Best phone cameras of 2018: What’s the top-performing camera phone you can get right now

Best camera phones of 2018: the leading smartphone cameras on the market

Finding the best smartphone camera is no easy task these days. Most all flagships now come packing some serious camera tech and software, and while certain brands and models may excel in certain areas, it’s pretty much a neck-and-neck race.

Some phones perform better in low light, others have HDR modes that are way ahead of the competition, and then there are those that are not as good for stills, but are great for video. It’s not easy picking the best of the best, especially if you don’t get the chance to try out many, many phones for yourself.

Thankfully, that’s our job here at PhoneArena! We’ve thoroughly tested all smartphones featured on this list, and in our opinion, they boast the best-performing cameras on the market right now.

So, with that out of the way, which are the best camera phones you can get right now, in 2018?

Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL

Best camera phones of 2018: the leading smartphone cameras on the market

Pros

Excellent all-around camera performanceSecond front-facing camera for wide-angle selfiesEven better low-light shots with Night SightImproved portrait mode even without a second main cameraHDR+ is excellent

Cons

Google Camera lacks a manual modeLens flares still a bit of issue in certain situations

The Pixel line has been well-known for its outstanding camera quality, leaving the Pixel 3 models with a lot to live up to. Thankfully, the new models deliver in spades. 

On the hardware side of things, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL both pack 12.2 MP sensors in their main cameras with f/1.8 aperture and optical image stabilization. Google has again foregone the inclusion of a dual-camera setup, calling such hardware “unnecessary” due to what can be achieved with machine learning (i.e. portrait shots). That said, however, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL boast dual-cameras on the front, with a second, wide-angle 8MP shooter added to the mix. 
Essential to the Pixel 3’s new features is one particular piece of hardware – the Pixel Visual Core, Google’s dedicated image processor, first introduced in last year’s Pixel 2 models. Initially utilized to enable the excellent HDR+ photo capture in third-party apps, the dedicated processor has taken a prominent role in the newest, AI-powered features and improvements found on the latest Pixel 3. All the software camera trickery that comes on the new Pixels — Top Shot, Super Res Zoom, and Night Sight to name a few — relies on this chip.

Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL camera samples

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Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL camera samples

iPhone XS and XS Max

Best camera phones of 2018: the leading smartphone cameras on the market

Pros

Smart HDR is awesomeVery good Portrait ModeHDR and other types of processing when shooting 1080p videoSlow Sync flash excels in low-light scenarios

Cons

No manual mode in stock cameraNo RAW support in stock camera

The iPhone XS and XS Max are a step ahead of the iPhone X in the camera department. Things have improved on the hardware front, thanks to the bigger pixels of the camera sensors, which allow the newest iPhones to resolve a bit more detail than last year’s anniversary model, but Smart HDR is the biggest differentiator here. Software is once again what’s pushing the smartphone camera forward. No surprises here.
Apple’s new Smart HDR leverages the power of multiple technologies — including the upgraded Image Signal Processor (ISP), the improved CPU, and advanced algorithms — to vastly enhance dynamic range in photos, without making them look artificial. But what’s more Smart HDR also works when shooting pictures of moving objects. In order to achieve this, the camera has to shoot a four-frame buffer of the scene, so it can freeze the motion in the frame. Then, the A12 Bionic chip moves in to capture secondary frames at the same time, but these are at different exposure levels and are used to bring out details in the highlights and shadows. But that’s not all. Smart HDR also shoots a long exposure during all that, so it can pay special attention to the shadows and possibly restore even more detail. Of course, this would vary on a per-scene basis, but could be especially useful in high-contrast scenes where you have bright highlights and deep shadows.
Feature spotlight:

Smart HDR does wonders for some of your shots. Photo from the iPhone XS on the left, iPhone X on the right.

Smart HDR does wonders for some of your shots. Photo from the iPhone XS on the left, iPhone X on the right.

But wait, there’s more! After all of this is done, which doesn’t take long (zero shutter lag, remember?), Smart HDR then takes all the images, analyzes them, and decides how to match up the best parts of the best photos for the best possible result.
Aside from the seriously impressive Smart HDR mode, the iPhone XS and XS Max also come with improved Portrait Mode. Object separation has been improved from the X, as well as the quality of the “actual” bokeh itself. Furthermore, Apple has taken a page of Huawei’s book and now lets you adjust the quantity of background blur after you’ve taken the picture.

iPhone XS and XS Max camera samples

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iPhone XS and XS Max camera samples

Samsung Galaxy Note 9

Best camera phones of 2018: the leading smartphone cameras on the market

Pros

Great overall image sharpnessGood optical zoomGreat performance in low-light scenariosFast and reliable autofocus

Cons

Oversaturated colors in certain scenariosAuto WB is all over the place

The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is an all around great performer. It is equipped with a traditional wide-angle camera and a telephoto lens for lossless optical magnification, but the two snappers also work together to create a shallow depth of field effect when shooting in “Live Focus” mode, which is Samsung’s answer to Portrait Mode.

