The battle for best camera phone comes down to an Apple vs. Google showdown. And while we have our favorite, the quality of images produced by the latest phones from those companies just goes to show that this is a great time to be in the market for a camera phone.
Not only do the best camera phones feature improved hardware — Apple upgraded the sensors on the iPhone 13, while the Pixel 6 Pro gets a long awaited telephoto lens — the software keeps improving, too. Both Apple and Google rely heavily on computational photography to further improve the images their camera phones produce.
Of course, you’ve got choices beyond those two phone makers when you’re trying to hunt down the best camera phone, especially with Samsung introducing camera improvements to its Galaxy S22 lineup (check out our Samsung Galaxy S22 vs iPhone 13 Pro Max low-light photography comparison). Our testing has helped us find devices that capture memorable images and once-in-a-lifetime shots you’d miss with less-capable handsets. We’re looking for camera phones that 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.
After hundreds of hours of testing and many head-to-head photo comparisons, these are the best camera phones you can buy right now.
What are the best camera phones?
Right now, the current king of camera phones is the iPhone 13 Pro Max, followed very closely by the smaller iPhone 13 Pro. Featuring a triple 12MP setup with larger sensors on the wide and ultrawide cameras, plus 3x optical zoom on the telephoto lens, the new Pro models earn their names with spectacular photos and videos.
If you want to look beyond Apple’s phones, plenty of the best Android phones feature impressive cameras of their own. The Google Pixel 6 Pro, and the Pixel 6 next to it, are the new cream of the crop. The latest phones from Samsung — particularly the Galaxy S22 Ultra — come close, especially when it comes to low-light photos and zooming in on subjects, but Google’s phones remain the best. That includes the Pixel 5a, one of the best camera phones you can buy on a budget.
Check out our guide to how camera phones will change in 2022 to learn what’s coming during the rest of the year.
The best camera phones you can buy today
The biggest iPhone 13 is also the best camera phone you can buy. Apple went all out with the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s hardware, increasing the sensor size for the main and ultrawide cameras and adding autofocus to the latter. That ultrawide can act as a macro camera, photographing subjects up to 2 cm away. The sensor-shift OIS introduced last year on the iPhone 12 Pro Max returns this year and the telephoto received a boost to 3x.
Apple also improved its computational photography, especially when it comes to low-light. Also new this year are Photographic Styles — basically real-time filters — and Cinematic mode. The latter is portrait video on steroids, boasting dynamically shifting focus to create a truly professional video experience.
This is the phone to get if you want the best camera experience.
Read our full iPhone 13 Pro Max review.
Nipping at the heels of its bigger brother, the iPhone 13 Pro is a very close second on this list of the best camera phones. It sports the same hardware as the iPhone 13 Pro Max with the larger sensors, autofocus on the ultrawide camera and macro mode.
However, the iPhone 13 Pro is right in line with the Pro Max, getting sensor-shift OIS and the same 3x optical zoom. Photographic Styles and Cinematic mode also come standard. Basically, this is the phone to get if you want the best camera experience but in a smaller package. The 6.1-inch display is still gorgeous and features 120Hz ProMotion for ultra smooth animations and transitions.
The battery life is even awesome, going for almost 12 hours in our battery life test, meaning you can take plenty of pictures and videos.
Read our full iPhone 13 Pro review.
Google has once again claimed its Android photography crown. The Pixel 6 Pro has incredible cameras, thanks to upgraded hardware and powerful software chops. The end result is something that can go toe-to-toe with Apple and even evenly trade blows (especially with the night mode, Night Sight).
The 50MP main camera sensor lets in 150% more light, while the 48MP telephoto lens sports 4x optical zoom and 20x digital zoom. And the 11MP front-facing camera has a 94-degree field of view for ultrawide selfies.
Not only do you get the best cameras on an Android phone, but the Pixel 6 Pro sports the new Tensor chip, which lends itself well to things like computational photography and new Google Assistant features. If you’re in the Android camp, this is the phone to get if you want the best mobile photography experience.
Read our full Google Pixel 6 Pro review.
