Thu. Aug 11th, 2022
Best Smartphone Cameras 2021
Best Smartphone Cameras 2021 lined up

Robert Triggs / Android Authority

First, a little housekeeping. We installed all the latest software patches before heading out for our shootout. Camera apps were left in their out-of-the-box settings, so using Apple’s Standard color profile for example, and there’s no post-editing on any of these images. All we’ve done is resize them to save on bandwidth in this article. Given that most of these phones have been on the market for many months now, this is likely as good as these cameras are ever going to look.

So go and grab a coffee and get comfortable, as there’s a serious amount of pictures to get through here. If you want to read along with your own analysis, be sure to check out the original-sized files over at this Google Drive folder.

Last year: The best camera phones of 2020 tested

Camera specs recap

Google Pixel 6 Pro Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max
Main Camera

Google Pixel 6 Pro:

50MP (12.5MP binned)
f/1.9 aperture
26mm focal length
1/1.31″ sensor
Omni-PDAF, OIS

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra:

108MP (12MP binned)
f/1.8 aperture
24mm focal length
1/1.33″ sensor
PDAF, OIS

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max:

12MP
f/1.5 aperture
26mm focal length
1/1.66″ sensor
dual pixel PDAF, sensor-shift OIS

Ultrawide

Google Pixel 6 Pro:

12MP
f/2.2 aperture
17mm focal length
Fixed Focus

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra:

12MP
f/2.2 aperture
13mm focal length
1/2.55″ sensor
dual pixel PDAF

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max:

12MP
f/1.8 aperture
13mm focal length
1/3.4″ sensor
PDAF

First zoom

Google Pixel 6 Pro:

48MP (12MP binned)
f/3.5 aperture
104mm focal length
1/2″ sensor size
PDAF, OIS
4x zoom

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra:

10MP
f/2.4 aperture
70mm focal length
1/3.24″ sensor
dual pixel PDAF, OIS
3x zoom

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max:

12MP
f/2.8 aperture
77mm focal length
1/3.4″ sensor
PDAF, OIS
3x zoom

Second zoom

Google Pixel 6 Pro:

N/A

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra:

10MP
f/4.9 aperture
240mm focal length
1/3.24″ sensor
dual pixel PDAF, OIS
10x zoom

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max:

N/A

Focusing

Google Pixel 6 Pro:

Laser AF system

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra:

Laser AF system

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max:

3D ToF Lidar

Selfie camera

Google Pixel 6 Pro:

11.1MP
f/2.2 aperture
20mm focal length
Fixed focus

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra:

40MP
f/2.2 aperture
26mm focal length
PDAF

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max:

12MP
f/2.2 aperture
23mm focal length

OnePlus 9 Pro Sony Xperia 1 III Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra
Main Camera

OnePlus 9 Pro:

48MP (12MP binned)
ƒ/1.8 aperture
23mm focal length
1.22µm pixels
1/1.43″ sensor
OIS, Omnidirectional PDAF

Sony Xperia 1 III:

12MP
ƒ/1.7 aperture
24mm focal length
1.8µm pixels
1/1.7″ sensor
OIS, Dual Pixel PDAF

Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra:

50MP (12MP binned)
ƒ/2.0 aperture
24mm focal length
1.4µm pixels
1/1.12″ sensor
OIS, Dual Pixel PDAF

Ultrawide

OnePlus 9 Pro:

50MP (12MP binned)
ƒ/2.2 aperture
14mm focal length
1.0µm pixels
1/1.56″ sensor

Sony Xperia 1 III:

12MP
ƒ/2.2 aperture
16mm focal length
1/2.6″ sensor
Dual Pixel PDAF

Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra:

48MP (12MP binned)
ƒ/2.2 aperture
12mm focal length
0.8µm pixels
1/2.0″ sensor
PDAF

First zoom

OnePlus 9 Pro:

8MP
ƒ/2.4 aperture
77mm focal length
1.0µm pixels
OIS, PDAF
3.3x zoom

Sony Xperia 1 III:

