The Best Smartphones for Photography in 2021

Photography Gear

Almost everyone wields a camera these days because they already have one by default on their smartphones. But not just any phone will capture the best results, and that’s why some stand out for particular reasons.

Mobile photography is now one of the major battlegrounds for vendors trying to one-up each other. Thankfully, it’s not entirely about numbers, despite megapixel counts hitting new highs, it’s a lot about how effective software can be to do more with the available pixels. That can also depend on how you look at what the software gives you, especially relative to the varying modes phones now regularly offer.

We’re talking about an ever-evolving situation, where new phones may supplant old ones, while others trade places based on how new updates affected performance and output. Whether it’s pro mode features, software that does amazing things, or getting more for every dollar you spend, this roundup is a good place to start. We at PetaPixel will be updating it regularly to reflect a changing and shifting market to give you the insight you need to shoot what you want.

What We’re Looking For

There are plenty of smartphones with what you could consider to be “good” cameras, but the “great” ones are fewer in number, and it often shows. When we look at what would put a smartphone camera on this list, we always look for the best results, particularly when talking about a specific type of photo. That may not necessarily mean the phone is the best in every other facet, but if it’s noted here, there are reasons for it.

That’s why we also broke things down into categories that differentiate between the strengths of certain devices. One phone may be better at shooting portraits, whereas the other has a Pro mode cutting above the rest. Computational software is so integral, and yet, not everyone does it well.

We break it all down into six distinct categories:

Main sensor: 108MP or 12MP (with pixel binning) 26mm equivalent

Other rear cameras: 10MP 3x zoom telephoto lens (70mm equivalent), 10MP 10x zoom telephoto (240mm equivalent), 12MP ultra wide-angle (13mm equivalent)

Front-facing camera: 40MP 

Video recording resolution: Up to 8K

Price: Starting at $1,200

A year ago, Samsung would’ve struggled just to make this list with the disjointed effort that was the Galaxy S20 Ultra. That’s not the case with its successor, which rectified some key missteps and put together one of the most well-rounded cameras available. It’s not perfect, mind you, and does need work in some areas, but it’s easy to like the variance and output you get.

Its product cycle wasn’t quite fast enough to align with Samsung’s newest ISOCELL GN2 image sensor, so the S21 Ultra relies on the previous GN1. What might seem like a hardware trade-off is supplemented, to some degree, by the smarter use of newer lenses and smarter software. We’re certainly not referring to gimmicky nonsense like the 100x Space Zoom, but more the restrained color output and improved HDR that gives photos so much better composition.

Read PetaPixel’s Samsung S21 Ultra Review here.

The two zoom lenses complement each other well, especially the 10x zoom that emulates a 240mm telephoto. They may be the best images a zoom lens currently takes on a phone, and while the 30x hybrid has its up and downs, it can turn out a stellar shot at the right time. Samsung would be better suited to making its Pro mode more accessible to the myriad of rear lenses, but alas, it’s only for the main lens, and only at 12MP. Great for low-light, not so much for taking a photo you want to make bigger, unless you try features like Adobe’s Super Resolution.

All that said, if not for the U.S. ban on Huawei, that brand’s Mate 40 Pro would likely have been in this position. One of the most versatile and superb cameras of any smartphone to date, its retail and software limitations, as far as the full gamut of Android goes, preclude us from placing it here. But if you are so inclined, its output won’t disappoint. The Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra might also be gunning for the top crown this year, though its availability in North America is unknown at this time. However, with the possibility the Galaxy S21 Ultra will be the only real Samsung flagship this year, it will continue to stand out throughout 2021.

Best Pro Mode for Smartphone Photography: Vivo X60 Pro+

Main sensor: 50MP or 100MP or 12MP (with pixel binning) 23mm equivalent

Other rear cameras: 32MP 2x zoom telephoto (50mm equivalent), 8MP 5x zoom telephoto lens (125mm equivalent), 48MP ultra wide-angle (14mm equivalent)

Front-facing camera: 32MP

Video recording resolution: Up to 4K

Price: Starting at $1,200

What makes the X60 Pro+ so compelling is that its Pro mode tries to qualify the user. Onscreen explainers note what a feature or setting does, and opens the door to a learning experience — something lacking in getting more mobile shooters to try a mode like this.

