The power of two works well for camera optics, and the sync can result in much better photographs. Apple could well be deploying such a solution in its upcoming iPhone models
Smartphone cameras are becoming ever so powerful. After many years of battling on the processor specs, how much RAM should a phone ideally have, how much internal storage does your phone really need with cloud storage around, do you really need anything more Full HD resolution and more—the battle-lines have been drawn around the smartphone camera.
Be it the flagships, the more affordable mid-range phones or even the truly affordable smartphones, most manufacturers are now touting the optical capabilities of their phones.
And there is a reason why phone makers are all excited about the photography capabilities too. The current generation of smartphone users consider the camera in the phone as more than adequate for most photography scenarios. A quick glance through the camera stats of the popular photo sharing and storing platform Flickr, suggests that the Apple iPhone 6, iPhone 6s and the iPhone 5s are the most popular phones (among Flickr users, at least), followed by Samsung’s Galaxy S6, Galaxy S5, Galaxy Note 4 and then come the first of the thoroughbred cameras—Canon’s EOS 5D Mark III, EOS 6D as well as the EOS REBEL T3i and Nikon’s D7100, D7000, D750.
A glance through the brands that make up the Top 10 in the ‘Camera Brands used in the Flickr Community’ rankings also includes smartphones from Sony, Motorola, HTC and LG. Read more. And this does put pressure on phone makers, to genuinely deliver on the optics capabilities.
But, as with most things, the physical limits tend to enforce a virtual ceiling. And smartphone cameras are no different. With phones themselves becoming thinner and thinner, there is only so much the optics in a 7mm thick phone can do. So, what is the alternative? Two cameras.
Not entire revolutionary, but perhaps logical progression. When productivity requirements increased, single core processors made way for dual core processors (and subsequently quad core and octa core etc.). In the same way, one camera is not enough anymore—two cameras, separate lenses, capture more light, reproduce more detail, and both combine to deliver every photograph which you click.
Apple may adopt the dual-camera system for at least one of the variants in the upcoming iPhone line-up. And if we go back in history for a moment, there were signs that this was coming. In April 2014, Apple completed the $20 million to acquire Israeli company LinX Imaging. And this came after LinX unveiled its first multi-aperture cameras designed for mobile devices, in June 2013. And it is this investment, which could finally be bearing fruit for Apple.
The iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus still remain among the better smartphone cameras, and the hardware as well the arguably the best background image processing algorithms play their part.
But, the Android smartphones off late have upped the game as well this year—Samsung Galaxy S7 and the OnePlus 3 are prime examples. And Apple needs to respond with this year’s iPhones, if only to stretch its advantage again. And with the aforementioned laws of physics standing in the way, the best way is to use two cameras on the phone.
Incidentally, this isn’t the first time a smartphone has had dual camera setups. As far back as the year 2011 is when we got our hands on the HTC Evo 3D, which used dual cameras to capture 3D photos—the entire excitement around 3D subsided pretty quickly, and that was that. But, it was in 2014 when the HTC One M8’s dual camera technology attempted to improve photo detailing combining the captures from two lenses—the second camera focused on depth sensing. Fast forward to 2016, and we have the LG G5 and the Huawei P9, both rocking two cameras and yet, utilizing them in very different ways.
In the LG G5, an 8-megapixel wide-angle camera works together with the primary 16-megapixel camera, allowing you to capture wide landscape shots and group photos.
In the Huawei P9, the second camera is monochrome and works in parallel with the regular colour photography camera. In certain cases, depending on photography environment, the combination of a monochrome sensor and a colour sensor can capture as much as three times the light compared to a standard camera. The result is a richer shot with better detailing.
The other advantage of dual cameras in smartphones is that the design of the phone itself doesn’t get disrupted. At one point in the evolution cycle, when phone makers were trying to pack in larger sensors in the ever thinner phones, what emerged was a rather unconvincing looking bump on the back panel. And the incremental performance improvements at that time, if at all, didn’t really make too much difference. Now, look at the Huawei P9 is just 7mm thick, and yet the dual cameras sit flush with the back panel and do not protrude out.
Swapping one large camera sensor for two smaller ones theoretically could result in better light sensitivity, which would mean better low light performance. But it will also depend a lot on the software that works behind the scenes. And with the cutting edge hardware, we all know Apple will have the very best behind-the-scenes software image processing algorithms to take full advantage.