12MP
ƒ/2.3 / ƒ/2.8 aperture
70/105mm focal length
1/2.9″ sensor
OIS, Dual Pixel PDAF
2.9x / 4.4x zoom

Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra:

48MP (12MP binned)
ƒ/4.1 aperture
120mm focal length
0.8µm pixels
1/2.0″ sensor
OIS, PDAF
5x zoom

Other camera

OnePlus 9 Pro:

Monochrome
2MP
ƒ/2.4 aperture

Sony Xperia 1 III:

N/A

Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra:

N/A

Focusing

OnePlus 9 Pro:

Laser AF system

Sony Xperia 1 III:

0.3MP 3D Time-of-Flight

Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra:

Laser AF system

Selfie

OnePlus 9 Pro:

16MP
ƒ/2.5 aperture
1.0µm pixels
1/3.06″ sensor

Sony Xperia 1 III:

8MP
ƒ/2.0 aperture
1.12µm pixels
1/4″ sensor

Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra:

20MP
ƒ/2.2 aperture
0.8µm pixels
1/3.4″ sensor

Color balance and exposure

To start our shootout, let’s look at how these phones handle a wide variety of typical shooting environments. We’ve hand-picked four scenarios to showcase how these phones adapt their image processing to blue skies, warm hues, cold color palletes, and vivid colors. I’ll say in advance, all six are perfectly fine here and more alike than different, but there are some minor yet not insignificant discrepancies.

First up, our random assortment of colorful objects. Here we’re checking to see the overall white balance, hue, and if any particular colors are oversaturated or undersaturated.

Next is our warm autumn woodland scene. Keep an eye out for over or undersaturation of the yellows and reds, as well as how well the blue breaks through the trees. I also think the dynamic range from the sunlight on the ground is interesting to observe.

Now the opposite — a scene with overly cool tones to test the handset’s white balance and dynamic range when there’s less color available.

Finally, a scene with plenty of blue sky and water. The main thing we’re looking at is sky tone but pay attention to the color grading and dynamic range in the scene’s foreground and background too.

Color, exposure, and white balance rankings:

  1. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra — Unlike previous years, the Galaxy S21 Ultra mostly avoids oversaturated colors. Despite overly punchy reds in our first picture, it generally finds a sweet spot between the Pixel and Xperia. The camera leans slightly into the warm and cold white balance in our curated scenes but only enough to indulge the scene’s tones. The handset offers excellent sky blues without oversaturation. Consistently very good results here.
  2. Google Pixel 6 Pro — Google prefers a slightly warmer white balance than is strictly accurate and oversaturates its colors a little, although it’s the only camera to get the blue book in the first shot correct. The lakescape image showcases the phone’s brilliant exposure and white balance, although the browns are a little colorful for a dim day. The autumn scene is slightly oversaturated but provides the most push out of the bunch. The blue sky is incredibly accurate and offers superb dynamic range in the foreground and background too, although the foreground plant is a little too orange. Realism isn’t the aim of the game for Google but the results are pleasing to the eye.
  3. Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max — There’s a clear yellow tint in the first two images, which pushes the blues closer to turquoise and the orange leaves closer to yellow. The red background is also rather heavily saturated in the first image. The phone’s white balance leans more heavily into the scene in our cold and warm shots, making them look more saturated. Although the lakescape looks brilliant and really captures the cold feel as a result. Unfortunately, the blue sky is a little oversaturated and the background considerably darker than competing phones.
  4. Sony Xperia 1 III — Sony prioritizes a neutral white balance and color accuracy but doesn’t always get it right. The camera avoids oversaturation in all of our images but this produces washed-out colors across our first image. Equally, the camera suffers from underexposure in the first, second, and third pictures. The shadows are generally far too dark. That said, the Xperia nails plant color in our final picture and doesn’t lean too warm or too cold in our autumn and lake scenes. Realism over punch is the Xperia’s raison d’être.
  5. Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra — Our random item selection is tinted too warm, as seen on the cushion and yellow toy lid. We can see a similar over-warming in the blue sky and dock shot, so this phone doesn’t offer the most accurate white balance. The camera also prefers a little oversaturation, as can be seen in the yellows and pinks of the first shot as well as the leaves in the autumn scene. The HDR effect in that image is also far too strong, removing the contrast from the shadows. Even so, it doesn’t take bad pictures but there are a few more issues than the competition here.
  6. OnePlus 9 Pro — Oh dear. This camera has a consistently over-warm white balance, particularly in the first and third pictures. The first image is also underexposed and oversaturated, as evidenced by the purple ball and red background. In addition, the sky scene ends up with a purple tint that’s outright wrong. The autumn shot is the phone’s best result here, but even so, there are issues with the blue sky and washed-out shadows from overexposure.

