back to article Focus on the camera, mobile devs: 48MP shooters about to become the sweet spot

Developers focussed on smartphones can assume that most of the devices on the market have at least a 13-megapixel camera, and that almost 40 per cent of them have a 48-megapixel monster to play with. So says analyst firm Counterpoint, in its Smartphone Camera Tracker for Q1 2021. The firm found that 25.5 per cent of phones …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Why the obsession with MP?

    A 2MP camera with a decent lens will blow the socks off a 48MP camera with a crappy lens.

    1. Chris G Silver badge

      Re: Why the obsession with MP?

      Sensor size is more important than Mp hype, the more pixels you have the more potential you have for noise, noise is dealt with by processing, so better GPUs are needed, the same goes for multiple lenses and sensors.

      I would prefer to see the multk lens space taken up with a larger sensor.

      I have a Lumix G3 4/3 format camera, at 16.6Mp I haven't seen anything from these hyper pixel phones that is better.

      A phone gives you convenience, the increasingly complicated cameras on them is mostly marketing.

      The latest top end Galaxys though have pretty impressive zooms that return fair quity at full zoom.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: the more pixels you have the more potential you have for

        HYPE! WHICH! WORKS! AGAIN! AND AGAIN! AND AGAIN!

        and the proof is out there: if it didn't work, they wouldn't bother to pedal this shit. But they do, so...

        1. snow20191102

          Re: the more pixels you have the more potential you have for

          "peddle"

          1. gurugeorge

            Re: the more pixels you have the more potential you have for

            Return of the grammER Nazi.

        2. unimaginative
          Holmes

          Re: the more pixels you have the more potential you have for

          Its a pretty common tactic for anything complex. Remember when Intel convinced everyone that mega hertz was how you measured how fast a computer was?

          People prefer simple information to accurate information.

      2. Niels.hr.Hansen

        Re: Why the obsession with MP?

        It's all about zooming.

        On my Nikon D7200 (24 Mpix) I have some optics (lens) that will handle the zooming. I can put a 6-8-1200 mm lens in front of it and have a very good magnification that don't sacrifice quality (that much). You don't have that on a phone, so instead you crop the image, in other words you are throwing away data and loose image quality. So by getting more pixels to start with you can throw away more without going under in poor quality.

        If you start out with 16 Mpix you can't crop that much before you are below the resolution of the screen. Which is where the consumer can see quality deterioration. So if you start with 48 Mpix you can 'zoom' quite a lot before the InstaFace user notice a quality drop.

        1. DS999 Silver badge

          Re: Why the obsession with MP?

          48Mp on a cellphone sized sensor means the pixels are VERY small, which means they are very noisy. So the quality of the zoomed image is pretty terrible other than under a full noonday sun.

          Going to a periscope lens or better yet emerging optical metamaterials to optically zoom is a far far better alternative, and one that works equally well across all lighting conditions.

        2. Not Entered

          Re: Why the obsession with MP?

          Your image quality is untied. Careful you don't trip on it... unless you meant "lose"

          FFS

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Why the obsession with MP?

        I have a Lumix G3 4/3 format camera, at 16.6Mp I haven't seen anything from these hyper pixel phones that is better.

        I agree. I've got an S5 and although it can do 96MB pics on a tripod by shifting the sensor I have yet to see any use for that, and no smartphone can out-trick a proper lens when it comes to image quality and light sensitivity, especially using a prime.

        Now, I can see that some people need that sort of resolution, but for the moment I've got things turned *way* down while I get used to the camera - what is often omitted is that bigger images also require far more storage. However, a smartphone is *super* handy for a quick snap as it's always with you - a proper camera doesn't quite fit in a jean pocket..

        1. Cederic Silver badge

          Re: Why the obsession with MP?

          Thing is my camera with its 'proper' lens can sensor shift for high resolution shots too. It's successor model can do that handheld.

          (Not that I ever use it, as, just as you suggest, it's of limited application).

    2. tip pc Silver badge

      Re: Why the obsession with MP?

      what's a 2mp camera with an amazing lens like compared to a 48mp camera with a decent lens?

      what stew cost of a decent lens?

      1. Fred Flintstone Gold badge

        Re: Why the obsession with MP?

