Less than two decades ago, the idea of relying on a smartphone to capture one's dearest memories would seem ludicrous, but since then, the best phones for photography have become objects of desire. Chances are, even your grandma knows what "selfie" stands for, and she may not settle for a phone that doesn't have a multi-lens camera for her family photos… Or Instagram Stories.
The notion that so much of our individual lives could end up exposed – and reconstructed – in real-time, with the touch of a finger, once belonged in science fiction. Many say we've reached a point similar to that of George Orwell's novel "1984"; however, unlike the dystopian reality envisioned by the author (I mean, governmental surveillance aside), current structures actually promote individualism instead of punishing us for it. The role that our smartphones and their cameras have in our lives, relationships, and interactions is pivotal to this.
The mobile camera revolution began in the year 2000 for privileged consumers in South Korea and Japan, where the first built-in cell phone cameras were introduced. Yet, the groundbreaking technology featured in Samsung and Sharp models could offer 0.35 megapixels at best, which made it a terrible idea to rely on those devices to capture timeless moments – think of blurry, pixelated images that wouldn't even pass for intentional retro effect.
Today, one can safely rely on their smartphone to photograph, film, store, and share any moment: random happenings, loving memories, breaking news turned viral by ordinary citizens, and even pleas for help by people in war-stricken territories. Month after month, established and up-and-coming manufacturers add more possibilities to the mobile photography market. We're now offered AI-enhanced imagery, multi-lens camera systems with multiple apertures and fields of view, advanced autofocus technologies, and even 3D scanning with our phones. Moreover, social media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and Facebook have been incorporating more and more photo and video functionalities, allowing users to edit and share portions of their lives whenever they want, in any way they want. No wonder this increasingly popular type of social media interaction (which, as a matter of fact, recreates realities) is known as a "story."
With many different specs and technologies to bear in mind, the task of picking a smartphone for photography may seem agonizing. Of course, unheard-of features have all the potential to make us, tech lovers, prone to impulse purchases, but it's essential to take a step back and consider critical aspects for a conscious decision.
If your biggest expectation from a smartphone is the ability to take striking photos and ultra-high-quality videos, you should take notice of aspects such as megapixels and maximum video recording resolution. If you're into selfies and sharing stories with your phone (maybe you're even an Instagram star!), front camera resolution surely matters as well. Most phones nowadays feature a high-definition video mode, with 1,920 x 1,080 pixels at a frame rate of 30 frames per second. Flagship devices often have an ultra-high-definition video mode or 4K video mode in addition to the default HD mode, which means that they can shoot videos with a maximum resolution of 3,840 × 2,160 pixels (generally up to 60fps).
The widest aperture is another interesting element to keep an eye on; this property represents the amount of light that your smartphone's image sensor can capture. Here, smaller numbers actually represent wider apertures and more light coming in, which can be helpful in dimly lit environments and is decisive for image aspects such as sharpness and depth of field. The smaller the number, the wider the aperture… Confusing, indeed, but we want to help you make a well-informed decision, and you can also count on our selection of smartphones for photography. Let's just cover a couple more relevant specs.
The three final aspects we'd like to highlight are: multi-lens primary camera, dual-tone LED flash, and built-in optical image stabilization. The first feature allows the camera to capture and overlay various images, which is favorable in low-light conditions, produces sharper images, and allows for the use of special image-editing effects. As for phones equipped with a dual-tone LED flash, different color temperatures deliver superior color balance. Finally, built-in optical image stabilization makes for smoother photos and videos.
We've focused on smartphones that offer both noteworthy camera specs and groundbreaking photography technology.
A recap of the key specs we've discussed:
Each of the following products is an excellent bet for mobile photography for reasons we'll dive into. Hopefully, you'll find it easier to settle on a smartphone to capture incredible photos and videos.
It's time to check out our selection of the 9 best smartphone cameras!
1. Sony Xperia 1 II 5G
While Sony smartphones rarely impress with their megapixel count, their cameras offer plenty of other highlights for photo enthusiasts. The company's latest flagship, Sony Xperia 1 II, confirms this idea. Developed in collaboration with the team behind Sony's professional DLSR cameras, the phone delivers real-time autofocus and autoexposure tracking features first introduced with the Sony Alpha 6400 camera in 2019.
The Sony Xperia 1 II provides incredibly fast and accurate focus by continuously shifting autofocus (AF) points and recalculating the exposure levels up to 60 times per second. Moreover, Sony perfected its AI algorithm: the Eye AF tracking feature detects the subject's eyes and keeps them in focus. Optimized for wildlife photography, the company's proprietary real-time Eye AF also works brilliantly with animals – even if they're moving fast. Needless to say, the Xperia 1 II has all the manual controls one would expect from a professional camera.
