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 have cameras rivaling dedicated devices. Still, if you can invest more, now you can purchase a camera phone that’ll probably give you everything you need and more. However, as with any device in general, the most expensive option isn’t always the smartest choice. Finally, even the universally best camera phone might not be the most suitable choice for you. For example, it may have tons of features you will 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
SAMSUNG Galaxy S21 Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra6.8″108 MP (rear)
40 MP (front)
888 5G
12/16 GB RAM
iPhone 12 Pro Max iPhone 12 Pro Max6.7″12 MP (rear)
12 MP (front)
Apple A14 Bionic
OnePlus 8T OnePlus 8T6.55″48 MP (rear)
16 MP (front)
Snapdragon 865
iPhone SE iPhone SE4.7″12 MP (rear)
7 MP (front)
Apple A13 Bionic
Google Pixel 4A Google Pixel 4A5.81″12.2 MP (rear)
8 MP (front)
Snapdragon 730G
iPhone 12 Pro Max SEE ON AMAZON
Google Pixel 4A SEE ON AMAZON

What to look for when buying a camera phone?

Modern camera phones have so many features that it’s easy to become overwhelmed unless you are a professional. So, as I’ve mentioned, it’s pointless buying a device that does the thing that you might never need. Still, there are some general rules you should stick to when acquiring 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 function. 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, so it has 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, with a decent frame rate. However, don’t forget you’ll need plenty of space on your phone 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.

Samsung Galaxy S21
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

The best camera phone on the market offers superior zoom options
Samsung Galaxy 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)
View on Amazon
thumb up icon
  • The best zooming options

  • 8K video recording

  • 960 fps slow-motion video

  • Impressive overall performance

  • Super bright screen

thumb up icon
  • Pretty heavy

  • iPhone 12 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 superior build quality. However, it’s pretty surprising that it’s also smaller than the previous generation. Despite this, it’s quite heavy, weighing slightly above 8 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 have a memory card slot, so keep that in mind. 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. What’s 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 iPhone 12 Pro Max 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. On the other hand, we have [email protected] fps if you want 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. However, a charger doesn’t come in the package.

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

iPhone 12 Pro Max
iPhone 12 Pro Max review

iPhone 12 Pro Max review

The best alternative from Apple is the night mode champion
iPhone 12 Pro Max specifications:
  • Display: 6.7 inches OLED, 1284×2778
  • Chipset & RAM: Apple A14 Bionic, 6 GB RAM
  • Camera: 12 MP, f/1.6/ (rear), 12 MP, f/2.2 (front)
View on Amazon
thumb up icon
  • Terrific 4K video recording

  • The best night mode

  • Top performance

  • Excellent screen

  • Image stabilization

thumb up icon
  • No 8K recording

  • Evolution rather than revolution

Apple is always very bold in innovation and often shocks everyone, like when they decided to distribute their devices without a charger. Yet iPhone 12 is a pretty conventional smartphone, as it doesn’t try as hard to innovate. Still, it’s an improvement in every segment when compared to its predecessor. Reduced bezels make it more compact than iPhone 11, although it’s still a heavy device, on par with Samsung Galaxy S21. 

While there are four different versions of the iPhone 12 (Mini, Regular Pro, and Pro Max), Pro Max is the top model with the best camera performance. Like other variants, this one comes with 64, 128, and 256 GB versions. Even though it’s the cheapest, you should skip the 64 GB version since the Pro Max camera will eat that space very quickly.

The night king with impressive 4K video

iPhone 11 has a terrific camera, but the 12 Pro max still manages to make visible improvements. The primary 12MP camera is the star here, with its excellent image stabilization and picture quality. The resulting photograph is on par with Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, with only slight differences in color reproduction. Where Pro Max shines is the night mode, thanks to its sizable wide camera sensor. Even in the pitch-black condition, you’ll make impressive shots better than on any phone on the test.

This also translates to video recording, as the powerful A14 chip enables Pro Max to capture 4K footage at 60 fps effortlessly. While Samsung does offer an 8K video option, 4K looks the best on Pro Max. Finally, you can record super slow-motion 240 fps videos at 1080p. 

