The best camera phones in 2021 for every budget

The Top 5 Best Camera Phones For Every Budget In 2021

In 2021, we reached the point where even the budget smartphones include excellent cameras. Furthermore, the flagships are even more impressive and comparable to dedicated devices. However, as with any product in general, the most expensive option isn’t always the smartest choice. This means that even the universally best camera phone might not be the most suitable choice for you. For example, it may have tons of features you rarely use while performing average in segments you need. This is why I’m reviewing five camera phones, offering something for everyone. What’s also important is that all of them are great phones overall – it’s just that their camera features are a step above the rest.

ImageNameDisplayCameraChipset & RAMRatingPrice
iPhone 13 Pro iPhone 13 Pro6.1″12 MP (rear)
12 MP (front)
Apple A15 Bionic
Samsung S21 Ultra Samsung S21 Ultra6.8″108 MP (rear)
40 MP (front)
Snapdragon 888 5G 12/16 GB RAM
Google Pixel 6 Google Pixel 66.4″50 MP (rear)
12 MP (front)
Google Tensor
iPhone SE iPhone SE4.7″12 MP (rear)
7 MP (front)
Apple A13 Bionic
Google Pixel 5A Google Pixel 5A6.34″12.2 MP (rear)
8 MP (front)
Snapdragon 765G
iPhone 13 Pro SEE ON AMAZON
Samsung S21 Ultra SEE ON AMAZON
Google Pixel 6 SEE ON GOOGLE
Google Pixel 5A SEE ON GOOGLE

What to look for when buying a camera phone?

Modern camera phones have so many features that it’s easy to become overwhelmed. So, as I’ve mentioned, it’s pointless buying a device that does things that you might never need. That’s why I suggest sticking to these general rules when purchasing a camera phone.

Megapixels shouldn’t matter – There are pretty affordable smartphones with cameras offering tens of megapixels, and many people will get automatically attracted to them. However, these numbers don’t mean anything if the picture quality is awful, and that’s usually the case. An eight or 16-megapixel camera should be more than enough unless you want to print gigantic posters for billboards or something similar.

Night mode is important – Luckily, many phones now have a night mode, which helps the picture look brighter in low light conditions. Even the best phones won’t perform perfectly in pitch-black situations, but the resulting images will still be impressive.

Check for optical, not digital zoom – Manufacturers are still trying to impress uneducated customers with massive numbers, and as with megapixels count, they love to do the same with zoom. However, you only need to care about optical zoom as it’s far superior to a digital one. The difference is pretty apparent, as the latter only makes the picture blurrier, giving it limited functionality.

Don’t go below 4K video recording – As the 4K TV era is at its peak, recording 1080p videos doesn’t make much sense in most cases. That’s why you need a camera supporting 4K or more, ideally at 60 fps. However, don’t forget you’ll need plenty of space for such files!

Invest in memory – As making photos and videos is important to you, you need a device with lots of memory. The 64 GB option is a bare minimum, but only if the smartphone supports storage expansion via memory cards. With Apple products, the 128 GB option is highly recommended.

iPhone 13 Pro
iPhone 13 Pro Ultra review

iPhone 13 Pro review

The best camera phone brings ultimate performance for less than $1000
iPhone 13 Pro specifications:
  • Display: 6.1 inches OLED, 1170×2532
  • Chipset & RAM: Apple A15 Bionic, 6 GB RAM
  • Camera: 12 MP, f/1.5/ (rear), 12 MP, f/2.2 (front)
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  • Terrific 4K video recording

  • The best night mode

  • Top performance

  • Excellent screen

  • Image stabilization

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  • Still no USB-C

  • Notch is still there

If you wanted the best Apple camera phone, you needed to purchase the Pro Max version. However, this all changes with the iPhone 13 series, as the Pro model already gives you the best technology. Despite looking almost the same as the previous generation, the device is beautiful. It’s still hard to resist the minimalism and excellent build quality. Plus, there’s the IP 68 water and dust protection.

