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Home / Brunch / Techilicious by Rajiv Makhni: What really matters in a 2020 camera phone

Techilicious by Rajiv Makhni: What really matters in a 2020 camera phone

Forget megapixels. First research the hardware and check the kind of software, and then open your wallet.

brunch Updated: May 24, 2020 01:26 IST
Rajiv Makhni
Rajiv Makhni
Hindustan Times
Vivo V19 only has a 48MP main sensor, but it clicks even better photos than a 108MP phone
Vivo V19 only has a 48MP main sensor, but it clicks even better photos than a 108MP phone

It felt good just holding the box, smell the newness of the packaging (yes, I do that sometimes) and run my fingers on the cellophane paper packing the phone. The lockdown also pressed the pause button on phone launches and this was the first phone that had come to me in a while. The much awaited Vivo V19. The V series for Vivo has always been a camera-centric phone and frankly, the camera performance is still the most important buying criterion for phones. Yes, there are many other features that are being tried out, like folding phones, (still evolving, still super expensive), 5G phones (premature), higher screen refresh rates (slightly difficult for customers to wrap their heads around) and gaming phones (small niche market). Thus the camera on a phone still reigns supreme when it comes to what truly matters to a customer.

Some of the best camera phones in the world actually have only a 12MP main shooter

But I was slightly disappointed. In a world where other brands are throwing out 64MP and 108MP phones, the Vivo has a 48MP main sensor only. Is this an inferior phone? Is Vivo not keeping up with market trends? My first few sample pictures changed my mind in a hurry.

How did it manage that?

The pictures I took from the Vivo V19 were excellent. Low light images were clear and bright, and it truly shone with the front camera and selfies. In fact, in some pictures it did much better than the 108MP phone I had with me. What was going on?

Not much, other than the fact that I had fallen for the myths that have perpetuated around cameras and optics for a long time now: megapixels as a measure of camera superiority, while ignoring what really matters. Here is a quick primer on what really matters when you are buying a phone based on camera performance in 2020.

The M in megapixels mostly stands for marketing

Look, I’m not dissing companies that make 64 and 108MP phones. There is a time and place for more megapixels and they do add to the image and feature set. But maybe not in the way you think. Some of the best camera phones in the world actually have only a 12 MP main shooter (iPhone 11 Pro max, Google Pixel 3. Shocker, right!!). A lot more needs to come into play to give you pictures that put a smile on your face. Let me go a little technical here for just a second.

What megapixels really do

More megapixels do not mean you will get a better photo. In fact, a camera with 1,000 megapixels (they will be here soon) could result in horrible pictures. That’s because the camera sensor needs to be able to squeeze even more pixels into a smaller space and each pixel needs to be much smaller. This miniaturisation results in each pixel having very poor light collecting efficiency, less detail and more noise. And if you break down a photo into its most basic elements, then it’s just a collection of pixels and how bright and detailed each pixel is.

Let’s just put in even bigger sensors

Yes, that would make sense, right? Let’s just increase the size of the sensors in our phones and make sure they use those millions of pixels well. Unfortunately, you won’t buy that phone as it will be about five times thicker than normal and really bulky. Even now phones are struggling to accommodate all the optics inside (which is why most phones have an ugly protrusion at the lens space at the back). To put in a bigger sensor would mean defeating the laws of phone body physics. Currently there is a limit to how big a sensor can be in a phone. There is no limit though, on marketing campaigns about how many megapixels a phone can have.

Other things that matter

At one time photography was all about hardware. The lens (plastic or glass), number of lens, the aperture (the f stop; the lower the number the better, still very critical on all camera phones), the sensor within, the processor inside, the kind of flash and many others. While all this matters even now, software plays a huge role. Before and after you click that button to take a photo, multiple things are whirring inside your phone including image processing software, AI, neural network computation and machine learning. Sounds like a lot of headache-inducing tech geekiness, but believe me, that Instagram photo that got you so many likes? It’s all this tech inside that made it happen.

Next time you’re buying a phone

Thus when you buy a phone based on how important the camera is to you, train yourself to not blindly go with a phone that touts some magic number of megapixels. Research the rest of the hardware, check the kind of software and then open your wallet.

I’m off to try the dual front selfie camera on the V19. Apparently it even teaches you how to pose :)

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

Techilicious appears every fortnight

From HT Brunch, May 24, 2020

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