It’s no secret that camera quality is near the top of the list when it comes to requirements for a smartphone. And that’s the case no matter how much you’re spending. Thankfully there are plenty of phones out there that offer solid camera experiences without breaking the bank. The best of the best is the Google Pixel 3a. It gives you flagship camera quality, front and back, for a fraction of the cost — and stands out particularly well at night and for selfies.
Best Overall: Google Pixel 3a
The Pixel 3a has almost a perfect copy of the much more expensive Pixel 3’s camera, and that’s a great thing for everyone. The Pixel 3a’s rear camera is super-capable in any lighting and is particularly great in low light thanks to the Night Sight shooting mode. Flip over to the front camera, and you get crystal-clear selfies with a good field of view, auto focus and a good portrait mode.
The rest of the phone rounds out well, too. You get Google’s clean and always up-to-date take on software, along with good-enough specs and hardware that’s befitting the price point. Really, there are no notable downsides considering where this phone’s competing.
- Flagship-level photo quality, front and back
- Best-in-class low-light photos
- Simple Google software
- Guaranteed software updates
- Plasticky build
- Average battery life
Google Pixel 3a
- $400 from Amazon
One of the best cameras available at any price.
The Pixel 3a doesn’t just have a great camera for a budget device; it’s great by any measure. Daytime or night, rear or front, it’s the best you can get.
Best for Less: Moto G7
The standards for camera quality are certainly lower when you’re talking about really inexpensive phones, but among a weaker segment in the grand scheme of smartphones, the Moto G7 stands out. It keeps things simple with a solid main camera that has above-average quality in daylight and still manages to make things happen in low light. Camera speed is good, too, but don’t get too excited by its extra depth-sensing camera — it’s not worth much.
Elsewhere the Moto G7 makes a compelling case for being the best phone in its price bracket. You get a big display, solid battery life, and nice little software features that separate it from the crowd. The camera isn’t the driving factor in your buying decision here, but it’s a big part.
- Solid main camera quality
- Double-twist camera launch gesture
- Incredible value for money
- Big 6.2-inch display
- Questionable software update future
- Secondary depth camera not useful
- No NFC
Best for Less
- $240 from Amazon
A great all-around phone that won’t break the bank.
The Moto G7’s camera doesn’t steal the show, but as part of a well-rounded device at an exceptional price, it’s a really great total package.
Best Value: Samsung Galaxy A50
Samsung is best known for its high-end phones, but the A50 has stepped into the mid-range with a winner. The 25MP main camera is capable in good and mixed lighting, though as expected for this price point comes up short in lower light. But what’s surprising for this money is the addition of both a dedicated wide-angle camera, which takes fun shots with a new perspective, and a dedicated depth camera for portrait shots.
The 6.4-inch display is both bigger and much nicer than you’d ever expect for something that competes in the mid-range, as is the beautiful hardware. The spec sheet is strong, with a 4000mAh battery that gives you great longevity. You’ll have to face some Samsung-induced bloatware in the software, but the A50 is a great overall phone that isn’t at all let down by its cameras.
- Flagship-style triple camera
- Top-tier display
- Strong battery life
- Great specs for the money
- Considerable bloatware in the software
- Portrait mode shots are weak
- No MST Samsung Pay support
Samsung Galaxy A50
- $350 from Amazon
Great Samsung quality for a fraction of the price.
The A50 brings more high-end Samsung DNA than you’d expect, with great specs. The triple camera is good in most conditions and has a fun wide-angle lens.
Best for Selfies: ASUS ZenFone 6
The ZenFone 6’s rear camera is solidly above average and is really strong for its price. The trick here is that it can flip over and become the front-facing camera. That instantly makes the front-facing camera experience miles ahead of anything else in terms of resolution and lens quality. You get rather exceptional selfies from this camera, without any of the typical shortcomings of a tiny front-facing camera.
The rest of the phone is great for the money, as ASUS has completely refreshed its software experience and settled into some really nice-looking and nice-feeling hardware. All of the specs, including a big battery, exceed expectations for the price point.
- Excellent selfies from flip-up rear camera
- Clean software experience
- Above-average rear camera quality
- Great battery life
- Weak display for the money
- Camera tends to over-sharpen
- More expensive than Pixel 3a XL
Best for Selfies
ASUS ZenFone 6
- $500 from B&H
Take amazing selfies without spending flagship money.
The ZenFone 6 has a solid rear camera, but it flips and becomes one of the best selfie shooters. Exceptional quality, without the traditional trade-offs.
Best Internationally: Xiaomi Mi 9T Pro
If you’re outside the U.S. (or looking for something a little different), the Xiaomi Mi 9T Pro could be up your alley. You’ll find a 48MP main camera on the back that can be found in tons of higher-end phones this year, which produces great photos that can go toe-to-toe with the competition. Plus it has dedicated ultra-wide and telephoto cameras — that’s not very common at this price range — and a neat pop-up selfie camera that saves you from a display notch.
Like most Xiaomi phones it has some over-built specs for its price, like a Snapdragon 855 and 6GB of RAM, plus a huge 6.4-inch display and an equally large 4000mAh battery. That’s a great package with a great set of cameras to match.
- Very capable triple camera
- Near-flagship specs
- Big, beautiful display
- Excellent price
- Slow face unlock from pop-up camera
- MIUI has software issues
- Mixed international availability.
Xiaomi Mi 9T Pro
- $400 from HonorBuy
in many ways a flagship, with a capable triple camera.
Xiaomi goes all-out for the money, with flagship specs and a triple camera that carries its weight. There isn’t much to find issue with as a mid-ranger.
If camera quality is the top consideration when buying a phone, but you’re on a budget, the Google Pixel 3a is absolutely the best choice. Its camera is lifted right from the high-end Pixel 3, and it shows — it’s dramatically better than anything else at the same price. Also, if you want a bigger version, you can pick up a Pixel 3a XL for just a little more.
The Pixel 3a’s cameras may not seem that impressive on paper, and it doesn’t have the variety of shooting methods or lenses to choose from, but it’s all about the results here. Front or back, the 3a’s cameras take exceptionally sharp, balanced photos — and its Night Sight will produce better low-light shots than just about any other phone, regardless of price.
Credits — The team that worked on this guide
Andrew Martonik is Executive Editor, the U.S. at Android Central. He has been a mobile enthusiast since the Windows Mobile days and covering all things Android-related with a unique perspective at AC since 2012. For suggestions and updates, you can reach him at [email protected] or on Twitter at @andrewmartonik.
Daniel Bader is Managing Editor of Android Central. As he’s writing this, a mountain of old Android phones is about to fall on his head, but his Great Dane will protect him. He drinks way too much coffee and sleeps too little. He wonders if there’s a correlation.