It’s never been easier to take great photos on the fly. Everyone has a smartphone now, and the camera technology inside these pocketable devices has improved tremendously in the last few years. We share more than 2 billion photos every day on Facebook alone.
The ability to quickly capture and share precious memories is important. The smartphone is usually the camera we have on hand, so it has to perform well. If you’re wondering what the best camera phones are, then wonder no longer, because here are our top picks.
Best camera phones of 2018
Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL: The best
Why should you buy this? It’s the best smartphone camera we’ve used, and the best Android phone on the market.
Who’s it for? Anyone who rates photography as a top priority in their smartphone.
How much will it cost? $800-plus.
Google continues to put enormous effort into the camera experience for its Pixel smartphones — and it really shows. The main camera in the Pixel 3 is lightning fast to focus and it produces sharp, detailed photos in a wide range of settings. Point and shoot with the automatic settings and you’ll enjoy great results most of the time.
The main camera in the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL is the same and it’s rated at 12.2 megapixels. The aperture is f/1.8 and there is support for phase detection and laser autofocus, as well as HDR and optical image stabilization (OIS), but it’s not the hardware that impresses here. Eschewing the trend for dual lenses, Google pulls off the same tricks using software expertise to achieve a bokeh effect, blurring out the background for great portrait shots. The HDR+ captures multiple shots and combines them to cut out the noise and produce the best possible image.
With the Pixel 3, Google added yet more software trickery called Night Sight, enabling a less grainy digital zoom, enhanced low-light performance, and the ability to select your ideal shot. Google’s use of artificial intelligence is pushing computational photography to a whole new level and it consistently delivers our favorite photos.
Around front, Google has embraced the dual lens trend, with a front-facing camera that pairs two 8-megapixel lenses, one with an f/1.8 aperture, and a wider angle lens with an f/2.2 aperture. Selfie fans are sure to be delighted with the results and the easily adjustable slider allows you to fit in groups of people or more of your background, easily outperforming most of the selfie camera competition.
The video capability is also top-notch, with support for 4K video at 30 frames per second, or full HD at 120 frames per second.
As mentioned, the automatic settings are great, but you can also tweak the exposure, focus lock, white balance, and more if you want. Another major advantage of the Pixel 3 phones is that Google offers free full resolution storage for all the photos and videos you shoot in Google Photos (without digging into the free 15GB Google offers everyone).
The Pixel 3 improves on its predecessor, which won our in-depth smartphone camera shootout last year, with spectacular dynamic range, great color accuracy, brilliant details, and overall reliable performance in all types of lighting conditions. The Pixel 3 is also our pick as the best Android smartphone right now, but if you don’t care about the ugly notch and want a larger screen, you can get the same excellent camera by opting for the Pixel 3 XL.
iPhone XS or XS Max: The best iPhone camera
Why should you buy this? It’s the best smartphone of the year, with an impressive main camera.
Who’s it for? Apple fans who want the best smartphone camera.
How much will it cost? $1,000-plus.
Apple’s iPhone XS sports the best camera performance we’ve ever seen in an iPhone. It’s a great all-around camera that you can just point and shoot with, but it also boasts powerful optical and digital zoom, thanks to that dual camera. If you find yourself wishing you could zoom in on distant subjects and still get a decent shot, then this is the phone for you.
It has a dual lens main camera, both rated at 12 megapixels with f/1.8 and f/2.4 apertures respectively. There’s also optical image stabilization (OIS), phase detection autofocus, and support for HDR.
The natural color reproduction is excellent, and the iPhone XS camera also features a larger sensor than its predecessor which allows for better low light performance with less grain. Thanks to Smart HDR, which stitches together multiple frames, bright lights no longer appear overexposed and it’s much better at dealing with high-contrast scenarios than the iPhone X was.
The DSLR-like bokeh effect is the best we’ve seen from an iPhone so far and you can now adjust it after snapping a photo. The iPhone XS also boasts Portrait Lighting, which offers different lighting effects for your subjects, making it a great phone for capturing stunning shots of your loved ones.
It can also record 4K video at up to 60 frames per second, or full HD at up to 240 frames per second. The front-facing camera is rated at 7 megapixels and it takes great selfies.