High Dynamic Range

Our first four images didn’t stress the phones too badly so let’s put them to the test in more demanding HDR environments. Here we’re paying attention to three key things — highlight clipping, shadow detail extraction, and color saturation. We definitely don’t want to see heavy clipping, completely black shadows, and washed-out colors when the going gets tough.

Our first shot isn’t too tricky, but we’re looking for phones that avoid background clipping and retain a realistic color balance with the indoor lighting.

Our next shot is a little more difficult, but not terribly so. Key things to watch out for are clipping in the clouds, punchy colors, or lack thereof, and whether the phone’s HDR technique makes the image look too flat.

Our third HDR sample is much tougher to get right. I think you’ll agree there’s a much more noticeable difference here and some HDR effects can be too strong and unrealistic.

This final shot offers a good balance of tricky conditions even without an overly bright backlight. Again, colors and shadow detail separate the leaders from the pack here.

High Dynamic Range rankings:

  1. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra — This is a showcase for HDR done right. Samsung’s phone preserves a realistic balance of shadows and highlights while still providing plenty of color in all four images. The time of day in the particularly tricky last two shots is very well preserved. Samsung sneaks into the top spot for nailing the burger color balance. Just look at that tasty bacon.
  2. Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra — Just like the Galaxy S21 Ultra, Xiaomi’s flagship is brilliant in all these shots. Even the last two exceedingly tricky images come out with well-balanced highlights, shadows, and colors. The handset tends to bump up the exposure a little more than the Galaxy, which is a fraction less realistic and makes the palace shot look a bit flat. But that’s splitting hairs. Unfortunately, the burger looks too orange. Otherwise, top marks.
  3. Google Pixel 6 Pro — Google is known for its HDR capabilities and its latest phone doesn’t disappoint in terms of color and exposure balance. However, we spot obvious clipping in the burger and sunrise shots that Samsung and Xiaomi balanced out. That issue aside, the Pixel 6 Pro’s HDR shots generally match the scene’s colors and tone very well, although the effect looks a little flat in the palace shot.
  4. OnePlus 9 Pro — The HDR technology packed into OnePlus’ flagship is clearly as powerful as Samsung’s and Xiaomi’s, in terms of exposure bracketing. However, the brand has overdone it with color processing and exposure compensation. The burger and palace scenes are decent but the sunrise is far too saturated and the muddy woodland path too purple. Tone those down and OnePlus would perform better than the Pixel 6 Pro, but as it stands the Hasselblad color processing is far too aggressive, making these HDR scenes look over the top.
  5. Sony Xperia 1 III — Sony’s HDR implementation has come on leaps and bounds but still has a few exposure problems, particularly with darker shadows in the more demanding shots, which just don’t hold up as well as its rivals. That said, the more brightly lit first two shots look every bit as good as the competition and Sony certainly manages to avoid flattening its HDR pictures too much.
  6. Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max — Apple’s HDR images suffer from a consistent lack of shadow detail in the last three samples. The burger and palace pictures are particularly washed out compared to its competitors, a classic sign of limited dynamic range. This camera also struggles with both highlights and shadows in the sunrise scene. Not great from the iPhone at all.

Cropping in on detail

Before moving on to detail, I should note that OnePlus, Samsung, and Xiaomi offer higher resolution shooting modes from their pixel binned sensors, but we’re not looking at those here as that would lead us down a whole other tangent we don’t have time for right now.

