The last frontier in the battle for smartphone supremacy that’s still somewhat unconquered for now is the camera department. Everything else, has more or less, become standardized and there’s little to differentiate by means of a processor, or RAM, or storage space anymore. Unless, the vendor is selling a phone for wafer thin margins.
To that end, we see smartphone makers hard at work trying to sell the camera capabilities in their phones. You can find phones with more cameras on the back than actually needed, apertures that don’t make a difference to the image quality, and megapixel counts that still deliver grainy pictures.
But why is it that makers of these phones still struggle despite using the same sensors from Sony and Samsung as being used by some of their better performing competitors? What is it that makes the camera inside a smartphone great? It’s the software silly.
Capturing an image on a phone (or DSLR) is a lot more than the mechanical components involved in the process. Once the photons are captured on the sensor it is the software’s job to actually process that information and deliver as close to reality image as possible. For this, multiple algorithms and image processing techniques are used all of which aren’t public and are a well-guarded secret.
You see, these algorithms decide just exactly what should be the tone of the image, how real is that fake blur in the background, how accurate or vibrant are the colors, or how much detail is lost in processing. It is no surprise then that companies invest a lot to develop this piece of code. It is the same reason that Apple, despite using Sony sensors, makes better camera phones than, uh, Sony. Or, the Pixel 3, despite having just one rear camera beats most of the dual camera setups on a range of phones.
It also means that a company with better resources at hand will tend to invest more in making these algorithms better. That’s probably why a Xiaomi or a Huawei will give you better cameras than, say, a Lava or a Panasonic (generally speaking, of course). It should also tell you why running blindly after the camera count or the lens aperture isn’t the wisest strategy. Of course, better hardware does help, but only till a point. And if more of us realized that, the mad race to put as many cameras on a phone as physics can allow would probably end.