This might be the last iPhone generation with four models, as Mini looks to be on its way out. The Pro edition comes in four versions, but they all feature 6 GB RAM. The difference is in storage, as you can choose between 128GB, 256 GB, 512 GB, and 1 TB. At the moment, for every additional 128 GB, you’ll pay $100 more. Make the decision carefully, as there’s no memory card support. 

King of the night with the best 4K video

The iPhone 13 generation isn’t revolutionary, yet Apple made significant changes in the camera segment. This makes the most sense with the Pro model, as it now has the same features as 13 Pro Max! While the primary cam stays at 12MP, it almost doubles the sensor size compared to iPhone 12 Pro. Combine that with a bigger aperture, and the results are sharper images with vivid colors. Ultrawide and telephoto cams are also impressive, and the macro mode comes via software updates. Finally, the night mode impresses, slightly beating Pixel 6 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.

The iPhone 13 Pro easily handles even the demanding [email protected] fps videos as it doesn’t overheat like some Android models. Yet, the most exciting innovation is the Cinematic Mode which allows for real-time processing. Essentially, it combines Dolby Vision with blurring the background object, but note that it’s limited to [email protected] fps on the 128 GB version.

With the 6.1 inch screen, this phone looks pretty compact compared to other premium devices. The Pro Max model is 6.7 inches, but I don’t think it’s worth it, as it features identical hardware. The OLED screen is brilliant as ever, the 1200 peak brightness is impressive, and there’s a 120Hz refresh rate. The new A15 Bionic chipset is significantly faster than the previous generation and is far ahead of the speediest Androids. Relatively small 3095mAh battery still impresses and is ready for heavy daily use.

The iPhone 13 Pro gives you the absolute pinnacle of Apple technology, as you can create gorgeous photos and videos. The 120Hz display helps, as well as the most powerful smartphone chipset. Unless 6.1 inches is too small for you, this is the best camera phone on the market, and it’s below $1000!

Samsung S21 Ultra
Samsung S21 Ultra review

Samsung S21 Ultra review

The best Android camera phone on the market offers superior zoom options
Samsung S21 Ultra specifications:
  • Display: 6.8 inches AMOLED, 1440×3200, 120Hz
  • Chipset & RAM: Snapdragon 888 5G, 12/16 GB RAM
  • Camera: 108 MP, f/1.8/ (rear), 40 MP, f/2.2 (front)
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  • The best zooming options

  • 8K video recording

  • 960 fps slow-motion video

  • Impressive overall performance

  • Super bright screen

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  • Pretty heavy

  • iPhone 13 Pro Max has better nighttime mode

Samsung’s S21 line offers several models, but S21 Ultra is their best product ever. As you can imagine, this device looks outstanding, with the superior build quality. However, it’s pretty surprising that it’s also smaller than the previous generation. Despite this, it’s pretty heavy, weighing slightly above eight ounces. Of course, this is because Samsung wanted to showcase as much technology as possible, focusing on camera capabilities.

While this is not an affordable device, you can still save money by purchasing the 128 GB/12 GB RAM version. Other options include 256 GB/12 GB RAM and the extravagant 512 GB/16 GB RAM edition. As expected, the S21 line doesn’t include a memory card slot, so keep that in mind. The S21 also has more affordable models, but their cameras are inferior to those on S21 Ultra.

Zooming the finest details

Optical zoom is still quite limited even on the best smartphones, but S21 Ultra is a step above everything else. The zoom range is up to 30x, making this device the best at taking telescopic images. Even more important is the impressive picture quality, thanks to rich and natural colors. The S21 Ultra is also excellent in the night mode, producing bright content with minimal visual noise. In that segment, only the iPhone 13 Pro does things a little bit better.

However, S21 Ultra is the undisputed video champion. This includes super slow-motion clips, with [email protected] fps or even unreal [email protected] fps. Furthermore, there’s an [email protected] fps option to future-proof your content. While Samsung won’t limit your videos, the company warns that the device will get pretty hot after five minutes of recording.