        A decent lens can comfortably cost multiples of what your smartphone is sold for.

        There is an astonishing amount of engineering involved in creating good optical lenses, and it gets even more complex with the whole anamorphic side of things.

      2. Giles C Silver badge

        Re: Why the obsession with MP?

        A piece of string question.

        I have a canon 28-104 f4L second hand was £900 (new It is about £1200) was it worth it, yes the picture quality compared to a cheaper lens is much higher. But a slight downside is it weighs over a kilo before you couple the camera, and is also a quite large.

        Compared to my phone camera there is no comparison in quality (mind you it is coupled to a EOS-R body)

    3. wolfetone Silver badge

      Re: Why the obsession with MP?

      I'm not sure how true this is, but someone compared 35mm film and 120/medium format cameras, to megapixels.

      In terms of resolution, 35mm film is equivalent to about 8.6MP. Medium format is equivalent to about 52MP.

      So, for all the cost and convenience digital photography provides, they're still trying to get to the resolution film provides.

      I would also stress though that the MP approximations are just that. The type of film is different etc. But it's just the ball park.

      1. Oddlegs

        Re: Why the obsession with MP?

        The move to digital, in every medium, has been driven by convenience, not quality. CDs overtook tapes because of the convenience of being able to skip instantly, likewise with DVD over VHS. MP3s are lower quality than CDs but have pretty much replaced them because they're more convenient. Blu ray is far better quality than DVD but never really made a huge impact because, other than quality, it offered zero benefits.

        Quality only has to be good enough which, when you're listening to music on the cheap headphones which came with your phone or looking at photos on a small screen, is actually a very low bar. After that it's price and convenience which drives innovation.

        1. Dave 126 Silver badge

          Re: Why the obsession with MP?

          Convenience can lead to better quality data: Some of the first CCD imaging be sensors better used in the eighties for astronomy. Whilst the resolution was paltry (compared to film), the continuous recording nature (as opposed to film) meant that composite images could be created - handy for skies intermittently covered by clouds.

        2. Pete 2 Silver badge

          Re: Why the obsession with MP? Why not?

          > every medium, has been driven by convenience, not quality

          There is a little more to it than that. Part of the convenience factor is the way something interfaces to our senses.

          So for example, MP3s. The audio quality is lower. However if you are happy to listen through a pair of earbuds of the type that are throw-away cheap, then it is immaterial how good the music quality on the device is.

          As for cameras - it is simply a marketing tool. Bigger numbers equals better - obvs! Battery life, storage gigabytes, screen resolution, the number of "G"s - 3G ... 4G .... 5G.

          So why not have a 60MPix camera on a phone with a 5MPix screen? One where the limit of resolution is the camera holder's shake as they take a photo (which with the smaller, less sensitive pixels must be longer to reduce noise)

          And when you only view the photo in bright sunshine on a smeared screen (thanks touch-screens!) with glare washing out the colours and making shaded view invisible. Then does the resolution of the camera enter into the equation?

      2. Eclectic Man Silver badge

        Re: Why the obsession with MP?

        Mostly, but not entirely correct. Analogue, i.e. film cameras depend on the size of the crystals in the emulsion for the level of detail and the grain in the final image. Generally the finer the gain, the lower the sensitivity. So the 'megapixel equivalent' of a. 35mm or medium format (anything from 6x4.5 cm to 6x7 cm) depends on the quality of the emulsion.

        One factor definitely in favour of digital over emulsion is the representation of synthetic green colours. I went on holiday trekking in Africa, and the tents were definitely green. When I got the photos back the tents were blue. One photography journalist, when attending the launch of a new colour film would wear a particular green shirt to check if the emulsion and chemistry could record it as the human eye saw it.

      3. Mike 137 Silver badge

        "35mm film is equivalent to about 8.6MP"

        Depends what you mean by "equivalent".

        Disregarding the lens for now (although it's often the limiting factor for both film and digital photography), a monochrome film may have anything from 1M to 3bn grains per cm2 (fast v. ultra fine grain film), the lower figure nominally approximating to your 8.6MP, but that's the very bottom end of the scale for film. Colour films tend to the lower end of this range and the dye substitution process blurs the grain a bit, but that can actually increase subjective image quality as it tends to eliminate jaggy edges.

