The best camera phones for 2021

The best camera phone is iPhone 12 Pro Max. Apple’s newest and greatest iPhone is a photographic phenomenon, and the best phone to buy if you want to take some really great photos. Despite not sporting the extreme megapixel count or crazy periscope zoom lens of its competitors, the iPhone’s quad-lens camera is a real winner, delivering incredible pictures in every circumstance. Apple has really hit it out of the park with the latest big iPhone, and that makes it our favorite camera phone of 2021 so far. But if you’re not a fan of Apple’s iPhone range for any reason, we have other options for you, along with the best Android phones, the best value phones, and the best cheap phones you can buy.

We at Nerdshala are photography junkies, snapping thousands of photos each month, and we love comparing how different phones perform in the wild. We always push cameras to the limit and compare straight camera shootouts with different phones, as we know this is an important feature for most people.

Have different priorities? We’ve got guides to the best overall smartphones, the best cheap smartphones, and the best small smartphones, so you can be sure you’re finding the right phone for you.

Best Camera Phones at a Glance:

  • Best Camera Phone: Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max
  • Best Android Camera Phone: Google Pixel 5
  • Best Featured Camera Phone: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
  • Best Value Camera Phone: Google Pixel 4a
  • Cheapest Camera Phone: Nokia 5.3

Best Camera Phone: Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

iphone 12 pro max
Andrew Martonic/Nerdshala

Why should you buy this? Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro Max is a surprisingly effective all-rounder, with the best lowlight performance we’ve ever seen.

what’s that for? Anyone who wants the best camera performance and an exceptional phone, and is not fussy about their operating system.

Why we picked the iPhone 12 Pro Max:

Taking a look at the spec sheet, it’s not immediately clear why the iPhone 12 Pro Max should have such a solid performance. In a world of 108-megapixel lenses and 10x periscope zoom, three 12MP lenses seem underpowered – but it’s anything but. The iPhone 12 Pro Max marks the first time the iPhone Pro line has been split, as the 12 Pro Max has a slightly different camera set-up to the iPhone 12 Pro, and the key is a larger sensor. The main 12MP sensor is 47% larger than the smaller iPhone’s sensor, and that larger sensor has a huge impact. It lets in more light, which means less light and an increase in Night Mode photography. It also allows for more effective natural “bokeh” background blur. Unlike the more common digital optical image stabilization (OIS) in smartphones, the lens is also physically stabilized. The result is a camera that’s effective in any situation, with less noise and blur than competitors and unmatched color and contrast to boot.

The ultrawide camera is still excellent, and the 2.5x optical zoom doesn’t match the periscope zooms we’ve been seeing recently – but it’s still a decent performer. The front 12MP selfie lens is also as good as we’ve come to expect from Apple. The iPhone 12 Pro Max also sports decent video capabilities, with Apple making a lot of Dolby Vision HDR video in its iPhone 12 range announcement.

But the iPhone isn’t just about its camera—it’s a masterclass in other areas, too. The design is superb. Apple has taken the opportunity to refresh its iPhone range, and this time by replacing the curved edges with an angular, slab-like design that is reminiscent of older iPhones. It is a breath of fresh air, and one of the most welcome. However, being a big phone, the 12 Pro Max is definitely big and heavy, so if you have small hands then this might not be the phone for you.

This increased weight and size means it comes with a bigger display, and this is likely to be one of your main reasons for such a big phone. The 6.7-inch display is bright, crisp, and readable in any lighting. The notch is still there, but it’s easy enough to get used to, and you’re likely to forgive it in exchange for such a gorgeous screen. The only real downside is the 60Hz refresh rate. High refresh rates of 90 or 120 Hz are increasingly common in Android flagships, and it’s sad to see it missing from such a major brand.

Specs-wise, this is another strong performer. The A14 Bionic processor is strong enough to handle anything you throw at it for years to come, and the options for 128, 256 and 512GB of storage mean you won’t run out of space for images and videos. You’ll get well over a day’s use from a full charge, even at high usage, so it’s unlikely to run out during your photography sessions. It also comes with 5G, which is important for future-proofing as 5G becomes more common.

