Flagship phones have got to the point where raw performance doesn't really need to get much better, and so they are differentiated by their design, battery life, unique features and photography capabilities. We're focusing on the latter here, given that for many people a smartphone now replaces a physical camera. Our aim: to discover what is the very best phone camera money can buy, for photos, videos and even selfies.

We’ve tested and compared five phones with the best cameras currently available: iPhone XS Max, Galaxy S9 Plus, Google Pixel 3, Huawei Mate 20 Pro and the Huawei P20 Pro. We've included the P20 Pro as well as Mate 20 Pro because it's still a current phone, sold alongside the Mate 20 Pro. The reviews apply to the iPhone XS, Galaxy S9+ and Pixel 3 XL since they have identical cameras to the XS Max, Note 9 and Pixel 3 respectively.

You won't find every flagship phone here, as we're including only those which have cameras good enough to be called "the best". That isn't determined by specs or features, it's judged by the quality of the photos and videos they produce. It's why you won't find the Sony XZ2 or OnePlus 6T here, among others.

How we test phone cameras

Rather than using controlled conditions and attempting to compare the cameras scientifically, we took photos and videos just as anyone would. That means using the default settings out of the box and taking pictures hand-held, not with a tripod. The only settings we changed were to turn off any beauty modes on the selfie cameras, and to choose the highest resolution and frame rate for the video samples so you can see the best quality on offer. Most manufacturers make 1080p the default setting because it uses so much less storage space.

Camera tests

We’ve kept the comparisons to the core functions: photos with the main camera (including portrait modes with blurred backgrounds), selfies and videos. 

Software

The experience of taking photos is almost as important as the results, so the stock camera app is a key factor in our reviews as this can make the difference between a phone that’s a joy or a pain to use as a camera.

Subjectivity

Our main aim is to give you a very good idea of how each phone performs in the real world, let you see examples of the photos and videos it takes and be able to decide for yourself – bearing in mind your own priorities – which phone you should buy.

It’s worth noting that not everyone agrees on the definition of ‘best’. Some prefer processed images which are sharpened and have saturated colours, while others prefer a more natural look. Plus, the screen on which you view the photos and videos has an influence too.

Drawing conclusions

We judged everything not on each phone’s own screen but on a calibrated Philips Brilliance 272P. This is a 27in 4K display which allowed us to see all the detail in UHD video. Remember that your own display may have a lower resolution, and may not produce accurate colours.

Check out these accessories which can make your photography and videos even better.

Phone camera specifications

 

Rear camera(s)

Front camera(s)

Video (best)

Special features

Apple iPhone XS / XS Max

12Mp + 12Mp (2x zoom)

7Mp

4K at 60fps, stabilised

Portrait Lighting, adjustable depth of field

Google Pixel 3 / 3XL

12.2Mp

8Mp + 8Mp wide

4K at 30fps, stabilised

Top Shot, Super Res Zoom, Night Sight

Huawei Mate 20 Pro

40Mp, 20Mp (wide), 8Mp (3x zoom)

24Mp

4K at 30fps, stabilised

Night mode, light painting, 960fps slo-mo, Cinema AI

Huawei P20 Pro

40Mp, 20Mp (mono), 8Mp (3x zoom)

24Mp

4K at 30fps, not stabilised

Night mode, light painting, 960fps slo-mo

Samsung Galaxy S9+ / Note 9

12Mp + 12Mp (2x zoom)

8Mp

4K at 60fps, stabilised

960fps slo-mo

What is the best camera phone?

Best overall camera phone: Huawei Mate 20 Pro

The Mate 20 Pro, like every other phone here, isn't perfect. But when you factor in every aspect, from photo quality to video and the versatile zoom range, it's hard to conclude that there is a better option overall.

It is capable of simply amazing shots in good light and although competitors are catching up with the long-exposure Night mode, the Mate 20 Pro does a superb job in a variety of conditions. 

We want Huawei to add an automatic HDR mode and to fix the dodgy portrait selfie mode, but these should be possible with software updates.

Runners-up

The Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL come in a close second. Its photos are so sharp and detailed (just like the Pixel 2's) that it isn't difficult to point out which photo was shot on a Pixel 3 in a blind comparison. The same applies to the selfie camera, and Google has added the wide-angle camera so you can now get more people in those shots. Unfortunately this does introduce distortion, and we can't help but feel most people would have preferred a second rear camera with a telephoto lens instead. Super Res Zoom absolutely works, but simply can't compete with - for example - the 3x telephoto lens on Huawei's phones.