The flagship's main camera module comprises three Zeiss lenses and one 3D sensor:
Like most Android flagships released this year, the Xperia 1 II is powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 865 processor, coupled with 8GB of RAM. If you enjoy outdoor activities and are keen on capturing them, you can trust this water-resistant device rated with IP68 and protected by Gorilla Glass 6.
2. Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
Samsung decided to full-out challenge its competitors and to impress consumers with big numbers with the Galaxy S20 Ultra smartphone. The primary camera setup includes:
Additionally, the company also seeks to amaze with the model's selfie camera. Although Samsung dropped the dual-lens camera from the previous (S10) series, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra's single-lens camera flaunts 40 megapixels – the most massive on the market as of February 2020.
The flagship includes a 10x hybrid optical zoom and an electronic zoom of up to 100x. Sensor size was nearly tripled; with that and a little help from AI, Samsung vows to deliver exceptionally refined snaps, videos, and hyperlapse footage during nighttime and in dimly lit environments. Consistent with the new flagship's notable specs is the option to record 8K videos. Although one may argue that the average consumer has no practical need to shoot videos at this resolution, this brings about new possibilities, and 8K video recording is still (as of the time of writing) rare for smartphones.
3. Huawei Mate 30 Pro
With the highly praised Mate 30 Pro, Huawei introduces its new SuperSensing Cine Camera technology, which promises sharp details and precision regardless of the situation and time of the day.
Powered by the manufacturer's proprietary chip Kirin 990, the flagship pledges to make the user "fall in love with smartphone filming" thanks to a stellar main camera system with four lenses, as well as ultra-low-light, ultra-slow-motion, and ultra-wide-angle shooting modes. The system comprises:
The ToF camera sensor technology makes use of an infrared light signal to determine image depth. The collected data allows for top-notch background blur and improves 3D imaging and AR experiences. Moreover, the Huawei Mate 30 Pro is equipped with a dual-LED flash and can record 4K videos at 30 and 60fps.
According to digital photography benchmark DxOMark, the Huawei Mate 30 Pro offers noticeable improvements in comparison to the manufacturer's previous number one model for mobile photography, the Huawei P30 Pro. Some of these enhancements relate to image saturation, white balance, color rendering, and low-light shooting.
4. Google Pixel 4 XL
After three generations of phones known for single-lens primary camera systems that could still put up a brave fight against multi-lens rivals, Google gave in and jumped on its competitors' bandwagon. Both the Google Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL are equipped with dual-lens rear camera systems and, as expected, advanced software processing. Oddly enough, its selfie camera was demoted from dual to single-lens (it does, however, provide a wider field of view than the previous generation's).
The main photography system packs:
Both lenses have phase-detection autofocus, as well as both optical and electronic image stabilization technologies.
Some techies feel disappointed by the fact that, unlike other flagships, the Google Pixel 4/4XL does not include ultra-wide lenses. Still, the phones have proven to produce detail-rich photos and exceptional results even at maximum zoom (8x electronic and 2x optical). Both products offer high-grade white balance, supported by Google's AI, capable of identifying objects and scenarios in the frame and adjusting the white balance accordingly.
Finally, although the Google Pixel 4/4XL default video mode is set to 1080p, it's also possible to record 4K video – but only at 30fps.
5. Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus
The 6.8-inch Galaxy Note 10 Plus has a solid camera system that may not be the number one on the market, but is likely to please stylus pen enthusiasts who don't want to compromise on the photography front. Samsung's largest model until now, the Galaxy Note 10 Plus features a comprehensive camera system that includes:
The selfie camera's enhanced Live Focus feature can make the subject stand out in various fun ways, making for one of the Galaxy Note 10 Plus' photography highlights. Although software-generated Live Focus bokeh effects were already available in other Samsung models, the Note 10 Plus brings an additional option (Big Circles) that users seem to very much enjoy. Furthermore, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus includes an improved video editing tool that goes very well with the Note series' traditional S Pen.
As one would expect from a high-end phone with advanced AI features, the Note 10 Plus (as well as the Note 10) can identify subjects and locations, automatically adjusting photography settings for optimal results. Finally, the smartphone includes a native 3D-scanning app that uses 360-degree imagery information to generate GIFs.
6. Huawei P30 Pro
Although it is likely to be soon outranked by the P series' next generation, the Huawei P30 Pro is still one of the prime options for smartphone photography. The flagship features advanced AI and an outstanding camera setup that was, as one would expect, even more impressive at the time of its release (March 2019). The P30 Pro's key camera specs are:
The Huawei P30 Pro is one of the top performers in low-light conditions, and its bokeh mode and innovative long-range zoom have been highly praised. Moreover, the flagship packs quick and precise autofocus with reliable tracking, and its depth estimation accuracy in bokeh mode is yet to be found in even some of the newest models on this list. As with any product, there are also flaws, which will hopefully be addressed with the upcoming P40 Pro release. The criticism mostly concerns unnatural sky colors in outdoor settings, as well as white balance fluctuations and noise in video mode.