        However, on a film the grains are randomly distributed and vary in size in a range of some 200:1, whereas the pixels of a digital array are on a rigid rectangular grid. This alone makes the film better able to record lines and edges that are not strictly perpendicular to the frame, as jaggy digital diagonals are unavoidable unless smooted artificially by post processing.

        Then you have the effect of the Bayer filter, which averages a sliding array of (minimum) 4x4 pixels in order to render colour at all. So despite a lot of fancy math, you can roughly divide the linear pixel count by four to arrive at the actual resolution of a digital camera image. Furthermore the actual pixels out do not directly represent the image that landed on the sensor as they are the result of averaging, smoothing and various "enhancement" algorithms.

        Consequently, given the same lens, a film image is a nearer approximation to what was being photographed than a digital image can ever be, and even with clever post processing you should probably multiply the "equivalent" pixel count by at least a factor of three. Funnily enough, for a 35mm frame that's around a 24-30 MP camera.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: "35mm film is equivalent to about 8.6MP"

          Except with color film you got the results of what could be achieved by the chemistry after passing through the previous 2 layers of chemistry.

          Digital imagers have much better color gamut than film and much better control of the result - when done right. Movies aren't just shot on digital now because the millennials like iPhones

          1. Mike 137 Silver badge

            Re: "35mm film is equivalent to about 8.6MP"

            "you got the results of what could be achieved by the chemistry after passing through the previous 2 layers of chemistry."

            Actually you didn't (don't). The top (blue) layer is separated from the green and red layer by a carefully controlled filter and the green and red layers are separated only by their differential spectral sensitivity (ortho v. panchromatic) but all thee at the point of exposure are silver halide in gelatine, so there's no differential "chemistry" to pass through at that stage. The substitution of specific dyes for each layer during processing is the only point where the chemistry really affects the colour (and indeed where correction can be made for the non-linearity of the halide light response in the presence of extreme contrast), and for professional films that has been (is) so good that precise repro of critical colour products such as cosmetics is possible.

            The Bayer filter causes each pixel colour to be some (often cunning) average of a cluster of adjacent pixels so there is a good chance that the final colour of an image pixel will not exactly represent the colour of the light that originally fell on the sensor pixel (particularly at high contrast edges).

            So there are numerous factors that influence colour reproduction accuracy, but several of them outweigh nominal gamut.

      4. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Why the obsession with MP?

        "In terms of resolution, 35mm film is equivalent to about 8.6MP."

        Every comparison ignores that pixel SIZE isn't a standard to make calculations. I'm guessing here, but for 35mm, it's probably "safe" to bet on ~20-25MP with CURRENT sensors.

        "Medium format is equivalent to about 52MP."

        Undoubtedly more than that, but how much more depends on which size of medium format (4x5 would be triple digits for sure).

        "they're still trying to get to the resolution film provides."

        No, if you have the $$$ you can outdo most film digitally. The obvious elephant is large format (ie. 8x10), as the concerns here run the full gambit. It's obvious they can make a sensor for 8x10, but how do you power the sensors and CPUs... "Backpack PowerWall"? In the end, it would be easier to carry around a film model.

        FWIW, the first time I saw a digital image that UNDENIABLY (to me) surpasses anything 35mm could ever do was a portrait taken with my Nikon D810 with a Nikon 105 "Micro". (I really want that new Sony Alpha, but it appears to be a Lemon).

        1. Eclectic Man Silver badge

          Re: Why the obsession with MP?

          Phase One now sell 150Mp sensors for their cameras:

          https://photography.phaseone.com/xt-camera/features-and-specifications/

          OK so they cost £40k +

    4. Christoph

      Re: Why the obsession with MP?

      What happens to those photos? Is that resolution ever used?

      Most of those 50MP photos will be looked at on a small screen or uploaded to a web page. The huge resolution is pointless.

      1. jdiebdhidbsusbvwbsidnsoskebid Bronze badge

        Re: Why the obsession with MP?