The camera app is really accessible, but anyone seeking in-depth control will be disappointed. There is no manual mode for pro photographers, though you can always use an app from the App Store.
Overall, the iPhone XS boasts a fantastic camera that’s easy to use. If you prefer a larger screen, then you can opt for the iPhone XS Max, which has exactly the same camera suite.
Huawei Mate 20 Pro: The best low-light camera
Why should you buy this? It’s one of the best smartphones around, with a camera that outshines the competition in low light.
Best low-light camera
Huawei Mate 20 Pro
With a triple-lens camera, the Mate 20 Pro bests the competition in challenging light.
*Price may be subject to change
Who’s it for? Anyone who wants a really versatile camera.
How much will it cost? $1,100.
Why we picked the Huawei Mate 20 Pro:
The Huawei Mate 20 Pro boasts an innovative three-lens camera setup on the rear. There’s a 40-megapixel lens with an f/1.8 aperture, a 20-megapixel ultra-wide lens with an f/2.2 aperture, and an 8-megapixel telephoto lens with an f/2.4 aperture. If you’re wondering how it differs from the P20 Pro, the 20-megapixel lens has been switched from monochrome to wide-angle.
Ridiculously feature-packed is the only way to describe this camera. Clever artificial intelligence recognizes each scene and picks the ideal settings, while also ensuring that your shots are properly framed and fully stabilized. Daytime shots are excellent, but things get even better at night. A dedicated Night Mode opens the aperture for several seconds and, even when it’s handheld, the A.I. can edit out any blur or shake to produce an amazing, bright shot.
There’s also support for super slow-motion video, which captures 960 frames per second at 720p, and a new Super Macro mode for extreme close-ups. Huawei’s new Kirin 980 dual-NPU A.I. chip allows you to apply cinematic filters in real-time when you shoot video, enabling you to do things like blur the background or make everything except for your subject black and white.
There is also a 6.4-inch AMOLED display, an impressively large 4,200mAh battery, and it comes with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. The big catch with the Huawei Mate 20 Pro is that it isn’t officially available in the U.S. and it’s costly to import.
Read our full Huawei Mate 20 Pro review
If the best of Google, Apple, and Huawei don’t do it for you, then there are a host of other excellent contenders for the best camera phone title. Our next pick for impressive all-around performance has to be the Samsung Galaxy Note 9. It pairs a 12-megapixel lens with optical image stabilization (OIS) and variable aperture — the ability to switch between f/1.5 and f/2.4 aperture based on lighting — with a second 12-megapixel lens sporting an f/2.4 aperture and OIS. There’s a solid portrait mode, 2x optical zoom, and A.I. smarts that can optimize scenes and detect flaws.
The LG V40 ThinQ, which boasts a five-lens camera system also needs a mention. The main camera combines a 12-megapixel lens with f/1.5 aperture and OIS, a wide-angle 16-megapixel lens with f/1.9 aperture, and a telephoto 12-megapixel lens with f/2.4 aperture. There is also a Super Bright Camera mode for shooting at night and a decent portrait mode. The V stands for video, so the V40 ThinQ offers lots of filters and effects, including a cool cinemagraph effect where you can animate part of a still image.
If you’re an Apple fan, but $1,000 is too much, you can snag a great camera for less by buying the iPhone XR. With a single 12-megapixel lens with an f/1.8 aperture and OIS, it still supports the same Smart HDR and Portrait Mode you’ll find in Apple’s more expensive iPhones. The bokeh blur doesn’t quite match the high notes of its more expensive siblings, but it works better than the XS in low light. There’s no 2x optical zoom, but this is still a great camera that takes pleasing photos in most situations.
Nokia 7.1: The best budget camera phone
Why should you buy this? It offers great performance at a very low price.
Who’s it for? The budget-conscious.
How much will it cost? $350
Why we picked the Nokia 7.1:
Trying to find a decent camera at the budget end of the smartphone market is a bit like trying to find a needle in a haystack, so the Nokia 7.1 is worthy of praise. It boasts two lenses in the main camera with Zeiss optics, a 12-megapixel lens with an f/1.8 aperture and a 5-megapixel lens that offers some depth. It’s relatively speedy for a budget phone camera and delivers accurate colors and lots of detail, provided you hold still when snapping a photo.