Samsung didn’t make major changes to the camera setup on the Galaxy S22 Ultra, but the enhancements over the S21 Ultra are very welcome. For starters, the 108MP main camera has a larger sensor, letting in more light. A Super Clear Glass over that lens eliminates flare when you’re shooting in twilight and at night. The end result is better low-light photos and some sharp images when using the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s Night mode.
Other camera improvements to the Galaxy S22 Ultra focus on the software side of things. You now get adaptive pixel technology for combining 9 pixels into one (another low-light photo improvement), enhanced AI high-res processing and 4x faster multi-frame processing. Portrait mode benefits from AI Stereo Depth Maps to better separate your subject from the background of the shot. And a video Auto Framing feature recognizes up to 10 people and keeps them in focus when you’re shooting.
Ultimately, the top Apple and Google camera phones remain ahead of Samsung’s best efforts, but only barely. This is the camera phone to get for Samsung fans.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra review.
While it might lack the telephoto lens, the Google Pixel 6 is still a powerful camera phone. You get the same 50MP main and 12MP ultrawide sensors in a slightly smaller body. Photos come out clear and crisp, even though we noticed some color inconsistencies in some photos.
Still, the Pixel 6 is the best camera phone for most Android users. You’ll get stunning landscape shots, portraits, and selfies. And with all of the new AI-based photography features like Magic Eraser, you have a lot at your disposal.
Read our full Google Pixel 6 review.
The Pixel 5a from Google is, by far, the best camera experience under $500 as our Google Pixel 5a vs. iPhone SE shoot-out proves. New to Google’s phone this year is the addition of a 16MP ultrawide camera. The Pixel 4a from last year only had a 12.2MP camera, though it alone was extremely good.
But the Pixel 5a also has a serious hardware upgrade to help it process photos faster and better. The Snapdragon 765G in the 5a is the same processor you’ll find in the Pixel 5 or Pixel 4a 5G. While it’s not the best or newest Snapdragon around (and it’s easily beaten by the A13 Bionic in the iPhone SE), it’s still powerful enough to perform some serious photography magic.
The $100 price hike from the Pixel 4a stings a bit, but the hardware upgrades, bigger battery, and larger screen all make up for it. With the Pixel 4a now discontinued by Google, this is the budget camera phone to get.
Read our full Google Pixel 5a review.
The best iPhone for the average person, the iPhone 13 features notable improvements over its predecessor. Not only is the battery life significantly better, but the cameras got some upgrades, too. First and foremost, the sensors are larger now, letting in more light to help with indoor and night photos.
Besides just the excellent cameras, you get the Photographic Styles and Cinematic mode that the Pro models have. Though you lose out on the telephoto lens and wider apertures, you nonetheless get a fantastic photography experience for a very reasonable price. Apple even upped the base storage to 128GB while keeping the cost to you the same.
Read our full iPhone 13 review.
The photo features on the Samsung Galaxy S22 Plus aren’t as extensive as those on the S22 Ultra, but then again, the price tag isn’t as large either. And the S22 Plus’ cameras are quite capable,especially after Samsung boosted the megapixels on the main shooter to 50MP. The sensor is larger on this year’s phone, too, so the Galaxy S22 Plus lets in more light for sharper photos in more challenging settings.
The main camera isn’t the only one to see some improvement. The telephoto lens on the Galaxy S22 Plus now supports a 3x optical zoom, instead of the hybrid zoom that the S21 Plus had to offer. That means less noise when you zoom in on a subject.
Throw in other features like 8K video capture at 24 frames per second, an Auto Framing feature for tracking up to 10 people when you’re shooting video and advanced stablization features for minimizing shaky video, and you’ve got quite a capable camera phone for less than $1,000.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S22 Plus review.
Past OnePlus phones have usually been a step or two behind the rest of the best camera phones. But that’s changed with the OnePlus 9 Pro, thanks to a partnership with camera specialist Hasselblad. OnePlus and Hasselblad are locked up in a multi-year deal to improve OnePlus’ cameras, with the 9 series reaping the benefits first.