So with each camera handing in 12MP snaps, we’d expect very similar levels of detail in good outdoor lighting. While the first 100% crop pictures below look a little different, I think you’ll agree that detail in outdoor lighting is pretty good on all six handsets — although you might be able to spot some differences in grass sharpness and shadow noise.

Likewise, in our second crop, there are subtle differences between the phones but not a huge amount in it. Pay attention to the pop of the stone textures and the carved lines on the statues to spot which phones artificially sharpen their images.

To really separate these phones, let’s turn to some less ideal lighting conditions to stress-test the amount of noise these cameras suffer from. Can you read every word on this plinth when cropping in?

Believe it or not, the next set of shots was taken even later in the afternoon, so noise and detail extraction should be even trickier for these phones, although it wasn’t so dark as to rely on night shooting here. Keep an eye on the clockface and stone texturing to see which phone performs best here.

Detail rankings:

  1. Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra — Xiaomi’s camera phone offers excellent results in these crops. Details are presented softly and realistically without any obvious signs of over-sharpening. The phone even holds up exceptionally well in less than ideal lighting conditions.
  2. Google Pixel 6 Pro — It’s a very close call between the Pixel and Galaxy for second place. On balance I’m giving it to the Pixel, as details hold up that little bit sharper in lower light. Generally, the phone’s details are very good although Google is a little more aggressive on the sharpening pass than I’d like.
  3. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra — Samsung’s phone is also very good for the most part. However, you’ll find more noise creeping into the plinth and clock tower shots than our two leaders. The text is just that bit less legible and more clearly sharpened up, while the clock face and tower appear just a little too soft. There’s also some rather ugly haloing around the edge of the tower and the grass in the first shot is also too heavily processed. It’s certainly not the cleanest.
  4. OnePlus 9 Pro — Again, there are no major complaints here but OnePlus’ images are also a little oversharp. This is particularly noticeable in the grass of our landscape and the stonework in the status picture. There’s also more noticeable noise in the landscape and lower light crops than its competitors, particularly in the darker parts of the final image, which explains why OnePlus is a little heavier on the image cleanup than others.
  5. Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max — Despite placing fifth, the iPhone offers plenty of detail for the most part. However, because the phone’s shadows and highlights are often overblown, these details are missing compared to its rivals. The daylight statue picture is clipped, for example, resulting in an overly aggressive presentation. You’ll also spot slightly less detail on the clock tower stonework due to the lower lighting, along with some ugly haloing around the edge of the tower.
  6. Sony Xperia 1 III — The phone captures realistic details in good lighting, as seen in our first two shots, although even here it’s not the sharpest in the statue crop. Unfortunately, the phone performs much worse in dimmer lighting. Noise or an inability to focus prevents us from reading the text on the plinth crop, while the phone starts to suffer from poor exposure and even more noise in our clock tower crop.

Low light and night mode

Continuing on detail in low light, let’s take a look at the phones’ more general performance in dim and night shooting environments. We’ll start off with a somewhat typical nighttime shot, with lots of darker areas illuminated by bright background lighting that’s bright enough to avoid the need for night mode. The key things to look for here are over or underexposure and color balance.

Here’s the same picture but cropped at 100%. Keep an eye on the noise levels, brickwork detail, color, and exposure of the light sources to see which phone offers the best dynamic range at night.

Next, a much more dimly lit example with night mode on and off. Here we’re looking at the differences night mode makes to color, exposure, and dynamic range. Detail is not such an issue here, as night mode often takes a long time to shoot.

