Best Camera Phones in 2021
Richard Howard • September 30, 2021
For most buyers, a phone’s camera is a deciding factor in their purchase. For the user that just wants to capture the odd picture, even budget phones tend to have solid cameras these days. However, photogs and those very active on social media are going to want the best—and that means some truly impressive camera sets. Here are the best camera phones in 2021, plus what to look for in a camera phone.
iPhone 13 Pro/Pro Max
While iPhone 12 Pro models boasted a top-tier camera set, iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max have upped the stakes even further. Larger sensors, an ultrawide camera with autofocus and macro-shooting abilities, plus a 3x telephoto lens improve both picture quality and versatility. Their patented sensor stabilization technology has returned as well. On the software side of things are improved low-light capabilities, real-time filters and a stunning Cinematic video mode.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
When it was released in early 2021, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G wowed users and reviewers alike, due in no small part to its next-level camera set. The hardware spec sheet said it all: A 108MP main camera, two telephoto cameras (one of which is capable of 10x optical zoom) and a stunning 40MP front-facing camera. The phone also offered an outlandish 100x digital zoom, some of which was actually quite usable. Director’s View allows you to use the front and rear cameras at the same time for a picture-in-picture result, and Single Take shows off Samsung’s AI by creating multiple pictures and videos from a single 10-second video capture. If the UItra is a bit out of your price range, the standard Galaxy S21 boasts many of the same features. You’ll only get one telephoto lens though (the horror).
iPhone 12 Pro Max/Pro
There’s no getting around it: iPhone 13’s debut notwithstanding, iPhone 12 is still one of the best camera phones available in 2021. Unlike the newest phones, however, the Pro and Pro Max camera sets differ in the iPhone 12 lineup. Here, the Pro Max has superior ultra-wide and telephoto lenses, allowing for better low-light performance and zoom. These are the phones that introduced Apple’s revolutionary sensor-shift optical image stabilization, HDR 3, and Dolby Vision support. You’ll save $100 or so compared to iPhone 13 MSRP, so it’s a good deal on a fantastic phone. Save even more by going for iPhone 12. While lacking a telephoto lens, it’s still a top-tier camera phone.
The best camera phone on a budget
Google Pixel 5a
If one marquee has to be given credit for elevating the camera phone game, one could argue it’s the Google Pixel. Combining solid hardware with software/AI wizardry, the original Pixel offered users what was arguably the best image quality available. A couple of years later, Google unveiled the innovative Night Sight for excellent low-light photography without a flash. After shifting focus to the midrange market, Google may have given us the best bang-for-buck camera phone ever in the 5a. With a 16MP ultra-wide camera accompanying the 12.2MP main lens, the 5a has camera hardware similar to the flagship Pixel 5. As usual, thanks to Google’s software prowess, the resulting images are world-class.
What to look for in a camera phone
With the advanced features and firepower that camera phones offer today, it can be a bit confusing knowing what to look for. One thing to remember is that, like the phone itself, a phone camera may do a lot of great things but not what you need it to do. Here’s some stuff to consider when looking for a camera phone.
Types of lenses
Perhaps you love getting shots of those birds that congregate at the end of your backyard. Meanwhile, your kid is fascinated by insects and loves taking close-up pictures of the creepy crawlies underfoot. A top-end, quad-camera phone excels at both. However, you’ll likely want an affordable option for each of you. In this case, a phone with an excellent telephoto lens will capture the most elusive avian subject while one with a good macro lens will result in amazing shots of small objects.
Remember that generally optical zoom beats digital zoom.
Looking to capture the whole scene from edge to edge? Look for an ultra-wide camera.
More and more phones are offering 4K video recording (3840 × 2160 px or twice the resolution of HD). Most will shoot at 30 frames per second (fps, AKA framerate) while some can manage 60 fps. The higher the framerate, the smoother video.
Some newer smartphones can even manage 8K video, a massive 7680 × 4320 px; double the resolution of 4K and four times the resolution of HD. Given the sheer size of 8K video, resolution tends to come at a cost to framerate.
These are just numbers and don’t tell the whole story. Real-world performance is what we’re looking for. A quick Google search to compare videos recorded on your front-runner phones will let you see how they measure up.
We’re not going to get into the weeds with advanced photography terms, but this one is important. Because of the structure of smartphone cameras, aperture (the amount of light the lens lets in) takes on unique importance. To greatly oversimplify the issue, you’ll generally want to see a lower “f-stop” number in the main and ultra-wide cameras, which means a larger aperture allowing more light in. For instance, the excellent S21’s main camera measures f/1.8, while the iPhone 13 boasts a measurement of f/1.5. The wider (smaller number) the aperture, the better the low-light performance.
Optical image stabilization
As the name suggests, this feature prevents blurriness in photos due to hand shake. It’s especially useful in low-light situations, when using zoom and for video. Optical image stabilization (OIS), as found in the iPhone 13, happens before the image is captured, not after. It makes a big difference.
Don’t get hung up on megapixels
This may be the most confusing phone camera specification of all. Most of us know what pixels are—the tiny squares that make up digital images. A megapixel (MP) is one million pixels, so an 8 MP camera produces images with 8 million pixels.
Here’s the confusing part. On one hand we have one of the world’s best phone camera phones with a 12 MP main sensor. On the other hand, its closest competitor claiming 108 MP. What gives?
As you would expect, the 108 MP lens creates much larger images. This comes in handy in a few situations. Do you make large physical prints of your photos? A high-megapixel camera may be right up your alley. These large images are also great if you’ll be cropping the original photo to make a new image. Lastly, higher MP counts are necessary for 8K video. Beyond that, a huge number of megapixels is generally overkill. It creates huge files and can even be detrimental in low-light situations. That’s why manufacturers use “pixel binning” which results in more manageable, lower-megapixel pictures. Rest assured that, for most users, a 12 MP lens in a great camera phone is more than enough.
Advanced features for advanced users
If you’re familiar with photography and terms like shutter speed, aperture and exposure, you’ll want to make sure your camera phone allows you to finely adjust all these. Some mid-range phones do offer this level of adjustability, but you can be sure settings will be more accurate with top-of-the-line camera phones.
Get an amazing camera phone from Ting Mobile
If you’re looking for a great camera phone, look no further than the Ting Shop. From surprisingly affordable choices to the latest flagship phones, we carefully select phones with great features from trusted manufacturers. In the Ting Shop, there’s a phone to suit every type of user.
Already have the perfect camera phone but looking for an affordable plan? See if your phone can come to Ting Mobile.