Feature spotlight:

The Galaxy Note 9 excels in low-light scenarios, providing unmatched sharpness in situations where most of the competition struggles to deliver a clear picture

The Galaxy Note 9 excels in low-light scenarios, providing unmatched sharpness in situations where most of the competition struggles to deliver a clear picture

Furthermore, the Galaxy Note 9 is one of the best smartphones for low light photography out there, overshadowed only perhaps by the Google Pixel 2 and the Huawei P20 Pro (but that’s debatable). It’s performance during the day is also excellent, although Samsung’s post-processing algorithms are a bit on the heavy side at times, and the auto white balance assessment is not always spot-on. Images from the Note 9 may at times appear a bit oversaturated, but for those of you who want to get into the nitty gritty of it, the stock camera app offers an elaborate manual mode that lets you fine-tune the results.

As far as low light photography is concerned, the Note 9 is an absolute powerhouse, producing sharp, clean-looking images in poor lighting conditions where most of the competition fails to deliver decent results.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 camera samples

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Samsung Galaxy Note 9 camera samples

Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL

Best camera phones of 2018: the leading smartphone cameras on the market

Pros

HDR+ is the best HDR mode on an Android phoneGood color reproduction and WB in different lighting scenariosGood stabilization and fast autofocus when recording video

Cons

Google Camera lacks a manual modePortrait mode is not as good as on dual-cam phonesNasty flares in certain lighting conditions

The latest crop of Pixel phones from Google offer what are arguably two of the best cameras in the Android world. Shunning away from the dual-cam trend, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL bet heavily on excellent software to produce great-looking stills and videos. One of the biggest stand-out features of the Pixels is the HDR+ mode, which is leaps and bounds above the Android competition. It is the result of years of research and fine-tuning the algorithms that make the magic happen, and it truly shows.

Despite not boasting two cameras like most of the competition, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL are no less capable of delivering excellent results, and are even capable of simulating shallow depth of field (a.k.a bokeh,), which is an oh-so-trendy thing right now. The results are, unfortunately, not quite up to par with what you can expect from the iPhone X or the Galaxy Note 8, but they are still acceptable, especially considering the lack of a second camera on the Pixels.

Pixel 2 sample photos

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iPhone X

Best camera phones of 2018: the leading smartphone cameras on the market

Pros

One of the best HDR modes out thereVery capable portrait mode4K at 60 fps video recordingExcellent color rendering in all lighting conditionsSlow Sync flash is great for night-time portraits

Cons

No manual mode in stock cameraNo RAW support in stock cameraLow-light performance without flash is iffy

That the iPhone X is capable of taking great-looking photos and videos, is a secret to no one. Apple’s latest flagship has some of the best cameras on the market, both on the front and back.

The main attraction is, of course, the rear-facer, which consists of a standard, wide-angle shooter, coupled with a “telephoto” lens that’s capable of up to two times lossless, optical magnification. The two cameras also work in tandem to measure depth when using the iPhone X’s excellent Portrait Mode.
Feature spotlight:

iPhone X - Slow Sync flash on the iPhone X is great for getting better exposed backgrounds when shooting at night Galaxy Note 8 - Slow Sync flash on the iPhone X is great for getting better exposed backgrounds when shooting at night

iPhone X

Galaxy Note 8

Slow Sync flash on the iPhone X is great for getting better exposed backgrounds when shooting at night

Although the iPhone X doesn’t offer a manual camera mode—which we wish it did, though we know that’s not how Apple rolls—the camera software on board is great at what it does. That is, it offers one of the best HDR modes on the market, rivaled only by Google Pixel 2’s HDR+, spot-on color reproduction, and a very capable Portrait Mode.

Shots taken on the iPhone X mostly have very natural colors and look great on the phone’s wide-gamut display. The only weaker side of the iPhone X camera is its low-light performance. Although it’s great for taking stills and videos during the day, things take a turn for the worse when there’s not enough light. However, the phone’s Slow Sync flash is actually quite good for taking portraits and close-ups at night, ensuring a well-lit background behind your subject.

If Apple’s camera app also offered a manual mode, it would be a godsend for the enthusiasts out there, but alas. You can always go for a third-party solution, of course, but that’s kind of beside the point.

iPhone X sample photos

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Galaxy S9/S9+

Best camera phones of 2018: the leading smartphone cameras on the market

Pros

Great overall image qualityExcellent performance in low-light scenariosFast and reliable autofocus when recording video

Cons

Oversaturated colors in certain scenariosAuto WB not accurate at times

Pretty much everything that can be said about the Galaxy Note 8, also holds true for the S9 models and vice versa. The Galaxy S9 has a single rear-facing camera with a variable aperture (f/1.5 to f/2.4) that helps when recording ultra slow-mo videos and when taking pictures in low-light scenarios. The Galaxy S9+ has that same camera but also adds a telephoto shooter capable of 2x optical magnification, which is not only used for zooming in, but for achieving the “soft background” effect when taking portrait photos. 

For those who don’t like Samsung’s trademark style of JPEG post-processing, there’s also a dedicated and very well-rounded manual mode that lets you tinker with the color temperature, contrast, saturation, and all the other settings you’d expect from a manual camera mode.

