The Best Budget Camera Phones for 2021

These days, the camera is usually the headline feature of most smartphones. Yes, we all appreciate a crystalline display and muscular processor, but with social media being perhaps the dominant form of communication in the 21st century, the ability to take a great photo is a must. This ability is usually best provided by flagship devices, with the iPhone 12 Pro Max, Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, and Google Pixel 5 ranking among the very best camera phones out today. However, these smartphones cost upwards of $700, so anyone on a tighter budget may feel a little left out.

They shouldn’t though, as manufacturers are increasingly prioritizing the cameras they include in their budget models. From the iPhone SE (2020) to the Google Pixel 4a and Nokia 5.3, so-called budget models are now providing premium cameras at a fraction of the usual cost. This is great news for budding photographers, and to celebrate the growing accessibility of excellent cameras, we’ve put together a list of the best budget camera phones available right now.

Best budget camera phones at a glance:

Best budget camera phone: Google Pixel 4a

Google Pixel 4a Camera Module
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this? It’s one of the best camera phones around, regardless of its low price.

Who’s it for? Anyone who wants a premium camera experience, but without having to spend premium money.

Why we picked the Google Pixel 4a:

If the Pixel 4a proved anything, it’s that you can have a world-beating smartphone camera for only $349. It also proved that you don’t really need multiple lenses to be a versatile camera phone, since its single 12.2MP lens hits the nail on the head in the vast majority of situations. This is largely because of Google’s masterful use of artificial intelligence and machine learning, with its software adjusting deftly to conditions in order to provide clear, dynamic photos. It really is as good as (if not better than) the cameras you’ll find on most flagship phones, and you’ll struggle to take a bad picture with it.

Yes, it may lack additional ultrawide and telephoto lenses, so you can’t really take the kind of panoramic or zoomed-in shot you can take with some premium models. That said, it is surprisingly versatile, with its Night Sight feature allowing you to take stellar photos in poor light. It even offers an Astrophotography mode that captures long-exposure pics of the night sky, just in case you fancy engaging in a spot of stargazing. Google’s superb digital zoom software also lets you take vivid close-ups that still look natural and detailed, even without optical zoom.

Of course, at a relatively low price, the inclusion of an excellent camera means that Google has cut corners in other areas. The design of the phone is a little underwhelming if you’re used to more premium phones, with the black plastic casing looking and feeling a little dull. At the same time, the phone’s processor — the Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G — isn’t the most powerful, although it will handle most apps and games you’re likely to use from one day to another.

If you’re looking for 5G you should instead consider the Pixel 4a 5G, which is $150 more expensive than the standard 4a. However, 5G aside, the Pixel 4a really is a fantastic smartphone and an especially good camera phone. You really won’t find a better camera at $349, and probably not for under $700 for that matter.

Read our full Google Pixel 4a review

Best under $400 iPhone: Apple iPhone SE (2020)

iPhone SE 2020 Camera Bump
Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

Why you should buy this: It’s an affordable iPhone with a single main camera lens that’s every bit as good as the main lenses found on the iPhone 11.

Who it’s for: Anyone who wants a budget iPhone with a great main camera lens.

Why we picked the iPhone SE (2020):

As with the Google Pixel 4a, the iPhone SE (2020) shows that you don’t really need multiple lenses to have a great camera phone. It packs a single 12MP wide camera lens that captures sharp, vivid, and natural-looking photos that are every bit as good as the photos you’d take with the main lens of an iPhone 11, for example. It also offers a portrait mode that can be used with its rear lens and selfie lens, while it includes Smart HDR and enhanced optical image stabilization, for well-balanced and crisp pictures.

Like the Pixel 4a, the iPhone SE benefits from some of the best software in the business. Even if the 12MP lens seems underpowered compared to the lenses you can find on premium models, the SE’s use of the A13 Bionic chip means that you can take lovely photos in almost any situation. Just point and shoot: It’s basically that easy.

Looking beyond the camera, the iPhone SE’s major downside is that it reuses the now-obsolete design of the iPhone 8 and 7, featuring thick bezels at the top and bottom of its display. Luckily, this is really the only negative, since the phone’s A13 Bionic processor is powerful, while the diminutive 4.7-inch screen also looks pretty vibrant. The phone also grants you access to iOS 14, which is a noticeable step up from previous software in terms of customizability and ease of use.