Sure it’s expensive, and $1,099 is a lot of money to spend on a phone. But with one of the best all-around cameras, a great design and display, and a very strong all-day battery, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the best camera phone you can buy right now. But it’s not the only smartphone with an excellent camera, and there are several options below if you’re not a fan of iOS, or just want to spend less money.

Read our full iPhone 12 Pro Max review

Best Android camera phone: Google Pixel 5

google pixel 5
Andrew Martonic/Nerdshala

Why should you buy this? This is the best all-around camera on an Android phone.

what’s that for? Anyone who prefers an Android phone but still wants a strong camera.

Why we picked the Google Pixel 5:

Google’s Pixel phones have always been top performers when it comes to cameras and the Pixel 5 is no exception. Like the iPhone above, its performance goes well beyond its specifications, being equipped with a modest dual-lens setup that includes a 12.2MP main lens and a 16MP ultrawide lens. The key to this is Google’s software, which is tuned for the Pixel 5. Portrait shots are a particularly good example of where Google’s software shines, and it not only produces excellent shots, but they’re also exceptionally editable. This means you can adjust the background blur or remove the background color, or even adjust the light source for portrait selfies. Best of all, this applies whether you are using the rear camera module or the 8MP selfie camera.

But perhaps the best thing you can say about the Pixel 5 is that it has one of the best “point-and-shoot” cameras you’ll find on a phone. It’s so adaptable and versatile that you won’t have to struggle to take a bad photo, and every photo is good enough to share instantly without a hitch. This is a great camera for those who like to shoot once in a while, and that’s where it excels. Video is equally impressive, with support for 4K video capture at 60 frames-per-second and 240 fps slow motion as well.

Is the rest of the phone just as impressive? Yes and no. As for specifications, it’s not on par with the other flagships on this list, purely because Google has chosen to “downgrade” the processing power to push the price-tag down. Really, it’s not a big deal, and the Snapdragon 765G has more than enough power to easily get by for most users. Add solid battery life too, and it’s a good overall performer. It also comes with 5G connectivity, which is going to be a big deal as 5G becomes more common. Another bonus is the Pixel version of Android, which is closer to stock Android, and has a solid update record. Expect Android updates as they come out, and for a few years at least.

Design is another mixed bag. We like the metal body, and the slim bezels on the front and a hole-punch for the selfie camera. The display is bright and colorful, but the real draw is the 90Hz refresh rate, which helps it feel smooth and snappy. However, the overall design is a bit bland, and – dare we say it – boring. It’s not a design you’re going to admire, and it won’t leave your heart beating the way some flagship phones can. Still, if you appreciate more functions than looks, the Pixel 5 has a lot going for it.

Let’s talk about price. At just $699, the Pixel 5 is a real deal for what it has to offer. Google made all the bells and whistles from the Pixel 4, including Project Soli-powered gesture technology, but when it does the basics well at this price, there’s a lot to be said for it. This is an exceptional camera with a very good phone attached to it. Looking for something with a little more gimmicks to get excited about? OK, keep reading.

Read our full Google Pixel 5 review

Best feature-packed camera phone: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Why should you buy this? This is a camera phone that has everything you could possibly want.

what’s that for? For those with serious FOMO, or anyone who likes to experiment with a great range of features.

Why we picked the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra:

With a super-high megapixel main lens, ultrawide lens, and two telephoto lenses, the Galaxy S21 Ultra proves what Samsung means when it says “ultra”. The quad-lens rear camera includes a 108MP main lens, which includes 12MP ultrawide, 10MP telephoto with 3x optical zoom, and a 10MP telephoto lens with powerful 10x periscope optical zoom. Add the usual OIS, 8K video recording, and laser autofocus, and you’ve got an impressively well-specified package.

As you might expect, it takes some great shots. Samsung has fixed some of its long-standing issues with color balance and contrast, and that means the S21 Ultra produces some of the best stills we’ve seen from Samsung phones. What’s surprising is how useful many zoomed-in images are. The 100x zoom still isn’t something you’ll want to share, but the signals through it are legible, and the wildlife shots taken at 30x are really good. The Galaxy S20 Ultra’s high zoom level was bad, and it’s clear that Samsung learned its lesson and made massive improvements for the…

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