What really makes a good smartphone camera?

Smartphones have been improving upon their previous iteration of yesteryear for quite some time now. Especially in the components department. Sure, display panels are becoming more gorgeous, and the processors are becoming more efficient. But, what really makes me as giddy as a schoolboy are the improvements in camera technology. Man, the pictures you can take with a smartphone nowadays are so good that they are on the verge of replacing regular ol’ point and shoots.

Fun fact: global shipments of digital cameras were down by 42% during the first 5 months of 2013.

You can probably see where this is going. The camera has become such an important element of newer smartphones, that people consider it a serious criteria for choosing their next handset. MWC 2016 just ended a few days ago (at the time of writing) and you could already see Samsung and LG clawing at each other’s throats over which of their flagships had the better camera. 

For some context, here’s a list of the bestselling smartphones from Amazon right now (always current):

So how do you choose a good smartphone camera?

The inevitable question then arises. So, how do you know whether a smartphone camera is good or not? The most obvious answer that would come to a person’s mind is the number of megapixels a camera has. The more the merrier, right?

Wrong.

Wait, what?!

Exactly. The number of megapixels a camera accommodates is a really inefficient way to see how good it is. Why? That, ladies and gentlemen, provides a convenient little segue into our next topic.

Busting the megapixel myth

Let’s start this off with what a megapixel actually is. According to Professor Google: a megapixel (MP) is a million pixels; the term is used not only for the number of pixels in an image, but also to express the number of image sensor elements of digital cameras or the number of display elements of digital displays.

In layman’s terms, 1 megapixel is a million pixels. So, if a camera can capture pictures with a resolution of say, 5 megapixels, then the resulting image will be made up of 5 million pixels. A megapixel is commonly used to measure the resolution of a camera, so, it was not long before people started using it as a standard for all cameras, everywhere.

And companies know this. They’ve been leeching off from you ever since the dawn of digital cameras. They showcase every new camera with the amount of megapixels it has in big and bold letters, as if it was a rating for a movie. Whatever they’ve been telling you is a gargantuan lie.

Now, don’t get me wrong: megapixels are extremely useful in one aspect. Cropping. You see, if you take a picture with a higher amount of pixels in it, you can crop said image and not be left with an overly pixelated mess.

But there are various other components that play a more important role in snapping a great picture. Lighting, the size of the lens, and especially…

The image sensor

The image sensor is basically the sensor (duh!) that detects the amount of light hitting the camera. Following logic, the more light that hits the sensor, the better the picture will look. But, this also means that to achieve said goal, the image sensor has to be physically bigger in size.

Right, so as an example, let’s take the Nokia Lumia 1020. This thing made big news in the tech community. Why? Because, its camera had a resolution of 41 megapixels. That’s right, 41 friggin’ megapixels. If you haven’t been following me from the beginning, that’s a lot of megapixels.

However, if you ever saw a picture of the smartphone, your initial reaction would be, “Ew! What’s that huge black bump on the back?” That, my friends, is the image sensor. You see, the main reason why smartphone cameras aren’t as good as some SLRs out there is because of this limitation.

Smartphones are based around the idea of compactness — they’re literally tiny computers we carry around in our pockets. Truly we live in the future! Now, only if we could get our hands on those hoverboards.

Alright, back on topic. The only way to increase how much light is hitting your smartphone is to increase the size of the image sensor which is integrated into it. You just can’t pack in a large image sensor and call it a day. It’d be too bulky to use comfortably.

So, how does a good image sensor help?

A good image sensor can do wonders for the picture you’re trying to take. Here are a few things that a good image sensor will take care of when you’re trying to snap a picture. For starters, they will have insanely fast shutter speeds. This translates to 2 main benefits. First, you can take images without any delay, and second, they’ll tend to be less blurry.

Also, a good image sensor will give out excellent color accuracy in the pictures you take. The color output in the images will be vivid.

But the main area where a bigger image sensor tends to shine is during low-light. Since the sensor is bigger than usual, it detects more light than its smaller counterparts, especially increasing low-light performance. 

Image sensors in smartphones tend to be more efficient as well. It usually consumes less power, and saves more battery life during those long hours of photography.

Limitations with the image sensor

While we’re on the subject of smartphone image sensor, there’s virtually only one limitation to address: size. Size is what defines how much light the image sensor detects, and if it is big, then you’ve a comparatively better picture.

Since smartphones are completely based off nanotechnology, this is the only area we can’t change. If you want a smartphone with a better camera, you’ve to integrate a bigger sensor into the thing which is not possible (at this point in time).

The only thing you could do is to give away those green benjamins and get a dedicated DSLR instead. But, then again, there are workarounds to the limitations posed by the size of the smartphone. Loopholes, if you will.

Workarounds to this limitation

Human beings are smart. It was not long enough before we found ways to push through this issue. 

The most popular one which lit the internet on fire was HTC’s ultrapixel method. The explanation about what it is and how it manages to pull off what it does is long and winded. However, being the awesome person I am, I’m going to explain it to you in the simplest way possible. What HTC basically did was increase the size of individual pixels in the camera, so each pixel would receive more light, which translates to better lighting in photos.

The most recent and popular one is what Samsung did with its flagship, the Galaxy S7. The Galaxy S7 incorporated a 12 megapixel rear camera, which seems like a downgrade from last year’s Galaxy S6 which had a 16 megapixel camera. What?! A 2016 flagship having a 12 megapixel camera? We couldn’t have any of this wishy-woshy nonsense, until Samsung revealed what its camera could really do.

Samsung integrated what is called ‘dual-pixel’ technology, which basically allows faster shutter speeds, and way faster autofocus. Basically, each individual pixel is paired with another pixel whose sole purpose is to focus better. Since focus and shutter speeds are much better this translates to faster and cleaner low light images.

Conclusion

Well, now you know. Hopefully you were able to learn something from this ahem, brief read. 

Rashid Saleh is a 16 year old tech enthusiast who is fascinated about things with a screen. Find him on Instagram @that_tall_guy_30

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