The full picture on phone cameras

Even before ultra high resolution cameras make it to Nepal, there are already phones with impressive cameras

There was a time when smartphone shoppers looked for phones packed with every feature they could possibly need. Everybody wanted a phone that is a radio, torch, camera, Internet portal, gaming console, alarm clock, calculator, map, calendar, personal assistant, notepad and more – all rolled into one block of various metals, wrapped in plastic (or glass).

These days, phone users are just looking for a great camera to capture moments to share. Yes, battery life and physical features are still important when making a purchase, but with most premium phones averaging at a battery capacity of 3500-5000mAH, the power bank is hardly a matter of contention.

Regarding the physical appearance, snazzy phone covers and pop sockets are still trending, making it easy for people to regularly reinvent the way their phone looks. Turns out that choosing a smartphone is like choosing a romantic partner -- it helps to have good looks, of course, but quality and performance are what will determine whether the relationship is a lasting one.

So, the camera is queen. The key point to keep in mind is whether the smartphone you have your heart set on has the camera quality you want or need.

In most cameras, the image sensor plays an important role. The bigger the pixel size, the better the camera performance. For example, a 48 MP camera with a 1/2-inch sized sensor is considered pretty good. You want your pixels to be large, as a larger pixel can capture more light than a smaller pixel.

The ability to capture more light means better performance when you’re taking pictures with friends at a dimly lit bar, when light is at a premium. A lot of phone makers tie up with well-known brands to bump up their camera setup, which allows Nokia to offer a Carl Zeiss lens and Huawei to partner with Leica.

However, bigger, better sensors and a larger pixel size is not always possible. Enter a technique called pixel binning, a powerful process that sees data from four pixels combined into one.

So, a camera sensor with tiny 0.9 micron pixels will produce results equivalent to 1.8 micron pixels when taking a pixel-binned shot. Smartphone manufacturers use this to keep customers happy with camera quality, especially in the budget phone segment.

Ultra high resolution cameras may take time to come to the Nepal mobile market, but the current crop of 40MP and 48MP sensors are already showing impressive results when using pixel binning. With ever-improving capabilities like night modes, better zoom, and AI smarts, there is plenty of potential for better smartphone photos right now.

The tiny hole that you can see inside your phone camera lens concerns the opening of the lens, or the aperture. Let’s pretend there are doors sliding in front of your camera lens: you may call these doors Aperture. How much these doors open and close, and how much light they let in, determines the quality of picture.

The lower the number next to the ‘F’ (signifying Focal Length), the brighter and more visible your photo will be. Unlike DSLR cameras, most smartphones come with a fixed aperture, but luckily, nowadays the ‘Pro’ mode on your phone camera offers customisation of the aperture.

Google Pixel is a great example of a phone that excels with a single lens, but multi lens is an added bonus. Instead of counting the visible camera lenses on your phone (triple cam, anyone?), you are better off judging the phone’s image processing skills.

This is a software that processes the data that is captured by the camera. Unlike a sensor or a lens, which cannot be changed or replaced after you get your phone, image processing is an AI system based on algorithms that can actually be altered or improved post-purchase.

Tip: To test the power of image processing, try installing G Cam (the Google Camera app) on your Android phone and check out the different it makes to your picture quality.

Basic features to look out for:

HDR Mode: High Dynamic Range mode allows the camera to click over-exposed, under-exposed and normal images which it combines to produce a well-balanced high-definition photograph with great clarity, excellent detailing and accurate colouring.

Portrait Mode: This premium feature blurs the background, and keeps the object in the foreground sharp and clear. Portrait Mode plays with the depth of field to give a unique, dreamy effect that will garner heavy Likes.

Optical Zoom vs. Digital Zoom: Optical Zoom uses the actual lens of the camera to zoom into a frame before clicking. Digital Zoom uses digital software to zoom into the frame and crop it to produce the picture, but this compromises the quality of image.

EIS and OIS: Often photographs and videos come out blurry or shaky because of manual handling of the phone without a stabilising accessory like a tripod or gimble (popular with professionals). This is when EIS and OIS come to the rescue. EIS (Electronic Image Stabilisation) helps make the video recording smoother by cropping some of the bad frames automatically. OIS (Optical Image Stabilisation) is hardware-related and not a digital shortcut to perfection. This means that phones that offer camera setups with OIS support tend to cost more, usually because high-end flagship models offer it.

Panorama Mode: Labelled ‘Pano’ on many phones, this feature was once a novelty, but now an expected ‘essential’ that allows the phone to capture more of a scene by combining images to create a horizontally wide panoramic photo. This is a great addition for people in Nepal who regularly capture mountain views on treks.

Time Lapse: A filmmaker’s favourite this feature lets you take a sequence of frames at set intervals to record changes that take place slowly over time. When the frames are shown at normal speed, the action seems much faster, as you may have seen the sun setting bit by bit really quick, or flowers blooming in movies.

Saniaa Shah