Taking great photos with a smartphone requires a bunch of tech to all work together seamlessly. From the sensor to the lenses to the image processor and the software, any weak link will make your photos seem downright average in a very competitive arear of the smartphone market.
That's why we stringently test all aspects of the camera of every phone we review, and we regularly compare photos from different phones side by side to establish a baseline of quality.
Some phones get everything right, like the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and iPhone 12 Pro Max, of course. But both the Huawei P40 Pro and the new Huawei Mate 40 Pro also put in a winning performance here.
Best camera phones at a glance
- Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
- Huawei Mate 40 Pro
- iPhone 12 Pro Max
- Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
- Huawei P40 Pro
- iPhone 12 Pro
- Samsung Galaxy S21 / S21 Plus
- Vivo X50Pro
- iPhone 12 / iPhone 12 mini
- Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus
- Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
While the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra’s camera didn’t quite deliver on its promise, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra’s very much does.
As with everything in the S21 Ultra, the camera is top-end, with a 108MP f/1.8 main snapper, a 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide one, and – in a move that’s pretty much unheard of on phones – two telephoto cameras. These are both 10MP, but one has an f/2.4 aperture and allows for 3x optical zoom, while the other has an f/4.9 aperture and allows for a massive 10x optical zoom.
And the results are as impressive as the numbers – so much so that we labeled this the best camera zoom on a phone in our Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review.
Non-zoomed shots look great too, though sometimes not as good as the best rivals. But coupled with a wealth of camera modes, including new additions like Director’s View (which lets you shoot video with both the front and rear cameras at the same time), along with a highly capable 40MP front-facing camera, this makes for a smartphone photographer’s dream.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review
You might be surprised to see the Huawei Mate 40 Pro here, but even though it's app options are slightly limited due to not having access to the Google Play Store, that issue has nothing to do with its cameras.
In fact, its cameras are exceptional. It has a 50MP f/1.9 main camera, a 12MP f/3.4 periscope one (with 5x optical zoom), and a 20MP f/1.8 ultra-wide one.
While that’s not quite as many lenses as some rivals, it’s got all the most important kinds accounted for, and they all perform very well.
From portrait shots to wide landscapes, zoomed photos, and close up subjects, we found in our review that the Huawei Mate 40 Pro could cope brilliantly with just about every kind of photo. It even does a great job in low-light conditions.
And while our focus is the rear snappers, the Huawei Mate 40 Pro also has a decent setup on the front, with a 13MP f/2.4 camera joined by a time-of-flight (ToF) sensor for sensing depth.
There are loads of photography modes and tools available on the Huawei Mate 40 Pro as well, from a light painting feature to a dedicated moon photography mode.
Read our full Huawei Mate 40 Pro review
The iPhone 12 Pro Max isn’t the best smartphone, but it is very close to being the best camera phone. It includes a 12MP f/1.6 main snapper, a 12MP f/2.2 telephoto one (with 2.5x optical zoom), a 12MP f/2.4 ultra-wide one, and even a LiDAR scanner, which enables Night Mode portraits.
In fact night – and low light in general – is something the iPhone 12 Pro Max has far less issue with than most smartphones, thanks in part to a large sensor that can take in a lot of light. Night Mode is also usable with both the main and ultra-wide sensor, so you’re not limited in the types of photos you can take at night.
Smart HDR 3 meanwhile is a new feature for the range which combines multiple exposures to create the best picture possible – which is something that can benefit your shots no matter what the light is like.
The onboard editing options are great too, and with Dolby Vision supported for videos it’s not just stills that the iPhone 12 Pro Max excels at.
All in all it’s an excellent setup, with every lens performing well. This is only a slightly better camera phone than the iPhone 12 Pro, but it still has the edge, making it the best iPhone for photography.
Read our full iPhone 12 Pro Max review
The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has a high-spec camera, but it’s the telephoto camera that really stands out. This is a 12MP f/3.0 snapper with 5x optical zoom and 50x digital zoom.
Both of those specs are impressive, and while the S20 Ultra offers 100x digital zoom, that was little more than a gimmick, with the Note 20 Ultra actually bettering that snapper thanks to a wider aperture and larger pixels.
And while the telephoto camera is the highlight, the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s 108MP f/1.8 main camera and 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide one also perform well.
