Updated 2 November 2021

Guide: best mobile phone camera 2021

For many people, the ability to take great photos is one of the most important things in the search for a new phone, and many mobile manufacturers are focusing extra hard on the camera. But which phone has the best camera? Here we compare the cameras on the latest models of Apple iPhone, Samsung Galaxy and OnePlus.

Guide: best mobile phone camera 2021

The camera is one of the most technically complex components in a mobile phone. And mobile manufacturers are expending considerable resources on developing both hardware and software. For example, Apple has over 800 engineers dedicated solely to the development of the camera in their iPhone and iPad. Samsung has a subsidiary, Samsung Electro-Mechanics, which designs and manufactures camera components for its phones and is a subcontractor for smaller manufacturers.

In order compete with the giants, Apple and Samsung, several small mobile manufacturers have entered into partnerships with classic camera manufacturers. For example, Huawei is collaborating with Leica, OnePlus with Hasselblad and Nokia with Carl Zeiss. But these collaborations primarily involve licensing the brand itself, while the camera components are actually manufactured by an original equipment manufacturer (OEM), i.e. a manufacturer that only manufactures components for various electronics companies. Examples of major OEMs for camera components are Sony, LG Innotek, Sunny Optics, Sharp and Samsung Electro-Mechanics.

The megapixel race is over

For several years, manufacturers have been competing to squeeze more megapixels into their cameras. The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra holds the current record with a 108 megapixel camera. But it seems that the megapixel-race is over, at least temporarily, as rumour has it that Samsung are calming down prior to the release of the Samsung Galaxy S22.

Instead of megapixels, just like other phone and OEM manufacturers, Samsung are now focusing on other technologies. These include optical image stabilisation and sensor size, but primarily more advanced image processing software.

Which mobile phone cameras are the best?

As we said above, mobile manufacturers invest a lot of resources in their cameras. But which camera is really the best? Our mobile expert Daniel Hessel has been testing mobile phones full-time since the mid-00s. Here’s his review of the cameras on the latest models of Apple iPhone, Samsung Galaxy and OnePlus.

iPhone 13

The iPhone 13 Mini, iPhone 13, iPhone 13 Pro och iPhone 13 Pro Max were released in September 2021. With the launch, Apple took the opportunity to double the available storage, and you can choose between 128 GB, 256 GB and 512 GB. And with the iPhone Pro Max you can get a massive 1TB – perfect for capturing many, many photos and videos.

Compared to previous iPhone models, Apple has put a lot of effort into the camera. The Pro and Pro Max in particular have really sharp cameras – they also have an extra telephoto lens with three times optical zoom. The new lenses let in almost twice as much light, transforming photography in poor light conditions from a challenge to a game.

The iPhone 13 is also extra fun to shoot videos with. With the new cinematic mode and ProRes mode in the iPhone 13 Pro models (requires at least 256 GB of storage) you can make really great videos.

The ultra-wide angle camera on the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max has been given an impressive macro mode. Now you can focus on subjects that are as close as 2 centimetres – and get crisp, detailed close-ups. The iPhone 13 (and especially Pro models) offers that little extra that makes photos, and particularly videos, look really professional.

Camera specifications:

  • Dual camera (12 MP)
  • wide angle (f/1.6)
  • ultra wide-angle (f/2.4).
Apple iPhone 13 128GB

iPhone 13

Plus: Cinematic mode, ProRes, macro mode, really good night photography.

Minus: If you already have one, the iPhone 12 is absolutely fine – the difference isn’t all that great.

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Samsung S21 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra – now we’re talking! The Ultra model is similar to its predecessor in many ways, but with a more advanced camera and better battery life. It’s a great alternative to an Apple phone, because the S21 Ultra offers one of the best cameras on the market. Like the iPhone 12 and 13, it’s really good when it comes to photos in dark environments. It can also cope with challenges such as back light and strong contrasts.

The S21 Ultra comes with a much improved zoom camera: a telephoto camera with 10x optical zoom. This means you get more detailed images, even when you zoom in a lot. The image stabilisation also works well, making the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra a great phone for photographing birds and other animals, for example

Just like the S21, the Ultra model also features Director’s View, which shoots with the front and rear cameras at the same time.

The portrait function is available for both photo and film. This keeps the subject you're shooting in focus, while the background is beautifully blurred.

Colour reproduction is good, although not as natural as Apple phones – sometimes it feels a bit overdone, but of course this is a matter of taste.

