We can’t say it enough: Smartphone photography has gotten amazing. In fact, the little cameras on the backs of our phones have reached a point where they may not be able to get any better without a serious redesign of the whole phone.
But not all devices are created equal, and it’s our mission to help you choose the best one.
You may notice that our list differs significantly from some of the sites the purport to do scientific rankings; these results weren’t gathered in a lab. Instead, we went out our front door to figure out exactly how these cameras perform against one another in real world conditions. Their success or failure depended on three things: the quality of their lenses, the quality of their sensors, and the smarts locked up in their autofocusing/exposing brains.
Here are the best smartphone cameras in the world.
The Sony Xperia Z5 was the first new Android flagship released in 2016, and it has its fans. Sony has a good reputation in the smartphone camera business, and DXOMark claims this one's among the best in the world.
When it came out in early February, ahead of the other 2016 flagships, it was among the better Android cameras yet released. However, we strongly disagree with the high ratings from DXOMark and other sites.
The Sony Xperia Z5 wants very badly to be an excellent smartphone camera. Sony can boast some impressive specs for its flagship device: 23 megapixels and a 0.03-second autofocus sound pretty impressive. Sony calls them 'revolutionary' in its advertising.
But in reality, this is the most disappointing of all this year's flagship phones. Chasing unnecessarily high megapixel counts off a cliff can ruin a device; the more pixels you squeeze onto a sensor of the exact same size, the more you risk degrading their quality. The Xperia Z5 tends to overexpose shots and blow out highlights and shadows. Its f/2.3-aperture lens lets in less light than any other camera on this list, and the autofocus time wasn't even close to 0.03 seconds in our experience.
(Aperture refers to the width of the hole in the lens through which light can pass. Lower numbers mean bigger holes, more light, and nice blurry backgrounds.)
The Z5 is a fine phone, and it's better than most older phones when it comes to photography. But there's better options out there.
LG seems to love running with good ideas before it's thought them all the way through.
The G5 is the first smartphone to feature two cameras for different focal lengths, putting it at the front of an inevitable trend. It also offers modular accessories like the Cam Plus to improve your shooting. If smartphone cameras are going to leep getting better, they're going to need to function more like DSLRs, with several sensors and lenses for different situations. So conceptually, the G5 is a little bit brilliant.
But in practice it doesn't quite get there. LG's decision to make the second lens extra-wide turns it into a bit of a gimmick, the 16-megapixel, f/1.8 main camera can't stand up to other smartphones in our tests, and the Cam Plus didn't work when we tried it.
Any other year, the brand-new HTC 10 would have had a good run at the top of this list. Its f/1.8-aperture lens produces an excellent look and texture. The 12.1-megapixel sensor has a great dynamic range (the range of highlight and shadow detail it can capture in one shot). And the autofocus is fairly zippy. In fact, on a pure hardware level it outclasses the No. 2 camera on our list.
However, this is the year of truly astonishing smartphone cameras. And the HTC's minor flaws keep it locked in the third spot on this list: Its dynamic range doesn't quite match the best smartphone on this list, and left to its own devices it tends to overexpose images more than our top two picks.
That said, if you're the kind of photographer who adjusts the exposure before each shot, this may be a better option than No. 2 on account of its superior glass and sensor.
In 2016, the iPhone fell from its usual spot on top of the smartphone photography food chain.
The camera currently featured on the iPhone 6s, 6s Plus, and new iPhone SE has started to show its age. But it's still a powerful photographic device.
Here's the bad news: The f/2.2 lens has started to look a little outdated next to some of the better Androids. And the iPhone's habit of comparatively muted, low-contrast images, which once offered a big advantage over too-bright, too-saturated Androids, has become a liability as brands like HTC, Samsung, and even LG capture bold colours without losing quality.
However, the good news for Apple is that the excellent dynamic range, sharpness, cinematic texture, and sheer smarts of the iPhone let it cling on to that No. 2 spot. It won't make the best possible images of any smartphone, but it's much easier to get a good shot with than the HTC 10 or LG G5. So those 'Shot on an iPhone' billboards aren't entirely misguided.
6s Plus: $750
You can debate whether Samsung's Galaxy S7 is the best phone ever made. But there's no question that the rear camera is the best ever installed on a smartphone.
This is the 12-megapixel, f/1.7 shooter that dethroned the iPhone in our head-to-head test. It simply features the best dynamic range ever on a smartphone camera, the widest aperture ever on a smartphone camera (to let in more light), the best texture and contrast ever on a smartphone camera, the best low-light shooting ever on a smartphone camera, the fastest autofocus ever on a smartphone camera, and you can even shoot with it underwater (kind of). All that and it hardly ever overexposes or miscolors an image.
If you're buying a smartphone based on camera quality, there is no question that this is the one to get. You can check out proof shots here.
S7 Edge: $750
The Huawei P9 isn't available in the US, and we haven't been able to get our hands on one yet (we're working on that), so we can't tell you how it compares to the other cameras on this list. However, its specialised dual-lens system, which the Chinese Android maker says is 'co-engineered with Leica,' offers some enticing possibilities.
Both cameras shoot 12-megapixel images at the same focal length with an f/2.2 aperture. But one sensor is black-and-white and the other is full colour. Huawei claims that the black-and-white sensor, in addition to shooting better greyscale images on its own, is used to enhance the sharpness and contrast of the colour images.
Will that work? We can't know until we've used one. But a recent experience with the Leica M Monochrome, a $7,450 black-and-white digital camera from the German manufacturer that shoots dreamy, film-like photos, gives us high hopes.