When smartphone manufacturers talk about their phone’s camera specs, the number of megapixels usually gets the most attention. Other camera specs, some of which are responsible for most of the heavy lifting, get very little attention.
Although the number of megapixels is essential, it only contributes a fraction of the overall quality of your smartphone camera. If you take the time to research, you will find many equally important camera specifications that decide the quality of the image a camera produces. But what are these secret camera specs people aren’t talking about?
What makes a quality smartphone camera?
Before talking about the specifications, it is worth emphasizing that the quality of a smartphone camera depends on a complex interaction of hardware and software components. Although consumers tend to be drawn to the hardware side, the software component is just as important.
A smartphone camera with the best hardware possible won’t deliver amazing images without powerful image processing software to back it up. Even with modest hardware, powerful image processing software can create magic with your camera. Without a good fusion of the two sides, a quality camera is nothing more than a pipe dream.
With that said, here are some smartphone camera specs to consider when shopping for your next smartphone.
1. Sensor size
A smartphone’s image sensor is the component in a camera that produces images using light entering the camera. It is one of the most critical components of a smartphone camera; so its size matters. Without getting too technical, the larger the image sensor, the more light it can receive and therefore the better quality of image it can produce.
Smartphone sensors are commonly measured in inches (or, more commonly, fractions of an inch). To date, no smartphone camera can boast a larger than 1″ sensor. The Samsung Galaxy A53 has a modest 1/1.7″ sensor size and combines with other quality components to produce good images.
When you look at the images from the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra’s 1/1.33″ sensors (arguably one of the S22 Ultra’s best features and one of the largest on the market), you can see why sensor size matters. Sensor size doesn’t tell the whole story, it dramatically influences the quality of the images you capture.
2. Pixel size
Not to be confused with megapixel count, pixel pitch is the number of pixels or small light-capturing blocks on the surface of a camera’s image sensor. In photography, light is fundamental. This makes pixel size important as well. The larger the size of each pixel, the more light it can capture, potentially meaning better image quality.
This once again reinforces the importance of sensor size because sensor size determines how many pixels fit on its surface and how big those pixels can be. Smartphone cameras with smaller pixels tend to have issues with digital noise, especially when shooting in low-light conditions.
So the next time you’re at a spec sheet, remember that a larger pixel size, measured in micrometers (µm), is usually better.
However, the powerful peripheral hardware and image processing software in modern smartphones can make smaller pixel sizes produce stunning images. A good example would be the camera of the Honor 20 Pro smartphone.
Manufacturers love to talk about this aspect of smartphone cameras. However, the megapixel count is much more nuanced than we often hear. While it directly determines the resolution of images your smartphone camera can produce, it doesn’t hold the aces when it comes to image quality.
Here’s the thing. The higher the number of megapixels, the higher the resolution of your images. However, things are not so simple. More megapixels could mean smaller pixel sizes. Imagine that an image sensor is your dining table and the dishes you place on it are the pixels. To get more megapixels, you need to put more smaller plates (smaller size pixels) on the dining table. Large plates (larger pixels) would take up more space and you could fit less on the same dining table. Therefore, you get less resolution.
It gets more complicated. Larger pixels trap more light and thus significantly improve camera performance in low light conditions. So while you get higher resolution with smaller pixels, it could negatively affect image quality if the technology behind it isn’t good enough. That’s why, despite using a 108 MP camera in its S22 Ultra smartphone, Samsung uses pixel bonding to combine smaller pixels into larger ones for better images.
4. Optical Image Stabilization (OIS)
If you’ve taken a photo or video while on the go, you’ve probably noticed the blurry, shaky look that no one wants to see. Optical image stabilization is the promise to solve that problem. Sometimes you don’t even have to be moving to get shaky or blurry videos and pictures; slight movements of the hands can also cause it. To better demonstrate the importance of the OIS function, below is a video taken with a Google Pixel 2 smartphone with OIS off (left) and OIS on (right).
Unfortunately, OIS hardware doesn’t come cheap. However, taking steady videos and images without motion blur is vital. Some smartphone manufacturers use electronic image stabilization (EIS), a software attempt to replicate the functions of OIS (which is a technology built around a dedicated hardware component). When shopping for your next Flagship killer smartphone or a real flagship, you should look for OIS technology on the camera spec sheet.
5.Optical and digital zoom
Digital zoom in a smartphone camera is a software-driven attempt to make distant objects in front of your camera appear closer. Digital zoom, for the most part, simply crops the image in front of it and fills your phone screen with the cropped portion. It’s less about actual zoom and more about cropping. This is why images generated solely with digital zoom are sometimes pixelated or lack fine detail.
Optical zoom, on the other hand, occurs when a smartphone adjusts its lens components to bring an object more into focus. Optical zoom adjusts the range of a smartphone camera by adjusting its focal length. This is what “really magnifies” an object. Unlike digital zoom, optical zoom does not negatively affect image quality or resolution of the resulting image.
If a smartphone with a 20MP camera does a 2x digital zoom to focus on the area of interest, it drops 10MP of the resolution along with the cropped area. The remaining 1OMP is then stretched onto a canvas to generate a 20MP photo (which isn’t really 20MP in a practical sense).
The colossal zoom power of the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra that is so much talked about is mainly 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’re looking at the camera specs for your next smartphone, keep in mind that the 10x optical zoom on the spec sheet might be worth more than the 100x digital zoom.
Pay attention to the less popular specifications
Most of the time, the camera specs that smartphone manufacturers emphasize on the spec sheet are not really what determines the quality of a camera. A large portion of the specifications printed in large, bold fonts are marketing narratives designed to increase sales.
When you’re in the market for a smartphone for your camera, look beyond what the manufacturers want you to see. Always consider critical specs that manufacturers don’t talk about enough.