The negative effect of large camera sensors on new smartphones: The solution might be in the Galaxy... S9

The negative effect of large camera sensors on new smartphones: The solution might be the Galaxy...
Let's begin with the backstory

The Galaxy S9 series of phones were a great success if you wanted a flagship phone which didn't excel in any particular category. They had the bad fortune to be sandwiched between the Pixel 2 and iPhone XS releases, making it very difficult for the S9 series to stand out - at least when it came to the camera department.

At the time, the Pixel 2 had the best camera on any phone - at leas for photos, and the iPhone XS was king in video and form factor with Apple's new and exciting design language (for 2017-2018).

However, the S9 phones tried to tackle that with a gimmicky camera feature that didn't make it that far into Samsung's flagship lineup. The Galaxy Note 10 series were the last phones that used it.

The S9's variable aperture was a party trick

Of course, we're referring to the variable aperture that made its debut with the Galaxy S9 family. The phones had two fixed aperture settings - the first was with the aperture wide open at f1.5 and the other - narrow at f2.4. Samsung's goal was to (supposedly) get a better balance of exposure and sharpness for photos, as the S9 automatically switched between its two apertures.

The feature never managed to prove a practical purpose. Exposure on the S9 series was just ok, compared to phones like the Pixel 2. Yes, the camera moved, and that was a cool party trick, but it didn't do much else.

Low light photos were an improvement over Samsung's previous flagship, but bokeh (which is supposed to see some gains due to the wider aperture) wasn't as good as it would have been in combination with a large sensor.

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Now, and certainly, in 2022, we expect to see an influx of new phones with larger sensors and wide apertures. That's because smartphone cameras need to let in as much light as possible for good nighttime and mixed light photos. A large sensor is also great for creating realistic and pleasant subject separation when taking pictures of something that needs to stand out - whether it's your friend, pet, or avocado toast.

New flagships - new problems: What's edge fringing

But! As it turns out, larger sensors and wider apertures introduce one particular challenge that has to do exactly with bokeh, and that's edge fringing. This phenomenon appears when you get too close to your subject. The problem is expressed in "too much blur" or rather unwanted blur in areas of the photo that are supposed to be in focus.

In other words, some parts of the subject end up distorted and fuzzy. The issue is present in several new flagship phones that utilize large sensors. Given the current trend, we're sure the problem will only become more exaggerated in the near future, when 1-inch camera sensors become the norm.

We already have our first modern smartphone with a 1-inch camera sensor that's supposed to rival dedicated pocket cameras. The Sharp Aquos R6 takes incredible images. However, they definitely aren't free from edge fringing.

On all images below f1.5 is on the left, and f2.4 on the right. Notice how on the f1.5 photos the edges, and often the centre area that's supposed to be in focus is fuzzy and not as sharp as it's on the f2.4 photos. The issue will be less or more noticeable depending on how close you're to the subject and how far you zoom in after you take the picture.

That's where a variable aperture would come in handy. It has the potential to become a game-changing piece of camera hardware instead of a useless gimmick. We want creamy bokeh, but we don't want our subject to be left out of focus. It's a balancing act that needs to be addressed either via hardware or software.

For example, by switching from f1.5 to f2.4, the phone will give you more natural bokeh thanks to the better balance between the large sensor and narrower aperture, as opposed to a wide f1.5 setting, which would only further contribute to fuzzy edges.

In the end...

Is the variable aperture going to eliminate the edge fringing issue? Unfortunately, no. But! It'll make it much less noticeable, especially for the average consumer who just wants a good looking picture that's... in focus.

The variable aperture is a viable and straightforward solution, and we know that because it's been done before. Except back in 2017, Samsung didn't have the sensors that are available today.

It turns out, now might be the right time for this gimmicky Galaxy S9 feature to make a return and rescue the latest flagships from this annoying camera trouble. Will Samsung bring the variable aperture back to the next "S" flagship, or will another manufacturer quickly realize its potential and make use of it first? We're looking forward to finding out.

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