In other words, if you want the core Apple smartphone experience and a great main camera lens and don’t want to make a huge dent in your wallet, the iPhone SE (2020) really is a standout option.

Read our full iPhone SE (2020) review

Best budget Samsung camera phone: Samsung Galaxy A51

Samsung Galaxy A51 Camera

Why you should buy this: It offers a great all-around budget camera and a very sharp design and display.

Who it’s for: Samsung fans who want a great budget camera phone with a gorgeous screen.

Why we picked the Samsung Galaxy A51:

While some people go to Apple for great software and performance, others go to Samsung for beautiful displays and designs. Even though it launched at only $400, the Samsung Galaxy A51 fits this bill very nicely, and it happens to throw in a very good quad-lens camera setup for good measure. This comprises a 48MP wide lens, a 12MP ultrawide, a 5MP macro, and a 5MP depth sensor. While the lack of autofocus makes the macro lens a little hard to work with, the main wide lens and the ultrawide lens both capture great shots in good lighting.

Photos are detailed and vivid, while the inclusion of an effective ultrawide lens provides a level of versatility that you simply can’t find elsewhere at $399. It does fall down a little in low lighting, however, with shots introducing some noise and fuzziness. This doesn’t detract too much from the overall experience though, which is almost as good as what you’ll get from a Pixel 4a or iPhone SE 2020 (both of which don’t offer an ultrawide lens).

If that weren’t enough, the Galaxy A51 is arguably the most well-rounded phone on this list. Its 6.5-inch AMOLED display looks absolutely stunning, easily outperforming the iPhone SE and Pixel 4a in terms of richness and clarity. It also comes with a 4,000mAh battery that will last into the second day even under heavy use, so it’s a dependable phone to boot.

Read our full Samsung Galaxy A51 review

Best ultrawide camera phone: Moto G Power (2020)

Moto G Power
Corey Gaskin / Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: The Moto G Power offers a surprisingly fun ultrawide lens for a very low price.

Who it’s for: Anyone who wants a budget camera phone with a very good ultrawide lens.

Why we picked the Moto G Power:

The Moto G range has always been a solid choice for anyone looking for a decent budget phone, and 2020’s Moto G Power is a particularly good budget camera phone. While its 16MP main lens is disappointing compared to the likes of the Pixel 4a, it comes with an 8MP ultrawide lens that is more usable than any other ultrawide lens you’re likely to find on a cheap smartphone. This makes it a serious contender for anyone who really does enjoy playing around with ultrawide lenses to take landscape shots or pictures of narrow spaces. Compared to the creative potential opened up by this lens, the 2021 Moto G Power — which doesn’t come with an ultrawide lens — is a letdown.

Aside from its triple-lens camera setup, the Moto G Power offers an attractive 6.4-inch display and a very generous 5,000mAh battery. This means it can take you into a third day without recharging if you happen to be a moderate user, something only premium smartphones usually manage. Otherwise, its specs are modest, with the Snapdragon 665 being unspectacular yet handling most duties in combination with the phone’s 4GB of RAM. It also comes with 64GB of internal storage, although it can be topped up with the aid of a microSD card.

All in all, the Moto G Power (2020) is a very good budget camera phone. Its 16MP main camera lens takes balanced photos that are a marked improvement over budget phones from a couple of years ago, while its 8MP ultrawide lens is very effective for the price. It was officially released at $250, but you should be able to find it cheaper online, now that it’s a year old.

Read our full Moto G Power review

Best cheap camera phone: Nokia 5.3

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this? If you want a versatile budget camera phone for just $200.

Who’s it for? People who want to save money while still enjoying a versatile camera experience.

Why we picked the Nokia 5.3:

At only $199, the Nokia 5.3 is impressive for what it is. While it won’t stand up to direct comparisons with either the Pixel 4a or iPhone SE (2020), it’s certainly the best budget camera phone in its sub-$200 price range. It features a four-lens setup, including a 13MP main (wide) lens, a 5MP ultrawide lens, a 2MP depth lens, and a 2MP macro lens. This is something you won’t find even with the Pixel 4a or iPhone SE, and it really does provide a fair amount of versatility for the price, even if not a single one of the lenses is truly impressive.

Our review of the phone found that shots taken with its camera do often need editing to look really good, but if you have the wherewithal to actually edit pics, then the inclusion of the extra lenses makes it worthwhile. It also comes with a welcome Portrait Mode, if you want to take some pics for social media.

