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25 October 2021

How to buy the best camera phone

Smartphone cameras are becoming better every generation and they're showing no signs of stopping. Here's how to pick the best camera phone, plus our tips for smartphone photography
Jake Massey
Iphone 11 pro max advice 489062

Camera quality is now a major consideration for phone buyers who want to take crisp, dynamic photos and video footage. 

The rise of photo-sharing apps and cloud storage has also meant you can store thousands of photos taken on a tiny device, and share them instantly with friends, family and followers. 

We've highlighted the key things to look out for when choosing a camera phone and how to take great smartphone pics, plus explored whether smartphone cameras are really good enough to replace 'proper' cameras. 

Alternatively, you can head straight over to our top smartphone guide to see our expert pick of the best smartphone cameras for 2021

What should I look for when buying a camera phone?

If you want your smartphone to have a great camera, there are two key things to take into account. 

1. Sensor size

Smartphones are limited in sensor size because the devices are so small, but sizes up to one inch are now available and these can provide quality to rival some standalone compact cameras. Sensor size is the main determining factor of image quality in any camera. 

2. Number of megapixels

High-end camera phones such as the iPhone 11 Pro Max have 12Mp, which is enough to take great-quality photos. If you want to shoot video, check the video resolution too. Some cameras are now able to record 4K ultra-high-definition video. 

Other things to look out for include:

  • Lenses Some phones offer an array of lenses, including wide and telephoto lenses.
  • Settings Modes such as portrait, slow-mo and time-lapse offer unique ways of capturing media without requiring editing afterwards.
  • Selfie features If you frequently take selfies, remember that the front cameras are usually lower quality than rear ones. This is because they have a more limited purpose. If this matters to you, then remember to check the specs of the front-facing camera too.

Can a smartphone replace a proper camera?

The advantages of phone cameras lie in their ease of use and accessibility. Most of us don't carry around DSLRs or compact cameras on a daily basis, but our phones are often in our pockets, ready to use, and smartphone cameras are improving all the time.  

However, camera phones don't have many of the features of standalone cameras – they have smaller sensors and limited lens options so for truly exceptional or innovative shots you are likely to be better off with a proper camera. 

Check our digital camera reviews for devices that will deliver more features while still being easy to pop in a bag, or for the ability to take sensational shots, head to our DSLR camera reviews or mirrorless camera reviews

How we test smartphone cameras

Smartphones are far more than just cameras – only 20% of a smartphone's total test score is determined by camera performance. Plus, of course, there are some features of digital cameras that don't exist on a smartphone (or not to the same extent) so they can't be tested.

This means we don't have the same expectations of the two types of devices, so our tests for each are different. 

That said, the photography tests for each have many similarities. For example: 

  • Both types of camera are tested in a number of environments, and we use mannequins and a range of charts to see if cameras are adept at capturing skin tones, textures and details. We evaluate clarity, colour accuracy, uniformity and resolution to see how good a camera's picture quality is.
  • Both tests measure shutter speed, image stabilisation, video quality, and autofocus performance, which are major quality benchmarks.  

But while there are similarities in how we approach the tests, we evaluate each type of camera differently. We have high expectations of DSLR and mirrorless cameras and expect professional-quality images. We adjust our expectations for less sophisticated compact cameras, and adjust again for smartphone cameras. 

All of our assessments are rigorous, so we can directly compare cameras within each class and identify the best of the best, but the different evaluations mean you can't directly compare the results for a smartphone camera test with those for a digital camera.  

To find out more, look at our guides on how we test mobile phones, how we test digital cameras.

Smartphone photography tips

Not all phone camera features are widely known, so we’ve collated some photography tips to help you make the most of your smartphone's camera.

Use the volume button to take shots

If you’re trying to take a selfie at arm's reach and can't quite get the angle to tap the screen, you may end up with a blurry shot or one that won't quite capture your best side.  

One solution is to use the volume buttons to control the shutter. This works on most Androids and iPhones, so give it a try when you’re struggling to take the perfect selfie

Try burst mode

With most smartphone cameras, you can activate infinite burst mode by keeping your finger on the shutter button until you've taken your fill, after which the photos will appear in your album gallery as a photo stack or a list of photos that look very similar. This is very helpful – you’ll never miss a shot and can pick the best one from a range of photos. 

The iPhone 11 and 11 Pro are exceptions to the rule, as pressing down the shutter button will take a video. Instead, press and immediately drag the shutter button to the left for portrait orientation photos, or drag it up for landscape photos.

Take stills while recording video 

When shooting video, if you find yourself in a particularly photo-worthy moment it’s likely you will miss the chance to snap the photo. However, when recording video, just press the shutter button on screen to take a photo. The video will continue to record, with the snapshot saved, too.

Use the wide-angle lens

Some of the newest smartphones have multiple lenses, including ultra-wide-angle lenses. These are great for taking pictures of landscapes and landmarks as they'll get more of the scene into one image than most cameras, although we found some can distort the picture slightly. 

Try out 'professional' modes

Bokeh is the effect you'll see if you use a wide aperture on a professional camera. This is when the foreground is in focus and the background is blurred. Often this creates an artistic effect with out-of-focus points of light, known as bokeh. 

Most new smartphones have a mode which simulates a wide aperture. On the iPhone it will be called portrait mode, on Android it's known as live focus, and with Huawei you can use both portrait mode and aperture mode to take these professional-looking shots. 

For photography advice that's smartphone-friendly, check out our guide on how to shoot and edit photos like a pro