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How many cameras are too many cameras?

We are at a stage in smartphone cameras that if a phone is launched with just two camera lenses, it is considered a disadvantage. Even the most entry-level smartphones come with at least three cameras slapped on the back. Does that mean the more cameras a phone has the better it is or is it all just an industry-wide marketing gimmick?

The Increasing number of cameras

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Source – DxOMark

The prices of smartphones are not the only thing that rising over the years. The number of cameras has seen a rising trend which is clearly visible when you compare phones from last year. Where there were phones with more than two cameras but till last year the flagship phones had only two cameras for the most which are a rare sight for most cameras in the year 2020.

In 2019, Nokia announced the Nokia 9 PureView which had this unseen 5 camera setup available in a consumer-ready smartphone. This setup was developed in partnership with Light – The company which made the camera with 16 lenses called the Light L16. This although does not sound that big of a deal in 2020 where even sub Rs 20,000 smartphones have 3-4 cameras slapped at the back.

But there is a big difference between these Multi-camera setups and this begs the question – How does a Multi-camera setup work?

Single Camera vs Multiple Camera setup

It seems an easy solution for companies to increase the number of cameras in their smartphones just because their competition is doing the same. Now there are various types of Camera setups in different phones but they all work in somewhat a similar way.

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While a single camera is more of a one-man show which has to handle all the various situations with the limiting hardware that it comes with. Since there is no room for any moving parts its not possible to have optical zoom or variable aperture (with some exceptions like Samsung Galaxy S9 onwards) which can change based on the need of the hour. This is where a Multiple camera Setup comes into play.

It is a setup where no matter how many cameras there are, each plays a different role such as, different aperture, different focal length, different color science and these cameras work together to produce a single photo or video that are brighter, sharper, and overall more accurate – In theory at least. A multiple camera system also enables a phone to do a whole lot more like-

  • Better HDR photos
  • Better Portrait photos – more accurate edge detection, depth identification, bokeh effect, etc
  • More accurate Contrast and colors
  • Augmented Reality possibilities
  • More zooming range with minimal loss of quality
  • Better everything basically…
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Everything except large camera modules. A larger camera bump is an unfortunate by-product of camera systems where the telephoto lens requires larger spaces which is tough to fit in a slim smartphone. There are companies working around this need for more space for telephoto systems – like Samsung Galaxy S20 uses a periscopic system to mount the system vertically and maintains the slim design of the phone.

Google although proved that it is the image processing which carries a good photo to the finish line when they launched Pixel 3 with just one camera at a time when all the competitors moved to more than one camera system but it still dominated the phone camera market in its time. After Pixel 3, Google also moved on to multiple camera systems. So multiple camera systems are definitely the step to take to eliminate the limitations of single-camera setup and evolve smartphone cameras.

Types of cameras in a Multi-Camera setup

Source – Tom’s Guide

Primary Camera

The main camera is the camera that does all the work. This is the camera that would be there is it was a single camera system and captures all the information it can without focusing on any specific part of the photo.

This is also the main camera that takes the video and usually the only camera in the multiple camera system which comes with an OIS (Optical Image Stabilization) if there is any. Adding more camera modules with different attributes lets the main camera do its job the best way possible creating overall better results.

Wide-angle Camera

A wide-angle camera is one of the most fun to use a camera on a phone which is also quite useful. It was widely used by LG in its flagships which started getting people’s attention and opened all the possibilities to shoot different types of videos and photos without using an additional accessory.

But the sensors used in a wide-angle camera are usually inferior to the main camera with a noticeable decrease in quality. The wide-angle camera has great use in landscape shots and to fit in a large group in a frame in a tight spot. Although the uses of a wide-angle camera are yet to be explored completely, it is getting better over the years.

Telephoto Camera

A telephoto camera module is a widely used camera that is present in almost all the multi-camera system, It is basically a lens with a higher focal distance or even variable focal distance.

A telephoto is perfect to shoot further off objects without loss in quality. Electronic zoom in a smartphone camera just makes the images worse which is taken care of by using a telephoto camera. I still do not recommend using zoom while taking photos or taking videos but this camera is perfect for those “need-to-zoom” situations.

Monochrome Camera

A monochrome camera is more work from the back kind of camera because it majorly used for giving the extra details to the main camera which it tends to miss out on. The primary camera has to record the colors of a scene and this tends to miss out on the finer details that carry an image like the right contrast and highlights for example. A monochrome camera does not have to worry about the colors and extracts the correct blacks and whites which when mixed with the image of the primary camera generates an overall better and sharper image.

Although a monochrome camera gives the best result, some companies also use other camera systems like a camera similar to the primary camera but with a different focal length or just RGB cameras. But for most for the most accurate results, monochrome is the right way to go on a smartphone camera.

Macro Camera

Macro Cameras are rising on smartphones this year. What you earlier could get with a clip lens is now a part of your phone with no extra attachments. A macro camera is a camera with a very small focus point so you can get close to objects and shoot the “details”.

But I assure you, you are not going to use this camera after the first couple of days of buying a new phone. The macro camera is more of a novelty item than a necessity to be on a smartphone, but it is what it is.

Does More Cameras mean better performance?

No. More number of camera’s does not mean better performance.

At the end of the day, a smartphone camera is all about image processing. The hardware is important but even with the same hardware, you can see a big difference in the images and videos produced by different phones.

If a phone has the perfect multi-camera system but the cameras don’t work in symphony then it won’t stand a chance in the ever-growing and changing smartphone camera market.

I’ll say again, Google with its Pixel 2 and 3 were the best cameras in the industry at their time and they still perform better than most of the phones to date, all this while having just one camera!

The phones under the Rs 20,000 price point are more prone to the increasing cameras trend where a minimum of three cameras is seen at almost all the phones. When it comes to cheaper phones companies tend to slap in as many cameras as they can to appeal to the common man.

The flagship phones have in turn a lesser number of cameras but perform better in all aspects. It proves that although multiple cameras help in getting better performance, a higher number doesn’t necessarily mean higher performance.

Final Thoughts: How many cameras should a smartphone have?

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There is definitely not a fixed answer to that question. Technology evolves and new types of cameras will come to our smartphones. But at this point in time having more than 4 cameras in the smartphone seems unnecessary and unwanted. What is more important is to create perfect synergy in the performance of the cameras in the system.

Companies will bring in various types of technologies to the phones but eventually, it should all help in creating better pictures and videos.

Having cameras that give you flexibility in focal length and helps in extracting the maximum data for a photo paired with a really good primary camera seems like the required number of cameras a smartphone should have.

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