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Huawei P20 Pro

Best camera phones of 2018: the leading smartphone cameras on the market

Pros

Excellent low-light performanceGreat zoom capabilities (up to 5x magnification)Very low noise levels in all lighting conditions

Cons

Detail suffers in some scenarios due to aggressive noise reductionInaccurate auto WB indoors

The Huawei P20 Pro is an interesting phone, indeed. Huawei has yet again teamed up with Leica in a bid to deliver an outstanding photography experience to the palm of your hand. The main focus of the P20 Pro is low-light photography, and boy, does it deliver in a unique way.
Feature spotlight:

The Huawei P20 pro is awesome for low-light photography

The Huawei P20 pro is awesome for low-light photography

In order to achieve well-exposed, noise-free images in less than favorable lighting conditions, the P20 Pro actually takes numerous photos at different exposure values and then blends them together to great effect. Detail suffers at times, due to the somewhat aggressive noise reduction employed, but the resulting images are so well and evenly exposed that it made us go “wow” the first couple of times we shot with the P20 Pro at night.
The phone also has excellent zoom capabilities, offering magnification of up to 5x without considerable detail loss. The selfie camera is not too shabby either and delivers pleasant results in most all lighting conditions.

Huawei P20 Pro sample photos

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HTC U12+

Best camera phones of 2018: the leading smartphone cameras on the market

Pros

Photos from the main camera show good detail in all lighting conditionsGood front-facing camera performance at nightFast and accurate autofocus

Cons

Auto WB results in cool colors when shooting indoors or at nightFringing and other minor artifacts even in broad daylight

Building on the U11’s well-rounded 12 MP single camera setup, the U12+ adds a second, 16 MP, telephoto camera to the equation. It’s capable of 2x optical zoom and helps when measuring depth for those portrait shots with creamy, out-of-focus backgrounds.
Pictures taken on the HTC U12+ exhibit good detail without excessive over-sharpening, while keeping colors natural and accurate in most scenarios. As far as dynamic range goes, HTC’s latest is capable of taming highlights quite nicely, all the while maintaining detail in the shadows, although its arguably better in dealing with the highlights.

The dual front-facing cameras produce images that are also nicely detailed. There’s are also “bokeh” and beauty modes for those flattering selfies that are all the rage now. Shots come out properly exposed and we’ve been surprised by the performance of the front-facing cameras in low-light.

HTC U12+ sample photos

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On a budget

But what if you don’t want to break the bank with the latest flagships and still want to get a stellar camera? Well, there’s options out there that you can get without shelling out too much cash, that still do a commendable job. These are older models, yes, but they still hold their own even in today’s oversaturated market.

Google Pixel and Pixel XL

Google Pixel

Google Pixel

04 Oct 2016
Google Pixel is promoted as a phone “made by Google” – both on the outside and on the inside. As such, it comes tightly integrated with Google’s services, and even gets a few exclusive perks. Among them is the new Assistant feature, allowing natural language interaction between the user and the device….

Google Pixel XL

Google Pixel XL

04 Oct 2016
The Google Pixel XL, the larger of Google’s first two Pixel phones, comes with a bigger screen and a bigger battery compared to its sibling. At its core, however, it remains identical. The Pixel XL is a phone “made by Google”, with the company’s services integrated tightly in it. Pixel XL owners get…

The original Pixel and Pixel XL still have good cameras, even when compared to their successors and the current, fierce competition. From the get-go, Google was focused on delivering a stellar camera experience with it’s first in-house developed smartphones, and it sure did succeed. The Pixels have that capable HDR+ mode that was further developed for the Pixel 2, they deliver good-looking, noise-free images images in low-light conditions, and have accurate color rendering in most scenarios.

Samsung Galaxy S7

Samsung Galaxy S7

Samsung Galaxy S7

21 Feb 2016
The Samsung Galaxy S7 features a 5.1-inch Quad HD Super AMOLED screen, Qualcomm’s most powerful Snapdragon 820 system chip under the hood and a brand new 12-megapixel camera with low light superpowers. All of that runs on a new edition of TouchWiz on top of Android 6 Marshmallow. And yes, the microSD…

Samsung Galaxy S7 edge

Samsung Galaxy S7 edge

21 Feb 2016
The Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge is the larger phone in the S7 family: it has a 5.5″ Quad HD Super AMOLED display, runs on Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 820 chip and sports a 12-megapixel camera with large pixels and the widest lens on a phone (f/1.7) for great low light performance. All of that comes together…

With the Galaxy S8 and Note 8 out, and with the S9 looming on the horizon, you might wonder, “why is a phone from 2016 on this list?” And let me tell you, it’s that good. You can get a Galaxy S7 relatively cheap these days, and this phone has a strong camera game. It may not be quite up to par with the S8, but it’s very close. In fact, the camera itself is the same, with the only differences coming from the software powering it. This means that most of the strong suits of the S8 can be found in its predecessor as well. The S7 produces sharp images in all lighting conditions, and although the colors are at times too warm or a bit oversaturated (in true Samsung fashion), this phone still offers a great camera for its current price.
Expect this list to be updated throughout the year!

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