7. Xiaomi Mi Note 10 Pro
Xiaomi's Mi Note 10 Pro – launched in China as Xiaomi Mi CC9 Pro Premium – is currently one of the very top contenders when it comes to the best smartphone photography. What's more, it packs an impressive 5,260mAh battery and runs on Qualcomm's Snapdragon 730G processor.
The 6.47-inch phone has a penta-lens camera setup that is at least as impressive as the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra's quad-lens system. Key specs are:
The DxOMark benchmark has placed the Xiaomi Mi Note 10 Pro at the top of its mobile photography ranking, alongside the Huawei Mate 30 Pro. The Xiaomi model's photo score is slightly lower than its opponent's, but its video score is currently the highest on the platform.
The Mi Note 10 Pro has been praised for its performance in all types of environments, accurate white balance, and robust zoom execution. Xiaomi's flagship has also received excellent reviews concerning the popular bokeh effect – a feature that often leaves much to be desired due to inaccurate depth estimation.
The smartphone's high video performance rating results chiefly from autofocus accuracy, vivid colors, and effective noise management. Although there is yet to be such thing as a perfect video camera, and most systems tend to overdo on specific color tones; in the Mi Note 10 Pro's case, sky color saturation has been reported, as well as a somewhat pink white balance.
8. Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max
Powered by Apple's A13 Bionic chipset, the iPhone 11 Pro Max is the tech giant's first phone with a triple-lens camera ensemble. The setup comprises:
Both the primary and the telephoto lenses feature phase-detection autofocus and optical image stabilization. The flagship flaunts a quad-LED dual-tone flash and 4K video resolution at 30 and 60fps.
iPhone 11 Pro Max owners can explore the recently introduced Deep Fusion technology, which Apple pledges to use "the A13 Bionic Neural Engine to capture images with dramatically better texture, detail, and reduced noise in lower light." Nevertheless, the enhanced image processing is not restricted to the iPhone 11 Pro Max; it has also been implemented in the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro models.
The top model renders vivid colors, and fine details are more noticeable than in Apple's previous flagships. However, although low-light performance has also progressed, it still leaves much to be desired in extreme conditions if compared to other top-tier smartphones. Medium and long-range shots also lack in image quality when compared to models with 3x and 5x telephoto lenses.
The iPhone 11 Pro Max's video mode is quite possibly the star of its camera system, with vibrant colors and efficient image stabilization. As of February 20, the model ranks the highest in the DxOMark mobile video benchmark – shoulder to shoulder with the Xiaomi Mi CC9 Pro Premium Edition.
9. Honor V30 Pro
With the Honor V30 Pro, Huawei's sub-brand offers a more affordable option for smartphone photography that, in several aspects, stands toe to toe with more expensive competitors. The flagship runs on the high-end HiSilicon Kirin 990 chipset and offers 8GB of RAM.
The primary photo and video setup features three sensors and lenses (all with laser-assisted and phase-detection autofocus), as well as 3x optical zoom. Some of the system's main specs are:
The Honor V30 doesn't include a ToF depth-sensing camera. Still, it delivers 4K videos, improved by gyroscope-based electronic image stabilization (EIS) and satisfactory color rendering. The model has been commended for its zoom and night photography features, and its bokeh shots are effective even without a ToF camera dedicated to depth estimation. Reviewers have, however, experienced autofocus and stabilization issues.
|megapixels (main camera)||megapixels (front camera)||dual-lens (or multi-lens) main camera||Dual-tone LED flash||built-in optical image stabilization||video recording (main camera)|
|Sony Xperia 1 II 5G||12 & 12 & 12 & 0.8MP||8MP||2160 x 60fps|
|Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra||108 & 48 & 12 & 0.3MP||40MP||4320 x 24fps|
|Huawei Mate 30 Pro||40 & 40 & 8MP||32MP||2160 x 60fps|
|Google Pixel 4 XL||16 & 12.2MP||10MP||2160 x 30fps|
|Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus||12 & 12 & 16 & 0.3MP||10MP||2160 x 60fps|
|Huawei P30 Pro||40 & 20 & 8MP||32MP||2160 x 30fps|
|Xiaomi Mi Note 10 Pro||108 & 5 & 12 & 20 & 2MP||32MP||2160 x 30fps|
|Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max||12 & 12 & 12MP||12MP||2160 x 60fps|
|Honor V30 Pro||40 & 8 & 12MP||32 & 8MP||2160 x 30fps|