The best camera phones in 2020

The best camera phones in 2020

Everyone wants the best camera phone to take great photos at a moment’s notice. That’s why we at Tom’s Guide perform in-depth camera testing on every handset we review, evaluating image quality in a wide range of conditions. We also perform head-to-head face-offs to compare camera performance between leading handsets.

These days, mobile cameras are more sophisticated than they’ve ever been, and far more capable than your average point-and-shoot. The finest cameras in phones meld intricate optics and sensors with software algorithms that rely upon math and science to extract the best possible light, color and detail out of every scenario. It’s not just about the number of lenses on the back, either — some phone makers are even leveraging artificial intelligence to make their post processing even better.

All this is to say there’s much more that goes into a great smartphone camera than a nice lens and a high-megapixel sensor. With that in mind, and after hundreds of hours of testing, we’ve rounded up this list of the best camera phones for various different use cases, and at a variety of price points.

What are the best camera phones?

Overall, Apple’s iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max headline our picks for the best camera phones you can buy, thanks to their triple-lens designs, improved low-light performance, comprehensive video recording suites and portrait-taking supremacy.

However, Apple is far from the only brand to make our list. The latest iPhones face serious competition from Samsung’s new Galaxy S20 phones — though it isn’t the Galaxy S20 Ultra and its 108-MP main shooter that’s pushing the iPhone. While that device produced some impressive photos in our testing (especially when using the phone’s 10x lossless zoom), we also noticed some issues with autofocus on Samsung’s priciest Galaxy. Those issues don’t hold back the Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus though, which delivers a plethora of perspectives for a versatile shooting experience.

In recent years, Google has also been one of the industry’s major drivers toward mobile imaging innovation. The Pixel 4 captures stunning shots in dim conditions using the company’s industry-leading Night Sight technology. The phone’s new dual-lens module also incorporates Super Res hybrid zoom to produce astonishing results from a distance.

Those who really want to maximize their photography on-the-go but spend as little as possible are well advised to check out either Apple’s new iPhone SE or Google’s Pixel 3a — two of the best cheap phones out there, because they guarantee phenomenal image quality despite costing less than half the price of flagships. Those interested in the Pixel 3a, however, should note that a successor, called the Pixel 4a, may release in July.

Speaking of camera phones on the horizon, rumors suggest the upcoming Galaxy Note 20 will repurpose the S20 Ultra’s sensors, hopefully to better effect. Meanwhile, we’ve heard Google could go a lower-cost direction with the Pixel 5, and look to bring its next-generation photography tricks down to a more accessible price point than last year’s Pixel 4.

Read on for a closer look at each of the best camera phones available today. 

The best camera phones you can buy today

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1. iPhone 11 Pro Max

The best camera phone for now

Display: 6.5-inch OLED (2688×1242) | CPU: A13 Bionic | RAM: 4GB | Storage / Expandable: 64GB, 256GB, 512GB / No | Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.8); 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.4); 12MP 2X telephoto (ƒ/2.0) | Front camera: 12MP (ƒ/2.2) | Weight: 7.97 ounces | Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 11:44

Stellar triple cameras with Night Mode

Gorgeous, bright OLED display

A13 Bionic CPU fastest around

Improved battery life

Only 64GB of storage

The iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max remain the best camera phones available, and the certainly the best choice for iOS loyalists. Both premium iPhones incorporate ultra-wide angle and telephoto lenses, though those are the least of the enhancements Apple has made to its newest flagships. The real work has been done in software, where the new iPhone’s computational photography and video capabilities have been stepped up massively.

Apple’s Night Mode sets a benchmark for low-light photography within the industry, while the company’s Smart HDR technology utilizes a breakthrough machine learning technique called Semantic Rendering to selectively over- or underexpose specific areas of the scene differently. And on the video front, all three of the iPhone 11 Pro’s rear cameras can record at 4K resolution and 60 frames-per-second.

Both the regular 5.8-inch model and the 6.5-inch Max variant feature the same cameras, while the cheaper 6.1-inch iPhone 11 ditches the telephoto lens, but can still capture the same quality photos from its primary and ultrawide-angle optics.

Read our full iPhone 11 Pro Max review.

