Your phone still can’t replace a professional camera ten years later

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  • I was standing next to a patio heater with some pals on a chilly Saturday in San Francisco when someone suggested that we take a group picture. It was unexpected what took place next. My friend took out a point-and-shoot camera to take a commemorative photo rather than using his phone. I believed to myself, “Wait. Years ago, the phone replaced the point-and-shoot camera. Why not just use his iPhone instead?” Granted, it was a top-of-the-line Sony RX100 VII, one of the few point-and-shoots still produced today and a fantastic tiny camera.

Everyone has made an effort to bring this fantasy to life in some form, including Samsung, Panasonic, Sony, and Motorola. The search for the perfect smartphone camera has recently been reignited by Xiaomi, the third-largest phone manufacturer in the world (after Samsung and Apple). The business has a brand-new prototype phone that supports the attachment of a Leica M lens.

But this is only an idea. The answer to the question of whether smartphones will ever replace dedicated professional cameras the way point-and-shoot cameras did is a resounding no. The last ten years have demonstrated why.

Why cell phone cameras have limitations

Every year, companies like Apple, Samsung, and others make modest improvements to smartphone photography. However, the hardware for phone cameras has largely peaked. We receive moderate improvements in camera technology rather than drastic ones. This might indicate that businesses have figured out what customers want. But it might also be a result of the tiny sensors’ spatial and physical constraints.

It’s crucial to first comprehend how your phone’s camera functions. A tiny image sensor, no larger than a single Lego brick, is located behind the lens. There are occasionally articles claiming that a 1-inch sensor was installed in a phone by Sony, Sharp, or Panasonic years ago. Unfortunately, that moniker doesn’t apply to the actual measurements, and a 1-inch image sensor is actually around 0.6 of an inch diagonally—roughly equivalent to two Lego bricks. Despite being the smallest of cameras, the 1-inch sensor is one of the biggest ever to be integrated into a phone.

Instead, smartphone manufacturers utilise computational photography to get around the limited dynamic range and light sensitivity of a tiny sensor. Artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms are used by Google, Apple, and Samsung to enhance the images you capture on your phone.Hardware, though, is also crucial.

The image above was posted on Twitter earlier this month by Apple CEO Tim Cook and shows him visiting Sony in Japan. Cook is the first to openly disclose that Apple employs Sony image sensors in the iPhone, despite the fact that this is a generally held belief. And as CNET readers are undoubtedly aware, Sony has some of the best camera technology available in any phone now on the market.

The telephoto camera on the Xperia 1 IV, which includes microscopic lens elements that actually move back and forth like a genuine telephoto lens, won a CNET Innovation award. As a result, you can zoom with the lens rather than cropping it digitally, which diminishes the image. Can you picture this lens on an iPhone 15 Pro? Prototype Xiaomi 12S Ultra Leica lenses are so 2013.

This takes us to Xiaomi, the most recent business making an effort to combine professional cameras with your phone. A Leica lens is shown fitted on a Xiaomi 12S Ultra phone in a video of a phone camera prototype that was launched in November. No matter how cool this prototype is, you’ll never get the chance to drive it. A detachable ring was placed around the 12S Ultra’s round camera bump by the Chinese firm. The ring encloses a thread that runs along the exterior of the camera bump and allows you to mount Leica M lenses by using an adapter. The thickness of the adapter corresponds to the focus distance required for a Leica M lens from the sensor.

Several warnings: As I indicated previously, the exposed 1-inch sensor used in the Xiaomi 12S Ultra prototype isn’t exactly 1-inch. Secondly, this is just a notion. A product like this would set you back hundreds of dollars if it were truly sold. A nice dedicated camera with a larger sensor, like the Fujifilm X100 V, costs $1,399 in contrast. Xiaomi isn’t the first mobile device manufacturer to try this. In 2013, Sony created a lens with a grip to attach to the back of a phone and an image sensor mounted on the rear. The concept is to use the phone’s screen as the camera system’s viewfinder, which you can operate with an app. You essentially avoid using the cameras on your phone.

The $350 QX-1 was released in 2014. What if something like this existed right now? If Sony produced a 2022 version, I would buy it without a doubt, but regrettably, the QX-1 was discontinued a few years after it was released. Around that time, Red, a manufacturer of cinema cameras used to film TV shows and films including The Boys, The Witcher, The Hobbit, and Midsommar, released a phone named the Red Hydrogen One. The $1,300 Red Hydrogen One’s cameras were on par with those of a $700 Android phone, despite being produced by one of the top photography firms in the world. According to patent drawings, the phone had pogo pins on the rear for attaching various modules (like Moto Mods), such as a “movie camera module” that contained a big image sensor and a lens attachment. The plan is to transform the phone into a miniature Red cinema camera using a Hydrogen One and the cinema mod.

Because the Sony QX-1 features a Sony E-mount, you can attach adapters to Canon or Nikon lenses or use any of the E-mount lenses. Since the QX-1 is Bluetooth-controlled, you can either affix it to your phone or place it in various locations to snap pictures remotely. This “lens with a grip” was manufactured by Sony in a number of variations, and it utilised sensors that were slightly larger than those used in smartphone cameras. Sony also produced the QX-1 camera, which had an APS-C sized sensor, or roughly six Lego bricks placed side by side to form a three by two rectangle. That is significantly bigger than the image sensors on your phone, though not as huge as a full-frame sensor.

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