With multiple lenses, advanced software and gargantuan zooms, the cameras on the very latest smartphones are beginning to seem even more advanced than some 'proper' cameras.
While it's true that camera phones are getting a lot of innovation, it's important to remember that engineers trying to squeeze as much performance as possible from these small, flat devices do have their hands tied. Small sensors are the rule here, and in no way can they compete with DSLR and mirrorless cameras. That goes double for 'Night Modes', which are being heavily trailed on the newest smartphones yet can't (yet) get close to competing with dedicated astrophotography cameras.
However, with larger aperture lenses, the quality and sensitivity of sensors in smartphone cameras are improving each year, and we've got to a stage where flagship phones can take good images at night. Some smartphones boast huge digital zooms that can take detailed close-ups of the moon (by cropping a regular image). The software is improving yearly and can now produce relatively clean shots. See our guide on smartphone astrophotography to learn more.
Here at Space.com, we've cast our eye over the market for the best camera phones and rounded up the best for general photography, including Night Mode and low-light imaging. You'll find everything from the latest and priciest flagship phones from Apple and Samsung to contenders from Google, Huawei and OnePlus. We've also included a few camera phones that may not be right up there but offer something that might suit you better than one of the flagship handsets – excellent wide-angle shots, ultra-clean Night Modes, or just a great value package.
If your aim is top-notch astrophotography then none of these camera phones will delight you, but for casual night sky shots and for all-round photography they will do a decent job.
Best camera phone overall
As usual, Apple's 6.7-inch flagship smartphone is cutting edge. This one has bigger sensors than ever, so it can produce brighter photos even in low light and at night. Its excellent Night Mode makes decent images of the night sky possible, including the aurora borealis if you can get yourself to the Arctic Circle.
That Night mode automatically kicks in when it's dark, just like the built-in high dynamic range (HDR) mode for all your shots. Simplicity is complemented by advanced hardware, with the latter boasting a 3x optical/15x digital zoom. Selfies and video calls are high resolution and video, with 4K/60 frames per second.
Best Android smartphone camera
Is this the best Android camera phone? Yes, it is – and a large part of why is its incredible 108-megapixel image sensor. Although technically you can take ultra-high resolution images, that massive megapixel capability is there to improve pictures taken in low-light. The 6.8-inch Galaxy S21 Ultra takes nine separate 12-megapixel images and then loses the 'noisy' pixels to create a cleaner and more detailed photo. You can also use that sensor to take pure 108-megapixel images, but why would you need to do that? Especially since you can't expand its maximum built-in storage of 512 GB. The 10x optical and whopping 100x digital zooms are more interesting for photographers, which can be helpful when you put the Galaxy S21 Ultra on a tripod.
We are still waiting to test the new Galaxy S22 Ultra (opens in new tab), and will add it when we have spent enough time with it.
Best for optical zoom
Are you choosing between Huawei's P40 Pro and P40 Pro Plus? The latter brings 10x optical zoom via an actual zoom lens – a first when it launched in 2020 – which means more detail and editing options than any resolution-killing digital zoom. However, there's a lot more to get excited about on this 6.58-inch smartphone, which brings no fewer than seven lenses, including a 3x optical telephoto, ultra-wide lens and a time-of-flight depth sensor. Its night mode boosts dynamic range and sharpness to produce clean, colorful images that most obviously reveal more detail in shadows. It also works well on the telephoto lens, though less well on the ultrawide lens.
Unfortunately though, there's an elephant in the room. Huawei smartphones now don't support Google Play apps and services, which may make them less desirable.
Best for built-in software
This Google smartphone is the best around for in-camera software and photo editing. Fire up the camera app, and you'll find all the usual modes, such as portrait, panorama and a low-light mode called Night Sight, but there's also a new mode called Motion that's purely for taking creative long-exposure shots. The 6.7-inch Pixel 6 Pro also comes with advanced new features, including Real Tone (for making skin tones more realistic across the board) and Magic Eraser for removing people and objects from photos after the fact.
The hardware isn't bad, either, with a 50MP wide lens, a 12MP ultrawide lens, and a 48MP telephoto lens with 4x optical zoom (something missing on the Pixel 6). Add some unusual color choices – yellow and gold, white and grey or black and grey – and the Pixel 6 Pro seems a standout choice for combining style with substance.
Best for ease of use
Not much has changed, design-wise, since the iPhone 12 Pro, but some of the changes do make this handset better for photography. There are also some crucial differences between the iPhone 13 and the iPhone 13 Pro. Although both measure 6.1 inches the latter has a brighter screen, extra battery power and a much better photography suite than the mainstream handset.
Its rear camera array includes an ultra-wide and a wide lens with larger apertures, a telephoto lens (something the iPhone 13 lacks) with 3x optical zoom and a LiDAR scanner for quicker autofocus and for taking portraits in Night Mode. On the iPhone 13 Pro, it's also possible to take images in professional quality using Apple ProRAW and indulge in ProRes video recording up to 4K/30 frames per second.
Best for wide-angle photography
Does the OnePlus 9 Pro live up to its hype? A 6.7-inch handset running Android 11, it sports a stunning AMOLED QHD+ display that beats most smartphones with its color and black levels. It also includes super-fast wireless charging and can fully recharge in half an hour using its 65W charger.
Its camera array on the rear is busy, with four lenses and laser autofocus. So why is there a Hasselblad logo back there? The ultra-high-end medium-format camera photography company has co-developed the 9 Pro's camera array with OnePlus, with 'Natural Color Calibration' as its substance. Skin tones do look great through its cameras, though the photography highlight is its ultra-wide-angle lens that corrects for edge distortion
Meanwhile, its main camera records in 12-bit RAW, and videographers will love its ability to record in 4K/120FPS and even in 8K at 30FPS.
Best value Android camera phone
It may not have the mighty 108-megapixel camera and 100x zoom of Samsung's flagship Galaxy S21 Ultra (opens in new tab), however, this version, which is kinder on the wallet, still offers a lot to photographers despite using very similar tech to the older Galaxy S20 Plus.
Housed in a redesigned camera strip on the rear of this 6.7-inch handset are 12-megapixel wide-angle and ultra-wide lenses and a 64-megapixel telephoto lens. The latter offers 3x optical zoom and 30x digital. In bright conditions, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus takes colorful, vibrant and detailed photos that are equal to most other phones, while in low light, it produces images that are a touch brighter than, say, the iPhone. However, its Night Mode hugely benefits from using a tripod (or at least balancing it on a wall or similar).
Best value iPhone
Can this aging iPhone still compete? Actually, yes it can. A 6.1-inch smartphone with a triple camera array, wide-angle, ultra-wide and telephoto – the latter with 2x optical zoom – all capture thoroughly decent 12-megapixel photos. What may be slightly behind the times is its paltry 2x optical zoom. It's nowhere near the abilities of Samsung (and other) flagship phones to capture distant subjects, but it's much better for better composing portrait shots. Arguably the latter is more useful.
Ditto Night Mode, which is possible via the iPhone 12 Pro's rear lenses, is vastly improved here than on previous iterations. You'll also get the LiDAR depth-scanning sensor – something that enables fast autofocus in low light – and Apple's ProRAW image format and the ability to record video in 4K at 60 frames per second. What you miss out on compared to the iPhone 13 Pro is the latter's Apple A15 Bionic chip, slightly faster apertures and bigger sensors, 3x optical zoom and Cinematic Mode for video recording.