        It's not about the number of pixels in the final photo. Having a large pixel count on the image sensor allows you to heavily over sample the image and apply lots of different image processing techniques, to improve the final qualitative picture quality. And I'm not taking about floppy dog ear filters.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Why the obsession with MP?

          And I'm not taking about floppy dog ear filters.

          Why not? What do you have against floppy dog ear filters?

          :)

    5. Peter2 Silver badge

      Re: Why the obsession with MP?

      Because a decent lens is largely a function of focal length, which is the physical distance between the camera lens and the image sensor. In cameras these are measured in CM; typically 5.6cm for short range work and 12.5cm-50cm for a telephoto lens.

      Even a 5.6cm lens is obviously much thicker than the mobile phone, and a tele lens is getting on for the total length of the camera. This leaves mobile phone manufacturers with no alternative than to push crazy numbers of megapixels and then play with them digitally to try and generate a good photo because they don't have (and can't have) a decent lens.

      To give them their due however, I was convinced that it would be impossible to get as good photos out of a pancake lens as they have done by pushing the megapixels and fixing it with software.

      While I doubt that they are going to get as good as a DSLR they have improved to a point that a phone has essentially replaced a compact camera.

      1. nintendoeats Bronze badge

        Re: Why the obsession with MP?

        The small size of the image sensor and lack of an adjustable aperture are also big problems. The circle of confusion doesn't go away just because you have a lot of pixels, nor does the amount of light hitting the sensor somehow magically increase. There is also a huge restriction on what kinds of photos you can actually take because a phone does not have aperture adjustment; this is of course irrelevent because most phonetographers don't know what that means.

        The software seems to be pretty good at giving people "the photo they want, not the photo they took" which is fine if you are not really interesting in photography.

        I do wonder if the aperture problem is going to be partially solved using IR cameras. One could judge the depth of each point in the image, then apply blurring to simulate different DoF. I would be surprised if we don't see that soon (or it isn't being done already).

    6. Hubert Cumberdale Silver badge

      Re: Why the obsession with MP?

      My SLR only has 16.2 MP, and the actual resolution is limited not by this but by the big chunk of glass in front of it. If I spent ~£500 on a nice fixed-focal-length lens, maybe I might need more pixels. As it is, I've got plenty.

  2. Disgusted Of Tunbridge Wells

    My current budget/mid phone ( moto g 5g plus ) has two front facing cameras, and four rear cameras.

    What's the point? There has to be at some point diminishing returns from adding the number of megapixels or the number of cameras.

    Most of the pictures I take are of the shopping list we keep on the side of the fridge.

    Surely if photography is important to you, you can buy a phone that specialises in having a good camera. I'd rather Levono spent the extra money on something where the money would see more benefit such as wireless charging.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Ah, too bad. Your post was great until those last two words.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Yup - I wonder just how much wireless charging is contributing to global warming because it's not that efficient.

    2. Pseudononymous Coward
      Trollface

      Smart phone dimensions impose severe optical limitations on phone cameras that no amount of expensive marketing can fix.

      If photography is important to you, then you probably aren't going to be satisfied with a crappy lens and a few mm focal length.

      I don't use my camera to make phone calls, any more than I use my phone to take decent photos.

      1. Roland6 Silver badge

        >I don't use my camera to make phone calls, any more than I use my phone to take decent photos.

        It is surprising just how many commercial films are made using iPhones...

        1. BloggsyMaloan

          >It is surprising just how many commercial films are made using iPhones...

          Whilst *you* might be surprised, *it* is not surprising.

          I would hazard a guess, without trying to check, that a tiny, tiny proportion of commercial films are made using a mobile phone, so I am not at all surprised.

          And most of those are probably made for perceived boasting rights: 'Look at what I just done with my £1,000 mobile. Isn't it good? Aren't I clever for using it? Don't you wich you had one?'

          I really can't imagine the big film producers saying, 'Ditch your millions of pounds worth of top end camera equipment and get your mobile phones out'.