The Huawei P20 Pro is still a fine choice, especially as it's cheaper than the Mate 20 Pro. But without the wide-angle lens and video stabilisation above 1080p30 it is now outclassed. As long as that doesn't bother you, the P20 Pro still offers same telephoto capabilities and also does a brilliant job with its Night mode. 

Samsung and Apple's phones are still fine choices as well, offering very good photos and videos. In fact, for home video enthusiasts, they should be high up, if not top of your shortlist thanks to their ability to record at 4K60 along with great stabilisation.

Best Camera Phone Reviews

1. Huawei Mate 20 Pro

Huawei Mate 20 Pro

How do you improve when you’ve already got the best phone cameras in the business? Well it wasn’t too difficult for Huawei this time around: it took the 20Mp monochrome sensor and replaced it with a 20Mp colour sensor and a wide-angle lens.

This makes the Mate 20 Pro more versatile than most with an effective zoom range of 0.6x – 5x. The latter figure achieved with software smarts: the 8Mp telephoto camera has a 3x optical zoom, but this is combined with the information from the 40Mp main sensor and machine learning to produce a credible 5x zoom.

Factor in the faster neural processor and you’ve got all the ingredients to take superb photos and the Mate 20 Pro does not disappoint. When you have the luxury of plenty of light, you’ll be able to take pictures that most people will assume came from an expensive DSLR.

Details are razor sharp and the portrait mode delivers realistic bokeh and doesn’t blur out the wrong parts of the image. You can also have some fun with bokeh, turning highlights into hearts for example.

The new wide-angle camera means you can shoot landscapes without having to resort to a panorama mode, but it’s also useful for macro shots and allows you to put the lens as close as 25mm from an object.

Best Camera Phone Mate 20 Pro

Best Camera Phone Mate 20 Pro

Best Camera Phone Mate 20 Pro

Best Camera Phone Mate 20 Pro

As the main and telephoto cameras are basically the same as on the P20 Pro, there isn’t much difference but Huawei has improved Master A.I. to the point where we no longer ended up with massively oversaturated colours – particularly greens and blues – and photos don’t look obviously over processed. As before, though, you can disable this if you don’t like it.

It’s possible to set the main camera to shoot at 40Mp and you’ll see incredible detail levels if you do, but this disables the other cameras, so you lose the zoom button until you switch back to 10Mp mode. Hopefully Huawei will change this at some point so users can choose 40Mp and still zoom.

Best Camera Phone Mate 20 Pro

On paper it appears that nothing has changed in the video department, but there’s now stabilisation at 1080p60 and 4K30. You still can’t record at 60fps in 4K, though. Stabilisation, which is a combination of optical and software systems, is pretty effective, too.

Cinema AI is new, too, and offers several filters which are applied in real-time and include a monochrome mode where only people in shot – and their clothes – remain in colour.

The results from our low light test brought no surprises: the Mate 20 Pro can take great photos in ridiculously low light. And the sensor's high ISO means you often won't even need to use the Night mode. Here's a comparison in which the Night mode delivers a slightly brighter image overall, but even at ISO 12800, noise is kept in check pretty well.

Best Camera Phone Mate 20 Pro

Round the front is the same 24Mp selfie camera you’ll find on the P20 Pro, so it takes good-quality photos even if the results aren’t quite up there with the Pixel 3’s, and there’s no wide-angle camera for group shots as you get with Google’s phone.

Best Camera Phone Mate 20 Pro

Currently there appears to be a bug which means the portrait mode doesn’t work properly. In fact, we simply could not get it to blur the background during our comparative photo test, and it worked only twice in all the time we’ve had the phone. That's why the Portrait shot above is no different to the regular Photo mode.

The Mate 20 Pro has the best cameras of any Huawei phone yet and is ideal if you want a phone that offers wide-angle as well as telephoto. But even if you rarely use those cameras, the main camera takes outstanding photos.

Read our full Mate 20 Pro review.

2. Google Pixel 3

Google Pixel 3

Both the Pixel 3 and XL model have the same camera setup. Although the hardware isn’t that fancy, with just one rear camera, don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s no good. Far from it. With Google’s ‘Computational Photography’ and the physical Visual Core there is a lot of clever processing which enables some great-looking photos and videos.

Starting with the hardware, the main camera still has as 12.2Mp sensor, but is the newer Sony IMX363 model. There’s no laser focus this time, just phase detection, but auto focus is still very fast even in dim light.

Software features are the highlights, with Super Res Zoom, Night Sight and Top Shot. Super Zoom takes several photos and uses the slight differences along with Google’s computing power to intelligently create pixels for a better-quality photo than mere interpolation would create.