Night shooting rankings:

  1. Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra — Xiaomi’s first image is a little oversaturated and slightly underexposed in the darker areas, but the crop reveals that this is a very clean-looking image free from overbearing processing. The phone also does excellently in our very low light shot. It’s a little noisy without night mode but this is easily cleaned up by flicking the option on — although the white balance is a little yellow here, so it’s not perfect.
  2. OnePlus 9 Pro — Our first image is a little washed out compared to the competition and there’s a higher noise level when looking at the crop. There are also quite a few signs of heavy processing throughout this image, although the exposure and white balance are solid. The phone’s ability to extract exposure and color in extremely low light is impressive, although there’s again a little more noise than its rivals. It’s marginally less noisy than the S21 Ultra, so pips it to second place.
  3. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra — Despite its large image sensor, there’s a lot of noise present in Samsung’s low light snaps, which is particularly noticeable in the crop’s clock tower, although the phone makes up for this with generally good low light exposure and fairly accurate colors. You don’t really need the phone’s night mode in very low light either, although it does help clean up the camera’s noise.
  4. Google Pixel 6 Pro — Google’s camera does an excellent job at balancing exposure and realistic colors in our first picture. It’s a little heavy on the denoise and there’s a notable black crush when looking at the crop, but the lack of clipping is exceptional. Unfortunately, the Pixel 6 Pro struggles with exposure and white balance in extremely low light, but Google’s algorithms remove noise very well.
  5. Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max — Apple’s yellow tint and lackluster dynamic range strike again, producing clipped highlights. There’s generally a very heavily processed look to the first image and crop, although the exposure and noise level is decent. Turning the lights down sees the iPhone struggle more without the aid of night mode, although this option does wonders to restore exposure, color, and white balance — although the heavy contrast isn’t a great look.
  6. Sony Xperia 1 III — The phone doesn’t take bad pictures in low light but the lack of a multi-frame night mode leaves the handset near the bottom of the pack. Although the colors and general presentation of our first image are good, it overexposed the carousel ride. On closer inspection, the same image suffers from a lack of fine detail. The handset struggles for white balance and exposure in very dark scenarios, although you can obtain marginally better results with the manual app when playing with the ISO and shutter speed settings.

Portrait mode and selfies

Let’s be honest, most of the pictures you take probably have people in them. While framing shots with six phones is a mammoth task, we’ve includes a selection of shots to take a look at how these phones handle skin tones, textures, and artificial bokeh blur. We’ll start with what should be a pretty easy outdoor shot using the phones’ portrait modes.

This second portrait image is a little more difficult, owing to the high contrast background and bright sunlight. Keep an eye on color saturation and exposure in this one.

Switching to selfies, again we’ll start with another quite easy outdoor shot followed by a slightly trickier indoor snap.

Portrait and selfie rankings:

  1. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra — The S21 Ultra provides consistently accurate skin tones and textures here, as well as nicely applied bokeh blur, colors, and exposure. Samsung’s selfie camera can look a little washed out in indoor lighting, but it’s otherwise solid and the results are very consistent.
  2. Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max — Apple’s portraits and selfies look great, providing pleasing colors, plenty of exposure, soft bokeh blur, and accurate skin textures without too much processing. Our second picture is a little too orange but otherwise, skin tones are very good too. The only drawback versus the S21 Ultra is the underexposure in our indoor selfie and slight cloud clipping in the outdoor one.
  3. Google Pixel 6 Pro — Here we see some brilliant exposure with mostly well-applied bokeh blur too, although selfies suffer from less accurate foreground and background detection and Google’s blur quality can look too smudged. Furthermore, despite Google’s talk of the ‘most equitable’ camera for accurate skin hues, the handset is just as, if not more prone than some to over-warming skin tones, particularly with darker skin. Skin textures are also too harsh and oversharpened. Overall though, the results are still mostly pleasing at full-frame.
  4. Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra — Xiaomi’s portrait pictures with the rear camera are very good in terms of texture, bokeh, and tone, although the exposure in the first picture is a tad too bright. The selfie camera doesn’t do so well, showcasing both under and overexposure in our two images. But again, skin tones and textures are very good.
  5. OnePlus 9 Pro — I don’t think OnePlus’ cameras get any of these pictures right. The subjects are mostly far too dark and there are consistent skin tone issues as well. The second image is far too orange, for example. To the phone’s credit, the bokeh blur is well applied, but that’s about it.
  6. Sony Xperia 1 III — Sony’s exposure problems come back to haunt it here. The first portrait is too dark while the second clips right on our subject’s face. Selfies are even worse, with consistent background overexposure. The Xperia is also far too heavy with “beautification” which distorts both face structure and tone to unnatural levels. It’s a really poor effort for a flagship phone.