The Note 20 Ultra’s camera is also incredibly easy and fun to use, and it benefits from extras like 8K video and Single Take mode, which takes a bunch of photos and videos at the same time using the various lenses and modes, to increase the chance of you capturing something good.
Low-light photos aren’t quite as detailed as some of the competition, such as the iPhone 12 Pro Max, but otherwise this is an exceptional camera setup.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review
The Huawei P40 Pro is one of the best camera phones you can buy for under $1,000 / £900, it’s that simple. In fact, for a certain type of photographer - one who values a telephoto camera - it’s just the best camera phone around, period.
Recommending it comes with its own set of caveats given the Huawei/Google situation though. That’s why despite its extensive list of stellar features, you definitely need to read our P40 Pro review before picking one up. Irrespective of its software limitations though, its camera will knock your socks off.
The P40 Pro’s Leica-branded imaging system is spearheaded by a brand new 50MP sensor, which uses RYYB (red yellow yellow blue) sub-pixel formation, like the 40MP P30 Pro before it. Huawei claims this makes its cameras better able to handle dark scenes like a champion, and we can attest to the fact the P40 Pro absolutely can.
The main camera’s lens is a pretty standard f/1.9 aperture on paper, but with a huge sensor size (for a smartphone) and OIS, combined with Huawei’s mighty electronic image stabilization, it’s still a low light star. This phone can pretty much see in the dark, even in automatic mode - something no other non-Huawei phones can do.
There’s also a 40MP f/1.8 ultra-wide camera, a 12MP telephoto camera that’s capable of 5x optical zoom or 50x digital zoom, and a time-of-flight (ToF) sensor for creating bokeh effects.
Photos taken on the P40 Pro are high on detail and low on noise. Unlike Samsung, Huawei’s photos don’t look overly sharpened, and while they aren’t as natural and neutral as those taken on the Oppo Find X2 Pro, many will prefer Huawei’s comparatively punchy style.
As far as zoom goes, while the P40 Pro may not get quite as close as the Galaxy S20 Ultra, the phone costs a lot less, and more importantly, delivers more consistent image quality across its cameras.
The rest of the phone’s hardware is top-tier, it looks a treat and has plenty of power, so if (and only if) you’re comfortable with the Google-free software experience, the P40 Pro packs plenty to love.
Read our full Huawei P40 Pro review
At first glance the cameras on the iPhone 12 Pro look much the same as those on the iPhone 12 Pro Max, and it’s true that they’re not much different, but the iPhone 12 Pro Max does have the edge, thanks to a larger sensor on the main snapper, and improved zoom on the telephoto.
Still, the iPhone 12 Pro comes very close to matching it, and at a lower price. It has a 12MP f/1.6 main snapper with OIS, a 12MP f/2.0 telephoto camera with OIS and 2x optical zoom, and a 12MP f/2.4 ultra-wide camera. Like its larger sibling it also has a LiDAR scanner, which can be used to power augmented reality experiences and take Night Mode portrait shots.
As with the iPhone 12 Pro Max, Night Mode in general is really impressive here, allowing you to take bright, detailed shots where other phones would struggle, and you can use Night Mode with both the main and ultra-wide lenses.
The 12MP selfie camera also performs well, and there are handy features like Dolby Vision for video, and Smart HDR 3 for improved image processing.
Read our full iPhone 12 Pro review
The Samsung Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Plus have a different camera configuration to the S21 Ultra, hence these phones ranking lower in this list, but it’s still a very impressive setup on each handset.
There’s a 12MP f/1.8 main camera, a 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide one, and a 64MP f/2.0 telephoto, making for a setup that’s basically the same as the Samsung Galaxy S20's – but that phone’s cameras still impress, and there are software improvements here.
Those improvements include things like new modes for Single Take. This mode lets the phone take a variety of photos and videos using all three cameras with a single button press, and now it includes a slow-mo option.
There’s also now a Director’s View mode, which lets you shoot with the front and rear cameras at the same time.
So you have a lot more options for your photographer’s toolkit, and away from the new features the core camera experience is still great, whichever lens you’re using – though the 3x hybrid optical zoom here is no match for the 10x offered by the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.
The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini offer identical camera experiences, and are both a significant step down on that front from the Pro models.