The impressive AMOLED screen and 1500 nits brightness will only help you create better images, while a fast Snapdragon 888 5G chipset enables smooth performance. The 5000mAh battery will get you through the day of intense shooting, while full recharge takes slightly above an hour.

Thanks to its impressive zooming and advanced video recording options, S21 Ultra is the best Android camera phone on the market. While it’s not very affordable, you’ll have a device without any visible weaknesses that will serve for years to come.

Google Pixel 6
Google Pixel 6 review

Google Pixel 6 review

The best midrange camera phone
Google Pixel 6 specifications:
  • Display: 6.4 inches AMOLED, 1080×2400, 90Hz
  • Chipset & RAM: Google Tensor, 8 GB RAM
  • Camera: 50 MP, f/1.9 (rear), 12 MP, f/2.2 (front)
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  • Low-light photography

  • [email protected] fps videos

  • Superior software

  • Excellent hardware

  • Very bright screen

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  • Lacks 120Hz display

  • Average charging speed

Midrange camera phones are the perfect solution if you are a photography enthusiast but without a big budget. Often they are on par with flagships when it comes to camera performance, lacking only the non-essential features. The Google Pixel 6 is the perfect example of this philosophy, as it doesn’t have deal-breaking weaknesses. The latest Gorilla Glass, aluminum frame, and the IP68 certificate will convince you that this is a quality product. The phone also has a distinctive design, with a camera strip on the back, which hints that it’s something special.

The Google Pixel 6 comes with 128 GB and 256 GB internal memory, with the same RAM on both. The 256 GB is much harder to find, and it costs $100 more. Yet, it might be worth seeking since you can’t upgrade storage via memory cards. Of course, the Pixel 6 Pro is also an excellent camera phone, but it belongs to the premium class. As for the colors, you have Kinda Coral, Sorta Seafoam, and Stormy Black.

Massively improved camera and the best camera software

The previous Pixel generation already has an excellent camera but is still limited to 12.2MP. However, Pixel 6 improves it to 50MP on the main cam! The snaps are impressive as you can spot the most delicate details and massive contrast. At the same time, the colors are vibrant but not overly saturated. Unlike the Pro model, you don’t get a telephoto lens, but that’s hardly a surprise. Yet, the night mode is fantastic, as it produces bright images with minimal artifacts. Google is the king of camera software, as Pixel 6 impressively calculated the exposure. Additionally, it has plenty of valuable tools for post-processing. For example, you may remove objects or add motion blur with a few touches.

The video is similarly impressive, as it allows for [email protected] fps recording. Even the action sequences look thrilling, without a noticeable lack of bitrate. Alternatively, you can make 240 fps super slow-motion videos in 1080p. 

The 6.4 inch AMOLED display brings excellent color accuracy, and the brightness beats most premium phones. You also get a 90Hz display for buttery smoothing scrolling. The new Tensor system-on-a-chip offers top Android performance, so it won’t overheat even when making the highest quality videos. This also makes it a smart choice for gamers, as only iPhones are visibly better performers. Finally, the 4614 mAh battery is large enough to let you enjoy your phone for the whole day and even more.

The Google Pixel 6 lets you create inspiring photos and videos and is impressive in low-light conditions. With the top-of-the-line camera software and excellent hardware, this all makes for a smooth experience. While the Pixel 6 Pro adds a telephoto lens, 120Hz display, and other minor improvements, this regular edition is a better value for everyone but professionals.

iPhone SE
iPhone SE review

iPhone SE review

The best small camera phone produces stunning results, despite its attractive price
iPhone SE specifications:
  • Display: 4.7 inches Retina IPS LCD, 750×1334
  • CPU & RAM: Apple A13 Bionic, 3 GB RAM
  • Camera: 12 MP, f/1.8 (rear)/ 7 MP, f/2.2 (front)
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  • Super compact

  • Easily handles 4K at 60 fps videos

  • Detailed and color-rich images

  • Terrific performance

  • Dust and water-resistant

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  • Large bezels

  • No night mode

I mentioned Apple iPhone SE as one of the best budget-friendly phones, but it has other things going for it. This affordable Apple device still creates impressive photos and videos despite its compactness, keeping features from more expensive models. Its combination of glass and aluminum still has that familiar Apple product feel. However, it would look even better with smaller bezels.