Camera specifications:

  • main camera (12 MP + 64 MP + 12 MP, f/1.8 + f/2.0 + f/2.2)
  • wide angle (12 MP, f/2.2)
  • double zoom lenses
  • 108 MP main sensor.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 512GB

Samsung S21 Ultra

Plus: Great zoom, detailed shots, portrait mode, 12-bit HDR photos in raw format

Minus: Colour reproduction sometimes a bit unnatural.

iPhone 11

The iPhone 11 is Apple’s top seller from 2019. The series consists of the iPhone 11 Mini, iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max. The Pro models have a second camera lens, even if though it’s the same as the one on the iPhone 11. It has a portrait mode, which takes pictures of people with shallow depth of field, and a night mode that means poor light conditions can’t stop you taking photos. Unfortunately, the photos aren’t always as good as those of the later phones.

Camera specifications:

  • wide angle (12 MP, f/1.8)
  • ultra wide-angle (12 MP, f/2.4)
  • selfie camera (12 MP).
Apple iPhone 11 64GB

iPhone 11

Plus: Great everyday camera, portrait mode, night mode

Minus: Has no zoom lens, doesn't always perform in low light

iPhone 12

The iPhone 12 family also consists of four models: The iPhone 12 Mini, iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max. As usual, Apple have put a little extra effort into the Pro models. For example, you get an additional camera with more functions. It's not a huge difference compared to the predecessor's camera – both wide angle and ultra-wide angle lenses are the same as before. But the 12 is less sensitive to poor light conditions and delivers attractive photos and videos regardless of the environment.

If you can live without the very latest camera technology, the 12 camera is still one of the very best on the market – and at a much more affordable price than the iPhone 13.

Camera specifications:

  • wide angle (12 MP, f/1.6)
  • ultra wide-angle (12 MP, f/2.4)
  • selfie camera (12 MP).
Apple iPhone 12 64GB

iPhone 12

Plus: Portrait mode, night mode, similar to iPhone 11 but better in low light

Minus: Poorer battery life

Samsung Galaxy S21

The Samsung Galaxy S21 was launched in early 2021 as part of the Galaxy S series.

The S21 isn’t very different from the S20. The cameras are basically the same and the photos they produce are about the same quality. There are refinements that impress, but unfortunately also functions that don't. The camera doesn’t have a zoom lens, but instead crops the image to a smaller size. And unfortunately, the Samsung Galaxy S21 has noise reduction that means details in the distance melt into each other. The photos are OK, but no better than that. Director’s View allows you to film with the cameras on the back and front simultaneously. You can switch freely between them and the various zoom modes as you film. This is a fun feature, for example, for vlogs, because you can shoot both yourself and another subject at the same time, which is great for things like reaction videos.

However, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra offers the best functions. If you have an older model of Samsung, you will probably experience a lot of improvement if you buy the Samsung Galaxy S21. But if you already have an S20, you may as well just stick with it.

Camera specifications:

  • main camera (12 MP + 64 MP + 12 MP, f/1.8 + f/2.0 + f/2.2)
  • ultra wide-angle (12 MP, f/2.2)
  • telephoto lens (64 MP, 3x, f/2.0).
Samsung Galaxy S21 128GB

Samsung Galaxy S21

Plus: Director’s View makes the Samsung Galaxy S21 one of the more entertaining phones to make videos with, cheaper than its predecessor, good sharpness and colour reproduction (but not always entirely true to life).

Minus: No major differences compared to the Samsung Galaxy S20, not very impressive zoom camera, blurred details at distance, no night mode.

OnePlus 9 Pro

One exciting thing about the OnePlus 9 Pro is the collaboration with the Hasselblad camera brand to develop the cameras. The OnePlus 9 Pro has four lenses: a main camera with a 49 MP sensor, wide angle with a 50 MP sensor, telephoto and a support camera. The support camera is a 2 MP monochrome camera, which adds extra light information to photos by improving the blacks and contrast.

Compared to its predecessor, the OnePlus 8 Pro, the 9 Pro takes much better photos at night with crisp detail, and it’s also better at noise reduction. At dusk, night mode will impress you regardless of whether you’re taking still images or videos. But – not always. Sometimes we get images where the colour reproduction has gone mad or videos where autofocus seems to have a life of its own. The Pro model features laser autofocus and ultra-wide angle. But the iPhone 12 and 13 are still better on the small details. Macro photography is also supported, but here too the iPhone wins.

Camera specifications:

  • main camera (48 MP)
  • wide angle (50 MP, f/1.8)
  • telephoto camera with 3.3 x zoom (8 MP)
  • ultra wide-angle (50 MP, f/2.2)
  • monochrome camera (2 MP).
OnePlus 9 Pro 128GB

OnePlus 9 Pro

Plus: Good wide angle, good detail on zoomed-in photos, great colour balance, 12-bit raw format. Great camera overall…

Minus: … but not always – the quality is a bit uneven.

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