That translates to better colors in photos taken with the OnePlus 9 Pro, as the post-processing has improved dramatically with this phone. Some features can behave unpredictably — we had mixed results shooting in low-light — but overall, we were pleased with the photos we took with the OnePlus 9 Pro, which now has both the hardware and software to keep up with the iPhone and the Pixel.
You can see for yourself by checking out our OnePlus 9 Pro camera face-off, in which we look at how the new OnePlus phone compares to the best camera phones from Apple and Google.
A cheaper phone, the OnePlus 9, also benefits from the Hasselblad partnership, though that phone lacks the Pro’s 8MP telephoto lens. A new version, the OnePlus 10 Pro, debuts in China this month before coming to other countries later on, and it once again benefits from the OnePlus partnership with Hasselblad.
Read our full OnePlus 9 Pro review.
The $400 iPhone SE packs the iPhone 8’s 12-megapixel, ƒ/1.8 single-lens camera, but also benefits from Cupertino’s A13 Bionic processor to kick its computational photography powers into high gear.
The results simply speak for themselves. The Pixel 4a has an advantage when it comes to nighttime photography, as well as shallow depth-of-field portraits and digital zoom. That said, the iPhone SE is nearly as capable in many scenarios, as it benefits from many of Apple’s sophisticated imaging techniques, like Smart HDR and Semantic Rendering.
Because the iPhone SE lacks ultrawide or telephoto lenses, it’s not perfect, though its camera is far and away better than those inside the vast majority of other, similarly-priced models you can buy today. Overall, if you need a new handset and don’t have much to spend — and especially if it has to be an iPhone — there’s simply no better deal out there right now.
That figures to change later this spring if the iPhone SE 3 arrives as expected. It’s possible that phone could add a Night mode thanks to its more powerful processor, though rumors suggest Apple’s cheapest phone will continue to sport a single rear lens.
Read our full iPhone SE 2020 review.
How to pick the best camera phone for you
There are many factors to consider if camera quality factors heavily into your smartphone purchasing decision. A good way to start is by asking yourself what kinds of photos you see yourself taking. Not all multi-lens cameras are created equal — some have ultrawide lenses for stunning landscapes, others have telephotos for zoomed-in shallow-depth-of-field portraits, and others still have both. The newest flagships from the likes of Samsung and Huawei even have periscope-style lenses that can achieve up to 10x lossless zoom, rivaling the power of DSLRs.
Something else to consider: Megapixels don’t matter as much as aperture. Cameras with a wider aperture (lower ƒ-stop numbers translate to wider lenses) let in more light, which greatly helps produce better shots in the dark. The high-megapixel sensors found in the latest devices are nice, but it’s a common misconception that pixel count directly translates to better-looking photos.
Do you need a portrait mode that allows for bokeh backgrounds? That’s where the subject of the photo is in sharp focus, while an artistic blur blankets the rest of the scene. Although it started as a feature exclusive to multi-camera phones, the single-lens iPhone SE is capable of capturing bokeh-effect portraits. Some devices even let you adjust the strength of the blur before and after you take a shot.
Front camera specs are important, too. In a world where we’re taking more selfies than ever, you shouldn’t overlook a phone’s front camera. Many front cameras, like the ones on the iPhone 13 and Pixel 6, can actually perform the same portrait mode effects that rear cameras pull off. Some phones, like the older Galaxy S10 Plus, feature two front cameras, with the second lens pulling in more background details, though that feature has gone out of fashion recently.
Finally, don’t forget about video. Your cameras shoot more than just still images. Consider what resolution the camera captures video at along with the frame rate. A word to the wise, though: Be wary that ratcheting up the resolution will result in clips that take up much more space on your smartphone’s internal storage.
How we test camera phones
We put the market’s leading handsets through a variety of common shooting situations, such as landscapes, portraits and selfies in daylight and at night. Then, we analyze each set of images on a color-calibrated monitor to see which smartphone had the best combination of color accuracy, clarity and contrast. We also perform in-depth camera comparisons between the top phones, using each handset in their auto mode to take a wide range of photos in different conditions. After declaring a winner in each round, we name an overall winner of that face-off.
In each of our smartphone reviews, we also factor in any special features, such as dual lenses and what they enable, Portrait Modes, and other special modes, before we come to a conclusion.