The best budget camera phones have the benefit of inheriting the features of the previous generation's high-end handsets. This has been the case for a while, of course, but obviously as time goes on, the tech that trickles down the product line gets more and more advanced – and there have been some very significant improvements and developments in the last year or so.
Shop around and you’ll find budget Android phones with dedicated night modes for far better low-light images, and Motorola even offers models with triple-camera arrays with both wide-angle and telephoto lenses. So what more could you want?
Well, as affordable phones develop, so do the best camera phones with top price tags. If you want 'periscope' lenses capable of 100x zoom, stabilized 4K video or a true high-end sensor, check out our best camera phones guide; there you’ll find the world’s top performers, like the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra and iPhone 11 Pro.
Here we will focus on phones that suit a lower, and perhaps more sensible, budget. Even cheap phones can now take excellent photos during the day, and those with multiple focal lengths are perfect for travel and street photography – and of course, the release of the new iPhone SE absolutely changes the game with its old school body and new school tech.
You can spend significantly less than £200 and still get an excellent phone with multiple useful cameras on the back – and if you're looking for even cheaper handsets (so cheap that you can treat them as disposable), take a look at the best burner phones. So, here's the best of the budget range…
The iPhone SE (2020) is a brilliant proposition: a $399 / £415 / AU$749 iPhone that takes the form factor and camera of the iPhone 8, and pairs it with the processor and software magic of the iPhone 11 Pro. The result is a pocket-friendly handset in terms of both size and price, with fusion technology that delivers highly respectable photographs and 4K video.
Its smaller 4.7-inch 720p screen isn't as bright and doesn't refresh as fast as the flagship models, but that also means that its battery doesn't get gobbled up as fast either. It sticks with Touch ID instead of Face ID, and boasts Qi wireless charging. It's IP67 water and dust resistant, and features image stabilization for rock-solid 4K 60fps video.
It certainly isn't the cheapest phone on this list (though neither is it the most expensive), and there are certainly phones that beat it in specific categories. However, taken as a whole – between its all-round imaging and video performance, and especially its A13 Bionic chip and Apple-standard software updates – the iPhone SE is unquestionably the best value handset out there right now.
The Moto G range has been the easiest set of budget phones to recommend for the best part of a decade. They don’t use ultra-low-end tech, their software is tasteful and update support isn’t dropped from the day of release, as happens with some budget brands.
Our pick of the bunch is the Moto G8 Power. And the “Power” part refers to the battery, not the processor. This phone has a 5,000mAh battery, which outlasts most £1,000 phones when left to deal with a day of hard use.
The Moto G8 Power’s cameras are versatile, too, in a budget context at least. Very few phones this cheap have a zoom and an ultra-wide camera. Most use cheap filler sensors to bulk up the spec list, but this phone offers 2x shots with appreciably better detail than a crop of a shot captured with the primary 16-megapixel camera.
Its zoom and ultra-wide use unremarkable 8-megapixel sensors, but that sense of having a better set of tools to work with still enhances the experience here. Elsewhere, the Moto G8 Power has a good 6.4-inch 1080p screen with punch hole, Snapdragon 665 CPU and a plastic shell.
However, the G8 Power does not have the dedicated night mode of the Motorola Moto G8 Plus. Consider the upgrade if low-light image quality matters more than a zoom lens and superior battery life. The Plus has a 48-megapixel main camera, 16MP ultra-wide and 5MP depth assist.
The Pixel 3a stretches the definition of a “budget” phone. But now that you can pay well over £1000 for a phone, £400 is cheap to some.
Camera quality is one of the main reasons to buy a Pixel 3a. It uses the same Sony IMX 363 main sensor as the top-end Pixel 3. This is a 12-megapixel 1/2.55-inch sensor with 1.4 micron sensor pixels.
The main camera is stabilised and, like the Pixel 3, uses the OIS motor when shooting 2x digital zoom images to capture far better photos than most other phones without a dedicated “telephoto” camera. Google calls this Super Res Zoom, and it combines multiple exposures taken from a fractionally different position, in order to extrapolate information “between” the sensor’s own pixels.
This is pretty clever, and there are only slight differences in image quality between the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3. Looking side-by-side at the results, the character of image texture is a tiny bit different in some areas. There’s only one selfie camera too here. The top-end Pixel phones have two.
Outside camera, the Pixel 3a has a plastic body and mid-range Snapdragon 670 CPU. This phone is saved by its unusually capable camera. It would not seem half as good value without it.
Affordable Xiaomi phones are hard to beat for the bang-for-buck features they offer. The Redmi Note 9 is a 2020 phone that offers a few extras we can’t take for granted. It has a basic degree of water resistance, looks very similar to much more expensive phones and has an IR blaster. It can replace remote controls for most TVs and set-top boxes.
The camera’s Night mode is the part we appreciate most. Many phones at the price do not have one, and the Remi Note 9’s significantly improves the clarity and dynamic range of the main 48MP sensor’s low-light images. This is one of the best budget phones for night shooting. It uses the Samsung GM1 sensor, a detail for the tech fiends out there.
Other cameras are closer to what we expect at the price; an 8MP ultra-wide and a pair of 2MP cameras for depth processing and macro shots. Such a low resolution does your close-up shots no favors, but the macro camera does also have autofocus. This phone also has excellent stamina life, thanks to the large 5,020mAh battery.
