When smartphone manufacturers talk about their phone’s camera specs, the focus is usually on the number of megapixels. Other camera specs, some of which are responsible for much of the heavy lifting, receive very little attention.
While the number of megapixels is important, it is only a fraction of the overall quality of your smartphone camera. If you take the time to search, you will find many equally important camera characteristics that determine the quality of the image produced by the camera. But what are these secret camera specs that people don’t talk about?
What makes a quality smartphone camera?
Before talking about specifications, it is worth emphasizing that the quality of a smartphone camera depends on the complex interaction of hardware and software components. While consumers are generally attracted to the hardware side, the software side is just as important.
The smartphone camera with the best hardware will not produce stunning images without powerful imaging software. Even with modest hardware, powerful imaging software can do wonders for your camera. Without a good fusion of the two sides, a quality camera is nothing but a pipe dream.
However, here are some smartphone camera specs to consider when buying your next smartphone.
1. Sensor size
A smartphone’s image sensor is a camera component that creates images using the light that enters the camera. It is one of the most important components of a smartphone camera; that’s why its size matters. Without getting too technical, the bigger the image sensor, the more light it can receive and the better the image quality it can potentially produce.
Smartphone sensors are usually measured in inches (or, more commonly, fractions of an inch). To date, no smartphone camera can boast a sensor larger than 1 inch. The Samsung Galaxy A53 has a modest 1/1.7-inch sensor size and pairs with other quality components to produce good images.
When you look at images from the 1/1.33″ Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra sensors (arguably one of the S22 Ultra’s best features and one of the largest on the market), you understand why sensor size matters. Although the size of the sensor does not matter. tell the whole story, it greatly affects the quality of the pictures you take.
2. Pixel size
Not to be confused with the number of megapixels, a pixel size is the number of pixels, or tiny light-capturing blocks, on the surface of a camera’s image sensor. In photography, light is crucial. This also makes pixel size important. The larger the size of each pixel, the more light it can capture, potentially meaning better image quality.
This again highlights the importance of sensor size, since sensor size determines how many pixels fit on its surface and how large those pixels can be. Smartphone cameras with smaller pixels tend to have issues with digital noise, especially when shooting in low light.
So the next time you work with a spec, remember that a larger pixel size, measured in micrometers (µm), is usually better.
However, the powerful peripheral hardware and imaging software on today’s smartphones make it possible to create stunning images with smaller pixels. A good example is the Honor 20 Pro smartphone camera.
Manufacturers love to talk about this aspect of smartphone cameras. However, the number of megapixels is much more nuanced than we often hear. Although it directly determines the resolution of images that your smartphone’s camera can produce, it is not the best in terms of image quality.
That’s the problem. The higher the number of megapixels, the higher the resolution of your images. However, everything is not so simple. More megapixels can mean smaller pixels. Imagine that the image sensor is your dining table and the plates you place on it are pixels. To get more megapixels, you need to place more smaller plates (smaller pixels) on your dining table. Larger plates (bigger pixels) will take up more space and you can fit fewer plates on one dining table. So you get less resolution.
It gets harder. Larger pixels capture more light and thus greatly improve your camera’s performance in low light conditions. So while you get more resolution with more smaller pixels, it can be detrimental to image quality if the technology that supports it isn’t good enough. This is why, despite using a 108-megapixel camera on its S22 Ultra smartphone, Samsung uses pixel binning to combine smaller pixels into larger ones for better images.
4. Optical Image Stabilization (OIS)
If you’ve taken a photo or video while driving, you’ve probably noticed a jittery, blurry image that no one wants to see. Optical image stabilization promises to solve this problem. Sometimes you don’t even need to be on the move to get shaky or blurry videos and images – this can also be caused by slight hand movements. To better demonstrate the importance of the OIS function, below is a video taken on a Google Pixel 2 smartphone with OIS off (left) and OIS on (right).
Unfortunately, OIS equipment is not cheap. However, it is vital to shoot clear videos and photos without motion blur. Some smartphone manufacturers use Electronic Image Stabilization (EIS), a software attempt to replicate the features of OIS (which is a technology built on a dedicated hardware component). When shopping for the next killer flagship smartphone or true flagship, you should pay attention to the OIS technology in the camera specification.
5. Optical and digital zoom
Digital zoom on a smartphone camera is a software attempt to bring distant objects closer in front of the camera. Digital zoom, for the most part, simply crops the image in front of it and fills the phone screen with the cropped portion. This is less than actual scaling and more cropping. This is why images created purely with digital zoom sometimes have pixelation or lack of fine detail.
On the other hand, optical zoom occurs when the smartphone adjusts lens components to better focus on the subject. Optical zoom adjusts the reach of your smartphone’s camera by adjusting its focal length. This is what “really enlarges” an object. Unlike digital zoom, optical zoom does not adversely affect the image quality and resolution of the resulting image.
If a smartphone with a 20MP camera does a 2x digital zoom to focus on an area of interest, it discards the 10MP resolution along with the cropped area. The remaining 1 OMP is then stretched onto the canvas to create a 20MP photo (which isn’t actually 20MP in a practical sense).
The colossal zoom power of the much-discussed Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra is primarily due to its 3x and 10x optical zoom. The need for optical zoom is one of the main reasons most smartphones come with more than one camera. So when you take a close look at the camera specs for your next smartphone, keep in mind that the 10x optical zoom listed on the spec sheet may make more sense than the 100x digital zoom.
Pay attention to less popular features
In most cases, the camera specs that smartphone manufacturers highlight in their specs don’t really define the quality of a camera. Most of the big bold specs are marketing narratives designed to increase sales.
When you’re in the market to buy a smartphone for its camera, ignore what the manufacturers want you to see. Always consider critical features that manufacturers don’t talk about enough.