The best camera to take a photo is the one you have on you and more often than not for most people this will be their smartphone camera.  Few people in 2021 actually own cameras better than those on a smartphone camera anyway and for that reason if photo quality is important to you it will be one of the first things you look at when purchasing a new smartphone – so this is our annual look at which is the best smartphone camera!

So which phones have the best cameras?  Like many things in life you get what you pay for.  As a general rule, the more expensive a smartphone, the better the camera is.  There are exceptions for every rule — for example the Pixel 5 performs exceptionally well for a mid-range device but if you want the best smartphone camera you’ll need to fork out a large wad of cash for an ultra-premium smartphone.

The thing with photos is that often the beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  Some may prefer colours that pop, even though they are not the true and natural colour while some may prefer a true representation of what the eye can see.  This comes down to the software a smartphone uses to process the image after it has been taken.  So where does this leave Aussies who are looking for the best smartphone camera they can get?  Sitting in a very empty ultra-premium category.

Best Smartphone Camera : The contenders

In Australia the ultra-premium category is made up of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max and a relative newcomer to the ultra premium market segment, the OPPO Find X3 Pro.  Google does not play in this market segment anymore (well, they didn’t last year anyway — who knows what the Pixel 6 may bring), LG are dead and nearly buried, Sony departed our shores long ago and that leaves companies that exclusively target the mid and low range of the smartphone market.

To perform our smartphone shootout we got our hands on an OPPO Find X3 Pro, a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, an Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max and because we thought it would be a good idea to include at least one mid-range device for reference and comparison, a TCL 20 5G.  As you can see in the table below the camera setups of each device are slightly different, with each manufacturer looking to find that edge with their own specific photography solution.

OPPO Find X3 ProApple iPhone 12 Pro Max Samsung Galaxy S21 UltraTCL 20 5G
150 MP, f/1.8, 26mm (wide), 1/1.56″, 1.0µm, omnidirectional PDAF, OIS12 MP, f/1.6, 26mm (wide), 1.7µm, dual pixel PDAF, sensor-shift stabilization (IBIS)108 MP, f/1.8, 24mm (wide), 1/1.33″, 0.8µm, PDAF, Laser AF, OIS48 MP, f/1.8, 26mm (wide), 1/2.0″, 0.8µm, PDAF, OIS
250 MP, f/2.2, 16mm, 110˚ (ultrawide), 1/1.56″, 1.0µm, omnidirectional PDAF12 MP, f/2.4, 120˚, 13mm (ultrawide), 1/3.6″12 MP, f/2.2, 13mm (ultrawide), 1/2.55″, 1.4µm, dual pixel PDAF16 MP, f/2.4, 16mm, 123˚ (ultrawide), 1/3.0″, 1.12µm
313 MP, f/2.4, 52mm (telephoto), 2x optical zoom, PDAF12 MP, f/2.2, 65mm (telephoto), 1/3.4″, 1.0µm, PDAF, OIS, 2.5x optical zoom10 MP, f/4.9, 240mm (periscope telephoto), 1/3.24″, 1.22µm, dual pixel PDAF, OIS, 10x optical zoom2 MP, f/2.2, (macro)
43 MP, f/3.0, (microscope), AF, ring flash, 60x magnificationTOF 3D LiDAR scanner (depth)10 MP, f/2.4, 70mm (telephoto), 1/3.24″, 1.22µm, dual pixel PDAF, OIS, 3x optical zoom2 MP, f/2.4, (depth)

Our tests to find the best smartphone camera

We put the phones through various tests including bright sunlight, into the sun, and low light.  The results as you can see below are close all around (the images have been shrunk to fit onto the web page but were originally analysed on an LG 32UL950-W 4K monitor with picture mode set to DCI-P3).

The first picture was taken in bright light — albeit with some shade surrounding. For this image the W, to me, looks to go to the Samsung S21 Ultra. The exposure is even throughout the image unlike on the iPhone and the TCL 20 5G where the pine tree is darker without any/much detail in it.

The OPPO looks to lose some detail and colour detail through some of the trees although some of the colours (flowers and the blue patio posts) are more enhanced and vibrant. The OPPO is probably a bit more pleasing to the eye but the Samsung seems more accurate (of course you could look at it the other way and say the Samsung colours look a bit washed out). Winner = Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, followed closely by the OPPO Find X3 Pro.

This photo is of my Westie’s toy. Taking a photo of something so vibrant in colour means that you want the result to be vibrant but also without over-saturating the colours. This time the more muted colours of the Galaxy S21 Ultra make it look a bit washed out. The TCL colour representation is good but loses detail in the fabric of the toy.

The OPPO Find X3 Pro and the iPhone 12 Pro Max are incredibly close with the OPPO having better detail in the fabric but the iPhone having more vibrancy to the colours. This one is a very close one but to me the winner is the iPhone, just, with the Find X3 Pro extremely close behind. Winner = iPhone 12 Pro Max.

The garden bed in bright sunlight image shows just how good (nearly) all smartphone cameras can be in ideal conditions in 2021. Once again the Samsung has the muted colours and the iPhone the total opposite with punchy, nearly overly vibrant colours. Even the much cheaper TCL 20 5G well and truly holds its own here with good detail and vibrant colours. Winner = TCL 20 5G simply because its image is extremely comparable to the other devices that cost 3-4 times as much.

Macro mode. Some have it and some don’t. The iPhone does not. This was the best photo I was able to get with the iPhone — trying to use a macro mode while holding the phone close to the Easter eggs was unusable — this one I had to take from further back and zoom in and yet the focus was still terrible. The TCL also struggled to focus up close but the Samsung was pretty good.

