Up until 2011 the idea of having multiple lenses on a phone’s camera was silly. It just seemed redundant to add a piece of hardware twice to a device whose form factor was already highly limited in space. After the release of the LG Optimus 3D and HTC Evo 3D, dual-lens phones found a strange niche in taking stereoscopic “3D” photos. Three years after this little experiment failed, the HTC One M8 was released with two lenses, this time for a different purpose.
Since 2014 it seems that phone manufacturers are less focused on packing more megapixels into their sensors, with more of these devices appearing with these dual-lens setups. Why is this?
Why Two Lenses?
Technology has a funny way of imitating nature as it progresses. Most of the people reading this can look into a mirror right now and see that they have two eyes. This is something that has helped our evolutionary trajectory significantly, making us efficient hunters. If you try driving a car (preferably in an empty parking lot) with one eye covered, you would notice just how handicapped your depth perception would be without a second pupil sending image data to your brain.
The idea behind dual-lens phones is similar here. A second sensor provides the ability to map the depth of a given area in front of the device, allowing it to focus on specific things as opposed to absorbing as much of the scenery as possible.
With a dual-lens phone – depending on the software and firmware running behind it – you can take more impressive photos that focus on your subject and blur out the background (known as the “Bokeh effect”). You can also zoom more quickly. All of these things are meant to bring phone cameras up to a standard similar to that of more professional dedicated DSLR cameras.
There’s also the ability to include a telephoto lens as part of the setup. This was done with the iPhone 7 Plus, which was able to feature optical zooms up to 2x. Normally, phones would only integrate digital zoom rendered by software to mimic the effect of zooming in.
And of course, let’s not forget that the second lens could also have a wide angle, allowing people to capture more panoramic shots.
So why not put all of this into one lens? Because, dear reader, it’s physically impossible.
Even in DSLR cameras, if you want to use a wide-angle lens, you put on a wide-angle lens. If you want a normal, crisp shot, you put on a normal lens. Want something blurry? Attach something with a larger aperture. You can’t (affordably) have it all in one single package. Glass can’t just morph at the push of a button!
What’s With the Lack of Megapixels?
In the department of DSLR cameras, we see models sometimes reach insane heights of 120 megapixels. However, even higher-end phones haven’t made much of a push beyond 12. Why is it, with all of the advancements in transistor sizes and sensor technology, that phone manufacturers are no longer interested in outdoing each other in the race to cram as many megapixels as possible into their cameras?
The simple answer to this is “because it’s more economical.” Of course, things are a little more nuanced than that.
A while back phone manufacturers realized that it’s kind of useless to incorporate more than 12 megapixels into their CMOS sensors. It’s not like your average smartphone user is going to get into professional photography with their device. After all, there are these little things called “dedicated cameras” that professional photographers already use to shoot their pictures.
Now, the reason why they need an enormous amount of megapixels is that they sometimes crop out pieces of an image to focus on one particular detail in their shots. The more megapixels your image has, the more you can zoom into it and crop it out and still end up with a 1080p or 4k image from that tiny snippet.
But most people who take pictures on smartphones just want to share them on social media. If you take a 50-megapixel selfie, it doesn’t matter whether you upload it to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or (lol) Google Plus. That image is going to be resized automatically to a format that doesn’t take up enormous amounts of space on the site’s servers, which is about 8 megapixels in the best case scenario.
In conclusion, phone manufacturers stopped caring about how many pixels they can pack into their sensors. It’s an unnecessary expense! Instead, they are focusing on what you can do with the sensor you have. With good hardware behind your lens and a great pillar of software surrounding it, you can add amazing visual effects to your images, adding to your user experience. In the end the way your camera works won the war against how beefed up its chip is.
What kind of features do you prefer on your phone’s camera? Do you think that phone manufacturers should turn up the volume on megapixels? Add your thoughts in the comments section!