When the tech companies came up with an idea to add multiple cameras on smartphones, we expected it to be at least a set of cameras that are quite capable — perhaps at its bare minimum, a one that can get the job “well done”.
In the first few years (excluding all the previous dead loss 3D gimmicks), the attempts are kind of successful. The HTC One (M8) paved the way to the modern multiple camera trend with its capable 4MP main sensor with a large 2.0µm pixels. Its auxiliary camera is also at the same pixel caliber — 4MP and its job is to capture depth information for a fancy yet then-gimmicky artificial bokeh. Remember, the year is 2014. Years passed and some major tech companies started acknowledging the trend.
In 2016, Huawei had the Huawei P9 with a pair of 12MP sensors (RGB and Monochrome sensors), while Apple came up with 12MP telephoto and wide-angle cameras for the iPhone 7 Plus. The results were outstanding, and it didn’t take a while until some random companies started making a cheaper version of these technologies — so that they have something to sell to the masses (we will come back to this later).
You see, these phones have all the very reasons to utilize auxiliary cameras. The Huawei P9 uses an RGB+BW approach to improve lowlight image capture, whilst Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus needs a dedicated secondary camera to enable 2X lossless optical zoom and the then-less-than-perfect portrait mode. As for the HTC One (M8), it is a bit gimmicky but we will give it a pass for starting the trend that it is today. Who would’ve thought that this will soon backfire on consumers?
The competition begins
Of course, as time went on, we started asking for a more varied camera approach. Ultra wide-angle photography became a thing and started the competition for “the more cameras, the better” — most of the time, even how nonsense it gets.
Some popular midrange brands started copying HTC’s approach, others went with their own distinct flavors like the 2019 Nokia Mobile flagship, the Nokia 9 PureView, and its now-deceased Penta-lens system. Yes, Nokia Mobile used to release innovative flagship smartphones (with innovation more than they can swallow), but at least they tried. It’s rare to see them trying nowadays.
Fast forward to 2022, about two COVID years later, and we still see some remnants of this trend being exploited for quick cash grabs. Usually from products that came from sketchy Chinese ODM companies, mass-produced with an added name brand logo on it — an icing on a very hollow cake.
From user necessity to becoming a marketing necessity
How many times have you heard a brand shamelessly marketing its phone as featuring a “triple or quad camera” system only to know that 50 to 75 percent of the cameras from these smartphones are either unusable or really not making any sense at all?
The most popular resolution of these “space fillers” is the 2MP (1600 x 1200) sensor. And kid you not, the same pesky resolution is being used in smartphones for things outside the realm of depth sensing. When you think about it, there is really no way this resolution should exist in 2022. But it is here, lingering like the COVID-19.
When Nokia and ZEISS launched the Nokia N90 in 2005, its 2MP sensor with ZEISS optics was all the rage. According to Oliver Schindelbeck (then ZEISS Innovations Manager), Nokia has been keeping in touch with ZEISS since 2004 to create a “milestone in mobile imaging” but both companies waited until the 2MP threshold is reached to ensure image quality. Even so, Sony Ericsson’s W800 blew the Nokia N90’s camera out of the water. Overall, Sony Ericsson has better image processing than Nokia (whose output is a little hazy). But in all fairness, all devices being 2MP, there’s nothing really impressive about it even in 2005.
Nokia put up a fight by investing heavily in its imaging, and together with ZEISS, they created the legendary follow-up to the N90, the Nokia N95. It features a 5MP sensor behind the ZEISS optics and was considered the best camera phone in the market back then. We know what happened next.
Tech companies started upping their camera resolution, and for years, never looked back from where it started in 2005. And so to see a modern smartphone using a 2MP sensor in 2022 to take photographs is piteous at best. Not even a low-end Android phone deserves such a wretched resolution.
We already found a way to create a portrait without a 2MP depth sensor
If this is 2018, it is forgivable to have a 2MP camera dedicated for a portrait. While a 2MP sensor doesn’t give the best resolution, it is enough to provide depth information to the main sensor to help the image signal processor (ISP) create an artificial bokeh in portrait photos.
However, this is 2022 and the technology now allows for amazing portrait photos using just a single camera sensor — thanks to computational imaging. This trick can also be done with the help of any existing auxiliary cameras like the telephoto (the iPhone way), or with an ultra-wide-angle lens. So I don’t see any reason for it to exist other than being helpful to the marketing team.
A 2MP macro camera has also become a very popular add-on trend from 2020 onwards. However, I believe that if these smartphone manufacturers are really serious about macro photography (which as of now is really nothing but a gimmick on mobile), a proper ultra-wide-angle lens or even a specialized main camera can also do that.
To illustrate my point, here is a sample macro shot from a leading smartphone brand with its 12MP f/1.5 main sensor using a digital zoom compared to a dedicated 2MP f/2.4 macro lens from an “established” Android brand. Obviously, it is possible to take a macro shot using just the main camera (with minimal digital zoom). It even looks way better than the output from the dedicated 2MP macro.
There is really no possible excuse for these “additives” to exist in modern smartphones, especially if the same result is attainable with the help of the main camera. This needs to stop. It’s useless and costs extra money to have. Companies should stop using these cheap off-the-shelf 2MP sensors a fast lane to quad-camera when it is not even possible to take decent photos out of it. I bet some of them don’t even work.
This article came about after reading that Nokia Mobile has launched new smartphones at the CES 2022. Unexciting, uninteresting devices with the most generic outdated design, yet, after I’ve read HMD Global CEO Florian Seiche talk about “high-quality camera experience” and basically saying that “Nokia phones deliver on every element.” I tried to dig in.
The new releases all features multiple cameras and based on the previous leaks we covered, they may have at least two 2MP auxiliary cameras on their back. We all know what this setup means. There is one sensor for portrait and another one for the sweet old macro. Shrugs.
Perhaps the issue here isn’t just about the resolution. It’s about the sense and usability. A phone can have a 12MP macro camera or 12MP portrait lens and it still won’t make any sense because all these features can easily be available and/or possible through the pre-existing main camera.
If we don’t speak up against it, it will continue to exist. And it would be the most pathetic decade for the tech industry. Something we tolerated and helped build. Yikes.