From Selfies to Portraits
Your phone is the camera you always carry. And if you haven’t upgraded it in a few years, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much phone camera performance (particularly low-light image quality) has improved. In fact, we’ve pretty much reached the point that you can leave your old point-and-shoot at home as long as you’ve got a good camera phone in your pocket.
But not all phone cameras are created equal. We put every phone we review though a rigorous series of camera evaluations in our test lab to determine which are the best shooters on the market. We’ve gathered the top ten camera phones here. Not only will you not have to worry about carrying a separate camera if you’ve got one of these in your pocket, each is a stellar smartphone in its own right.
We gave the two best-selling camera phone lineups special treatment, with our camera analyst Jim Fisher looking even more deeply than usual. Take a look at his iPhone vs. Galaxy camera analysis to see which one comes out on top there.
Forget the Specs
Phone makers like to tout specs, but spec sheets are largely meaningless nowadays. Manufacturers will go on about megapixels, pixel size, and low-light performance, and while all of these factors are important, we’ve found that spec sheet promises rarely measure up in real-life performance. Optical image stabilization is another hot buzzword: It’s supposed to improve low-light performance, but doesn’t always, because the image-processing software has to cooperate properly. You have to read the reviews and check out comparison photos like the one below to get an idea of the difference in camera quality between phones.
iPhone 8 and Note 8 : Bokeh Comparison
Almost all phones have both front and rear cameras nowadays. The front cameras, designed for selfies, often have some extra triggering mechanism. For instance, phones with rear buttons or sensors like the LG V30 let you take a selfie by tapping the back of the phone; the Samsung Galaxy S8 lets you take one by saying, “Hi Bixby, take a selfie.”
Rear cameras have gotten simpler, and much better, in recent years. The trend among Android manufacturers to have a dozen confusing camera modes has died down.
Trends and Accessories
The latest trend in camera phones is the dual-lens main camera. It’s a bit of a throwback; there was a 2011 fad with dual-lens cameras being used for 3D capture (see the HTC EVO 3D), but now they’re being used for a range of different functions. The iPhone lineup, the ZenFone 3 Zoom, and the Galaxy Note 8 use them for optical zoom and “bokeh” depth-of-field focus effects. The Honor 6X just uses them for bokeh. The Honor 8 uses them for wider gamut color capture, and the LG V30 uses them for an ultra-wide angle option.
Who has the best dual-camera idea, here? Zoom seems to be the most popular, and the most in demand.
iPhone 8 and Note 8 : Bokeh Comparison
On the front, we’re seeing some selfie cameras experiment with bokeh portrait mode. Google’s Pixels do it all in software, while the iPhone X uses both its standard front-facing camera and its Face ID infrared camera to silhouette your face and blur the background.
If you’re a serious shooter, you may also want to think about accessories and photography apps. The iPhone platform still leads there, with the broadest range of extra lenses, cases, clips, and pro-level apps. But Samsung also has a good ecosystem of cases and accessories.
Do You Need a Standalone Camera?
For the ultimate in image quality, the best possible low-light performance, or killer optical zoom, you’ll still want a DSLR or mirrorless dedicated camera. Our list of the Best Digital Cameras is a great place to start. And be sure to check out our Beyond-Basic Photography Tips.
With that in mind, these are our favorite camera phones available today. We’ve stocked this list with a range of phones at different price points. So while the camera in the $249 Honor 6X is a lot more sluggish than the one in the zippy Google Pixel 2, it’s the best camera you can get on a phone under $300 right now. Also note that this list is in order of overall rating of the phone itself, and not how good the cameras are.