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Best phone camera 2021: The best Android and Apple smartphone cameras

Here at Expert Reviews, we test hundreds of smartphones every year. From the most expensive flagships to the budget handsets you buy out of sheer necessity, we run a series of pretty rigorous benchmarks to make sure we’re as informed as possible. As a result, we’ve snapped test pictures with every single phone that comes through our doors, so we know exactly which phones have the best cameras for your Instagram food/pet/holiday pics.

If you’re keen on taking pictures or video with your phone, or you simply want to know that you’ve got a smartphone that’s great for taking holiday snaps, then you’re in the right place. Below, you’ll find our regularly updated list of the best phone cameras on the market, and a helpful camera buying guide – so you know exactly what to look for when you’re browsing the Carphone Warehouse website.

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Best phone camera: At a glance

How to buy the best phone camera for you

Megapixels aren’t everything

The first thing you need to be wary of is that megapixels aren’t everything. Pop into Carphone Warehouse and you’ll see the megapixel count listed next to the phone, but that isn’t the de facto indication of whether a smartphone’s camera is any good or not. Higher megapixels might look like a bonus, but it largely boils down to the tech inside.

Aperture is key

The thing you need to look out for? Aperture. A number listed with an f/ in front of it might look a little confusing at first glance, but it says a lot about the camera you’re holding. An f/1.4 aperture is wider than an aperture of f/2.0 for instance, which means that the camera will let in a lot more light and thus, greater potential for detail.

Don’t forget pixel and sensor size

Pixel and sensor size is just as important as that f-number. In short, the size of each individual pixel (measured in um) determines the quality of the image. Unlike aperture, bigger is better when it comes to pixel and sensor size. Got a big camera sensor? More information can be gathered, accruing better dynamic range and reduced visual noise, while a bigger pixel size lets more light in, performing better in low-light.

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Best phone camera 2021

1. Samsung Galaxy S21: The best phone camera yet

Price: From £769 l Buy now from Amazon

Like its predecessor, the Galaxy S21 continues to raise the bar of what to expect in terms of smartphone photography. We’re yet to test the four-figured Galaxy S21 Ultra, but where the regular model is concerned, this is the best we’ve come across and is a real treat for on-the-go photographers.

Not only does it continue to be the only smartphone to support 8K resolution video recording (with remarkable results), but the Galaxy S21’s zoom capabilities are second to none. Offering a zoom range of up to 30x, the Galaxy S21 excels when it comes to telescopic photography, and the main 12Mp main camera is no slouch either. In our tests, we found that the Galaxy S21 was capable of capturing detail-rich images in well-lit environments, with superb dynamic range and rich, bold colours that look as if they’re going to leap straight off the screen. The phone’s night mode also did an exceptional job at boosting the brightness of the image without adding pesky visual noise and blowing out street lights.

New photography features for this year include the ability to grab an image directly from any frame of an 8K video recording, as well as “Director’s View”, which displays a live view of all three camera lenses while recording. You can also take pictures and record video from both the front and back cameras simultaneously, and record multiple slowed-down instances in a single slow-mo video. The best news of all is that all Galaxy S21 models come with 5G support as standard, so if you’re lucky enough to live in a 5G area then you can upload your footage to your social media platform of choice faster than ever before. 

Need a flagship smartphone that can pretty much do it all in the camera department? The Samsung Galaxy S21 is the ideal candidate. 

Read our full Samsung Galaxy S21 review for more details

Key specs – Rear camera: 12MP, 64MP (3x telephoto), 12MP (wide); Aperture: f/1.8; Stabilisation: optical; Video resolution: 8K at 24fps; Front camera: 10MP

2. Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max: Best for video

Price: £1,099 l Buy now from Amazon

Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro Max is one of the most expensive phones on the list but it does a mighty fine job of taking reliable photos and crisp, steady 4K video at 60fps.

The 12 Pro Max (and the regular Pro) has three cameras on the rear. The main camera delivers the first-ever sensor-shift stabilisation on a smartphone – keeping your videos as steady as can be – and consists of a 12MP camera unit with a wide f/1.6 aperture. The other two cameras are similar to last year: there’s a 12MP (f/2.2) 2.5x telephoto zoom camera with optical image stabilisation (OIS) and a field of view equivalent to a 65mm lens on a camera with a full-frame sensor and an ultra-wide telephoto camera, also with a resolution of 12MP, but with an aperture of f/2.4 and a field of view equivalent to a 52mm lens on a camera with a full-frame sensor.

While still image quality is excellent – with the 12 Pro Max building on Apple’s excellent portrait mode – the best thing is the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s video capabilities. Capturing footage at 4K resolution at a maximum framerate of 60fps with support for Dolby Vision, no other smartphone’s video efforts come close when it comes to this level of quality. It’s an expensive choice, no doubt, but that’s the sky-high price you pay for excellent-quality video on-the-go.

Read our full iPhone 12 Pro Max review for more details

Key specs – Rear camera: 12MP, 12MP (wide), 12MP (2.5x telephoto zoom); Aperture: f/1.6, f/2.2, f/2.4; Stabilisation: sensor and optical; Video resolution: 4K at 60fps with Dolby Vision; Front camera: 12MP

3. Google Pixel 5: Best for portrait shots

Price: £599 l Buy now from Carphone Warehouse

Just squeezing onto the podium, the Pixel 5’s camera is still remarkable. Featuring an almost identical 12MP rear snapper to the previous Google phone, the Pixel 5’s wide f/1.7 aperture sensor features both optical and electronic image stabilisation for seriously stable shots.

The Pixel 5’s wide aperture is well suited for low-light photography and in good light, the Pixel 5 produced pictures with superb dynamic range and colour saturation, while the white balance was nice and accurate. And with Google improving the performance of its HDR+ processing algorithms, it’s quicker to capture images as well.

