There are plenty of factors to consider when choosing your next smartphone, and it's not a decision that should be made based solely on any individual feature. But we hear from a lot of folks that camera performance is right at the top of the list of considerations when it's time to upgrade, and we're often asked which smartphone camera is the best.
While we rank the Google Pixel 3 as the best all-around smartphone camera, it's important to consider your unique photographic needs. Here are the smartphone cameras we think are worth consideration for a range of use-cases.
If you're well-versed in smartphone imaging terminology, skip right ahead. But if you'd like a quick primer, here are some of the terms you'll see referred to frequently in this guide:
Computational photography: Image capture and processing techniques that replace traditional optical processes with digital, or computational, ones.
Portrait mode: A photo mode that mimics the blurry-background effect known as bokeh. It's used commonly for portraits, but isn't necessarily limited to that use case.
Night Sight: Specifically, a proprietary Google camera mode that captures multiple frames and combines them to create a final image with more detail and less noise in dark situations. Other manufacturers offer their own, similar, modes but the Pixel 3's is especially impressive, thanks to its use of super resolution that makes the mode useful even for daytime shooting.
Hybrid zoom: A method for zooming that combines traditional optical zoom with computational techniques, allowing for better detail rendering at intermediary focal lengths than digital zoom alone.
Best all-around: Google Pixel 3
It's certainly not flawless, but if there's one mobile device to recommend above all others for pure imaging prowess, it's gotta be the Pixel. Sure, you'll have just one main camera lens at your disposal, but Google's clever multi-frame image processing brings capabilities to a single camera that are downright spooky.
Night Sight does an impressive job of rendering very dark scenes, and can even be used to bring out even more detail in well-lit scenes (provided your subject isn't moving too much). It even uses machine learning to provide more pleasing colors. Portrait mode handles tricky subjects like hair convincingly, videos are well-stabilized, and it's all integrated with Google's powerful Photos app.
So who shouldn't buy a Pixel 3? If any of the following use-cases are your primary goal for your smartphone photography, then you should consider our picks in those categories. And of course, if you're deeply entrenched in iOS and/or you can't stand Android, you'll probably be happier with the iPhone XS.
Best for video: iPhone XS
The iPhone not only offers 4K/60p standard video recording (a notch above the Pixel's 4K/30p) but it also offers HDR video capture at 4K/30p. This mode uses multiple frames for impressive dynamic range, and is simply some of the best footage we've seen from a smartphone.
The XS is a fantastic all-around camera in its own right, going so far as to even simulate optical properties of lenses like mechanical vignetting, so if you plan on consistently shooting a mix of stills and video it's worth considering over the Pixel.
On the stills side, we're particularly impressed by Apple's decision to capture a wider (P3) color gamut and display high dynamic range photos in a manner that takes advantage of the HDR capabilities of the display – something no other phone (or camera) on the market does to-date. Not to mention that we're partial to Apple's color rendition over Google's – the latter tends toward cooler white balance and less saturation.
We give the Pixel 3 an edge in our recommendations thanks to features like Night Sight and computational Raw (read up on all of that here) but the XS isn't far behind.
Best portrait mode: Google Pixel 3
Oh, portrait mode: sometimes it's pretty good, sometimes it's okay, and sometimes it's downright terrible. It's a feature that's very much a work-in-progress on every phone, but we think the best implementation currently is on the Pixel 3. Google uses its dual-pixel sensor as well as machine learning to identify subjects and backgrounds, giving a slightly more realistic, progressive blur. While others use similar approaches, Google's additional use of machine learning to help the camera understand depth cues makes it stand out from the rest. It's good enough for Instagram.
Best for zoom: Huawei P30 Pro
Huawei is the first manufacturer to bring folded optics to the smartphone market, packing a 5x telephoto lens into its P30 Pro alongside standard and wide-angle camera units. Other phones offer 5x digital zoom, but this tends to degrade image quality and the P30 Pro's 5x optical zoom image quality is significantly better. Furthermore, it utilizes hybrid zoom to fill in the gaps between its standard and tele lenses for improved image quality compared to simple digital zoom.
Though it lacks the impressive optical telephoto reach, the Samsung Galaxy S10 and S10+ are also worth considering for more focal length flexibility. They each provide 2x telephoto and ultra-wide lenses in addition to a standard wide-angle unit. If the P30 Pro isn't available in your area and you're one of the Android faithful, the S10-series are also good all-rounders.
Best budget smartphone camera: Google Pixel 3a
Flagship phones have packed in more and more impressive features in recent years and likewise, MSRPs have ballooned right along with them – up to and beyond the $1000 mark. In this context, Google's Pixel 3a is bargain for $400.
You can easily spend less on a phone by opting for a device that's a generation or two old, but you'll be missing out on the significant camera tech improvements available on current models. That's why the Pixel 3a is sort of groundbreaking. By sacrificing a few features reserved for the flagship (the 3a lacks wireless charging, water resistance and uses a slower processor) and some nice-to-have imaging features (no wide-angle selfies) you'll still get the latest camera tech and save a bunch of money.
Should I wait for the next round of flagship phones?
You don't have to be James Holzhauer (YES RICHARD I KNOW THAT NOBODY OUTSIDE OF THE US WATCHES JEOPARDY JUST GIVE ME THIS ONE THING) to know that betting on new flagship smartphones debuting in the fall is a safe wager. Should you wait a few more months for the latest and greatest? That depends.
The next crop of phones will likely rely on machine learning for smarter algorithms to process images, isolate Portrait Mode subjects and offer more focal lengths and zoom ratios. Screens will get bigger and nicer, bezels will continue to shrink and the Battle of the Notch wages on.
With smartphone sales down there's more motivation to make the next generation even more enticing
Things get interesting on the camera hardware side. Rumors point to Google adding another rear camera, and murmurings of a triple-camera iPhone are looking increasingly plausible. That's good news for anyone with an eye on a budget model too: if the XS successor adds a wide-angle camera to the mix, then the XR successor may adopt the dual-lens module currently used by the flagship.
If nothing else, with smartphone sales down there's more motivation to make the next generation even more enticing (and the 'affordable' versions more affordable). If you're an early adopter or hoping for a few more features on a budget model, you might want to hold off. But if you're upgrading from a phone that's more than a generation old, you'll probably be satisfied with the advancements present in the current crop of flagships for some time.