Shootout: The very best cameras on flagship smartphones today

By Liu Hongzuo - 25 Jul 2021

Contenders, how we score

Note: This feature was first published on 5 Mar 2021.

Flagship smartphone camera shootout

The camera performance in a smartphone is an important aspect of a great handset experience. You don't have to take our word for it - phone cameras almost always see changes to their hardware or software in between generations, and the differences can be significant between flagship models from the same year. Here, we have handpicked five of the top flagship smartphones from the last 12 months, all known for their highly-rated camera performance in some shape or form.


Choosing our contenders

Plenty of flagship smartphones come to the shores of Singapore, but not as many can claim they are cutting-edge in camera technology. Even within the same brand, there can be several flagship-tier handsets in the last 12 months (Samsung, for example, had around 10 flagship-grade phones in 2020 alone).

After trimming the fat and singling out the best there was, we've it narrowed down to five units. From our shooting experience in our regular phone reviews, we've come to know which top-end phones can put up a good bout, and which ones can't.

Here are our contenders and what they bring to the fight:

Chosen flagship phones - Rear cameras compared
Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

Huawei P40 Pro+

Oppo Find X2 Pro

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Xiaomi Mi 10T Pro
Rear camera
Triple Penta Triple Quad Triple
Main camera
  • 12MP, f/1.6, 7-element lens
  • Sensor-shift image stabilisation
  • 100% Focus Pixels
  • 50MP Ultra Vision Camera, f/1.9, OIS
  • 4-in-1 pixel binning
  • Full Pixel Octa PD AutoFocus
  • 48MP, f/1.6, OIS
  • All Pixel Omni-Directional PDAF
  • 108MP, f/1.8, OIS
  • Super PD Plus AutoFocus
  • 12-bit colour depth HDR
  • Smart ISO Pro
  • 108MP, f/1.69, 7-element lens, OIS, AF
  • 4-in-1 Super Pixel (pixel binning)
Secondary cameras
  • Ultra-wide: 12MP, f/2.4, 120° field of view
  • Telephoto: 12MP, f/2.2, 5x optical zoom range
  • Ultra-wide: 40MP, f/1.8
  • Telephoto 1: 8MP, f/4.4, OIS
  • Telephoto 2: 8MP, f/2.4, OIS
  • 3D Depth Sensing Camera

Ultra-wide: 48MP, f/2.2, 120° field of view

Telephoto: 13MP, f/3.0, OIS

Ultra-wide: 12MP, f/2.2, 120° field of view

Telephoto 1: 10MP, f/4.9, Dual Pixel AF

Telephoto 2: 10MP, f/4.9, Dual Pixel AF

  • Ultra-wide: 13MP, f/2.4, 123° field of view
  • Macro: 5MP, f/2.4, AF
  • LiDAR Scanner
  • 2.5x optical zoom
  • 12x digital zoom
  • Depth Control (for bokeh)
  • Smart HDR 3
  • 3x optical zoom
  • 10x optical zoom
  • 100x digital zoom
  • ToF-assisted bokeh
  • Ultra Macro Mode (in ultra-wide lens)
  • 10x hybrid zoom
  • 60x digital zoom
  • 3x optical zoom
  • 10x optical zoom
  • 100x Space Zoom
  • Laser AutoFocus
  • 30x digital zoom (main)

While most phones hail from 2020 at this point of time, only the Galaxy S21 Ultra is from 2021 and that's because Samsung miraculously was able to get their supply chain in order despite operational challenges faced during the Covid-19 pandemic. They also fared better than any other tech company in this regard that they could launch the Galaxy S21 series a few months ahead of their typical launch rhythm. We also mentioned that we're looking at the best camera phones that have been out in the market for the last 12 months, which is from March 2020 to February 2021, hence the Galaxy S21 Ultra is prime for this comparison. Smart tip: If you've read both the Galaxy S20 Ultra and S21 Ultra reviews, you'll know that the main difference lies in a slightly improved main sensor, but it's otherwise identical in terms of its operation and capabilities. So if you're personally looking for Galaxy S21 Ultra's camera capabilities in perhaps a discounted package, you might want to consider the Galaxy S20 Ultra.

Over on the Huawei front, didn't they release a newer Mate 40 Pro and updated AI photography capabilities? So why didn't we qualify that over the P40 series? Two reasons. First, the P40 Pro+ is still Huawei's top camera phone when it comes to parading their best camera hardware. Secondly, the Mate 40 Pro couldn't best the P40 series in imaging capacity when we reviewed it.

Lastly, Xiaomi actually has a superior Mi 10 Ultra product, but it's sadly not officially available in Singapore. As such,  we had to qualify their next best option, the Mi 10T Pro, which interestingly was a decent contender given its asking price.


Scoring the phones

More often than not, the main camera on the rear receives the most attention from the phone brands. For the main camera, we judge its overall imaging performance by checking on the basics, such as colour rendition, detail retention, image noise, and so on for the captured image. 

To bring some consistency into this shootout, we relied on settings that are readily available across most phones. We shot handheld, with HDR enabled, in 4:3 aspect ratio (where possible), saving in the JPEG file format. Basically, we mimicked the most probable shooting scenario for most phone users to set an even base of comparison and expectation.

Instead of testing overly granular things like image stabilisation, distortion, and more for secondary lenses, we've settled on judging based on the end result instead. After all, a regular phone user wants good photos. Things like seeing if the zoom lens compensates for shake, or its ultra-wide has excellent fish-eye correction, or if the artificial 'computational photography' is overzealous etc. will all be factored into the judging of its end result. Gone are the days where we moan about whether is it fair or unfair that one phone has OIS in this lens while a competing one doesn't. You're paying good money for top-shelf stuff, it better be ready to help you shoot well. So apart from the basic main camera's daytime output performance, we've narrowed down other comparison shots to telephoto, ultra-wide, low-light, and macro performance - common shooting scenarios and requirements of most phone users.

Even if a phone is not necessarily optimised for a specific shooting mode, we'll use the main camera (typically the phone's best camera) as a substitute for reproducing that shot, so that the handset gets to use its best lens to compete with other rivals. 

Let's get on with the comparing!

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