This is also boosted by a new 16MP ultrawide camera. However, this isn’t particularly special – it simply allows you to squeeze more stuff into the frame. Besides, most phone makers have incorporated wide-angle lenses into its flagship portfolios for some time now. It’s mostly just a neat extra but offers little of value.

Regardless, the Pixel 5 really does set a brand new smartphone photography benchmark, distancing itself even further from its predecessor, but what truly makes this phone stand out is its portrait mode capabilities. Whether you use the front- or rear-facing camera, every portrait shot is captured beautifully, with nicely-blurred backgrounds and crisp, definable edges around the subject. The Pixel 5 offers the best camera for your Instagram vanity shots.

Read our full Google Pixel 5 review for more details

Key specs – Rear camera: 12.2MP, 16MP (ultra-wide); Aperture: f/1.7, f/2.2; Stabilisation: optical; Video resolution: 4K at 60fps; Front camera: 8MP

Buy now from Carphone Warehouse

4. Apple iPhone SE (2020): The best-value iPhone (with a great camera)

Price: £399 l Buy now from Amazon

Apple iPhone SE (2020) with grass and flowers

Apple might prefer its customers to spend more on the iPhone 12, but the lower asking price of the new iPhone SE (2020) is well worth a look when it comes to the camera department. Powered by the same top-end chipset as Apple’s flagships – the A13 Bionic – the iPhone SE may only be fitted with a single 12MP rear camera, but image quality is much improved over the original model, which released in 2016.

It lacks the Deep Fusion low-light mode and night mode of the iPhone 11, but the photos we’ve managed to capture with the iPhone SE have been very good across the board. Once more, Apple’s portrait mode brings out the very best of the 12MP sensor, with crisp details and a rich palette of colours. In low-light, in fact, the iPhone SE surprisingly holds its own against the iPhone 12 Pro Max, too. The A13 Bionic also allows for more even exposure levels, with the use of Smart HDR, and you can also record crisp video at 60fps.

In short, little comes close to the iPhone SE at this price. Despite the lack of ultra-wide-angle and zoom options, the new iPhone SE’s camera is astonishingly capable. 

Read our full iPhone SE review for more details

Key specs – Rear camera: 12MP; Aperture: f/1.8; Stabilisation: optical; Video resolution: 4K at 60fps; Front camera: 7MP

5. Xiaomi Redmi Note 10 Pro: The best budget camera

Price: £249 | Buy now from Amazon

Xiaomi continues its reign of technical wizardry with the release of the Redmi Note 10 Pro. Somehow, Xiaomi has managed to launch a budget phone with a massive 108MP camera, which is something that’s frankly astounding for a phone this cheap, and it really impressed in testing.

For a mere fraction of what the most recent iPhone and Samsungs cost, this is a phone that manages to hold its own under scrutiny, taking Instagram-worthy pictures in a wide variety of lighting conditions and environments. Video recording is limited to only 1080p at 30fps, but for only £249 the Redmi Note 9T barely manages to place a foot wrong elsewhere.

Read our full Xiaomi Redmi Note 10 Pro review for more details

Key specs – Rear camera: 108MP, 8MP (wide), 5MP (macro), 2MP (depth); Aperture: f/1.9; Stabilisation: Electronic; Video resolution: 1080p at 30fps; Front camera: 16MP

6. OnePlus 8T: The best mid-range camera

Price: £549 l Buy now from Amazon

OnePlus may not have the same high level of brand recognition as the likes of Samsung and Apple in the UK, but its well-priced flagship beaters frequently gain a lot of praise as an option for wallets that aren’t overflowing with banknotes. For less than half the price of an iPhone 12 Pro Max, you can pick up the OnePlus 8T instead, and you’ll have a much better experience than you were possibly expecting.

Why so? Well, to start with the OnePlus 8T has a large 48MP primary camera that manages to take lavish, detail-rich images. This is accompanied by an ultrawide module with a 123-degree field of view, which shoots at 16 megapixels, as well as a 5MP macro camera. The fourth “monochrome” camera is a bit of a niche addition and it simply allows you to capture a black and white image. regardless, if you’re craving detail-rich shots that look just as good as some of the pricier rivals on this list, then look no further.

Read our full OnePlus 8T review for more details

Key specs – Rear camera: 48MP, 16MP (ultrawide), 5MP (macro), 2MP (monochrome); Aperture: f/1.7; Stabilisation: optical; Video resolution: 4K at 60fps; Front camera: 16MP

7. Huawei P40 Pro: A truly four-some camera setup

Price: £720 l Buy now from Amazon

Huawei’s P40 Pro has a rather unusual quadruple-camera arrangement. The optically-stabilised 50MP RYYB camera is capable of capturing images with greater dynamic range than ever before, with less visual noise. This works with a – frankly rather excellent – 40MP wide-angle lens, which shoots at the full-frame camera equivalent focal length of 18mm, which means you can shoot large groups of people from up close without using panorama mode.

The third camera – a 12MP 5x telephoto lens (125mm equivalent focal length) – adds optical zoom to stunning effect. Notably, the fourth lens is just a depth-sensing unit. No matter the lighting conditions, the P40 Pro’s triple cameras are perfectly capable of capturing intricate details such as wispy cloud layers, far off brickwork and puddle reflections with ease – this is a wonderfully versatile smartphone camera setup albeit, with a sky-high asking price, and the absence of Google Play Services is a real bummer.

Read our full Huawei P40 Pro review for more details

Key specs – Rear camera: 50MP, 40MP (wide), 12MP (5x telephoto zoom), ToF (Time of Flight) sensor; Aperture: f/1.9; Stabilisation: optical; Video resolution: 4K at 60fps; Front camera: 32MP

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