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Busting the megapixel myth once and for all!

For the trigger-happy generation, it’s important to understand what really matters in a camera phone

brunch Updated: Apr 02, 2017 12:11 IST
Megapixel

Most brands sell their phones based on the camera

This is a cry for help. A reach out to all of you. You, the brands that sell phones based on megapixels as the only way to make your camera phone look good. You know you’re taking them for a ride and selling them nothing more than snake oil. Stop doing that! And you, the consumer, who falls for the horrible marketing gimmick and base your buying decision on that strange two-digit number that actually means practically nothing in terms of the picture quality you finally get. Stop doing that!

My column today is to implore all of you to understand your cameras and camera phones better. It’s time to bring in a new industry standard to evaluate what phone to buy based on four other things you must look for. And it’s not jargon or hyperbole techie stuff that will sail above your head. It’s time to decode it and make it completely idiot-proof.

The camera sensor is the heart of the system

Megapixel
Let’s make this really easy. If you’re planning to blow up the picture you take to billboard size, cover a whole building with it or print life-size 6 feet tall posters; by all means make sure that megapixels completely dominate your buying decision. For the rest of us who aren’t in that business, anything above 8 megapixel is more than adequate. At its most basic, a pixel (picture element) is a dot and all those dots make up the picture. When we click pictures to post on Facebook or Instagram or share them on WhatsApp, those millions of pixels aren’t doing too much. In fact, if the rest of the optics on the camera aren’t good, then, what you’re really doing is shooting a lot of crap pixels. Remember, the more the megapixels, the more the memory each photograph takes up on your phone.

This is what the camera phone lens system looks like

F (remember this letter)
The good thing is that this letter is so ingrained in our lives due to its most famous four letter extension that it’s not likely to be mixed up with any other. Next time you are taking a buying decision, look for this letter followed by some number. Like F2.2 or F1.7. The lower the number, the better. I could go into a deep technical explanation but that defeats the purpose of this column. Let’s break it into simple layperson terms. The F stands for Focal and the lower the number, the more light it allows to hit the camera’s sensor.

The lower the F Stop number, the more intense is the light that comes into the camera optics

All you need to know in one sentence
The entire thesis of photography can be summed up thus – photography is only about light! It controls everything you see in a picture. Everything! And the F number denotes how much light can the aperture let in. The lower the F Stop number, the more intense is the light that comes into the camera optics. Too much light, don’t want washed-out pictures, don’t want to look like a ghost – switch to a higher F Stop. Very low light, want brighter pictures, no dark smudges, no grainy black dots all over people’s faces – move to a lower F Stop. And you’re done!

Okay, not quite
Once you’ve got a camera that has the chops to give you great aperture control, then all that light you’re controlling needs to go through the right lens. You’ll see terms like 4P or 5P1G or even 6P. All they’re denoting is the number of lens elements. The P is for plastic and the G is for glass. Each lens is there for a reason – for more exact focus, to use that light better or to correct distortions. After all that light has entered and been improved by the lens system, it must fall on a sensor. The larger the sensor, the better, as it’s able to gather that beautiful light and make a stunning picture out of it. Lastly, the size of the pixel is critical. A pixel pitch of 1.4um will beat the living daylights of a camera with 1.12um pixel size.

The HTC U Ultra has stunning optics

Sounds like a lot. Read the above again and you’ll realise it’s all really simple and obvious. The camera phone industry deliberately makes it sound very complex, as it’s easier to sell a phone based on a simple megapixel number and other crap optics. Every company must list the F Stop, camera sensor size, lenses and pixel size. The number of megapixels can be in fine print. If at all!

Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3

From HT Brunch, April 2, 2017

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