There’s one important missing camera feature, though; video capture taps out at 1080p, 30 frames per second, where many rivals have full 4K capture. This is disappointing. The Redmi Note 9 also uses a MediaTek G85 processor rather than the more popular Snapdragon 665. It is to blame for the lack of 4K video, but is otherwise roughly a match in raw performance for the Snapdragon alternative.
TCL made the last few generations of BlackBerrys, but now it produces phones with its own name stamped on the back. The TCL 10 Lite (10L) is an affordable phone that packs in a few things you might not expect at the price, like a punch hole front camera and large 6.53in FullHD screen.
Its camera layout looks highly impressive, too, with four lenses on the back. However, only one of these cameras is genuinely quite good. The main camera has a 48MP Samsung GM1 sensor, used in lots of phones including pricey ones such as the Samsung Galaxy A90 5G. Daylight images are good, but there’s no dedicated night more and the processing could be more subtle.
The TCL 10L’s second rear camera is useful, an 8-megapixel ultra-wide, if not a barnstormer for image quality. And like other phones from Oppo and Huawei, cheap additional sensors make up the numbers; 2MP cameras offer remedial macro images and a depth assist for background blur shots.
At launch the TCL 10L suffered from intermittent performance jitters, but its Snapdragon 665 and 6GB RAM are very good specs at the price. This phone does not set new standards, but it is definitely a handy alternative to the Moto G8 line if every penny counts.
Is there such a thing as a cheap iPhone? Not unless your definition of a budget phone is very loose. The iPhone 7 is the oldest, most affordable iPhone that you can find widely on sale (although no longer from Apple direct).
The good news is the iPhone 7’s camera still holds up pretty well in daylight. It's not the best iPhone for photography you can buy, obviously, since there have been many new models since. Nevertheless, the iPhone 7 has a camera from the age where we had already locked onto high-quality 12-megapixel sensors.
Like other iPhones, the processing is tasteful and the in-app image preview is more faithful than just about any cheap Android’s.
However, general image quality and night shots in particular aren’t close to a match for the cheaper Pixel 3a’s. Sometimes tech fans can talk up the annual improvements in phone cameras too much, but three years of progress really adds up, particularly given the focus on low-light quality we’ve seen in the last 18 months.
The iPhone 7’s night photos are pretty poor for a phone of this price. However, the experience of actually using the camera is still excellent.
Why does Motorola have another phone at almost the same price as the Moto G7 Plus? The One Vision is a little different. It has Android One software rather than Motorola’s own interface. And this means it looks a lot like a Google Pixel phone.
The One Vision is also one of several 2019 mobiles to use a 48-megapixel main sensor. But unlike the rest, it’s a sensor made by Samsung rather than Sony. This is the GM1, a half-inch sensor with 0.8 micron sensor pixels. The techniques it uses are just like those of phones with the more common Sony IMX 586 48MP sensor. Four pixels are binned together for lower noise and better low-light performance.
The results? Motorola’s One Vision performs well at night for a budget phone. But in daylight the Motorola G7 Plus’s more conventional camera is actually sharper. There’s a second 5MP rear camera on the Motorola One Vision too, but it’s used for depth mapping only.
Other notable parts include an ultra-long 21:9 screen ratio with a punch hole and 25-megapixel selfie camera.
This is the budget version of what many would call the best phone camera ever, as of mid-2019 anyway, the Huawei P30 Pro, though it’s not easily available in the US..
It has a triple rear camera array to keep that essential character, although predictably lacks the 5x zoom of that phone. In fact, there’s no zoom at all. One camera is an ultra-wide, another a dedicated depth sensor, and the primary camera uses a 48-megapixel sensor, of the kind that became very common in 2019.
The phone shoots 12-megapixel photos as standard, but they have the intense dynamic range optimisation we’ve come to expect from Huawei and Honor phones. Severely overexposed areas in images are fairly rare unless you take exposure metering into your own hands.
Some of the classic higher-end touches of the Huawei P30 Pro et al are here too. There’s a dedicated night mode that takes several seconds to shoot an image, but lets you do so handheld. Sadly the results aren’t a match for those of the top-end Huaweis. But what do you expect for a fraction of the price? They still elevate the P30 Lite above the average for low-light performance.
Versatility is the real benefit here. You get an ultra-wide camera, the depth mode offers a lot of control over the virtual aperture, and Huawei’s blurring algorithms are good.
The Huawei P30 Lite also has a glass back for a touch of high-end class, although its sides are plastic.
The Honor 20 Lite is the sister phone to the Huawei P30 Lite. They share the same parent, which is why you often see Huawei and Honor phones that look eerily similar.
Their cameras are not the same this time, but both have the big selling point of a triple rear camera array. There’s no zoom, but you do get a basic 8-megapixel ultra-wide camera and a very basic 2-megapixel depth sensor.
The primary sensor is different too, a 24-megapixel chip rather than a 48-megapixel one. It tends to perform slightly worse in most conditions, but the difference is not huge. You still get a lot of additional modes, some of which are actually useful to a photographer.
The prices of these two phones are all over the place. At one point they were quite similar, but at the time of writing the Honor 20 Lite is substantially cheaper.
There is one other fairly major cut in the Honor, though. Its back is plastic rather than glass, so feels like a much cheaper phone. Both have a rather brilliant 32-megapixel selfie camera that, judging by its performance across light levels, makes clever use of pixel binning to max-out detail.
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