This phone comes in three different versions. The only difference between them is the internal storage, ranging from 64 to 256 GB. Since you are buying a camera phone and there is no memory card slot, I recommend a 128 GB version. The color choice is limited, but you can select between standard black, white, and red.

The best 4K recording on a budget

Apple is not about throwing big numbers, but they are serious about their camera. A single 12 MP main cam produces terrific results, as it works beautifully with Portrait Light and Smart HDR software. Hence, pictures feature rich colors and catch even the most minor details, even better than the more expensive Androids. Unfortunately, there’s no dedicated night mode, but the device is still usable in low light conditions.

On the other hand, it’s hard to argue against iPhone SE video recording. The device can easily handle beautiful 4K at 60 HDR-compatible fps videos. There is also a decent 240 fps slow-motion mode in 1080p resolution.

Because of its compactness, iPhone SE has a 720p 4.7-inch screen. Still, 600 nits brightness and stunning colors make it attractive to look at. Also, the powerful A13 Bionic chip annihilates every Android. Finally, while 1821 mAh doesn’t look like much, rest assured it will easily survive a day of intensive shooting. Just don’t forget to buy a separate fast charger, as Apple won’t give you one.

The iPhone SE is an absolute champion among compact camera phones, as it allows you to create gorgeous photos. Because of its potent chipset, even 4K at 60 fps recording is a piece of cake. Finally, the price is just right, even for the 128 GB model.

Google Pixel 5A
Google Pixel 5A review

Google Pixel 5A review

The best budget camera phone features an OLED screen
Google Pixel 5A specifications:
  • Display: 6.34 inches OLED, 1080×2340
  • CPU & RAM: Snapdragon 765G, 6 GB RAM
  • Camera: 12.2 MP, f/1.7/ (rear), 8 MP, f/2.0 (front)
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  • Night mode

  • Camera software

  • OLED screen

  • [email protected] fps recording

  • Image stabilization

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  • Overheats quickly at the highest video quality

  • Lacks high refresh rate

For the longest time, it seemed like Google had no idea should it release Pixel 5A or not. Luckily, they introduced a considerably cheaper device than the regular Pixel 6. The first thing you’ll notice is that this product looks almost the same as its predecessor, but it’s slightly bigger. While the body is metal, you might not notice that since it’s covered by rubbery plastic. The build quality is still impressive, so the worst thing I can say about it is that it looks quite conservative. 

Unfortunately, there’s no color choice here, as Google only offers the device in Mostly Black. While it appears black, you’ll notice that it’s dark green under a strong light source. The 128 GB version is the only one, which was the case with Google Pixel 4a. Yet, that’s still plenty in 2022, assuming that filming 4K videos isn’t something you do daily. As you probably know, Google devices don’t support memory cards, so 128 GB internal memory is all you got. I’ll add that there’s no Pixel 5a model without 5G, as LTE phones are on their way to extinction.

Seeing in the dark

While the Pixel 6 family got the new camera system, the Pixel 5a just picked it up from 4a 5G. Yet, the 12.2 MP primary camera holds very well. The image quality is terrific as the sensor doesn’t miss any detail. However, maybe you’ll notice that colors are slightly more saturated. Also, this device incorporates image stabilization, which is still surprising in this class. While Pixel 4a was impressive in low light conditions, the 5a takes things to another level. Finally, Google traditionally includes tons of post-processing software to enhance your snaps. There’s also a 16MP ultrawide cam which produces less spectacular results.

