The best camera phones in 2021

It’s more important than ever to have one of the best camera phones these days, as for many of us, our smartphone is the only camera we own. It’s certainly the camera that’s closest at hand when you see an unforgettable image you want to capture. So you’ll definitely want a phone with a camera setup that can deliver the shot you desire.
That why Tom’s Guide puts such an emphasis on camera testing for every handset we review. We evaluate image quality in a wide range of conditions. We also perform head-to-head face-offs to compare camera performance between leading phones to find out which one takes the better shots.
The best camera phones 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.
All this is to say there’s much more that goes into a great smartphone camera than a nice lens and a high-megapixel sensor. With that in mind, and after hundreds of hours of testing, we’ve rounded up this list of the best camera phones for various different use cases, and at a variety of price points.
What are the best camera phones?
You can’t go wrong with any of Apple’s new iPhone 12 models, which produce some of the best photos we’ve seen. If you can swing the $1,099 price, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the best of the bunch, thanks to a larger main sensor. But the iPhone 12 camera can hold its own, even with one less lens than the Pro models sport.
As good as the latest iPhones are at taking photos, they’re facing some stepped up competition from Samsung, highlighted by the Galaxy S21 Ultra. The phone features a pair of telephoto lenses and some great software features; it’s also a top phone if you shoot a lot of video. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra remains an extremely versatile camera phone, thanks to its sophisticated triple-lens camera system led by a super-high resolution 108-megapixel primary camera and 12-MP telephoto with 5x optical zoom. Really, though, you can’t go wrong with any S21 model.
Those who really want to maximize their photography on-the-go but spend as little as possible are well advised to check out the Google Pixel 4a or iPhone SE. They’re two of the best cheap phones out there, because they guarantee phenomenal image quality despite costing less than half the price of their premium counterparts. Now that the Samsung Galaxy A52 and Galaxy A72 are adopting some of the flagship camera features found in the Galaxy S lineup, we’re eager to test out the newly announced midrange phones from Samsung to see if they earn a spot on the best camera phone list.
The best camera phones you can buy today
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1. iPhone 12 Pro Max
The best camera phone you can buy
Display: 6.7-inch OLED (2778 x 1284) | CPU: A14 Bionic | RAM: 6GB | Storage / Expandable: 128GB, 256GB, 512GB / No | Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.6), 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.4), 12MP telephoto (ƒ/2.2) | Front camera: 12MP (ƒ/2.2) | Weight: 8.03 ounces | Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 10:53 (5G)
Best-in-class cameras
Excellent battery life
Immersive 6.7-inch display
Charger sold separately
A bit heavy and bulky
The iPhone 12 Pro Max is the best camera phone you can buy, which is saying something given how strong the competition is. The 12 Pro Max stands out compared to other iPhone 12 models with its main wide camera. The larger sensor lets in more light. It also includes a sensor-shift image stabilization system that results in super steady video shot in Dolby Vision HDR.
The main camera on the iPhone 12 Pro Max is joined by an ultra-wide lens with a 120-degree field of view and a 65mm telephoto camera with a 2.5x optical zoom and 12x digital zoom. Apple’s computational photography capabilities are very impressive, which includes an improved Deep Fusion system for exquisite details and Smart HDR 3 that delivers well balanced photos in challenging lighting conditions. Plus, with the LiDAR sensor built in, you can take portraits even in night mode.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max can even record photos in ProRAW mode to give photographers the ultimate flexibility in terms of editing. 
Read our full iPhone 12 Pro Max review.
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2. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
The best camera phone alternative to the iPhone
Display: 6.8-inch OLED (3200×1400; 10-120Hz) | CPU: Snapdragon 888 | RAM: 12GB, 16GB | Storage / Expandable: 128GB, 256GB, 512GB / No | Rear camera: 108MP wide (f/1.8), 12MP ultra wide (ƒ/2.2), 10MP telephoto (3x zoom, f/2.4), 10MP telephoto (10x zoom, f/4.9), laser AF sensor | Front camera: 40MP (ƒ/2.2) | Weight: 8.08 oz | Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 11:25
Dual telephoto lenses
S Pen support
Dynamic 6.8-inch display
No charger in box
Lacks microSD card slot
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.
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3. Google Pixel 5
The best camera software and processing
Display: 6-inch OLED (2340×1080; 90Hz) | CPU: Snapdragon 765G | RAM: 8GB | Storage / Expandable: 128GB / No | Rear camera: 12.2MP wide (ƒ/1.7); 16MP ultrawide | Front camera: 8MP (ƒ/2.0) | Weight: 5.33 oz | Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 9:29
Gorgeous compact design
Excellent camera, now with ultrawide lens
Useful software features
Underwhelming performance
Expensive for what it is
The Google Pixel 5 isn’t the most stunning camera phone from a hardware perspective. Mountain View swapped out the Pixel 4’s telephoto lens for an ultrawide at the behest of critics and users, but that’s really the only measurable hardware change in store for the latest Pixel flagship.
The rest, as is always the case with Pixel, is done in software and post. And boy, can the Pixel 5 churn out some magical images. 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 put Apple’s Night Mode on the iPhone 11 Pro to shame in our side-by-side comparisons. The iPhone 12 Pro has answered back, but that doesn’t take away from the fact Google has raised the stakes again.
The biggest knock against the Pixel 5’s camera is, unsurprisingly, that you can get it for much cheaper, either in single-lens configuration in the $349 Pixel 4a or in the exact same dual-lens guise in the $499 Pixel 4a 5G. That makes the Pixel 5 a relatively poor value compared to the company’s other phones. Compared to the industry at large, though, there’s almost no contest — the Pixel 5’s photography really is that pretty.
Read our full Google Pixel 5 review.
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4. iPhone 12
The iPhone’s best cameras for less
Display: 6.1-inch OLED (2352×1170) | CPU: A14 Bionic | RAM: 4GB | Storage / Expandable: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB / No | Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.6), 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.4) | Front camera: 12MP (ƒ/2.2) | Weight: 5.78 ounces | Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 8:23 (5G), 10:25 (LTE)
Impressive dual cameras
Incredible performance
Comprehensive 5G coverage
Only 64GB of base storage
Digital zoom could still use work
While the iPhone 12 Pro models set the standard for mobile photography, the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini aren’t that far behind. While they don’t have optics of the Pro phones — there’s no dedicated telephoto lens here — the iPhone 12 still benefits from Apple’s camera software and neural engine. That means features like Night Mode, Deep Fusion and Smart HDR are on display here.
Like the iPhone 12 Pro modes, the iPhone 12 can record 4K HDR video. This phone records Dolby Vision video, too, though it’s capped at 30 FPS. The video we shot with our iPhone 12 looks much sharper than anything the current Android flagships can produce. This is the phone to get if the $999 asking price for the iPhone 12 Pro is too much.
Read our full iPhone 12 review.
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5. Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Still a great Android camera option
Display: 6.9-inch AMOLED (3088×1440) | CPU: Snapdragon 865 Plus | RAM: 12GB | Storage / Expandable: 128GB, 256GB, 512GB / Yes | Rear camera: 108MP wide (ƒ/1.8); 12MP telephoto with 5x optical zoom (ƒ/3.0); 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.2) | Front camera: 10MP (ƒ/2.2) | Weight: 7.33 ounces | Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 10:15
Dynamic 6.9-inch 120Hz display
Smoother S Pen performance 
Powerful 50x zoom camera and laser autofocus
Very good battery life
Expensive
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…
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