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2. Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus

The best camera phone for Android users

Display: 6.7-inch OLED (3200×1440) | CPU: Snapdragon 865 | RAM: 12GB | Storage / Expandable: 128GB, 512GB / Yes | Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.8); 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.2); 64MP 3X telephoto (ƒ/2.0); time-of-flight VGA | Front camera: 10MP (ƒ/2.2) | Weight: 6.56 ounces | Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 10:31

Impressive photos

Fun Single Take feature

Support for 8K video

Expensive

Few displays support 8K video right now

You don’t need to pay up for the $1,399 Galaxy S20 Ultra to get the best camera phone for Android users. The Galaxy S20 Plus is $200 cheaper, and while it doesn’t feature the Ultra’s 108MP main sensor or 100x digital zoom, it still produces images that can surpass what Apple and Google’s flagships have to offer, at least when shooting from afar.

The four-camera setup on the Galaxy S20 Plus — a 12MP main shooter joined by a 64MP telephoto lens, 12MP ultra wide-angle lens and time-of-flight sensor — produce colorful, well-composed shots. And when it’s time to zoom in, the 3x lossless zoom on the Galaxy S20 Plus’ telephoto beats what Samsung’s rivals have to offer. This lens actually incorporates pixel cropping, aided by that dense 64MP sensor, meaning what you’re seeing isn’t technically optical zoom at work, though the results are impressive nonetheless — even at 10x power.

We wish the Galaxy S20 Plus wasn’t as aggressive in smoothing out skin tones in portraits. But we love the phone’s Single Take feature, which captures multiple shots at once using the S20 Plus’ various cameras, offering a myriad of perspectives on the same scene with just the press of a button.

Read our full Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus review.

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3. iPhone SE (2020)

The best midrange camera phone

Display: 4.7-inch LCD (1334×750) | CPU: A13 Bionic | RAM: 3GB | Storage/Expandable: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB / No | Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.8) | Front camera: 7MP (ƒ/2.2) | Weight: 5.22 ounces

Very affordable

Fast A13 Bionic performance

Excellent camera for the price

Supports wireless charging

Big bezels

The new, $400 iPhone SE packs the iPhone 8’s 12-megapixel, ƒ/1.8 single-lens camera, but also benefits from Cupertino’s latest and greatest processor — the A13 Bionic — to kick its computational photography powers into high gear.

The results simply speak for themselves. The Pixel 3a was once our benchmark in terms of flagship-caliber photography in a budget device, and to be fair, it still holds an advantage when shooting at night. But the new iPhone SE is every bit as capable a camera where it counts, as it benefits from many of Apple’s sophisticated imaging techniques, like Smart HDR and Semantic Rendering.

Being that it lacks ultrawide or telephoto lenses, it’s not perfect of course — though, alongside the Pixel 3a, its camera is far and away better than those inside the vast majority of other, similarly-priced models you can buy today. Overall, if you need a new handset and don’t have much to spend — and especially if it has to be an iPhone — there’s simply no better deal in phones out there right now.

Read our full iPhone SE 2020 review.

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4. Google Pixel 3a

The best Android midrange camera phone

Display: 5.6-inch OLED (2280×1080) | CPU: Snapdragon 670 | RAM: 4GB | Storage / Expandable: 64GB / No | Rear camera: 12MP (ƒ/1.8) | Front camera: 8MP (ƒ/2.0) | Weight: 5.2 ounces | Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 11:59

Flagship-caliber camera

Low price

Excellent battery life

Display could be brighter

No wireless charging

Midrange phone makers have had to step up their game ever since Google’s Pixel 3a arrived in mid-2019 and quickly established itself as the best camera phone under $400. Boosted with the same computational photography software that powers the Pixel 3, as well as an identical 12.2-megapixel sensor and similarly high-end Qualcomm Spectra image signal processor, the 5.6-inch Pixel 3a can pull off shots that are nigh indistinguishable from Google’s other handsets that are twice as expensive.

The Pixel 3a also comes with Google’s cutting-edge imaging modes, like Night Sight for amazing shots in the dark, and Super Res Zoom that delivers digitally zoomed images that are shockingly similar to what you get from devices with 2x optical zoom lenses. For $400, no other camera phone comes close — or at least not until the recent release of the new iPhone SE.

If you’d prefer a larger handset, the $479 Pixel 3a XL stuffs all the same hardware into a larger 6-inch body with a bigger battery to match. But if you’re considering the Pixel 3a at all, be aware that rumors point to a successor — the Pixel 4a — coming out later this spring.