Otherwise, the Nokia 5.3 is a very good phone for its price. It boasts a large 6.55-inch edge-to-edge display with a teardrop notch, and while it’s limited to a 720p resolution, it still looks nice. Its processor — the Snapdragon 665 — is also a little underpowered compared to recent chips, but it will handle everyday tasks and apps well enough. On the other hand, its 4,000mAh battery is distinctly impressive (even compared to more expensive phones), and will take you into a second day with relative ease.

Overall, the Nokia 5.3 may not be ideal for someone who intends to use their smartphone extensively, but if you’re a light user, it could be just the ticket. Its quad-lens camera can be fun in the right conditions, and while more serious photographers would probably be advised to look at something like the Pixel 4a, the Nokia 5.3 is probably the best $200 camera phone.

Read our full Nokia 5.3 review

Research and buying tips

How to decipher camera phone specs

Here are the key specs you need to consider when looking for a good camera phone.

Megapixels

All else being equal, the more megapixels you have in a lens, the more detail it can capture. However, there’s more to taking an impressive photo than raw detail, with the use of software also playing a big role in determining overall quality (see: pretty much every Google Pixel and Apple iPhone). It’s also worth pointing out that many cameras don’t capture at the maximum megapixel settings by default, because it often provides more data than is strictly necessary. This is precisely why the likes of Apple and Google are staying put with 12MP lenses for now.

Aperture

The bigger the aperture, the more light a lens lets in (in other words, the greater the exposure). In theory, the bigger the aperture is, the better it is at capturing detail in the foreground. The smaller the aperture is, the better it is at capturing detail in the distance. In lens terminology, a smaller number indicates (somewhat counterintuitively) a bigger aperture, so f/1.7 is bigger than f/1.8, for example. This means that a phone with a main lens with a bigger aperture might be better than one with a smaller aperture, while the reverse may be the case for telephoto lenses. However, software also plays a role in processing photos, so hardware isn’t the only factor.

Optical image stabilization (OIS)

Optical image stabilization (OIS) helps to keep the camera lens steady, correcting for movement in the hands of the photographer. This is a good thing to have, since few of us use a smartphone with a tripod.

High dynamic range (HDR)

High dynamic range (HDR) is another desirable feature to have. It basically involves taking multiple shots of the same subject in different exposures and then combining them in post-processing to create a single shot, which should be better than any shot taken without HDR.

How many lenses should a camera phone have?

How long is a piece of string? All else being equal, the more camera lenses the merrier. However, additional rear camera lenses don’t always translate to a better overall camera experience. This is particularly the case with budget camera phones, which are built on a tighter budget, meaning that if a manufacturer splurges on having a quad-lens rear camera, all four of these lenses may end up being sub-par. In many cases, it’s better to focus on making the main, wide lens as good as possible.

This is precisely what you see with the Pixel 4a and iPhone SE (2020), and it’s largely why these two phones have the two best main camera lenses going.

That said, if a phone manufacturer does devote sufficient time and effort to making additional rear lenses as good as possible, such lenses can be great fun to have. Ultrawide lenses, for instance, let you take wide-angle landscape shots, or more open shots of tight spaces. Telephoto lenses let you capture zoomed shots, while macro lenses let you take extreme close-ups. Other special lenses include color filters, monochrome cameras, and time-of-flight sensors, which may or may not be gimmicks, depending on how well they’re implemented.

Are camera phones better than DSLRs?

Smartphone cameras have come a long way in a short space of time. The best of them let you take photos that can even be used in a professional setting (we sometimes rely on camera phones to take images used on this site). However, as good as they’ve become, it’s likely that DSLR cameras will always stay one step ahead, if only because they have a size advantage. As such, professional photographers would be advised to check out the best DSLR cameras available right now if they want the highest possible quality.

How we test

We test smartphones (or any other product) in exactly the same way that you use them, by living with them. By using a smartphone as our main device for a week or more, we put it through its paces in pretty much any likely situation. We come to learn of its weaknesses and strengths under various conditions, while we also get a firm handle on its quirks.

Not only do we use smartphones extensively when testing them, but we also use our knowledge and experience to assess just how well they compare with the competition. We’ve been reviewing every major smartphone for years, so we know when a particular model stands out from the crowd or does something it really shouldn’t. This is how you can be sure that, when we say a smartphone is good, it stands up well against any other phone you’re likely to come across in its category.

Editors’ Recommendations






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