Smartphone manufacturers these days are concentrating heavily on their device’s camera performance and while all the high-end phones carry multiple lenses on the back (except for the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL), mid-range smartphones have also started to employ more than one camera sensor. But having a multiple camera setup on a smartphone does not always translate to a better camera experience or value for the user. Sometimes, those extra lenses are nothing but a market gimmick cooked on to the common perception– “the more, the merrier”.
With multiple lense combinations, smartphone cameras can achieve impressive results and offer a number of options for shooting modes. A depth sensor lets a phone capture “portrait mode” shots with “bokeh” effect, an ultra-wide sensor offers a wider view, and a ToF (time of flight) sensor for more accurate depth mapping capabilities.
Smartphones also employ a telephoto lens where the focal length of the secondary lens is double the focal length of the main sensor to provide a 2x optical zoom. A manufacturer has even managed to fit a periscope style lens to offer 10x lossless zoom. Smartphones also aim to achieve better low-light photography by adding a monochrome lens or a high pixel count lens with some form of pixel-binning technology.
History of multiple rear camera setup
While there are instances of phones employing a secondary camera dating back to 2007, the first notable use of dual cameras came on an HTC smartphone. HTC One M8 launched in 2014 featured a 4MP primary sensor paired with a secondary 2MP to capture extra data for creating a sense of depth in photos.
LG also adopted the dual camera setup in 2016 with LG G5 as it featured a 16MP main sensor clubbed with an 8MP ultra-wide sensor for wide angle shots. Huawei used two sensors in 2016 with its Huawei P9 smartphone, where the primary lens was a standard RGB lens and the secondary lens was a monochrome sensor for black and white photos.
However, dual camera setup grabbed public attention at large when Apple iPhone 7 Plus was launched with two camera sensors at the back in the same year (2016). The smartphone carried a 12MP+12MP camera setup where the first lens offered a 23mm focal length and the other offered a 56mm focal length. This enabled the iPhone 7 to have a telephoto lens providing 2x optical zoom. The Apple smartphone also offered a depth effect like the HTC phone by using data from both lenses.
Afterwards, came the era of triple camera setup when Huawei launched the P20 Pro in 2018. It used a 40MP primary lens, an 8MP telephoto lens, and a 20MP monochrome sensor. The phone offered Night Mode using this camera combination but later on, the Huawei dropped the monochrome lens to throw in an ultra-wide sensor in the Mate 20 Pro.
At the end of 2018, Samsung came up with a quad rear camera setup with the Galaxy A9. The phone carries a 24MP primary lens clubbed with an 8MP ultra-wide sensor, 10MP telephoto lens, and a 5MP depth sensor.
In 2019, the smartphone with five rear cameras also became a reality with the Nokia 9 PureView. The phone carries five 12MP sensors, all of which capture a picture simultaneously and fuse it together to form a single 12MP photo.
Mid-range smartphone and rear cameras
Mid-range smartphones often offer one or more features of a premium device and this time it was the extra camera. By the end of 2018, mid-range devices with only a single rear camera weren’t as popular as the ones with the dual camera setup. Manufacturers started to add a 2MP or 5MP depth sensor for portrait mode in their mid-range devices.
However, in spite of having a depth sensor, edge detection remained a problem for most of these smartphones. The secondary camera did not look like an improvement but a trick to attract new customers. With camera count becoming the evaluation system for smartphones, a number of manufacturers started to just put it there for show.
In 2019, mid-range smartphones jumped to the triple rear camera setup as they have introduced the ultra-wide lens in their devices without perfecting the dual camera system. So far, out of the devices I have reviewed, only one mid-range device gets the third sensor to work right.
If I’d have to buy a mid-range device, I’ll definitely not be picking the phone with triple rear cameras. The overall package matters more in this segment instead of how many cameras phone has on its back.
Problem with the triple rear cameras on mid-range devices
Having an ultra-wide sensor in a mid-range smartphone is really good but that sensor needs to work too. One smartphone manufacturer launched a triple rear camera phone where the primary sensor is accompanied by a 5MP depth sensor and a 5MP ultra-wide sensor.
While the depth sensor doesn’t need a high pixel count, the addition of an ultra-wide sensor with 5MP count doesn’t make sense. The wide shot taken from the phone not only lacks details, colour reproduction, and dynamic range but also has poor exposure levels. To top it off, the phone does not even click good pictures with the primary sensor. Not to mention, it gets the bokeh effect wrong too.
The problem with multiple rear cameras in a mid-range device isn’t just limited to pixel count of the sensors but also the limitation set by the chipset powering the device. When it comes to computational photography, the premium smartphones with three or four cameras at the back are powered by a high-end chip to process multiple images and use the full potential of the camera hardware. That is not the case with mid-range smartphones.
The mid-range chipset doesn’t have enough power to properly process the captured shots and their meta data. And that’s why some smartphones do not produce brilliant pictures even if they sport nice camera sensors.
One example in this regard is the 16MP Sony IMX519 sensor. The sensor, without a doubt, is capable of taking excellent pictures as witnessed in the OnePlus 6T but when mid-range devices employed the same sensor, it did not perform as good as it does in a flagship.
It is good to have a depth sensor and an ultrawide sensor in a mid-range smartphone but only when it has been put to good use. Having an extra camera sensor that doesn’t get the desired result is just like bloatware.
Gimmicks do not work for too long. Instead of trying to trick customers, it is time smartphone manufacturers stick to camera sensors that actually work, even if it is a single sensor. In case offering a good sensor increases the cost of a mid-range device too much, computational photography remains an area to discover.