Massive 6.7-inch HDR-compatible screen produces gorgeous colors, with peak brightness reaching 1200 nits. I already mentioned the A14 chip running this phone, so I’ll add that it easily beats every Android. Also, 6 GB RAM is plenty, as iOS is not memory-hungry. Finally, the 3687mAh battery won’t run out before you fill the space with photos and videos.

If 4K video recording and night mode are crucial to you, then iPhone 12 Pro Max is the best choice you can make. The regular iPhone 12 Pro is still a great option if you are prepared for slightly worse performance when it comes to night mode and zooming capabilities. 

OnePlus 8T
OnePlus 8T review

OnePlus 8T review

The best midrange camera phone offers impressive slow-motion options
OnePlus 8T specifications:
  • Display: 6.55 inches AMOLED, 1080×2400
  • Chipset & RAM: Snapdragon 865 5G
  • Camera: 48 MP, f/1.7/ (rear), 16 MP, f/2.4 (front)
View on Amazon
thumb up icon
  • Much improved Macro camera

  • Solid low light performance

  • Slow-motion filming

  • Pretty fast

  • 120Hz screen

thumb up icon
  • Slight camera improvements over 7T

  • No dust resistance rating

If paying close to $1000 for a smartphone is not an option, the good news is that midrange devices still pack a punch. Despite the much lower price, they don’t make massive compromises – or at least that’s the case with the OnePlus 8T. The device has a premium look with slim bezels and a frosted glass back, although it lacks a dust and water resistance rating.

OnePlus 8T comes in two versions, including 128 GB/8 GB RAM and 256 GB/12 GB RAM. As the phone doesn’t have a card slot, keep that in mind. The RAM doesn’t make a huge difference here, as 8 GB is still above average for an Android. This phone comes in several colors, but Aquamarine Green with a glossy finish is reserved for the more expensive model.

Slow-motion options to impress

Honestly, the OnePlus 8T doesn’t offer massive improvements with a camera, but you can still detect them. Yet, the 48MP main camera is identical to what we had on the OnePlus 7T and OnePlus 8. However, the macro camera is much improved, going from weak 2MP to adequate 5MP. The resulting images are rather impressive and certainly not far behind the flagship devices. This includes night mode or Nightscape, as the company calls it. As always, the longer the exposure, the better the results.

The same could be said for video recording, with 4K at 60 fps as the top option. This is an excellent cam for creating slow-motion footage, with 480 fps in 720p. Also, like on iPhone 12 Pro Max, you have something in between with 240 fps at 1080p. The worst thing I noticed about video quality is that fine details may be blurry, so stick to 4K whenever you can.

Luckily, there are other reasons to purchase the OnePlus 8T, which includes an impressive 6.55 inch AMOLED display with 733 nits peak brightness. Even better, the screen supports 120 Hz for extra smooth scrolling. While not the fastest on the market, the Snapdragon 865 Plus chipset will easily handle 4K recording and even demanding games. 

Finally, a massive, 4500mAh double battery is highly durable.

Even though it’s twice as cheap as the flagship models, the OnePlus 8T is still far above the average camera phone, as it has no apparent weakness. Whatever you are making selfies for Instagram or recording super slow-motion videos, don’t expect any negative surprises. Plus, the respectable chipset will handle all other tasks easily.

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)
View on Amazon
thumb up icon
  • Super compact

  • Easily handles 4K at 60 fps videos

  • Detailed and color-rich images

  • Terrific performance

  • Dust and water-resistant

thumb up icon
  • Large bezels

  • No night mode

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

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

The best 4K recording on a budget

Apple is not about throwing big numbers, but they are very 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 OnePlus 8T. 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 very powerful A13 Bionic chip annihilates even much more expensive Androids. 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 4A
Google Pixel 4A review

Google Pixel 4A review

The best budget camera phone features excellent night mode and a beautiful screen
Google Pixel 4A specifications:
  • Display: 5.81 inches OLED, 1080×2340
  • CPU & RAM: Snapdragon 730G, 6 GB RAM
  • Camera: 12.2 MP, f/1.7/ (rear), 8 MP, f/2.0 (front)
View on Amazon
thumb up icon
  • Rich colors

  • Night mode

  • Fast performance

  • OLED screen

  • Fast charging

thumb up icon
  • 4K recording limited to 30 fps

  • No wireless charging

As Pixel 3A was a huge success, it’s no surprise that Google wanted to introduce its successor. Despite some compromises created to make it more affordable, Pixel 4A still has so much to offer, especially if a quality camera is among your priorities. Despite lacking glass and metal found on iPhone SE, the build quality and design are still impressive.