Ultrawide angles and macro

Each of our flagship phones features a dedicated ultrawide camera for fitting more into the scene. So let’s start by seeing which handset offers the widest field with minimal distortion. It’s also worth taking a bit of a closer look at the detail and dynamic range of the highlights and shadows in this first shot.

If our first shot was a tricky test for these cameras’ dynamic range, this third image is the real deal. As ultrawide sensors are often smaller in size and have a narrower aperture, so they can struggle with light capture. The better implementations will be able to balance strong backlighting with foreground shadow detail.

Now, let’s take a step back and look at how these ultrawide lenses handle detail in the distance. Take a look at the full-res images to see how these phones apply sharpening, which can look rather ugly here.

Finally, any ultrawide cameras these days can be used for macro, so let’s test that too. Focus, fringing, and detail sharpening are the main things to look out for here.

Ultrawide rankings:

  1. OnePlus 9 Pro — As we’ve noted in the past, OnePlus does ultrawide very well. The field of view is not quite the widest but its shots are free from edge and perspective distortion. The big Sony IMX766 image sensor also offers excellent HDR capabilities, something its competitors struggle with. The lens setup works brilliantly as a macro camera, ensuring close-up shots look their best.
  2. Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra — Xiaomi’s ultrawide lens offers the broadest field of view here, although this produces a more noticeable warped effect and more edge distortion than the other phones. The camera’s HDR capabilities are solid, although there’s a bit of vignetting in our third shot owing to a lack of light. Still, colors, exposure, and even details are very good here. It captures a nice macro too.
  3. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra — This phone offers strong HDR and macro capabilities similar to OnePlus’ flagship but the lens isn’t quite as clean in terms of distortion. Unfortunately, we can spot a lot of oversharpening halos and occasional color tinting in the corners of Samsung’s ultrawide snaps. It’s certainly not the best-looking ultrawide lens.
  4. Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max — The iPhone 13 ultrawide lens captures pleasing colors, offers a very wide field of view, and works as a macro lens too, although this camera sometimes has the same yellow color tint as the main camera. Sadly, the HDR implementation doesn’t handle bright or dark scenes too well. We can also spot heavy use of image cleanup on closer inspection.
  5. Sony Xperia 1 III — Sony’s ultrawide camera provides the same accurate colors and passable dynamic range as its main camera. However, the lack of macro makes this a slightly less versatile camera than the iPhone. The camera also struggles to capture much in the way of detail for longer distance shots (see the Google Drive gallery) due to focusing issues and doesn’t offer quite as wide a field of view as its competitors.
  6. Google Pixel 6 Pro — Google’s ultrawide snaps don’t look bad but the phone doesn’t offer the same ultrawide field of view or macro capabilities as its rivals. The phone also struggled in our HDR test, which threw the while balance quite far off. A closer inspection of the camera’s details reveals a heavy reliance on sharpening and denoise processing too. Google’s flagship falls notably behind the competition here.

Medium- and long-range zoom

All six of our phones are equipped with zoom lenses too, although their arrangements range from simple telephoto to multi-camera periscope designs. Even though ultra-long-range is nice to have, phones should take great-looking snaps at all their possible zoom levels too. So that’s what we’re looking for here.

The second set of overcast zoom samples is much more of a stress test for these often small-sized and tiny aperture zoom cameras. Pay particular attention to noise and any heavy post-processing that will catch out the weaker handsets.

