The multi-camera gate scandal: How many is too many?

Just how many cameras do we need on our phones?

by: - Last updated on: January 4th, 2019

It started out with one at the back, then we got one at the back and one on the front. Fast forward to more recent years, we then got two at the back and still stuck to one on the front. Then those three soon became four and we started seeing two at the back and another couple on the front. Then some companies decided to shake things up a bit and change the number dynamics between the front and the back and gave us a trio at the back and a single one on the front. But just when we were trying to digest the trios and the quads, some companies decided it is not enough and are now pushing that number up to five, just at the back. Not combined, but just on the back alone. Crazy, right?

Nokia 9

If the imaginary light bulb above your head has still not lit up, let us tell you that we are talking about the number cameras on a smartphone. From one to two to three to four to now five, six and even possibly seven cameras on a single smartphone, the number of cameras on a smartphone only seem to be increasing with time.

2016 was the year when the whole dual camera idea started getting picked up by smartphone manufacturers. Then came 2017 when dual cameras suddenly became hygiene, not just for the smartphones in premium segment but for the mid-segment and even for some budget segment devices. We will not be exaggerating if we said that companies cashed in on the whole dual camera deal. Then came 2018, the year that changed the way we consumed the number of cameras on a device. With Huawei launching the P20 Pro, one of the first smartphones with triple cameras on the back, all camera hell or (heaven for some) broke loose. And as 2018 advanced suddenly having triple primary cameras was not as surprising or overwhelming as it once seemed. As we step into 2019, leaked footage of a Nokia smartphone with a whopping five primary cameras has surfaced. Codenamed the Beholder, Nokia’s alleged smartphone has been making rumor mills work for quite some time now but Evan Bass leaked a video of the smartphone which poured some concrete on what was a very flaky road before.

Now, this might excite some and get some people’s hearts racing, but we think a lot of it is… sheer fluff, something we like to call the “Multi-camera gate scandal.” Every great scandal involves pushing something that was false to fool the masses, and we think all the talk of numbers of the camera on a smartphone is really boiling down to just that.

As technology progresses, we expect companies and devices to advance with it. Now adding numbers may be one way to go but to be able to pack as much power, ability and functionality into devices without making the whole thing too complicated – and well, actually delivering some value – is also a huge part of this tech-spectrum. And that is a fact which it seems many are forgetting.

Light smartphone001

Do not get us wrong, we are all for great numbers and strong spec sheets, but we are in no mood to forget that more often than not, a number of smartphones have proved that while numbers matter, they are not all there is to a smartphone.

Which brings us to all those cameras on smartphones today. Yes, they all serve a purpose as per the brands that make them. Some multiple cameras on smartphone collect depth of field information which translates into the popular “Portrait Mode” in mainstream language, some take pictures in monochrome to provide you with best of color and detail while some offer optical zoom. We will not outrightly dismiss these features on a smartphone as they can come in handy in many cases but from what we have seen, most companies have not perfected the art of implementing all these features and delivering stunning results at all times. No matter how hyped up a multiple camera smartphone may be, we have never really seen a phone handle edges perfectly ALL the time when it comes to bokeh or Portrait mode, or provide us with super realistic colors or DSLR-like detail, or even significant amount of optical zoom. All of which really defeats the purpose of having multiple cameras on a smartphone.

google pixel 3

But if the world of technology was really advancing as swiftly as we like to think it is, then why is it difficult for companies to bundle all this and create one sensor to deliver it all? Well if that sounds too difficult then do explain how for all the dual, triple, quadruple cameras that are there on smartphones in the market, a smartphone like the Pixel 3XL, which bears only a single camera on its back, is almost unanimously hailed as the best camera phone present in the tech world today. So, if the best can do with just one, why do we need so many on all these other devices? Even if you get into the economics of it all, it seems pretty obvious to us that having one primary camera on a smartphone must be somewhat more economical than having five – why not just try to put a bigger sensor in the space you save?

Which is why we think multiple cameras, although useful, but are not revolutionary. Yes, the features they bring along come in handy, but the fact that instead of trying to pack more features in one sensor, companies are concentrating more on adding multiple sensors on the back of a smartphone seems makes this look like a desperate attempt to burn bigger and bigger holes in the consumer’s pocket. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the multi-core processor race which had gripped the tech world a few years ago, when everyone felt that simply adding multiple cores to their processor was all that was needed to convince the consumers that a phone was fast.

galaxy a9

We know how that all ended, but unfortunately, we do not see this sensor monsoon on smartphones getting over anytime soon. We expect companies to keep on adding cameras on cameras on the device without adding any significant value to these sensors. Yes, phone photography is better than it was a few years ago, but it is nowhere near as revolutionary as the number of cameras on some phones suggest. Truth be told, in normal light conditions, we even see two-year-old phones take very good photographs – just use the 7 Plus or the original Pixel if you do not believe us.

What is the solution? Well, all we can say is that in a world full of smartphone companies trying to rip you off in the name ‘n’ number of cameras, be a little mindful of what you are buying and ask yourself if that is really going to add value to your smartphone photography experience or is it just going to sit there looking pretty or hi-tech. Great tech does not always translate into great results or performance.

A small, final, note: although brands are increasingly using the term “DSLR-like quality” to define and justify the numbers of sensors they add on a smartphone, let us not forget DSLRs themselves only come with one sensor.

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