Far from being a cheap compromise, the best budget camera phones can represent a sound investment for the savvy smartphone photographer. While tech is of course continuing to improve, it has been for a while, and that means the smartphones of the past few years still take fantastic photos. So whether you're going for an older phone or a more recent one with slightly older tech, you're still going to get a highly capable shooting machine.
That's why it's worth shopping around. Whether you're looking for a budget Android phone or you want to stick with Apple and get a budget iPhone, you can pick up a fantastic phone with a great camera system for a fraction of the price of the absolute best camera phones. Triple-camera arrays are pretty much standard on cheaper phones at this point, and while you won't get crazy features like 100x zoom or stabilised 4K video like you do with something like the iPhone 12 Pro Max, you still get a lot for your money.
Here, we've included phones for those who want to spend a more sensible amount for something that will still take great pictures. Different phones have different specialities, so if you have specific needs in mind (say, you want to take photos at night) it's worth shopping around to see what's most suitable. But the bottom line, and the most important thing to remember, is that there will be a budget phone out there for you. You can spend less than $200/ £200 and still get an excellent phone with multiple useful cameras on the back.
If you're looking for even cheaper handsets than we have here (so cheap that you can treat them as disposable), then take a look at our guide the best burner phones. But for now, here's the best of the budget range…
Best budget camera phone
If you're a keen smartphone photographer, but you don't want to splash your cash on a handset with all the bells and whistles, then the Samsung Galaxy S10e might just be the perfect compromise for you.
Featuring a powerful dual rear camera with a wide angle 12MP f/1.5 lens and a 16MP f/2.2 ultrawide lens, the Samsung Galaxy S10e is great for snapping pictures throughout the day. The only thing it's really missing is a telephoto lens, but these tend to be used less than wide angle lenses anyway. Meanwhile, the front-facing camera is a respectable 10MP f/1.9 camera, which is perfect for talking selfies and chatting to your friends and family on video chat.
The Samsung Galaxy S10e features a Full HD+ screen with a 5.8 inch display. It also features wireless charging and reverse wireless charging, which is a great flagship feature in such an affordable handset.
Meanwhile, this Samsung camera phone has a powerful 3,100mAh battery and uses either the Snapdragon 845 chipset or the Exynos 9810 chipset, depending on what region you're in. Running Android 10 out of the box, the Samsung Galaxy S10e offers a heck of a lot of phone for not very much money.
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 Google Pixel 4a is a great example of a phone with decent specs and an affordable price to match. While it might be slightly overshadowed by its big brother, the recently released Google Pixel 4a 5G, the original Google Pixel 4a is around $150 cheaper and carries some very respectable specs.
The Google Pixel 4a carries a single rear camera with a 12MP sensor, featuring dual-pixel phase detect autofocus and optical image stabilization. It's capable of shooting 4K video at 30fps and 1080p video at 120fps. Meanwhile, the front-facing camera has an 8MP sensor. The Google Pixel 4a carries a Snapdragon 730G chipset and a 3,140mAh battery, which makes it more than powerful enough for most tasks a user might want to undertake.
The Google Pixel 4a only comes in one storage option, which has 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage – and, unfortunately, there's no option to expand the memory yourself with a microSD card.
Buying a budget phone doesn't just mean putting up with tech that's a few years old. The Samsung Galaxy A52 5G was announced in March 2021, and it sits pretty much perfectly in the middle of the smartphone offering: neither dirt-cheap nor prohibitively expensive. It's good to see Samsung continuing to cater for users who can't afford the latest models.
And "continue" is the operative word here; one of the great things about the Samsung Galaxy A52 5G is that Samsung has committed to keeping it on the list for monthly OS updates, major Android updates and security updates or at least three to four years. So you know you won't be buying a lemon that nothing will work with in a year's time.
The camera array on the Samsung Galaxy A52 5G is very solid for a phone at this price, a three-camera setup that produces punchy at bright images at a range of distances. The standard photo modes perhaps smooth things out a little too much – you can detect the hand of an algorithm at work – but it probably won't bother most users, and it certainly doesn't look bad. The 120Hz screen also looks the business, and the 4,500mAh battery will comfortably last the day for all but the heaviest of users. This ticks absolutely loads of boxes, and while it's a more expensive budget smartphone, in terms of value for money it's right up there.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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