For the longest time, smartphones have fitted similar wide angle field of view lenses, between 24 to 28mm, and attempted to pit against one another with imaging superiority. In recent years, there are more variants, most notably from ASUS Zenfone Zoom (2016) 3X optical variable zoom, LG G5 wide-angle 135-degree camera, and iPhone 7 Plus dual-camera setup where the primary camera is 28mm while the second camera is a tighter angle of 56mm, effectively 2X of the primary camera.
This year, ASUS released the Zenfone Zoom S (Zenfone 3 Zoom in other regions), with dual cameras with different angles of view, similar to iPhone 7 Plus. LG also released the new G6 with improved wide angle lens with a smaller angle of view (from 135-degree to 125-degree) to reduce distortion.
For Huawei, even though they have dual cameras since the P9 (2016), the secondary camera was for capturing monochrome data and depth information, resulting in images that mimic depth of field to astoundingly impressive outcomes. This year, they used the same implementation on the P10 series but improved the lens quality thanks to partnership with Leica.
How does all these make mobile photography different? A hell lot of difference!
Wide Angle Photography
A camera lens with wide angle of view that stretches the human vision have the ability to capture what we actually see in front of us, including peripheral vision. It makes objects smaller, but it also stretches and captures more scenery. LG smartphones like the G5, V20, and G6 have built-in wide angle secondary lenses of around 10mm equivalent. That is wider than even the standard wide angle lenses.
Good lens design will minimise distortion caused by stretching the corners of the optic path, and they cost a premium too. For LG, there are considerable amount of distortion, but is a trade-off against the price.
It is possible to convert existing smartphone camera lenses to shoot wide-angle, using lens attachments. I highly recommend OOWA lens for their excellent image quality and minimal distortion. Read my review with sample photos.
There is no other smartphones that offer this advantage, so LG has a monopoly in this segment.
Telephoto Zoom Photography
The term “telephoto” refers to lenses that capture objects that are closer than what they are. This is achieved by zooming in. The advantage of telephoto lens, other than shooting subjects close-up, is to keep a distance from the subject to ensure they look more proportionate and less distorted. Notice also the background is more isolated because of the narrower angle of view.
Almost all smartphone cameras have fixed angles of view and supports digital zoom, but image quality is degraded as the zoom level gets higher. There was a time when Samsung fused mega-zoom optical lenses into smartphones, but these zoom lenses protruded out just like compact zoom cameras. Suffice to say, consumers are not keen to sacrifice image quality for size.
In 2015, ASUS overcame the size constraint and developed the ASUS Zenfone Zoom. The camera module actually has an internal zoom mechanism similar to rugged compact cameras like Olympus Tough. Unlike conventional zoom cameras, these cameras do not have protruding lenses nor do they shift externally when you change zoom length. ASUS took another year before launching commercially.
After the Zenfone Zoom, ASUS released a new Zenfone Zoom S (or Zenfone 3 Zoom in some regions). The design follows the iPhone 7 Plus, where it has 2 camera lenses of different angles of view. The second “zoom” lens in 59mm f/2.6 is brighter than the first-generation and hence technically preferred. The reduced lens element also improves sharpness. Although they are technically not real zooms, this is a balance between practicality and quality.
It is also possible to convert existing smartphone camera lenses to shoot telephoto using lens attachments. Once again, OOWA offers close-up lens attachment and the quality is excellent.
Smartphone manufacturers have not quite caught up with the telephoto phenomenon. Today, only Apple and ASUS offers this capability. Lenovo also offers the Moto Mod 10x zoom Hasselblad camera module for the Moto Z series smartphones.
Wide Aperture Depth of Field Effect
HTC started it. Huawei popularised it. It is the ability to simulate shallow depth of field by blurring the areas that are not in focus.
Many smartphones may already have a variant of this feature, which they call “Miniature Effect”.But Huawei goes 2 steps further by allowing the intensity of the blur to be adjusted, and the ability to change the area of focus even after taking the shot.
The impressive thing about Huawei is that it roped in premium imaging brand, Leica, to endorse the first Huawei smartphone to have this feature – P9. The partnership success sees several more models released with the same dual lens setup.
Interesting to note that Huawei’s second camera is of higher resolution yet only contains monochrome sensors. I do not like to dwell on the technical details on the products, as most consumer does, so whatever Huawei does is working really well. It also helps when the shot-to-shot speed is fast which alleviates any disadvantage of enabling the wide aperture effect as a default shooting mode.
The P10+ delivers images that are easily likable by peers because of the background blur creating a pop-up image of the intended subject. Indeed, this unique depth of field quality is a typical hallmark of premium lenses. When shown with the images below, you no longer compare the pixel quality, but the artistic outcome.
Best Smartphone Camera?
If you are judging a smartphone for its imaging capabilities, then you should just trust DxO, who rates Google Pixel as the highest-scoring smartphone camera. But several articles in the market seem to have their own conclusions. It goes to show that every user’s experience differs.
I believe the best smartphone camera that consumers want is the one that helps them capture images that visually pleases them.
The best smartphone camera should be one that helps the user capture the moment with ease, without the need to know what settings to use, and why the image turns out otherwise.
But more importantly, the smartphone camera must be able to capture the angles that cannot be processed with software. For instance, a camera that is not wide enough will leave out other information that can never be brought back.
Mobile photography is more than just absolute pixel quality. It is about capturing the moment with sufficient details for sharing on social platforms. And even if the images turn out flat, there are editing software to tweak the images.
Wide-angle lenses capture the scene with dramatic effects. They capture more scene in the same shot, and I personally enjoy wide-angle photos, even though they might appear distorted. The trick is to know when to use them and how to frame the shots. Tip: do not put important subjects at the sides of wide-angle cameras.
On the other hand, the wide aperture effect creates a premium look on the image that often requires large camera systems and larger lenses. Huawei P10+ might not look exactly authentic, but it looks good enough for instant sharing and a clearer imagery story telling by isolating the subject.
Finally, zoom lenses are better in ensuring more accurate proportion, hence better for capturing portraits.
Huawei P10+ supports hybrid zoom, and while it is technically inferior to optical zoom, the details are adequate for social media sharing (see above image).
My Favourite Smartphone Cameras?
I currently carry 2 smartphones with me all the time – LG G6 for its wide-angle camera, and Huawei P10+ for its unique image characteristics. I find it hard to leave one behind, just like how a photographer would carry multiple lenses with him. If I had the ASUS Zenfone Zoom S with me, I would carry that as my third smartphone, though I find myself not using telephoto lens as much. The G6 is my primary smartphone because I tend to shoot more scenery for documentary and impulse shoots. For shooting closer subjects and people, I would definitely use the P10+.
What should be your favourite smartphone? It is not just about which phone has a technically better camera, but which phone has the right camera lens to fit your shooting needs.