Best camera phone: Professional-looking snaps anywhere you go

From casual shots to social media-worthy portraits, your smartphone camera is your direct connection to the world.

If you think about it, social media might not have grown so quickly and become so ubiquitous without the smartphone camera. Imagine it—a purely text-driven experience would have only progressed so far and likely would have gotten old fast. But once people were able to take hi-res pictures, edit them on their phone, add filters and animated stickers, and then post them directly to their platform of choice, it changed the phone from something you use to reach out to others into something you use to present your personal perspective on the world.

As quality has increased, the importance of the camera phone has only continued to grow. In fact, it’s one of—if not the—most important selling point when new smartphone iterations are launched. People want to know they can make themselves and others look amazing without having to lug professional-grade cameras and lenses around with them wherever they go. One well-equipped camera phone is all you need, and you have plenty of options when searching for the right one. Here’s how you can get started.

The best camera phone features to look for

The smartphone camera quickly went from a neat perk to an essential feature, and each new phone has upped the ante in terms of higher resolutions, more versatile presentation formats, and more sophisticated editing capabilities. So while you still want to consider basic things like battery life, app availability, and calling plan options, getting an amazing camera on your phone is pretty much top priority. And, yes, you do have options. Don’t get stuck with subpar performance—here’s what to look for when shopping for the best camera phone.

The best Android phone camera sports a seriously powerful optical zoom

There’s an impressive new development in camera phones: the optical zoom. Earlier camera phones were equipped with digital zoom, which relied on software to get close to the object you were shooting. The camera would take the portion of the image you framed and capture the image, but with fewer pixels, often resulting in a picture that was blurry, pixelated and less detailed. While improvements in sharpening image software have improved these pictures, they’re still not as sharp as photographs captured using optical zoom.

The best Android phone camera allows for 3x and 10x optical zoom. The newest release from Samsung, the Galaxy S21, even offers cutting-edge 100x space zoom. Optical zoom requires the mechanical movement of the lens in order to magnify the image, which results in some amazingly detailed photos at any focal length.

Best Android phone camera: Samsung Electronics Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Top of the Line

Amazing high-resolution camera with a dual-lens combo of 3x and 10x optical zoom. Amazon

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The most advanced offering from Samsung offers a multi-lens camera with a high 108MP resolution. Zoom features are impressive, with their dual-lens combination offering 3x and 10x optical zoom. Video shoots in 8K, offering sharp, professional-looking quality.

Need a cell phone for taking videos?

If you’re ready to up the ante on your YouTube channel, it’s worth it to invest in a cell phone with advanced video capabilities. In fact, whether you’re a casual videographer or looking for more professional-grade videos, it’s never been easier to get amazing video from camera phones. The best smartphone cameras for taking video will offer crisp 4K (or 8K) resolution video, wide-angle lenses, advanced zoom capabilities, improvements in color capturing, and corrections for night vision and low light environments. In fact, the latest from Apple (iPhone 12 Pro Max) offers a unique new feature for video: the ability to shoot with Dolby vision, which records with 60 times more colors (it’s so impressive, it’s the format used by film studios).

Best phone for videos: Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

Advanced Cameras

5G speed, fast processing, and multiple cameras allow for amazing high-def images and videos. Amazon

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With an impressively long battery life (up to 20 hours of video playback) this smartphone offers a bright, crisp OLED screen and high-end cameras. ProRAW mode and Dolby vision video allow for high-level editing and imaging of 4K video. All these features come with a high price tag, and a bit of a heavier weight and larger size compared to other iPhone models.

For photographers on the go, make sure you get the best camera phone for professionals

It’s clear that smartphones offer us so much more than just amazing cameras and video. But if you’re using it in lieu of a physical camera, you want to select the best smartphone camera possible.

The best camera phone for pros will offer multiple lenses, allowing for the ability to customize the camera settings for optimal portrait shots, wide-angle, zoom functions, and micro settings for close up shots. They should also offer multiple photography modes for quick visual effects as well as photo and video editing modes. Expect to pay a premium for quality—professional level camera phones will usually hover over $1000.

Runner-up camera phone for pros: Huawei Mate 40 Pro

Multiple Professional Cameras

Lightweight, slim design with multiple high-end cameras for multiple mode shooting. Amazon

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While not the most recognizable brand in the United States, this international camera phone boasts some of the highest-end cameras on the market. It has a 50MP f/1.9 camera, a 12 MP f/3.4 periscope camera with 5X optical zoom, as well as an ultra-wide 20MP f/1.8 camera. Lots of photography and editing modes make this a great choice for professional photographers. Be aware, however, that due to compatibility issues this phone doesn’t allow for use of Google apps. Alternatives are available for purchase in Huawei’s AppGallery, but they may not all be as useful.