Night Sight works in a similar way to create a correctly exposed image rather than one which is too dark. The exact technique hasn’t been revealed but the results speak for themselves. It’s possible to get some fantastic results in very dark conditions so long as there’s no movement in the scene beyond your shaky hands. (Note: we had to install a tweaked version of the stock camera app to get access to Night Sight, so the final release version may even improve upon what we saw.)

Best camera phone Pixel 3 / 3 XL

Top Shot shoots a series of photos and automatically selects the best one and eliminates any where a subject’s eyes were shut or not smiling. And it works really well. It doesn't always trigger, though, even if you think it should have.

In good light, the Pixel 3’s photos are just as amazing as you’d expect. Detail is crisp, white balance excellent and – thanks to HDR+ - dynamic range impressive. Again, despite the single camera, portrait shots are very good and the blurry backgrounds look authentic, with subject isolation generally accurate.

Best camera phone Pixel 3 / 3 XL

Best camera phone Pixel 3 / 3 XL

However, this also applies to the Pixel 2 and it’s almost impossible to spot any real differences in quality between photos taken (in good light) on old and new phones.

The weakness remains the lack of a true optical zoom. Sure, Super Res Zoom works as advertised, but only to a point. It isn’t quite up to the standard of phones with a 2x optical zoom and certainly can’t compete with the P20 and Mate 20 Pro’s 3x zoom.

The zoom slider doesn't tell you the zoom factor, so we've approximated a 2x zoom here, and the results are respectable.

Best camera phone Pixel 3 / 3 XL

But if you go to around 5x (as you can with the P20 Pro and Mate 20 Pro) the deficit becomes obvious:

Best camera phone Pixel 3 / 3 XL

Since the Pixel 3 isn’t noticeably cheaper than its rivals, we can’t help but wish Google had just spent the money invested in Super Res Zoom on a second sensor and lens.

In fact, Google did spend money on an extra sensor and lens, but it’s on the front. As well as the standard selfie camera there’s also a wide-angle one. Both have 8Mp sensors, but with the great image processing that’s enough detail for good-looking selfies.

Best camera phone Pixel 3 / 3 XL

You don’t select between the cameras: there’s a zoom slider that goes from wide-angle to zoomed-in and portrait mode works at any point in the range. The wide angle setting is great for group photos, but it does make the Pixel 3 better suited to people who prefer to take selfies rather than pictures of others.

Video capture is exactly the same as the Pixel 2, shooting 4K at up to 30fps. Stabilisation is a combination of electronic and optical and works at all resolutions. It’s a shame that 60fps isn’t available at 4K and that Google still hasn’t improved the slo-mo options: you’re still limited to 120fps at 1080p and can only shoot 240fps at 720p. However, the Pixel 3 does gain a flicker sensor which eliminated that problem from indoor videos shot under artificial light.

There’s a bigger benefit of buying the Pixel 3: you get free, unlimited storage on Google Photos for photos and videos at full, original resolution. This lasts until 31 January 2022, and could save you a fair amount on cloud storage.

Although you can criticise Google for certain decisions about the Pixel 3’s cameras and capabilities, the main camera takes outstanding photos, now even in the dark. We like the Top Shot feature, but Super Res Zoom isn’t a substitute for optical zoom. For general photography, the Pixel 3 is absolutely a winner.

3. Huawei P20 Pro

Huawei P20 Pro

Until the P20 Pro, Huawei's Leica-branded cameras hadn’t been too impressive. It was the first phone to have three rear cameras, a 40Mp main camera, an 8Mp telephoto camera (3x zoom) and a 20Mp monochrome camera. Along with what Huawei calls the NPU – a Neural Processing Unit – and the camera app itself, you can point and shoot and get remarkable images from the P20 Pro.

That’s because it chooses the mode automatically, then adjusts settings within that mode to best suit the scene in front of the camera. For example, point it at a person and if you’re close enough, it’ll switch to Portrait mode and blur the background.

The same sort of thing happens with scenery, food, pets and on the beach. There are even presets for ‘blue skies’, ‘greenery’ and ‘flowers’. If you dislike that the greenery mode makes grass and trees look too bright and unnatural (which it does), just tap the ‘x’ when the scene tag pops up: do it enough and the phone will learn you don’t want to use that mode.

P20 Pro camera review

If you’re used to an iPhone, the Apple-like camera app will be very familiar. It even offers moving photos and attempts to emulate Apple’s Portrait Lighting without great success.