          About 5 years ago I used a high-end photographic printer (paper rolls up to 42" by 100') to make a set of A0 prints for framing and display in an organisation. Most were taken by a professional using a decent SLR. A couple of employees wanted to submit their mobile phone pictures for consideration. (Latest iPhones of the time, so must be good). They weren't convinced when I said that it's unlikely that a smartphone would be up to the job so I printed A0 versions of a couple of their pictures and the difference in quality was laughable when compared with the other images, including a couple taken on a medium spec compact camera. Enlarged to over 1 metre on the long side the smartphone images showed conspicuous digital artifacts, such as blockiness on edges, areas with no subtle gradation of tone or colour. Pocket-sized poor relations to actual cameras.

          A smartphone's limitations just don't show up on an itsy bitsy teeny weeny little screen, which is just fine for kittens, Tiktok or whatever current antisocial media wows the masses.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            You have indeed just highlighted the different requirements.

            If the use of the images/footage is for nothing more than laptop screen size, a smartphone may be enough (leaving alone creative aspects such as lighting and colour balance). If image or video still has to look good at sizes A2 and bigger you have left smartphone territory. Even if you want it deliberately grainy, you start with high quality and then degrade because it gives you precise control.

            Ditto for zooming: there's no digital substitute for optical zoom.

          2. Roland6 Silver badge

            >Whilst *you* might be surprised, *it* is not surprising.

            The surprise isn't so much that the iPhone is being used, but that many film makers are obviously targeting the TV streaming market where (currently) 1080p on a small'ish TV screen (ie. not cinema screen) is the consumption device. No problems with this, but as you note, it does mean the film doesn't scale well to the large screen.

        2. Citizen99

          I see lots of over-saturated pictures on-line, and not necessarily people's phone holiday snaps, but obviously carefully framed pictures of, say, a picturesque Cotswold village or cathedral.

          For me it's the cheapo but adequate pocket phone for every-day impromptu use. If I want to take a planned picture, I'll use a classic, no electronics, 6x9 film camera.

  3. MJI Silver badge

    Chasing pixels is silly

    I have had better stills off a device with enough resolution to handle HD properly, but phone cameras would laugh at.

    Yet the pictures are better.

    Large sensor running at 50FPS roughly 2MP, really good lens.

    Compare a full frame DSLR with a phone with similar pixel counts.

  4. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "mobe-makers sometimes resort to less-capable cameras"

    Sorry, but I don't think that pixel count defines camera capability.

    I have a Canon EOS 400D. I have 3 different lenses I can put on it, 2 rechargeable batteries and two SD cards that, put together, can record a total of over 700 high-definition pictures.

    There is no smartphone that can hold a candle to the picture quality of that camera, even if it only has 10MP.

    The only issue is that I can't carry it in my shirt pocket.

    1. MJI Silver badge

      Re: "mobe-makers sometimes resort to less-capable cameras"

      Even video cameras with decent still modes can demolish phone cameras.

      My first phone with camera was 2MP and was worse than my 700k digital stills from my Mini DV camera.

      My current HDV is still good enough.

      But I do want a decent DSLR

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "mobe-makers sometimes resort to less-capable cameras"

      "The only issue is that I can't carry it in my shirt pocket."

      - and that's much of the issue. I have a Canon 5dMk2 with a selection of professional grade lenses. The sensor is only just over the 20Mp mark but the kit has the ability to take stills (and video) to beat any phone camera. I thought long about upgrading to the 5dMk4 but, nowadays, I rarely use my Canon kit. My iPhone is always to hand and, for >90% of the time, manages fine. There are times when the extra control and longer lens of the Canon would have allowed an improved shot, but my phone has never given me anything I couldn't use. Insofar as the longer lenses are concerned, it's often a case of getting closer (which is usually easier with a phone than a pro-DSLR). Moving in changes the perspective, so it's not the same shot, but it rarely turns a good shot into a bad one.

      I used to shoot everything in RAW and then develop in Lightroom - I've now ditched LR as the improvements I could get (with the extra work involved) are wasted when almost everything is going to be viewed on a screen and, apart from competition shots, not examined closely.

      Back in the days of film, it could take me ages to get the one shot I wanted. With digital, I can take more and then pick (laziness, of course). And good enough is good enough; striving for perfection is often the enemy of success.

  5. Friendly Neighbourhood Coder Dan

    That's exactly what people want!

    I am glad that they are finally listening to people.

