s camera setup that defines whether it’s worthing picking up or leaving well alone.
There’s an inherent issue in knowing just how good a phone’s camera setup actually is before buying one. Looking beyond a device’s own marketing, there’s little to guarantee that you’re getting a pixel-perfect snapper without actually testing it out extensively beforehand.
There’s also the matter of what you might intend to use your phone’s camera for: are you looking for a great stills camera, a top-quality pocket video camera or a device that spits out the sharpest selfies possible? Depending on the use case, some phone cameras are better suited to certain tasks than others.
That’s where our rundown of the best cameras phones available right now comes in. We’ve run every phone in this shortlist through its paces, covering everything from performance and versatility to, of course, camera quality and ability.
You can click through on any of the entries below to read our full reviews of each device and read a full breakdown of each’s photographic capabilities, along with camera samples taken from each.
Best camera phone 2021
1. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra – Most versatile
The camera module on the back of the Galaxy S21 Ultra is huge and imposing, but luckily also comes with the skills to back up its bold design; a stark contrast to the disappointing snappers on last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra.
The system Samsung’s used is arguably the best there is right now, save for perhaps the soon-to-launch Oppo Find X3 Pro‘s; with an updated 108Mp main shooter, backed up by a 12Mp ultrawide and two telephoto lenses at 3x and 10x magnification, respectively.
A laser autofocus system, similar to the one Samsung first implemented on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, delivers impressively fast focusing and the quality of both stills and video are impressive across the S21 Ultra’s entire zoom range, affording you unmatched versatility from a single smartphone camera.
As with the other entries in the Galaxy S21 series, ease of use and a bevvy of fun features elevate the hardware, while selfie fans will appreciate the whopping 40Mp front-facing sensor.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review
2. iPhone 12 Pro Max – Best for video
The biggest and most bombastic of Apple’s newest iPhone 12 devices, the 12 Pro Max sports what appears to be a similar three-sensor setup to its 2019 predecessor, however, it boasts a wealth of new technologies, including the odd industry first.
The sensor-shift OIS (optical image stabilisation) system is the camera’s biggest talking point (it’s also unique to the 12 Pro Max) and helps elevate Apple’s already exceptional night mode shooting with even less noise and sharper results than before.
The three 12Mp sensors (a main, 120° ultrawide and 2.5x optical zoom telephoto) shoot with a pleasing consistency and confidence that isn’t really seen on rival smartphone cameras.
There’s also a superb 3D LiDAR system, lifted from the iPad Pro, that guarantees fast, accurate autofocus – even in low light – along with the phone’s ability to offer native 10-bit Dolby Vision video capture, another world first (in conjunction with the standard iPhone 12 Pro). Apple’s new ProRAW image standard, plus its latest take on Deep Fusion and Smart HDR 3 also feature to great effect.
So long as you can handle the phone’s pronounced lens flare quirks (made most obvious by point light sources when shooting in low light) there’s a lot to love about the photographic offering made by the iPhone 12 Pro Max.
Read our full iPhone 12 Pro Max review
3. Oppo Find X2 Pro – Superb for stills
A year on from its launch and the Oppo Find X2 Pro is still one of the best when it comes to smartphone stills photography.
On its back you’ll find a 48Mp f/1.7 main camera (powered by a custom IMX689 Sony sensor), capable of taking shots with 12-bit colour depth; that’s more than can even be displayed on-screen.
It’s joined by a secondary 48Mp f/2.2 (IMX586) 120° ultrawide sensor and a 13Mp f/3.0 5x periscopic zoom lens capable of up to 5x optical zoom, 10x hybrid and 30x digital.
The main sensor achieves outstanding detail, with shots that offer bright, vivid colours and outstanding dynamic range. The X2 Pro will also offer more true-to-life photography than many of its rivals, which have a tendency to over-process.
Those secondary sensors aren’t quite as capable but still offering a pleasing consistency and deliver where they’re needed. Aside from a tendency to overblow light sources, low light shooting on the X2 Pro is also top-notch.
Read our full Oppo Find X2 Pro review
4. Google Pixel 5 – Most compact
Google’s first 5G flagship walks a different path to its predecessors, showcasing Android 11 to the best of its abilities but also shedding the more experimental features of previous generations and opting for more conservative hardware at the same time.
Its incredibly compact design, actually usable battery life and clean user experience are supported by a set of superb – and now more feature-rich – cameras.
The Pixel 5 may still rely on old imaging hardware but that doesn’t detract from Google’s ever-improving computational algorithms, which are in full effect here.
The main 12.2Mp sensor is accompanied by a new 16Mp 107° ultrawide sensor, while on the features side Google has expanded standouts like Night Sight to work across all of the Pixel 5’s various sensors, automatically.
Virtual portrait lighting and a multitude of new specialised video stabilisation options round out a superb imaging experience set into an impressively compact form factor.
Read our full Google Pixel 5 review
5. Samsung Galaxy S21+ – Great for ease of use
All the benefits of the standard Galaxy S21’s camera system but with the added bonus of a larger display (or in this case, viewfinder) and a larger battery – making it easier to get the shot, while also being able to shoot for longer.
Don’t be put off by Samsung’s unusual interpretation of a telephoto snapper – a 64Mp tele sensor that effectively relies on AI-enhanced all-digital zoom – results are rather impressive.
There’s also a pleasing consistency between the phone’s 12Mp main and ultrawide snappers, as well as an assortment of creative shootings modes and a rich but easy-to-use control scheme.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus review
6. Samsung Galaxy S21 – Feature-packed
While Samsung doesn’t look to have tinkered with the imaging hardware in upgrading to this year’s Galaxy S21, the triple rear camera setup and single hole-punch 10Mp selfie snapper gain a few new tricks.
Like the Pixel 5, virtual portrait lighting is now on-hand, while the new Director’s View grants better control over the S21’s various lenses when shooting video.
Speaking of video, this is one of the few devices capable of up to 8K recording at 24fps and in an upgrade over last year’s S20 line, it can now capture in 4K at 30fps across all of its sensors, for a more consistent result.
You’ll also still find a wealth of additional camera modes, including AR Doodle, pro video mode and portrait video capture.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S21 review
7. Google Pixel 4a – Most affordable
Google’s most affordable Pixel of the moment also happens to boast one of the best main cameras on the market.
Like the Pixel 5, it’s its computational smarts that result in such good image quality but dual-pixel phase detection autofocus and OIS don’t go amiss either.
Live HDR+ means you benefit from a more realistic look at your final shots before capture and it even posts an astrophotography mode – all rare and powerful features for a phone at the Pixel 4a’s price point.
Read our full Google Pixel 4a review
8. Huawei Mate 40 Pro – Great for video
As with any modern Huawei phone, whilst we can’t fault the hardware its software makes for a difficult recommendation for those already entrenched in Google’s Play Store and Play Services.
If that isn’t of concern, however, it’s hard not to marvel at the Mate 40 Pro’s photographic and video capabilities. The beautiful design, with its standout circular camera setup, features a 50Mp main sensor, a 5x telephoto snapper, a depth-sensing module and an ultrawide ‘cine lens’.
Stills are still among the best out there, it can take remarkable photos in low light – even without resorting to Night Mode – and the new XD Fusion HDR engine brings superior dynamic range to video capture, even at 4K/60fps.
Read our full Huawei Mate 40 Pro review
How we test phone cameras
Rather than using controlled conditions and attempting to compare cameras scientifically, we put each of these smartphone snappers to the test in real-world scenarios.
We drill down to test out manual controls, may alter still or recording resolution to draw comparisons and make sure to test any specialist or dedicated features or settings a particular device boasts too.