Night photography can be tricky for any camera, but this one delivers

Even with phones that capture full 4K video and hi-resolution images, a little thing called “night time” can still seem like an insurmountable hurdle. Blurry lights and indistinct details ruin perfectly good photos once the sun goes down, and using the built-in flash usually makes everyone look like they’re trapped in the headlights of an oncoming car. But if you want to take decent nighttime pics, here is your best option.

Best Android phone for night photography: Google Pixel 5

Night Knight

Able to see (and deliver) well in the dark. Amazon

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One of the main selling points of the Google Pixel 5 is its “Night Sight” function. Essentially, instead of trying to capture a single (probably blurry) night photo, this function captures an equal amount of light over a burst of many photos and then merges them to create one sharp, dark image with more balanced colors. It’s a huge step up and basically, helps make night photos if not 100% perfect, at least more salvageable than those taken with a simple smartphone camera.

What do you do when your kids start asking you for an iPhone?

It’s the moment you’ve been silently dreading as a parent. Your kids reach that age where it’s time to have “the talk—” no, not about the birds and the bees, but about smartphones. They are going to want one, and you’re going to have to relent at some point. But you don’t necessarily have to invest a ton of money in something that they’re just learning to use (and learning to be responsible for). Here’s a great first cell phone for kids.

Best cell phone for kids: Apple iPhone SE

Baby’s First Apple

The perfect first iPhone. Amazon

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One of the more affordable iPhones, the iPhone SE still delivers what you love about Apple products without carrying the extra burden of being incredibly expensive. It has a slim, light design, is water-resistant, but still has bells and whistles like full 4K video, 4.7-inch retina HD display, TouchID security, and more than enough processing speed to handle apps and games. It’s the first iPhone that doesn’t feel remedial in the slightest.

Best budget camera phone: What you can get for under $250

Once a new technology reaches a certain level of ubiquity, it usually begins to become more affordable, with supposedly “lower-end” devices not differing much from the pricier models at a core level. Sure, there are very sophisticated and powerful camera smartphones that will reside on the higher end of the cost spectrum, but there are options that deliver quality performance, reliability, and connectivity without breaking the bank.

Best budget camera phone: Moto G Power

Power Pack

Offers up to three days of battery on a single charge. Amazon

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The Motorola Moto G Power comes packed with a 6.4-inch full HD+ display and a triple camera system that gives you a superb wide-angle option. It also boasts a 16MP main camera and a macro vision camera that provides 5x optical zoom. Its Qualcomm Snapdragon processor has 4 GB of memory right out of the box and allows for solid streaming and app connectivity. This is a great budget camera phone.

FAQ: people also ask

Which is the best camera phone in 2021?

Loaded with 12MP Ultra Wide, Wide, and Telephoto cameras, a 5x optical zoom range, night mode (including night portrait mode), Smart HDR 3, and 4K Dolby Vision HDR recording, it’s hard not to single out the iPhone 12 Pro Max. With its quick refresh rate and ability to pick up details in dark environments, the Google Pixel 5 is also a winner.

Is it better to buy a camera or a phone?

Not to pass the buck, but it depends on what you’re looking to do. If you want to embark on a career in photography (or even an in-depth hobby), you likely want to look into a powerful, versatile camera with multiple lenses and other accessories. But if you just want to level up your social media posts and need a device that can also serve you apps, take calls and texts, and be by your side even when you’re not shooting pics, then invest in a great camera phone.

What makes a good camera phone?

When judging a good versus a bad camera phone, you’ll want to measure things like megapixels (which impacts the final image resolution), aperture size (which affects how light or dark an image is—camera phones have one fixed aperture size so look for one that’s as wide as possible), and lens quality (which can help you avoid blurry long-range pics).

A final word on shopping for the best camera phone

At this point, it feels almost silly to separate the camera from the rest of the smartphone. Having all you need in one device—a camera for capturing special moments, apps for sharing them on social, and messaging services to stay connected— just makes sense. And now that smartphone cameras deliver professional-quality images and editing capabilities, there really is no doubt. Just consider what your needs are and how you plan to use the images you capture when selecting the best camera phone for you. Whether you’re an amateur photographer or a social media junkie, there are options and variations to suit your needs.