Techilicious by Rajiv Makhni: Camera Phone vs Pro Camera—Another battle won

The level of innovation in camera phones has reached astounding heights
The Vivo V20 has an eye-tracking auto focus just like those in professional cameras
The Vivo V20 has an eye-tracking auto focus just like those in professional cameras
Published on Oct 25, 2020 07:31 AM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByRajiv Makhni

Ever since the first camera appeared on a phone, the big question has remained the same. When will camera phones replace cameras? Part of it got answered a few years back when camera phones far outstripped compact point and shoot cameras. The next question is, if they can surpass professional equipment like DSLRs and full-frame mirrorless cameras. It’s an interesting question and one that needs to be answered soon, as the level of innovation being introduced into camera phones is astounding. And with the new Vivo V20, one of the biggest drawbacks in cameraphones disappeared. But before we get into that innovation, let’s compare a modern cameraphone to a state of the art pro camera.

Size of sensor

This is the biggest and most important difference: it’s physically impossible to increase the size of the sensor size in a smartphone without adding to the bulk (a thicker phone is something current consumers would reject completely). But a major innovation called Back Side Illuminated Sensors have allowed for slightly bigger sensors even in a very slim phone. That still doesn’t mean that the performance is the same, which is why the next innovation plays a huge role.

Software photography

When you click a photo on a phone, a lot of things happen within and most of it is done by software. The noise, the light conditions, the subject and pretty much everything in frame is evaluated and sometimes multiple shots are taken to take the best from each and produce a single image. Software plays a huge role in smartphone photography. Which is also why it’s so convenient. The phone delivers a picture that is ready to be posted and shared immediately with no further editing and processing required. The exact opposite takes place on a pro camera where it tries its best to present the picture exactly as is with no software intervention, so that the photographer is allowed to tell his story.

The Sony Pro (Alpha 6600) is a high-end camera
The Sony Pro (Alpha 6600) is a high-end camera

Optical zoom and bokeh

An optical zoom is again a problem of physics. It’s impossible to fit one into a slim phone. And bokeh effect photography again needs a large sensor to achieve that out-of-focus background. Both have been solved with extra camera modules on smartphones. By adding cameras onto phones (sometimes even five or six) like a telephoto or a depth sensor, current phones have the ability to zoom or give you a proper bokeh shot. Of course, software is still at play here and what you get isn’t being achieved just by the add-on sensors.


This is the biggest Achilles heel of smartphones. Imagine discovering that an entire video or series of important shots has had the autofocus latched onto the wrong area. Pro cameras use a variety of technologies to make sure that what you focus on is locked in at all times. And the gold standard of that is eye-tracking autofocus, which is available in very high-end cameras. It latches onto a subject’s eye and makes that the focal point. As long as the eye is visible, the subject remains in sharp focus. It’s a difficult one to pull off even on a pro camera and the Vivo V20 finally brought it into a phone. But does it really work?

An optical zoom and bokeh effect photography have been solved with extra camera modules on smartphones

Vivo V20 to the test

To test the Vivo V20, I took a high-end professional Sony camera (Alpha 6600) that had eye-tracking autofocus and shot various shots and videos on it. I then replicated the exact same scenario and shot on the Vivo V20. I shot a video where the subject moved closer and then further away, left to right, out of the frame and back in; introduced objects closer to the camera than the subject and then asked the subject to close their eyes and cover them with their hands. The Sony came through with flying colours, the Vivo even more so. Not once did it lose the focus on the subject. Even when the subject moved in or out or covered their eyes, the Vivo was able to razor focus right back in a flash. Quite amazing that a phone pulled off such a professional camera feature. The Vivo V20 is another giant leap towards camera phones closing the gap with pro cameras.

The first consumer camera from Kodak (in 1888) came with 100 shots of film built-in. You had to send the entire camera with the film back to the factory to get the pictures developed and they would ship out the photos and a new camera to you. The tagline for the camera was – ‘You press the button, we do the rest’. That tagline is even more applicable to current smartphones.

The views expressed by the columnist are personal

From HT Brunch, October 25, 2020

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