Read our full Google Pixel 3a review.

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5. Google Pixel 4

Display: 5.7-inch OLED (2280×1080) | CPU: Snapdragon 855 | RAM: 6GB | Storage / Expandable: 64GB, 128GB / No | Rear camera: 12.2MP wide (ƒ/1.7); 16MP telephoto (ƒ/2.4) | Front camera: 8MP (ƒ/2.0) | Weight: 5.71 ounces | Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 8:03

Class-leading cameras

Smooth 90Hz display

Effective Face Unlock

Disappointing battery life

Relatively dim display

With the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL, Google gifted its flagship smartphones with a dual-lens imaging system for the first time ever. Two cameras — a 12.2-MP primary wide-angle and a 16-MP telephoto — work in concert to deliver phenomenal images in all conditions, boosted heavily by Google’s amazing computational photography techniques.

A new machine learning-based white balance feature corrects for strong color casts in even the most challenging scenarios, while a Live HDR+ feature allows users to see the final, processed result in real time, before they tap the shutter button.

Google has boosted its Super Res Zoom technology as well. Combined with the focal length advantage of that telephoto lens, the Pixel 4 can capture images at up to 8x power digitally that look nearly as good as what an optical lens would produce. We still believe that the ultrawide cameras in both the S20 Ultra and iPhone 11 Pro unlock potential the Pixel 4 can’t realize, but even despite that caveat, Google has once again delivered an all-time best camera phone here.

Read our full Google Pixel 4 review.

How to pick the best camera phone for you

There are many factors to consider if camera quality factors heavily into your smartphone purchasing decision. A good way to start is by asking yourself what kinds of photos you see yourself taking. Not all multi-lens cameras are created equal — some have ultrawide lenses for stunning landscapes, others have telephotos for zoomed-in shallow-depth-of-field portraits, and others still have both. The newest flagships from the likes of Samsung and Huawei even have periscope-style lenses that can achieve up to 10x lossless zoom, rivaling the power of DSLRs.

Something else to consider: Megapixels don’t matter as much as aperture. Cameras with a wider aperture (lower ƒ-stop numbers translate to wider lenses) let in more light, which greatly helps produce better shots in the dark. The high-megapixel sensors found in the latest devices are nice, but it’s a common misconception that pixel count directly translates to better-looking photos. 

Do you need a portrait mode that allows for bokeh backgrounds? That’s where the subject of the photo is in sharp focus, while an artistic blur blankets the rest of the scene. Although it started as a feature exclusive to multi-camera phones, the single-lens Pixel 3a and iPhone SE are both capable of capturing bokeh-effect portraits. Some devices even let you adjust the strength of the blur before and after you take a shot.

Front camera specs are important, too. In a world where we’re taking more selfies than ever, you shouldn’t overlook a phone’s front camera. Some front cameras, like the ones on the iPhone 11 and Pixel 3, can actually perform the same portrait mode effects that rear cameras pull off. In fact, the Pixel 3 and Galaxy S10 Plus are a rare handful of phones to employ dual lenses up front, allowing you to pull off more creative effects or fit groups of people into your selfies.

Finally, don’t forget about video. Your cameras shoot more than just still images. Consider what resolution the camera captures video at along with the frame rate. (The Pixel 4, for example, can record 4K video at 30 frames per second, while the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro double the frame rate to 60 fps for 4K video, and the Galaxy S20 series can go all the way up to an astonishing 8K.) Just be wary that ratcheting up the resolution will result in clips that take up much more space on your smartphone’s internal storage. Therefore, if you plan to shoot a lot of video, either purchase a device with more gigabytes onboard — or, if you’re entertaining an Android device, invest in a fast microSD card.

How we test camera phones

We put the market’s leading handsets through a variety of common shooting situations, such as landscapes, portraits and selfies in daylight and at night. Then, we analyze each set of images on a color-calibrated monitor to see which smartphone had the best combination of color accuracy, clarity and contrast. We also perform in-depth camera comparisons between the top phones, using each handset in their auto mode to take a wide range of photos in different conditions. After declaring a winner in each round, we name an overall winner of that face-off.

In each of our smartphone reviews, we also factor in any special features, such as dual lenses and what they enable, Portrait Modes, and other special modes, before we come to a conclusion.

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