Zoom rankings:

  1. Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra — Xiaomi’s flagship shows how it’s done. Image quality is incredibly consistent at all zoom levels right out to 20x, despite only having one 5x zoom lens. Color, exposure, and details are great, if not a fraction oversharp at 10x and beyond. The zoom setup is noisier in dimmer conditions, particularly at 10x, but this is par for the course.
  2. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra — Samsung’s phone has the specs but, sadly, quality takes a dip between the 3x and 10x optical lenses. At 10x, the periscope camera offers excellent detail and clarity at long range. It’s a highly flexible package even in lower light, but the lack of consistency lets the phone down.
  3. Google Pixel 6 Pro — While exposure and colors are generally good, detail is very poor at around 3x. It’s only once the 4x optical camera kicks in that quality improves. The phone is competitive at very long ranges, although its images aren’t quite as clean as Samsung’s or Xiaomi’s 10x shots. The experience is a little inconsistent but holds up well enough in our low-light shot to place in third.
  4. Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max — Despite the more limited appearing specs, the iPhone hands in solid zoom pictures with good color and detail right out to 5x, although you’ll see signs of oversharpening at this zoom level. Unfortunately, the handset can’t compete with the longer-range capabilities of its rivals but has you well covered for intermediate zoom levels. On that note, the camera is capped at 15x zoom.
  5. Sony Xperia 1 III — Sony’s zoom capabilities are decent, and it’s a close call between it and the Pixel in bright daylight. While Sony’s 3x shots look better, the package is let down by finicky focus and higher levels of noise. In lower light, however, the phone really struggles with noise. The phone is also capped at a 12x zoom, far below its competitors’ maximums.
  6. OnePlus 9 Pro — Like the Pixel, this handset also struggles at zoom levels below its 3.3x telephoto camera. The 3x shots appear very heavily processed. Pictures hold up a little better at 5x but still aren’t flawless, especially in lower light where there’s a clear lack of exposure. At 10x, the camera certainly can’t compete with the others in this shootout.

Best camera phone 2021 edition: The verdict

Best Smartphone Cameras 2021

Robert Triggs / Android Authority

I’m reluctant to crown an outright winner, as I’m sure you’ll agree that each of these phones has its own pros and cons. However, I do think a few of these handsets stand out above the rest, while others are rather disappointing given their price tags.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra stands out for its sheer consistency and flexibility across all of our scenarios. From HDR and low light to portraits and selfies, the S21 Ultra hands in a good picture virtually every time. Its only notable weakness is intermediate zoom quality, and its wide-angle lens isn’t flawless. However, the handset has a serious rival in Xiaomi’s ultra-premium flagship. The Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra offers unrivaled soft natural details and ultra-competitive zoom capabilities. If Xiaomi can tone down its HDR strength and tweak its portraits/selfies, this would be close to the perfect camera phone.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra and Mi 11 Ultra are expensive but take some fantastic photos in a wide range of scenarios.

Google’s Pixel 6 Pro is also a strong contender, especially for its comparatively cheap $899 price. I’m less sold on the handset’s ultrawide and portrait capabilities compared to its more expensive rivals, however. Still, the camera package hands in brilliant exposure, colors, and details, as well as zoom capabilities that rival much more expensive phones. Low light and HDR performance also show that Google hasn’t quite caught up in the hardware department yet either.

Apple’s latest flagship is similarly impressive for the most part but I’d argue it doesn’t quite justify its much higher price tag. The iPhone 13 Pro Max excels at portraits and selfies but its color accuracy and HDR capabilities leave a lot to be desired. I’d spend my money elsewhere unless you’re seriously into the phone’s excellent video capabilities. But that’s a discussion for another day.

This leaves us with OnePlus and Sony, two phones I felt severely underwhelmed in this shootout given their premium price tags. Despite the Hasselblad hype, the OnePlus 9 Pro’s can’t compete with portrait or zoom quality. That said, the phone is a very good low-light shooter and has one of the better ultrawide setups available. Sony’s Xperia 1 III has major flaws with portraits and selfies that really don’t cut it at a price tag that rivals the excellent Samsung and Xiaomi flagships. The phone can take some great pictures in the right hands and given the right conditions, but it’s not consistent enough to recommend outside of Sony’s fanbase.


That’s it for Android Authority’s 2021 mega-camera shootout. Which phone do you think takes the best photos in this shootout? Vote in our poll or let us know in the comments below.

Overall, which smartphone takes the best pictures?

91 votes

By admin