The recording options are excellent, allowing you to make [email protected] fps videos or even [email protected] In both cases, results are impressive, but the top-quality videos may quickly fill the memory, as I mentioned. Plus, they also tend to overheat the phone if you record for more than two or three minutes.

The 6.34-inch screen certainly isn’t massive, but the OLED technology makes it superior to other devices in the class. The color reproduction and contrast are terrific, but the brightness also deserves praise. The 1080×2400 resolution only helps the display shine, and you can also watch HDR content. Sounds perfect? Pretty much yes, apart from the refresh rate. Unfortunately, this model is locked to 60Hz, even though similarly priced Samsung A52a doubles that value. Yet, at least the performance is smooth as the Snapdragon 765G is still decent even for gaming. The 4690mAh is quite large, so you may survive two days without recharging.

The Google Pixel 5a is pretty much the same as 4a 5G, but it still improves with the better build quality and a larger screen. While I miss higher refresh rates and better performance, this is easily the best camera among budget phones. I don’t recommend it only if you have 4a or 4a 5G, as these models are too similar.

FAQ for the best camera phones in 2021

Is lower aperture always better?

As you may know or not, the aperture is that hole in your camera that affects how much light falls on the sensor through the camera lens. To rate aperture, we use f-number where the lower number is considered better, but not always. In practice, a smaller number means that more light reaches the sensor, which is critical for low-light conditions. Plus, it’s also crucial for creating sharp, dynamic shots or if you want a depth of field effect. However, a higher aperture also has a purpose when you need everything to stay focused. For example, it’s great for landscapes or family photos. So while you’ll probably need a lower aperture in most cases, know when to use a higher one!

Should I ever use digital zoom?

When you are utilizing digital zoom on your phone, it functions as a glorified cropping tool. This means that when you enhance the part of the picture, it will start losing the details, becoming more blurry. The camera software will compensate for that, but it will be successful only to a certain point. So, is digital zoom totally useless? Not if you take shots in massive resolution, as the loss of detail will be less apparent. That’s why it’s a good idea to take photos of the biggest size available, as you can always crop them later.

What is hybrid camera zoom?

Since optical zoom is still pretty limited on smartphones, the manufacturers have introduced hybrid camera zoom. As you can imagine, this technology combines digital and optical zoom, using various enhancements to cover the loss in quality. The results are pretty impressive, although you should use this only when optical zoom isn’t enough.

Is it the truth that smartphones don’t have optical zoom?

It may shock you, but strictly speaking, the answer is yes. As we know, on a traditional camera, using optical zoom always employs moving glass elements. Instead, smartphones make lossless zoom by combining multiple cameras. While the results may still be impressive, a more precise term would be multi-camera zoom. However, I guess the manufacturers thought it would just overcomplicate things.

Can the best camera phones be a substitute for regular cameras?

The answer to this question is rather complicated, as it depends on what kind of user you are. Any phone on our test will do an incredible job for the most, producing clear and lifelike images. Yet, even S21 Ultra or iPhone 13 Pro may look limited for more advanced photography. Because of their size, phones can’t match full-frame camera sensors, and there’s no substitute for it. DSLR will always give you much better optical zoom and low-light performance, resulting in the best image quality. To conclude, DSLR won’t become useless anytime soon, but camera phones can replace regular point-and-shoot cameras.

How much space do I need for 4K and 8K videos?

There’s no universal answer here, as the size of a video depends on the bitrate and compression. However, you will need a lot of space. In the case of the iPhone, it takes 350 MB per minute when filming 4K at 30 fps. Nevertheless, you might be surprised to know that 4K at 60 fps video is marginally larger – 400 MB per minute. That’s because, in 4K 60 fps mode, Apple devices force strong HEVC compression.

Some smartphones also support 8K recording, including Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G. However, keep in mind that you can’t record at more than 24 fps and that a minute of video takes around 600 MB. Also, as the video processing is incredibly demanding, recording more than five minutes of 8K video will make your phone quite hot.

Do I need 3rd party camera software for my smartphone?

