Smartphone cameras are so ubiquitous nowadays, it’s hard to remember a time when we didn’t constantly have a camera in our pocket.
Early smartphone cameras were also fairly rudimentary, capturing images measured in kilobytes instead of today’s megabytes, and proving fairly useless in low light conditions.
We’ve come a long way in a short space of time, and even a mid-market smartphone is now expected to take photographs that wouldn’t disgrace a professional’s SLR camera.
A well-known television gadget show recently asked whether standalone cameras still have a role to play, given the sophistication packed into modern smartphone handsets.
Certainly, camera technology is advancing faster than almost any other aspect of our mobile devices.
And to the uninitiated, the language used to indicate this progress is becoming increasingly hard to follow.
Dual-lens, phase-detection, true-tone, selfie-cam…the jargon mounts as each new model reaches the market, attempting to outperform its predecessors.
Below, we consider a few key points of difference – in no-nonsense language…
How many cameras do I need?
Honourably excepting the relaunched Nokia 3310, you’re unlikely to find a modern phone containing less than two cameras.
Happily, twin cameras should be enough even for narcissists – a front-facing ‘selfie’ camera previewed on-screen, and a more powerful rear-facing unit.
If you’re not concerned about Instagramming every night out and day away, a single rear-facing camera ought to suffice.
How many lenses should the rear camera contain?
Huawei is making great play of the fact its flagship new P20 incorporates three lenses, combining 40MP colour and 20MP monochrome lenses alongside a separate telephoto lens.
As the next section explains, extra pixels doesn’t necessarily guarantee better photographs.
Most people will be content with a single rear lens, though multiple lenses enhance composition and create a better balance between light and dark areas in a picture.
That’s why the P20 is being hailed as a game-changer in terms of picture quality.
It records video clips in super slow-motion HD, captures dark scenes with clarity, and portrays a level of detail in distant objects that non-telephoto lenses simply can’t match.
For serious enthusiasts, that may be significant.
How many megapixels does a good photograph contain?
This is a fairly contentious issue, since manufacturers are releasing ever higher megapixel specifications in a form of one-upmanship.
The current benchmark is 12MP, which is enough to take a picture far higher in quality than the normal 1920×1080 screen resolution of most desktop monitors and laptop screens.
In other words, you’ll be getting a lot of pixels you don’t really need.
Premium handsets from Samsung, Apple and Google all capture 12MP, though these high-resolution images are typically shrunk before being emailed or sent.
However, each high-res original is stored in the phone’s memory, in case it’s ever needed.
Is a wide-angle lens advisable?
In general, no.
The LG G5 was one of the first mainstream handsets to incorporate a wide-angle lens, but the curvature at the edge of each image added a disconcerting fishbowl element to its shots.
Admittedly, a 14-25mm wide angle lens is useful when trying to represent a compact interior scene, or to fully convey the drama of a panoramic landscape.
In most circumstances, any 25-30mm lens should prove entirely adequate. And a smaller field of vision won’t result in any bowing at the edges, which is visually off-putting.
Is facial recognition software useful?
It’s been reported that by 2020, one billion smartphones will incorporate some sort of facial recognition technology.
As is often the case, Apple pioneered this concept with Face ID, which generated a 3D map of an owner’s face using 30,000 infrared dots.
Such sophistication is currently the preserve of premium products like the iPhone X, and key future uses (like augmented reality) are still in development.
Until point-of-sale terminals become compatible with facial recognition technology, fingerprint scanning ought to be entirely adequate.
What about 4K?
In broadcasting terms, 4K is regarded as a quantum leap over HD equivalent to the latter’s improvement on blocky standard definition.
Nonetheless, smartphone screens rarely measure six inches or more across.
The intricate beauty of 4K images and video is wasted on small displays, yet it’s another technical attribute being promoted by manufacturers to encourage uptake of newer models.
Even if your phone’s camera records video footage in 4K (usually at 60 frames per second, instead of the traditional 24fps broadcast standard), you’re unlikely to need a 4K screen.
An HD screen will be perfectly competent for the next couple of years, at least.