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. Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max
Looking for the absolute best smartphone camera in 2020? You’ll find it in the newly-released Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max. It comes fully loaded with a 12MP f/1.6 main camera, a 12MP f/2.2 telephoto camera featuring 2.5x optical zoom, and a 12MP f/2.4 ultra-wide camera. Also useful is the cutting-edge LiDAR scanner that allows users to take high-quality portraits when shooting in Night Mode.
Key specs for the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max's cameras include:
Other top features such as Smart HDR 3 and Dolby Vision video capabilities make the phone an ideal pick for professional photographers looking for a more portable photo-taking option than carrying around their camera all of the time.
Not ready to shell out the cash for the 12 Pro Max? The iPhone 12 Pro shoots nearly as good photos and you can save a little bit of money. What’s the difference between the two Apple phones? The 12 Pro Max features a larger sensor on the main lens and better zoom on the telephoto lens.
2. Huawei P40 Pro
Leica fans will get a lot out of the Leica-branded imaging system that’s part of the Huawei P40 Pro. The 50MP primary camera (yes, 50 megapixels) uses red, yellow, yellow, blue sub-pixel formation to allow users to engage in pro-grade photography in super dark situations. It's so high-performing, in fact, that DxOMark has ranked this camera No. 3 at the time of writing.
Does it deliver? You bet. Do images look overly sharp like they do on some similar Samsung cameras? Nope. With this phone's impressive camera, you'll be looking at a full quad-camera setup that includes:
Low-light lovers will get quite a bit out of the P40 Pro’s camera performance. The larger sensor size and OIS of the main camera help amp up the performance of the standard f/1.9 aperture. This is, in part, due to Huawei’s built-in image stabilization.
The impressively high-performing 40MP f/1.8 ultra-wide camera is just the start, however. The phone’s built-in 12MP telephoto camera comes with 5x optical magnification and 50x digital zoom. In short, it’s easy to see what makes this one of the best smartphone cameras of the year.
3. 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.
4. 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 hyper-lapse 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.
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. 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.
7. Google Pixel 5
Where the Google Pixel 5 shines is in the color palettes that it renders with the photos that it takes. Despite only having two rear cameras (a 12.2MP f/1.7 main camera and a 16MP f.2.2 ultra-wide one), the phone’s camera is still able to take photos that look crystal clear and feature a wide range of bright, accurate colors.
The phone also comes with built-in photo editing software that makes it easy for even beginners to turn their simple snapshots into fine art, but with basic specs like these, you likely won't need to edit much:
If you were a fan of the Google Pixel 4’s standard-wide and telelens combo, you might feel a little let down by the Google Pixel 5’s dual-camera setup as there are still only two lenses and your options are only standard-wide or ultra-wide. While it lacks the powerful lenses that other cameras have, it offers fantastic features for the price point.
If you’re worried about the quality of the photos with only two lens choices, know that the ultra-wide lens is built with a Quad-Bayer sensor with pixel binning to improve the signal-to-noise ratio.
8. OnePlus 8 Pro
The OnePlus 8 Pro is an Android smartphone that’s powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor for added speed and efficiency. It boasts a 120 Hz Fluid Display that allows users to enjoy the magnificent beauty of 1.07 billion possible hues (that’s 64 times more than other mainstream phones) within their photos.
When you tire of the dynamic display and lifelike haptics, switch gears and let your creativity flow. The OnePlus 8 Pro features an impressive 48 MP quad-camera boasting the capacity to take photos with a dramatic 120° field of view.
Photos look almost GoPro-like in nature due to the sheer width of the view, and the open f/2.2 aperture lets in plenty of light, allowing you to truly show off depth, dynamic range, and a variety of colors in each photo you take. Aside from the impressive main camera's features, you can also count on the following:
The 12MP color filter camera even allows you to capture a twisted take on reality and photograph subjects in neon, screen-printed colors. And, you can turn on Smart Pet Capture and Macro Mode (just two of many unique photo features of the OnePlus 8 Pro) to take pro-level photos with the click of a button.
|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)|
|Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max||12 & 12 & 12MP||12MP||2160 x 60fps|
|Huawei P40 Pro||50 & 40 & 12MP||32MP||2160 x 60fps|
|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|
|Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus||12 & 12 & 16 & 0.3MP||10MP||2160 x 60fps|
|Xiaomi Mi Note 10 Pro||108 & 5 & 12 & 20 & 2MP||32MP||2160 x 30fps|
|Google Pixel 5||16 & 12.2MP||8MP||2160 x 60fps|
|OnePlus 8 Pro||48 & 48 & 8 & 5MP||16MP||2160 x 60fps|