One of two highlights is the night mode. It's able to keep the shutter open for six seconds and deliver a sharp photo. Usually you’d need a rock-solid tripod for that, but some clever processing makes it possible to do this even if you have shaky hands.

P20 Pro camera review

The other stand-out feature is the 5x hybrid zoom. The 3x zoom lens is used in tandem with the 40Mp camera to produce sharp telephoto shots with good detail levels: far better than you could gain from digital zoom on other phones.

P20 Pro camera review

What about quality? By default, photos have a very processed look. This divides opinion: some people really like the intense sharpening and eye-popping colours. Others hate it and think it ruins the pictures.

We think that, for the majority of the time, the P20 Pro’s photos are excellent. They offer great detail, biting sharpness and great dynamic range. They’re also instantly ready to share on social media without editing.

By default photos are 10Mp, not 40Mp. The reason for this is because three-quarters of the pixels are thrown away. This ‘pixel-binning’ isn’t a new technique but it has the benefit of creating a sharper photo. If you force the P20 Pro to capture at 40Mp, you’ll notice the image is much softer, even if there’s more detail when you zoom right in.

Colours are also much more natural and contrast is set to a more sensible level, too.

Video is very good, as long as you’re happy to use the default mode – 1080p at 30fps. It offers nicely stabilised footage with good focus, very little noise and good stereo sound. Naturally, you get much more detail in the 4K mode, but all the stabilisation is disabled which makes it very shaky, even if you stand still. It’s also disappointing that there’s no stabilisation for 60fps video, and no option to record at 60 frames per second in 4K at all.

Unlike the Galaxy S9+’s super slo-mo, Huawei’s is all manual, so it’s down to you to tap the record button at exactly the right moment, and it’s easy to miss the fraction of a second you wanted.

Still, there’s a lot to like: several focusing systems are used to ensure fast and accurate focus in all light conditions, and there’s even predictive focus using “AI” that’s helpful if you’re trying to photograph a flower that’s being blown around by the wind.

Also, the P20 Pro’s Portrait mode delivers some of the best blurred backgrounds of any phone camera, accurately determining what is the subject and what isn’t.

 P20 Pro camera review

Selfie lovers will be drawn in by the 24Mp front camera. However, although it does take good photos, the Pixel 2 XL’s 8Mp camera takes much better-looking selfies. But in dim light, the P20 Pro again comes into its own, delivering surprisingly sharp selfies. As you can see below, it applies some processing in the portrait mode (right) which makes skin tones look unnatural.

P20 Pro camera review

If you can afford it, the Mate 20 Pro is now a better choice, but if your budget is tighter, the P20 Pro is still a sensible choice.

Read our full P20 Pro review

4. Apple iPhone XS

Apple iPhone XS

Like Google, Apple has improved its phone cameras for 2018 primarily by using clever software tricks rather than any major hardware updates.

So the arrangement remains the same as on the iPhone X (whose cameras were very similar to the 7 Plus’) with a standard and telephoto camera on the rear and a single selfie camera which uses the 3D scanning Face ID system for depth detection for portrait selfies.

What’s new is the upgraded Smart HDR mode which now takes many more photos and combines them instantly into an image with excellent dynamic range: you can even take photos with the sun shining behind a subject and still get decent results.

Best camera phone - iPhone XS

Here's the telephoto shot:

Best camera phone - iPhone XS

Video doesn’t quite get HDR, but the ‘extended dynamic range’ still makes a noticeable difference and – as ever – the iPhone XS produces fantastic, stable footage and can shoot at 60fps in 4K.

The other new feature allows you to change the depth of field – the amount of background blur – in portrait photos after you take them. It works well and is certainly nice to have, but equally isn’t a killer feature. Indeed, if you already have an X or even an 8 Plus, it isn’t worth upgrading just for the XS’s cameras.

There’s no real change in slo-mo capabilities: you get a choice of 240fps or 120fps at 1080p. The difference is that there’s no longer the option of 240fps at 720p.

Focus, white balance and exposure are always good, with great dynamic range. HDR is used automatically when needed: nine frames are blended together without you noticing. If you head to the Settings app you’ll find an option in the Camera section to disable auto HDR and opt to keep the ‘normal’ photo as well as the HDR version.

It’s still a frustration that you can’t change video resolution or frame rate in the camera app, but at least the app itself is simple to use.

Where the XS loses out to its rivals is the lack of a dedicated night mode. Apple says that it takes great photos in the dark, but the results aren’t a patch on what you can expect from the P20 Pro, Mate 20 Pro and the Pixel 3.