These two lose the telephoto lens and LiDAR scanner, offering just a 12MP f/1.6 main camera and a 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide one on the back, with a 12MP f/2.2 snapper on the front as well.
All three cameras perform well and - as with the rest of the iPhone 12 range - these two outperform most handsets in low light environments too – and that’s true no matter which lens you’re using, as Night Mode works across all of them.
The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini also benefit from Smart HDR 3, which uses AI to optimize images, while for video you can take advantage of Dolby Vision, which should give your clips more pop.
With the X50 Pro Vivo is swinging for the fences. This phone demands a premium price in part because it is a beautifully built product, but mostly because of its innovative camera tech.
The star of the show is the main 48MP shooter which is mounted on a mechanical gimble. This unique feature means that the lens remains locked on your target even if you're moving, providing you with rock steady video footage and superb low light photos, with the gimbal partly eliminating camera movement during long exposure shots. The gimbal system works remarkably well in practice.
The next attraction is the 5x telescopic zoom lens, up to 60x using digital zoom. Again, the 5x zoom worked exactly as advertised. Then there is a 120-degree wide angle lens, a specialised portrait mode lens, and a 32MP selfie camera with flash. Unfortunately, we found the camera AI for scene recognition to be more of a hindrance than a help.
Round out that set of sensors with some on-board 5G for fast uploading and you understand why Vivo is on our list for the first time. The X50 Pro might have ranked higher but we think it's a little too expensive for a brand that is still establishing its reputation in South Africa.
Read more: Vivo X50Pro review
There’s a huge amount going on with the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra’s camera setup. For starters, you’ve got over 200 megapixels across the front and rear cameras, then there are those smart new shooting modes to talk about; and finally - there’s that huge zoom - 100x ‘Space Zoom’. Marketing jargon? Absolutely, but irrespective, the S20 Ultra’s camera is a telephoto champion.
It all starts with a 108MP primary camera sensor - the same as the one on the Xiaomi Mi Note 10. This time around, it’s combined with a 48MP optical zoom camera, a 12MP ultra-wide camera and a time-of-flight sensor around the back, which gathers depth information for the blurry background, sharp foreground Live Focus stills and video.
The Ultra’s zoom really is best-in-class when compared to other camera phones on the market. It uses a roughly 5x optical zoom with a high-resolution sensor to create virtually lossless 10x zoom images. Packing a fun Single take mode, the whole S20-range is social media-ready, capturing a range of photos and videos simultaneously so you can snap once, then decide later. They’re also all 8K-ready, shooting the highest resolution footage on the block.
Why isn’t the S20 Ultra higher in our list? Its night mode can’t topple the best out there, and Samsung’s processing is aggressive; so photos can look a touch too punchy. That said, this is still a stellar camera phone with an excellent zoom.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra review
On many levels, we’re bigger fans of the S20 Plus than the Ultra. It costs cost less, and pack a much more manageable footprint. Even though they don’t have a “100x Space Zoom” or a 108MP main camera, they still take better snaps than last year’s S10 family.
The main camera across both the S20 and S20 Plus sports a traditional 12MP resolution, combined with a wide open f/1.8 and a 26mm focal length - pretty standard for a flagship. With 1.8µm sized pixels, the S20s won’t be winning any big-pixel awards, but thanks to Dual Pixel PDAF and OIS, they still nail it nine times out of 10, even in dimly lit scenes.
The 64MP telephoto camera may sound tantalizing - all that resolution combined with all that zoom. But, the ‘3x zoom’ these phones pack isn’t the whole picture. The S20’s 64MP sensor combines with a 29mm focal length - just 3mm greater than that of the 26mm main camera. The way it achieve a 3x zoom, however, is by cropping into the sensor, to achieve a 3x Hybrid Zoom. In turn, the phones can’t stack up to the periscope cameras on-test.
As for the ultra-wide cameras on both phones, they clock in at 12 MP, with an f/2.2 aperture and a 13mm focal length. If you’ve opted for the S20 Plus, you’ll also get a time of flight sensor around the back to grab depth information. This helps blur out the background in Live Focus mode, though both phones offer respectable portrait-style shots.
As with the S20 Ultra, the S20 and S20 Plus shoot 8K video at 24fps, and 4K video at up to 60fps. They also capture HDR video too, a relatively unique feature among smartphones today.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus review
Want to know more about dual-cameras? Check out our video below.