    I have had enough of complete strangers stopping me on the street to tell me that anything less than 48MP is not enough to take breakfast and dick pics.

    Those also were the last words of all my dead grandparents, right before they reminded me for the 100th time that during the war people had to live with low resolution black and white dick and breakfast pics, which they had to develop, then buy stamps and envelopes for.

    Nobody wants removable batteries instead, right? Screens that won't crack if you drop them from a 1-inch coffee table? Nah. They could do without batteries altogether, and maybe get rid of the screen too. I can see the future being all about screenless, non-mobile devices tied to a wall with a string, Add some rounded corners to them, and they all become premium features, with extra privacy and all.

    1. MJI Silver badge

      Re: That's exactly what people want!

      Dick Pics

      Sounds like the time someone started spamming piccies of Richard McCourt.

  6. mark l 2 Silver badge

    A lot of the difference in photo quality from phone camera comes down to the software as well as the hardware. The Google Pixel phones 'only' have a 12MP sensor, yet can achieve better looking photos than phones with 48MP or higher sensors that are not using the Google camera app.

    With less phones now offering external SD card storage, larger sensors just mean bigger photo sizes filling up the limited space on your phone for little benefit, especially for those who just take photos to upload to Instagram and Facebook which downsize the resolution anyway.

    1. Roland6 Silver badge

      >A lot of the difference in photo quality from phone camera comes down to the software as well as the hardware.

      I seem to remember this being the case with some Huaewei phones a few years back.They used the same camera hardware in a couple of phones, but because the phones had different CPU configurations/performance ratings the software was slightly different, giving noticeably different results.

  7. Niels.hr.Hansen

    MPIX hunt

    It's to provide zooming capabilities to the InstaFace users, without sacrificing quality totally.

    On my DSLR I can put a 6-8-1200 mm lens to provide zoom and magnification. The lens will do it with little effect on image quality (if it's a good lens). You don't have that optical solution on a phone (my 150-600 mm lens comes in at 2 kg) so to zoom in you'll crop instead - can explain that process as throwing away pixels.

    A full-HD screen actually needs approx 2 Mpix, so if you start with 12 Mpix you can't zoom that much before quality is gone. Starting with 48, the InstaFace user think they can achieve a lot of zoom.

    And then of course there is a lot more going into image quality than just resolution.

  8. fishman

    I'd prefer a 10MP normal lens and a 10MP 3x telephoto. A 48MP is too much considering the quality of the lens they use.

  9. BOFH in Training

    My brother and I are eyeing the upcoming Canon EOS R3.

    Rumours state that it has anything from about 30 MP to about 45 MP sensor.

    I am very sure that this camera with such a low pixel count compared to the 100 MP phone sensors, will still be able to do much better shots compared to the phones.

  10. MachDiamond Silver badge

    Horses for Courses

    The number of pixels on a sensor is just one metric. Quality of the lens will often be a bigger determiner of image quality. A very good quality lens can cost a large chuck of money, but it's senseless to have a a dense sensor and put a cheap plastic lens in front of it smeared with fingerprints and pocket fluff.

    For video, it can be more advantageous to have fewer but much larger pixels. More bit depth/dynamic range can lead to far better contrast. A sensor with highly accurate color rendition might be more important to an advertising photographer making images for clients that have agonized for days over the exact shade of color for their product(s).

    Phones are dead useful for documenting things and quick snaps when on holiday. If your photos are going to be important, it's better to have a proper camera whose primary design criteria was to be a camera. My photo customers don't give a rodent's backside about how many pixels my camera can capture. They just want great photos that are fit for purpose. It might mean I do need to rent a medium format camera with a 100mp sensor and a set of exceptionally fine lenses for the week. Usually, my aging Canon 5DmkII with a 21mp sensor is more than adequate when coupled to a top of the line lens, using well crafted light and operated by me with loads of experience. Far more important is that I have redundant sets of gear so if something goes bing, I can quickly grab my backup and keep working. If I wind up doing more video work, the camera I have in mind has fewer pixels than my 5D but is still a "4k" camera. The pixels are larger and the video files look great. I also won't need the 28-core MacPro to edit the clips. I'd need to install a dedicated circuit in the house to run that beast.

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