It's official: smartphone cameras are once again out of control as the number of cameras slapped on the back of phones is as random as the handset's name.
In 2018 we saw Huawei break out of the dual camera trend to offer three cameras on the P20 Pro.
But what are all these cameras doing? Why do we have cameras peppering the back of smartphones, like the pimples on an adolescent chin?
The announcement of the Huawei Mate 20 Pro is telling, because it sees Huawei slam the brakes on one type of camera and jump over to another. On previous phones - including the Huawei P20 Pro - we were gifted a 40-megapixel main camera (which is preserved), a 20-megapixel monochrome camera (now unceremonious dumped) and an 8-megapixel zoom camera.
The Huawei Mate 20 Pro switches that monochrome camera for a wide-angle camera, saying that it's a Leica 16mm camera, "creating a sense of spaciousness" (from the press release). So what happened to the essential details that were provided by the monochrome camera of previous handsets?
Let's rewind to the launch of the Huawei P9, where we were told that you would "get incredible shots with the Huawei P9's merging algorithm, which intelligently combines the colours taken by the RGB sensor with the detail of the monochrome sensor." [source]
We were told at the time that monochrome is better for low light detail and this boosts all the pictures you take. That's been the message for some time, that you have one "main" camera and a secondary camera that's providing "detail". The same applies to secondary cameras applying "depth mapping" - which originally started with the HTC One M8 back in 2014.
It's always been a bit of a wishy-washy arrangement, but it's now commonplace, especially on cheaper handsets where the second camera is shoehorned in presumably to make the phone look like it's offering you a better experience, so you can say you have a dual camera on your phone, when they don't really seem to be adding anything at all.
That's all you can really read into Huawei's decision to drop the monochrome sensor for wide-angle, which has more visible consumer appeal.
Still there are inconsistencies in messaging around cameras across phones, with some manufacturers telling us that a particular feature is hardware enabled - the depth effect control on the iPhone XS for example - which only appears on phones with the A12 Bionic processor. Yet it's a software feature that's been around for years and is available on mid-range phones from other manufacturers. Does it really need Apple's most powerful processor in an iPhone ever to do this, when Honor does it in a phone a quarter of the price on mid-range hardware?
Often you'll also find that a dual camera bokeh effect is also available on a single front camera, without the additional hyperbole about the second lens.
What it all adds up to is confusion in the messaging, because at one end of the scale you've got Google pushing the Pixel camera with its single lens as the best camera around and at the other, you've got ancillary lenses decorating the back of phones, because more lenses might look like you're getting more for your money.
A lot of the time, the impressive things you are looking at are software features - the explosion of "AI" in cameras that will tweak the look and feel of a photo, Apple's fancy studio portraits and all these bokeh effects are all coming from software. Enhanced night modes are using software to clean things up and even some of the shake reduction is software based.
You might think that being a "zoom" lens saves you from this paradigm, but it doesn't. On most camera with a telephoto lens, it doesn't work unless the conditions are perfect. Hit that 2x button indoors or when the light is a little dim and it's not even using that second lens - it's just giving you digital zoom from the main camera.
Cameras have been the battleground in smartphones for some time; it was once about megapixels, then it was about quality and now it seems to be about features. Sadly, it looks like we're going to be looking at more and more lenses on the back of phones as every manufacturer tries to convince you that there are more and more features you need.
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