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Samsung and Xiaomi taken by surprise, Apple’s 2X camera too good


I have to admit I was a bit skeptical when I first heard that Apple was going to use the main camera on the iPhone 14 Pro to give users 2X “optical-quality telephoto” shots. There were no previous rumors about such a new feature and it practically came out of the blue.

Digital zoom for years has had a stigma associated with it, and I wasn’t sure if this wasn’t just going to be one of those cases of too much hype for a feature that we have had on smartphones for decades.

But after using this new 2X mode extensively in the last month and a half, I can say that it absolutely lives up to Apple’s promise. This new 2X mode sets a new standard for smartphone photography by which all upcoming phones will be measured, and it also once again opens the big question of what the ideal smartphone camera system should look like.

How did no one think of this earlier?

Apple explains it all quite well in just one sentence on the iPhone 14 Pro page. And indeed, the technology is actually so straightforward that it begs the question: if it was merely a matter of taking the central part of a sensor, then why the heck did no one do this earlier?!Apple uses a new 48-megapixel sensor on the iPhone 14 Pro, but it is still outputting 12MP photos by default in all of the modes by using quad-pixel binning technology. This is exactly what all other phones are doing, effectively treating their 48MP/50MP/108MP sensors as 12MP ones and all the processing actually happens on pixel-binned 12MP photos.

For this new 2X mode, Apple bypasses the pixel binning. So from 1X up until 1.9X, the iPhone would effectively “stretch” a pixel-binned 12MP photo, but once you reach the 2X zoom level, it stops doing that and instead switches to using a crop of the middle portion of the 48-megapixel sensor. This 12-megapixel section of the sensor (without any binning) is how you have a 2X “full-resolution” zoom on the iPhone 14 Pro.

This actually sounds like something that EVERY smartphone with a 50-ish megapixel main camera COULD have done. Scratch that: should have done years ago!

Honestly, it’s a bit surprising it wasn’t done before the iPhone 14 Pro.

On the Android side, we have had phones with 50-megapixel sensors for… a while! Last year’s Pixel 6 Pro uses a 50-megapixel main camera, but it didn’t offer a sensor-crop style “optical-quality” 2X mode. So on that phone, the zoom happens on top of a pixel-binned 12MP photo, and when you zoom in on that, the level of detail is naturally far worse compared to a full resolution sensor crop.

The Galaxy Ultra series have had a 108MP main sensor for three years now, and still, no Galaxy phone offers an optical-quality 2X mode.

Same goes for other phone makers too: Xiaomi, Motorola, OnePlus. Despite years of using high-resolution sensors, I have not seen a full-resolution 2X zoom implementation.

It is particularly strange that just a month after Apple released this feature on the iPhone 14 Pro, it immediately appeared on the new Pixel 7 Pro. It’s clear that both companies have been working on this for a while, so it’s hard to tell which one started it first, but assuming precedence that would have to be Apple.

Good news is that now that we have all seen the benefits, it’s a safe bet that most Android phone makers will eventually implement a similar feature in their upcoming flagships.

The greatness of 2X

Apple also calls the new 2X mode “the perfect framing choice for Portrait mode”, and I have to agree with that too.

I have written multiple articles in the past advocating for a proper 2X mode to be implemented on all phones.

There is a good reason for the popularity of the 2X mode and that reason is… biological.

A 2X mode in the smartphone is very close to the 50mm focal distance in the parlance of dedicated cameras.

And this focal distance has been called the “nifty-fifty” and has been the staple of modern cameras for years. Up to this date, many professional cameras are actually bundled with a 50mm lens, and the reason is that it is a nearly universal lens.

50mm is a field of view very close to the way our human eyes see the world. Not too wide and not too zoomed in. It looks just right.

The reason it works great for portraits is because with it, you can capture a face without it looking distorted (like it would on a 1X, wide lens); you can capture a full body portrait without walking too far behind; you can capture the so-called cowboy shot, with the upper half of the body in frame. You can capture it all with just one lens!

You simply cannot do this with a 3X lens without having to walk too far back for most of these shots, and in my opinion, you shouldn’t even shoot portrait photos of a single person using the 1X lens (it just look distorted and… bad).

What is the perfect camera system then?

And do we even need a 3X lens, now that we have 2x?

But there is a bigger question that this new camera poses. If we now have a 2X camera that is practically just as good as a dedicated 2X lens, how does that affect the ideal smartphone camera setup?

More specifically, do we even need a 3X zoom lens on smartphones now?

A 3X zoom lens is the most common third lens on a flagship camera system these days. The Galaxy S22 uses that, the Galaxy Fold 4 and Flip 4 do too, the iPhone 14 Pro and 13 Pro series have it, the Huawei P50 Pro has a 3.5X zoom (close enough).

But is a 3X zoom lens really needed when you already have a great 2X, which can be extended with just a bit of digital zoom to 3X?

Not to mention that the zoom lens on other flagship phones like the Xiaomi 12 Pro now looks completely irrelevant. The 12 Pro has a dedicated 2X zoom lens, but it just seems like one big waste of space considering that you can practically have the same results from just the main camera.

So maybe, the ideal camera of the future can rely fully on its main sensor for close-range zoom (2X and 3X) and trade that now common 3X lens for something that goes far longer, a 5X zoom lens for example. 5X is just perfect for pet shots and with some clever processing, it can deliver good looking shots at 10X. Or why not even toy around with crazier ideas: can we have two long-range zoom lenses? A 5X and a 10X lens would be absolutely incredible.

Whatever it is, the conversation is now open and I think we need to re-think what a modern smartphone camera system looks like in 2023 and beyond.



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