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Even to photographers, choosing a camera phone can be a stressful process. There are endless stats and varying capabilities to compare, and is most likely going to be an expensive purchase. The good news is, with each new generation, phones continue to push the limit of what they can do, some even rivaling professional level photography. We’ve broken it down to a few key things to look at when choosing your next camera phone, and selected our top four for this year.
What Are the Best Camera Phones?
Sensor: While other aspects of a camera might get all the attention, the sensor is vitally important. This is what captures the light that enters via the lens, and helps create the best image possible. Generally, the more light a sensor can capture, the better your photo can turn out. The larger number of pixel size means the more light each pixel can capture, so shoot for a 12-16MP sensor.
Aperture: Once light enters the lens, it’s the aperture that varies the amount that hits the sensor. When you hit the shutter button to take your photo, the varying aperture lets the light in through the lens, and the more light that comes through, the better quality image you’re likely to get. A wider range of aperture means more options for the types of photos you can experiment with.
Zoom: For faraway shots, this is crucial, but can often be hard to handle at full zoom, resulting in a blurry, pixelated image that’s difficult to stabilize. There are two basic types of zooms: optical and digital. Optical is a physical process that involves mechanically moving parts inside the camera to magnify your subject. Digital also magnifies, but is done using algorithms, cropping the image that’s already there to make you appear closer to the subject. And though it’s gotten significantly better in recent years, digital can still sometimes result in unwanted graininess.
Video: If shooting video is what you’ll be doing most, make sure your phone can capture (at the very least) 4K video in 1080p. The standard resolution for online video is always evolving, but 4K UHD still looks crisp on streaming sites.
Front Camera: Though they’re most often not nearly as beefed up in features and quality as the rear cameras, don’t forget about the front one if you snap lots of selfies and livestreams. A front cam’s megapixel count is most commonly under 32MP, but can stretch up to 64 and even beyond, like Samsung’s insane 200MP.
Other: Don’t forget about things like digital image stabilization, which lets you take a clear photo even with shaky hands, and Night Mode for shoots after the sun goes down. For photographers who do lots of post-production editing in photo software, having a phone that shoots in RAW format is beneficial to really capture every little detail (but takes up way more storage space). If you’re not a pro, no worries – most phones nowadays have editing software with plenty of features built right in.
1. iPhone 12 Pro Max
The imaging performance is outstanding here, shooting crisp and beautiful photos in Smart HDR 3, with a built-in LIDAR scanner and depth control on the Super Retina XDR Display.
This houses three 12MP sensor cameras in back: Ultra Wide, Wide and Telephoto, with a 5x optical zoom and one of the best Night Modes we tried, especially in Portrait.
Auto-focus is instant, and this stabilizes the camera’s sensor instead of the lens. Videos look gorgeous too, in 4K Dolby Vision HDR up to 60 fps.
2. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Samsung’s S21 Ultra has superb image quality, with a 64MP high-res multi-lens camera and a 1.33″ 12MP sensor.
This had a smooth user interface that’s easy for beginners and has all the tools a professional needs. Their Space Zoom gets in tight, up to 30x, with a 100x Tele-zoom, and Optical Image Stabilization that kicks in immediately. Dynamic range is detailed here, capturing the right ratios of light and dark in the frame.
Video is shot in stunning 8K, 4320p up to 60fps, with stability that compensates for shaky conditions like shooting photos from a car or bus.
3. OnePlus 9 Pro
Co-designed by Swedish camera manufacturer Hasselblad, the Quad Camera System on this beast boasts a 48MP main camera, 50MP Ultra-Wide camera, 8MP telephoto camera, and 2MP monochrome lens. Photo quality was not an afterthought when it came to creating this smartphone.
Fueled by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888, this is perfect for photographers snapping action pics, taking un-blurry photos with a smooth and fast interface on the 6.7″ QHD+ display.
Charging is super-fast too at 65W wired, sometimes getting a full battery in as little as 15 minutes. Everything is packaged into a slim and sleek unit with the classic Hasselblad logo printed on the shell.
4. Google Pixel 5
Just like its predecessor, the Pixel 5 still excels in camera quality and ease of use.
Night Sight makes shooting in the dark simple and clear, and Portrait Light shines studio quality conditions on your subjects. The Ultra-Wide lens is also great for fitting everything into frame, whether landscapes or group photos.
The display is fluid and smooth, plus battery life in this was also noteworthy, lasting up to 48 hours thanks to the Extreme Battery Saver.
Google’s phones are compatible with multiple carriers and work worldwide, making this a great phone for travel photographers too.
5. Moto G stylus
Want something that’s wallet-friendly and easy to use? We like this phone from Motorola.
The 48MP triple-camera system takes sharp and colorful shots in all light conditions thanks to the Quad Pixel tech, and auto-focus calibrates nicely fast.
A stylus is included for pinpoint precision when writing, drawing, or editing, and the 4000mAh battery can last a whole two days on a single charge. It’s a durable phone that can hold up to a few nicks and knocks without worry too.