The winner, and by a long way, for this image is the OPPO Find X3 Pro. When up close the AI software switches the camera into macro mode and the result is fantastic. Ultra sharp images with great colour. Clear winner = OPPO Find X3 Pro.

A typical scenery at the beach taken from the pier looking inland. All are decent images but the TCL loses detail and the iPhone colours look unnatural because they are so enhanced. The OPPO and the Samsung are close once again but this time the Samsung enhances the sky more (AI feature?) but seems to lose the detail in various features such as the shop, the cars and the beach huts. The OPPO colours in this one are true to life and look great. Winner = OPPO Find X3 Pro.

This image is a surprising one. We are always told to never take an image with the sun in the background but the software of smartphone cameras these days is good enough to get decent images. This day was warm and extremely sunny and just for kicks I decided to take an image looking directly into the sun. All cameras performed admirably although the TCL struggled on the exposure a bit. The iPhone had decent detail overall, but their sun lacks detail and looks terrible. The exposure is also uneven as seen in the shadows of the pipes. The OPPO sun looks fake but does not suffer from burn out of the image and includes amazing detail of the sand, the sea and the pipes.

The Samsung tends to lack a bit of the detail of the OPPO but has the same great exposure as the OPPO and the sun looks great. This one is very subjective with many I’m sure preferring the OPPO. For me though the winner = Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Hosier Lane in Melbourne. If you are a visitor to Melbourne you need to visit this lane, famous for its street art. The photos follow the same pattern as all of the others — the Samsung has muted colours, the OPPO has more realistic colours and great detail, the iPhone has super vibrant colours while the TCL is somewhere in the middle.

Once again it’s a close one, especially between the iPhone and the TCL 20 and considering the price of the TCL it cent for cent is the best but as we are looking for the best photo the winner is the iPhone. Their post processing punching out the colours and enhancing detail to the extreme sets it ahead of the others given the subject. Winner = iPhone 12 Pro Max.

Flinders St Station, an old, iconic building in Melbourne. For this photo the iPhone seems to lose detail on the buildings with the colours not doing the scene justice. The TCL lacks the detail of the rest but still punches well above its weight with the image being well balanced. The last two smartphones, the OPPO and the Samsung are so close that I can’t pick between the two. Both have great colour representation, detail and exposure. Winner = draw OPPO Find X3 Pro and Samsung S21 Ultra.

In the same location of the previous image this is zoomed up to the clock on the Flinder St Station building. The iPhone looks fake and plastic with the detail lacking. The TCL also suffers at the large zoom with the image pixelated and lacking detail. The Samsung seems to lack the sharpness and detail of the OPPO, the clear winner. The OPPO detail from this distance is amazing along with great exposure in the shadows — and this is without the telescopic zoom lens that they included in last year’s model. Winner = OPPO Find X3 Pro.

The all-important Low-Light smartphone photo

Night mode. Google mastered night mode a while ago with their digital imaging and other companies have been playing catch up since. Usually the cheaper devices do not have the night capabilities of the more expensive devices and that shows here with the TCL suffering with focus and detail in what was a very-close to totally dark scene. The Samsung also lacks in detail with the leaves of the cactus plant (?) looking washed out and blurry. The iPhone is much better than the Samsung with decent detail on the plant and pot but its over-processing once again comes to the fore and it suffers in some areas such as the “grass” and the lemon tree in the background.

The OPPO Find X3 Pro photo is near perfect with the plant showing great detail, sharpness, exposure and the background subjects also including decent detail without looking fake. Winner = OPPO Find X3 Pro.

A Challenging Sunset Photo

Sunset on the Mornington Peninsula just outside of Melbourne. This type of photo tends to but tough for so many cameras given the difference in colours and brightness in various areas of the image. The TCL is a fail when it comes to the sun and the exposure of buildings and trees up close. The OPPO also struggled and although decent colours of the sunset it struggled to replicate the sun in the image. The iPhone did okay with the sun but the colours are once again far too vibrant and “fake” and it suffers a bit with the exposure up close — but it performed better than the OPPO.

Clear winner here is the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra with the sun immaculate along with a true representation of the sky colours. The exposure of subjects closer to the phone were also much better than the others. Winner = Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Many more photos to compare

There were a few more images that we used but were similar scenes to those above so didn’t bother going into detail with them. You can check them out below.

So which is the best smartphone camera in 2021?

Which won our smartphone camera shootout? That depends on what you are looking for. Samsung lost points at times with its muted colours but if you are only showing your photos on your Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra then the ultra vibrant display will add punch to the colours. If printing or displaying on a less-vibrant display though it may be another story.

The iPhone is the opposite. The display may not be as vibrant as the Samsung and as such their ultra-vibrant colours in the images are toned down on the phone and thus look great. For example, Trevor looked at the above images on his iPhone and said the iPhone ones looked great.

OPPO seem to be following Google’s lead and offering what is relatively true to life colouring and given you can calibrate the Find X3 Pro display to how you like it (specifically to your eyes) that may not be a bad thing. The colours look good in nearly all of the images on a colour-correct monitor.

The TCL 20 5G competed well with the ultra-premium devices and just lacked the detail that they did and given the hardware differences that is hardly surprising. The price difference though belies the quality of photography difference and if that is all your budget can stretch to the image quality will no doubt keep you happy.

While the OPPO Find X3 Pro scored more wins than the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra it is tough to separate the two given both were great overall. I’m sure many of you are preferring the iPhone but it is based on where you look at photos and how you want them to look. For me the winner is the OPPO Find X3 Pro by a smidgen given its macro mode being amazing and its consistency across all scenes.

What about you? Head over to the EFTM man cave on Facebook and let us know which you prefer.