A dummy’s guide to smartphone camerasPhotographic technology can be confusing to laymen, but learn these features to snap up the best you can get.
Smartphone cameras have come a long way over the past decade. From megapixel wars to camera counts, smartphone manufacturers have constantly pushed efforts to improve their devices’ photographic capabilities. From Huawei’s tie-in with veteran camera and lens manufacturer Leica to Sony’s faithful and long-running partnership with Carl Zeiss, all smartphone manufacturers have pushed the boundaries of what tiny smartphone camera sensors are capable of. And while lenses have improved and sensors bigger, physical limitations like the size of camera units have already started affecting further progress, leading to more sophisticated camera set-ups consisting of multiple lenses set at different focal lengths and apertures.
While smartphone cameras still have a long way to go towards attaining DSLR-level photographic quality, they’ve come quite close, driving portable and easy-to-use point-and-shoot cameras into extinction. With how complicated smartphone cameras have become, however, it has become increasingly difficult to understand and pick a smartphone with a better camera. It’s not just about megapixels anymore, with everything from image stabilisers to smarter software that defines what kind of an image the camera unit will produce. Every smartphone has a different vanilla style with different colour profiles, so finding your perfect photographic travel companion might turn into a battle of wits against the spec sheet.
Here we look at some camera features that you will need to keep an eye out for, if you’re looking for a smartphone with great photographic capabilities.
Smartphone cameras work following the same principles as a DSLR-camera, which means everything that you’d look out for while purchasing a camera unit applies here. The focal length defines how wide or narrow your field of view is; the f-stop is your aperture—the lower the f-stop, the wider the aperture opening—and ISO levels for sensor sensitivity. All of these specifications define what your smartphone will be capable of capturing. Lower aperture levels offer shallower depth-of-field effects and better low-light performance but at the cost of sharper images.
Megapixels are also part of the equation here, with higher pixel counts yielding much larger images. 1 megapixel creates an image resolution of 1,000 x 1,000 so the higher the pixel count, the larger the resulting image is going to be. Larger images with higher pixel counts tend to be sharper while retaining more details. But as mentioned above, megapixels aren’t the only determining factor when it comes to camera quality—lens quality and sensors also play a major role in good smartphone photos. An example of this could be how the iPhone 8 produces amazing photos with a tiny 12 MP sensor.
The size of sensors also play a major role in image quality. Smartphone camera sensors tend to be one-third of an inch but some phones even have sensors as big as an inch. Pixel size scales with your sensor size, which means a bigger sensor will record much more details when compared to a smaller sensor with a higher pixel count. This is also the reason for the vast difference in quality between a crop-sensor DSLR and a full-frame.
There are also two types of sensors, Charged Coupled Device (CCD) sensors and Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) sensors. While earlier phones used CCD sensors, most modern devices have moved to the more complex and expensive CMOS sensors. Either way, stay away from CCD sensors in the off-chance you see it on a spec sheet.
Smartphones have multiple camera units these days and all of these cameras play complementary roles for the main lens. Some units offer different lenses with telephoto or wide-angle capabilities. These units usually act independently, providing users with options to toggle inside the camera app. Monochrome sensors are more supplementary to main units; these sensors are used to create images with a higher dynamic range, since one unit is solely responsible for capturing the highlights and the shadows. Some smartphone manufacturers also dedicate their second sensor to depth sensing, which helps the phone understand the difference in depth and create faux shallow depth-of-field effects. These also support autofocus features.
Camera shakes can be detrimental to a good photograph. Even the slightest movements can result in blurry or out-of-focus images, which is why many modern smartphone camera units come with image stabilisation. Currently, there are two ways that smartphones work around natural handshakes, Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS) and Digital Image Stabilisation. The latter of the two compensates for shakes by using on-board software to stabilise, while OIS uses physical lens movement to counteract image shakes. Out of the two, OIS works better. I would not recommend investing in a smartphone without either.
With camera hardware reaching a developmental barrier, many smartphone manufacturers have invested in camera software. An example of good camera software would be Google. Google’s Pixel 3 smartphone beats both the Samsung Galaxy S9+ and the iPhone X in photographic capabilities. The smartphone achieves this with a single 12MP sensor.
This is all thanks to computational photography, software that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to push and enhance images beyond the capabilities of the lens or the sensor. Google does this by taking multiple low exposure shots, merging them together and then adjusting the shadows and highlights in accordance to similar photos that the AI has analysed in the past. With how intelligent AI has become in the field of smartphone photography, your device understands what the camera is pointing at and adjusts settings accordingly. AI capabilities are not only limited to Google however, with all smartphone manufacturers offering some form of digital intelligence.