COVID-19 may have never gone away and we had to endure supply chain issues and product shortages, but there was some good news in 2021: Mobile cameras got better than ever.

This was the year of the pro-quality 10x optical zoom in a Samsung phone; Macro, cinematic mode and a longer 3x telephoto on new iPhones; and 4x telephoto on new Google Pixels.

You still can’t use an iPhone or Galaxy phones to do an effective job shooting most sports, wildlife or anything else that requires getting in real tight, but mobile cameras are rivaling that of their big brother DSLRs and mirrorless models for portraits, street photography and even group photos at weddings.

Let’s run down the year’s achievements.

Samsung Galaxy S21

The South Korean giant made up for its 2020 gimmick of “100x” digital telephoto on flagship Galaxy models with a vast improvement: 10x optical zoom (240mm) — the biggest throw of any major smartphone.

The “100x” was just pure digital zoom, which means Samsung cropped a portion of the photo to pixelated, terrible looking results. “While results at 100x are still poor, the phone’s ability to take crisp shots at 10x optical zoom means it can achieve images that are simply not possible on rival flagships,” noted CNET in a July 2021 S21 Ultra review, which predated the release of the iPhone 13 Pro Max and Google Pixel 6.

Beyond those dreamy specs, the Galaxy S21 Ultra also shoots 8K video and has an image sensor on the main camera that clocks in at 108 megapixels. The phone starts at $1,199, the most expensive of the big three (Apple, Samsung and Google), and didn’t see its price drop as the year went on.

It was released on Jan. 21, 2021, and so you know what that means — look for an S22 successor in the coming weeks. Samsung is expected to have its new “Unpacked” event in February.

iPhone 13 Pro

Apple put all of its marketing muscle this year on an iPhone upgrade that was all about the improved camera. Yeah, the processing chip is faster, and there’s a slight redesign to the body, but come on!

The star feature is Cinematic video mode, which blurs the background for dreamy looking video that rivals shooting at f/2.8 or f/2.0 on a pro camera. Even better, the iPhone brought Rack Focus, which keeps the shot in focus as you move around the room, amazingly.

The lenses are better performing in low light, especially the 13mm ultra-wide angle lens. The telephoto lens got an upgrade to 77mm, from what had been 62mm on top of the line recent models. And now we can shoot macro shots of flowers and objects that are super sharp, thanks to the new Macro mode. All in all a very welcome upgrade for us photographers.

No smartphone camera can touch the iPhone when it comes to video, which can now be shot in higher resolution ProRes. The 13 Pro was released in late September. Now for the iPhone 14 … do you think we’ll might be able to adjust the frame rate and timing on Timelapse mode, please?

Google Pixel 6

Google’s flagship phone, released in October, turned a lot of heads with the biggest improvement to date on a Pixel phone. The Pro model has a 50-megapixel wide-angle lens, 48-megapixel telephoto lens and a 12-megapixel ultrawide lens and touts faster focusing, due to LDAF (Laser Detect Auto Focus.)

Pixels have historically been Android showcases, available to consumers at a lower price point, and the Pixel Pro 6 is no different. The phone starts at $899, a good $200 less than the 13 Pro Max and $300 less than the Galaxy S21 Ultra. The Pro is the first Pixel to have a second telephoto lens, with a roughly 100mm throw, compared to 77mm on the iPhone, and 240mm for the Galaxy.

Google showed off its software smarts by offering tons of AI modes, including Night Sight, for better shots in the dark; Cinematic PanUltrawide, for smoother sweeping video shots; Magic Eraser, a Photoshop like feature which lets you wipe away portions of an image you don’t want; and Face Unblur, an automatic feature that takes two photos of the same subject and sandwiches them together, to ensure that at least one of them will be in focus.


Insta360 2-in-1 Invisible Selfie Stick and Tripod

The company, which makes the GoPro Insta360 rival action cam, has a terrific little mobile tripod it calls the 2-in-1 Invisible Selfie Stick and Tripod. And that’s exactly what this gadget is.

It serves as a larger than usual tabletop tripod, since it’s able to extend. Pull it out all the way, and it’s an awesome little selfie stick.

The tripod is aimed at Insta360 users, but it has a tripod mount that will fit other small cameras. There’s a spring for the smartphone adapter, and your smartphone will fit perfectly without weighing it down. Or even use GoPro’s tripod adapter to mount the rival camera on the tripod.

DJI OM 5 Smartphone Gimbal

And speaking of selfie sticks, drone maker DJI improved its OM gimbal product by adding a built-in extension rod that made it a must-have upgrade for many. As always, the OM (formerly Osmo) is a great tool for steadier video and special tricks, like automatic tracking that follows the subject as he or she moves around.


The biggest upgrade of the year, on both desktop and mobile, were new tools added to Adobe’s Lightroom software, which made masking easier than ever, with a one-button click to select “sky” or “subject.” Adobe describes it this way: You get to edit “specific parts of your photo with greater precision and more creative control.” These types of tools haven’t been easily available on a mobile app before, and they save hours of editing time.