Whatever smartphone you buy today, you’ll find that the default camera software has basic and even advanced functions. However, there are still tons of 3rd party camera software for Android and iPhone, and some of it is free. Compared to what you already have on your phone, they usually add a better editor, more options, or an improved interface. Of course, what they can’t do is make your camera perform beyond its limits, no matter what the advertising says. However, they can still employ it better than the default software.

What about under-display cameras?

Can you imagine a phone with a camera hidden below the display? Well, they are already here! This concept sounds very exciting, as it will allow bezel-less screens to make phones even more elegant. However, I don’t recommend under-display camera phones, and it’s not about the money but the performance. Unfortunately, the image quality is rather blurry, and under the screen, you can still see the cam. So while this technology is the future, it will take years before it reaches the quality we expect. So don’t wait for anything and buy a camera phone now. Once its battery dies in three or four years, under-display cameras will be in a much better shape.

Buying guide for the best camera phones in 2021

What is the camera phone you can buy in 2021?

As is always the case, your needs dictate what’s best for you. This means that even the best camera phone might be a waste of money for you if it’s too big or maybe doesn’t have advanced slow-motion options. Knowing that, I’m pretty sure that at least one of these five devices has pretty much everything you want, at the price you are ready to pay.

The iPhone 13 Pro brings the “Best camera phone” title back to Apple. Improved aperture and sensor size contribute to more impressive images, especially in low-light settings. Thanks to an effective chipset, the phone easily handles [email protected] fps videos which are the best I’ve ever seen. As the Pro Max model only brings a bigger screen and battery, the Pro version with 256 GB memory seems like a much better investment. 

As Samsung’s flagship, S21 Ultra is more affordable now, a year after its release. For the price, you’ll get a camera phone that is the best or among the best in every category, from recording videos to selfies or low-light images. It also helps that it’s the only phone on the test that can film 8K videos. On top of that, you have excellent performance and a beautiful AMOLED screen. This is still the top choice if you prefer Android and need a large zoom.

Google’s Pixel 6 is my favorite midranger, as it hugely improves the camera over the previous generation. While the megapixel count went up by over 400 percent, I’m more impressed with the picture clarity and the excellent night mode, which is close to a premium phone. Also, the camera software is better than anywhere else. Pixel 6 only lacks a telephoto lens, but you won’t find it in this class. Finally, this is one of the fastest Androids, with impressive battery capacity.

Great camera phones are usually massive, so iPhone SE stands out because of its compactness. Despite the size, this piece of hardware produces terrific images with rich colors and details. Also, it offers some of the best 4K videos on the test. Because of its mighty A13 chipset, iPhone SE will do every task efficiently.

While the iPhone SE is also a budget phone, if you don’t need a compact device, Google Pixel 5A is a better solution. The picture quality might be similar, but the night mode is much better. The implemented image stabilization is still rare in this class, and you can create [email protected] fps videos. The improvements over Pixel 4a 5G are minimal, but this is still a terrific device for the price.

Which camera phone is the best for you?

Apple iPhone 13 Pro is the best overall camera phone, аs it brings the best night mode I’ve seen. Thanks to the larger sensor size, the daylight pictures are also more impressive. Finally, the 4K video recording is superior to anything Android. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is one of the best phones overall, and its cameras are second to none among Android devices. While the picture quality exceeds all expectations, you will love this device because of its night mode, the best zoom, and the support for 8K recording. 

Google Pixel 6 has the best camera software, which helps it produce terrific results under any conditions. The night mode is slightly below Apple and Samsung flagships, but the difference is minor, except for the lack of a telephoto lens.

The iPhone SE has a single camera, which is no wonder for a compact phone with a very attractive price. Despite this, you’ll love the pictures and videos it records. It’s also incredibly fast, but be aware that it doesn’t have a night mode. 

On the other hand, Google Pixel 5A does much better in low light situations, has an impressive OLED screen, and produces crystal clear images with saturated colors. While it’s almost the same as 4a 5G, it’s more affordable and has a bigger display.