Google Pixel 4A comes in a single version, without a memory card slot. Luckily, it has 128 GB internal storage, which is still a lot in 2021. As for the colors, you will probably find only a black one since a blue version is available solely if you buy it from Google. Finally, don’t confuse this model with Pixel 4A 5G. Despite the name implying that 5G is the only difference, this edition also has a bigger screen, larger battery, slightly better performance, and additional camera. Yet, 4A is still significantly cheaper.

Seeing in the dark

Exactly like the other budget offering, iPhone SE, Pixela 4A features a single 12.2 MP wide camera. Yet the sensor produces terrific images with lots of details and beautiful, though slightly saturated colors. The included night mode works wonders in low light conditions, although the more prolonged exposure helps a lot. 

On the other hand, video options are a bit more limited than on Apple’s products. While the 4K is still available, 30 fps is the upper limit. Also, slow-motion can’t go beyond 120 fps at 1080p. This doesn’t impact the quality of the video, which is still impressive for the price. For 4K 60 fps recording, you’ll need the mentioned 5G version, which also features a 16 MP ultrawide cam.

The 5.81 inch OLED screen guarantees impressive color reproduction, and even the brightness reaches 681 nits. Furthermore, a 730G chipset with 6 GB RAM enables smooth camera performance. The 3140 mAh battery is not a durability champion, but a single daily charge is all you need.

Despite its attractive price, Google Pixel 4A creates stunning images and videos, combining this with impressive screen and performance. The night mode is better than on many more expensive devices, as is the color reproduction. Alternatively, get 4A 5G for $100 more for an additional camera and more megapixels.

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 try to 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 introduce 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, for more advanced photography, even S21 Ultra or iPhone Pro 12 Max may look limited. 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?

Obviously, 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, you will need 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 my favorite, 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 whole concept sounds very exciting, as it will allow bezel-less screens making 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.

As Samsung’s flagship, S21 Ultra, is all but cheap, yet its price is still more affordable than the one S20 had when it arrived. However, for the investment, 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.

iPhone 12 Pro Max is the best alternative to S21 Ultra and a phone that tops it in some camera aspects. For example, if you often make low-light shots, know that this is the best device you can have. While it doesn’t have an 8K recording, the 4K videos are the best you’ll get. Plus, Pro Max is the fastest phone and is a long-term solution.

If your budget is a bit tighter, the OnePlus 8T is currently the best midranger. This device still has four cameras, including monochrome and a much-improved macro cam. Because of its powerful chipset, the phone lets you record 4K at 60 fps videos and impressive 480 fps slow-motion clips. Finally, the 120Hz AMOLED display dramatically helps in making impressive shots, even in low light conditions.

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 easily.

While the iPhone SE is also a budget phone, if you don’t need a compact device, Google Pixel 4A is a better solution. While the picture quality is similar, the big advantage is the night mode, which is not available on iPhone SE. On the other hand, this is the only phone on the test which records at 30 fps at 4K. Still, what sets it apart is the gorgeous OLED screen, combined with the excellent performance.

Which camera phone is the best for you?

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is one of the best phones overall, and its cameras are second to none. 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. Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro Max is an even better choice if you are into nighttime photography, as it handles low light conditions better than any other device. Plus, it produces the best 4K video and is the fastest device on the test.

OnePlus 8T is an impressive midranger with multiple cameras that handle even the low light conditions. While it doesn’t offer the same picture quality as the top-tier devices, it’s doubtful you’ll spot much difference.

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 4A does much better in low light situations, has an impressive OLED screen, and produces crystal clear images with saturated colors. The 5G cost $100 more but is also an attractive buy.