Best camera phone - iPhone XS

However, if you rarely take photos in the dark, you might be more taken with the iPhone XS’s Portrait Lighting effects. Huawei’s equivalent effects are poor by comparison, but the iPhone X can’t match the P20 Pro’s awesome long-exposure mode for low light photo or its flash performance for that matter.

Here's a comparison of a normal and portrait photo taken with the rear cameras:

Best camera phone - iPhone XS 

Usually the depth sensing does a great job, but above is an example where it has got it completely wrong and blurred out the left side of Henry's hair.

When it comes to selfies, Apple has improved the portrait mode on the XS and the results are great. It also proves you don’t always need more than a 7Mp sensor for great looking photos.

 Best camera phone - iPhone XS

The iPhone XS and XS Max have great cameras and take excellent photos in just about all conditions. It’s true that they’re not the best cameras out there, but if you must have iOS rather than Android on your phone, they’re the best you’ll find currently. 

5. Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus

Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus

As with the Pixel 3 and iPhone XS, we're combining reviews of the Galaxy S9+ with the Note 9 as their cameras are identical. The main rear shooter is interesting because it has a variable aperture.

The iris can switch between only two apertures: f/1.5 (bigger) and f/2.4 (smaller). However, that’s still useful as it can open up to let in more light at night, and close up in bright light to offer sharper photos.

In terms of specs, the phones have a pair of 12Mp cameras, one with a 2x zoom and both with optical stabilisation. They also offer a 960fps slo-mo option in addition to 240fps at 1080p, something you won’t find on the iPhone XS or XS Max.

For normal video, you get the same options as the iPhone, which means 4K video at 24, 30 or 60fps. Pick the latter and you’re limited to five minutes, but it’s unwise to even shoot for that long as the file sizes become unmanageable, despite the fact it records in the same HEVC format as the iPhone.

You’ll find advanced controls in Samsung’s camera app, much like Huawei’s. As well as being able to adjust ISO and shutter speed you can choose the aperture manually (including for video). Some will love this, but for the most part you want to point and shoot and let the phone worry about getting the settings right.

The app itself is our least favourite, but it’s easy to get used to its oddities. Overall, there are too many icons on screen and too many modes and options. The main list at the top picks out ‘FOOD’ alongside AUTO, PANORAMA and AR EMOJI. Apart from SUPER SLO-MO there’s no video mode: you have to press the button with the red dot, as opposed to the white circle, to start recording a video.

And although the motion detection window is useful when shooting at 960fps, it isn’t perfect. It will let you record several slo-mo clips within one video, but it won’t necessarily choose the moments you would. You can trigger it manually, but this is easier said than done.

Portrait mode is called ‘Live Focus’ and works on both the front and back cameras. It’s most effective on the rear, though, as the two cameras allow for much better depth detection. You can adjust the amount of blur (and, separately, beautification) to suit. Usefully, you can adjust the blurriness after the fact, and also toggle between the close-up and wide-angle versions of the shot.

Galaxy S9 Plus / Note 9 camera review

It also does a good job for selfies:

Galaxy S9 Plus camera review

Video quality is on a par with the iPhone X, so it’s very good. 1080p footage is nicely stabilised, but much softer than the sharp and detailed (but wobblier) 4K video. The stereo audio also sounds good.

The Hyperlapse video mode is fun to use, but any phone can shoot hyperlapse – including the iPhone. Hyperlapse is simply time-lapse video shot while moving around.

When it comes to photos, the S9 Plus and Note 9 do an excellent job for the most part. You won’t notice the effect of the variable aperture, as it’ll mainly stick to f/2.4 in daylight. Colours and contrast are great, but it does mess with skin tones. Be sure to put the beauty slider to its ‘0’ position to disable this effect (if you don’t like it).

Galaxy S9 Plus / Note 9 camera review

And with the telephoto lens:

Galaxy S9 Plus / Note 9 camera review

Here's a cropped portion from a photo taken using the 2x telephoto lens:

Galaxy S9 Plus camera review

In low light, the lack of clever processing means the S9+ and Note 9 aren't on a par with the Pixel 3 or Huawei phones. Photos have more detail and less noise than the iPhone XS, though.

Galaxy S9 Plus / Note 9 camera review

Overall, the Note 9 and S9 Plus have very good cameras which are reliable in most conditions. But with Google and Huawei bringing computational photography into the mix, and the Mate 20 Pro offering a wide-angle camera along with better telephoto capabilities, Samsung needs to up its game for the S10.

Read our full Galaxy S9 Plus review and Note 9 review.

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