There’s also an 8-megapixel front-facing camera, and both cameras feature a fairly decent portrait mode that keeps the subject in sharp relief and blurs the background. The big weakness is low-light performance, which tends to lead to a loss of detail and trouble focusing, though we have seen worse.
You’ll find support for video recording up to 2,160p at 30 frames per second, and there is electronic image stabilization (EIS) to combat the blur caused by shaking hands. It should be enough for most people.
The Nokia 7.1 also sports a 5.84-inch LCD screen that’s sharp and bright. Inside, you will find Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 636 processor, with 4GB of RAM. There’s also 64GB of internal storage and a MicroSD card slot in case you need more space. Best of all, it runs Android One, which means no bloatware and fast updates. The 3,060mAh battery doesn’t last as long as we’d like, but at $350 you can’t have everything.
Read our full Nokia 7.1 review
How we test
We are constantly glued to our smartphones here at Digital Trends. Every phone we test serves as our daily driver for at least a week, often a lot longer. That means we use the cameras in the smartphones we test for everything, from capturing social events in our lives to capturing video at trade shows or shooting photos for articles. We know how important the camera in your smartphone is, so we always test them thoroughly, snapping shots in as many different environments as we can to get a good comparative picture of how they stack up.
We’re constantly debating the best and it’s not unusual for conversations to spill into impromptu camera tests where we shoot the same landmarks with different phones and then analyze the results and argue about them some more.
How to decipher camera phone specs
There are a lot of technical specifications related to the cameras in our smartphones, so here’s a quick crash course to explain the basics.
The megapixel rating relates to detail. In simple terms: the higher the megapixel count, the more detail you’ll see in the picture. For a long time, the smartphone camera specs race focused on megapixel count, but there’s more to capturing a great photo than detail. It’s also worth noting that many cameras do not capture at the maximum megapixel settings by default, because it’s often more detail than you need. Most manufacturers are now working to improve other aspects of their cameras.
Sensor size is another thing to consider, as it turns out that all megapixels are not created equal. HTC coined the term “ultrapixel” to draw attention to the fact that it had bigger megapixels than some competing camera phones, so even with a 4-megapixel camera, it could potentially get better results than an 8-megapixel camera with smaller pixels. They’re measured in micrometers and bigger is theoretically better at capturing light. For example, the Galaxy S8 camera has a 1.4 µm pixel size.
The aperture is the hole that light travels through to hit the sensor and it’s important for low-light performance. The smaller the number is, the larger the aperture. So, the f/1.7 aperture in the Galaxy S9 camera is slightly bigger than the f/1.8 aperture in the iPhone XS. Changing the amount of light that gets in by fiddling with the aperture also enables photographers to tweak the depth of field. It helps you to capture shots where the subject is in focus and the background is blurred.
Optical image stabilization (OIS)
Optical image stabilization (OIS) helps to keep the camera steady, so if your hands are shaking, it will be less noticeable on a camera phone that has OIS support. It’s compensating for the movement in your hands.
High dynamic range (HDR)
High dynamic range (HDR) is a technique whereby the camera takes multiple shots of the same subject in different exposures and then combines them in post-processing to create one single shot, which is usually brighter and more detailed than a non-HDR shot. It requires some processing power, so you’ll find it might be a bit slow on budget devices like the Nokia 7.1, but it’s always desirable if you want the best possible photos.
For video recording, you want to look at two things: The resolution and the frames-per-second (fps).
The resolution is simply how much detail is captured. For 4K video it’s 3,840 x 2,160 pixels. For Full HD it’s 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. Phones will not record 4K by default because the files are huge, but there are some special moments you might want to capture in maximum resolution – bear in mind that higher resolutions in TVs and other devices will increasingly become the standard in the next few years.
When you see a high frame rate, such as the iPhone X’s ability to shoot Full HD at 120fps, that means you can create slow-motion movies. You can slow the footage down to show detailed moments that would be a blur at a lower frame rate.