The other advantage is that the four rear lenses are available to use in this mode, something that continues to be omitted in rival handsets. While Vivo would’ve been better served to move the lens icons in the interface further away from the composition settings, once you avoid false positives, you can really start to benefit from shooting in RAW at multiple focal lengths. Even its built-in Macro mode kicks in when going close up.

Read PetaPixel’s Vivo X60Pro+ Review here.

Since Vivo’s Night mode has a tendency to overprocess shots, Pro ends up being an ideal alternative. The Slow shutter mode can handle unique long exposure captures, but Pro can often fill in for low-light shots, especially when using a tripod or flat surface to prop up the phone for a slower shutter. This may have been another one Huawei could win, or at least vie for, but since Vivo has no quarrel, it’s a solid alternative.

Best Smartphone for Computational Photography: Google Pixel 5

Main sensor: 12.2MP (27mm equivalent)

Other rear cameras: 12MP ultra wide-angle (16.5mm equivalent)

Front-facing camera: 8MP 

Video recording resolution: Up to 4K

Price: Starting at $699

If not for its software, Google’s Pixel 5 would look barebones on a spec sheet. But as the old adage always says, “never judge a book by its cover.” It’s the sort of understated design that has served Google well in wowing people with its cameras can do. Or, more specifically, what its software can do.

Truth be told, the main sensor is long in the tooth, considering it’s essentially the same one Google used in the Pixel 3. It is time for an upgrade there, but in the Pixel 5, you get a phone camera with the best computational software. The HDR interpolation is outstanding in a variety of conditions, and we’ve yet to see another phone match the shadow and brightness sliders in the interface.

It’s a big reason why Night Sight continues to compete as well as it does for low-light shots, despite an aging sensor. Adding the feature to portraits, while also making just about every feature or setting — including RAW capture — available to both lenses makes this phone easier to get a good shot.

Best Bang-for-the-Buck Smarphone for Photography: Google Pixel 4a

Main sensor: 12.2MP (27mm equivalent)

Other rear cameras: None
Front-facing camera: 8MP

Video recording resolution: Up to 4K

Price:
Starting at $499

It would be hard to find a phone that shoots as well as the Pixel 4a does for the price. Whether you go with the 5G variant or not, the device borrows so much from its flagship sibling that it can capture the same photos under most of the same conditions. You don’t get any other lenses in the rear, but the image sensor and computational software otherwise still apply to the main shooter.

That means Night Sight and Portrait mode are going to still look really good, and with RAW capture always available, there’s room to do more in post. For those on a budget, it’s going to be one of the best phone cameras less money can buy.

Main sensor: 12MP (26mm equivalent)

Other rear cameras: 12MP 2.5x zoom telephoto (65mm equivalent), 12MP ultra wide-angle (13mm equivalent)

Front-facing camera: 12MP 

Video recording resolution: Up to 4K

Price: Starting at $1,099

The iPhone is still among kings when it comes to video recording, and it has a lot to do with how well it captures color, tone, and texture. Apple’s had a knack for this for many years now, and while you’d glean similar results from the iPhone 12 Pro, there are a couple of advantages in going to the Max, if you’re so inclined.

The Pro Max has a 47% larger sensor in its ultra-wide camera. By itself, that may not seem like a big deal, but in the field, a reliable ultra-wide lens is great to shoot footage with. Not to mention what it can do for still photos. The phone can’t compete against others when it comes to telephoto options, but the main sensor is also larger, and that pays dividends for footage in low-light conditions.

If we were talking a truly “pro” level here, the Sony Xperia Pro or Xperia 1 Mark II (or the forthcoming Mark III) might take this spot, but those aren’t necessarily made for every type of user. The iPhone 12 Pro is almost as capable as the Pro Max in its own right, making it a viable option, too.

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