About the sensational return of single-camera phones: How, when, and why

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
About the sensational return of single-camera phones: How, when, and why
If you think smartphones with two, three, four, or five cameras on the back look weird and never got used to them, you're not alone.

Some phones have managed to mask the multitude of cameras that decorates them, like Google's Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, where the cameras almost get lost in the soon-to-be iconic black horizontal Pixel strip. Others like the iPhone 13 Pro, Galaxy S21 Ultra, and Nokia 9 PureView fully embrace their triple, quadruple, and quintuple camera systems.

Regardless of how well designed the camera bumps are, I've never managed to get over the amount of... holes in them. People with trypophobia even find them properly terrifying to look at, which does not surprise me.

Aesthetics aside, while enabling some great photographic flexibility, multiple camera systems also come with their fair share of limitations, which sometimes aren't as easy to "mask". 

So, are single-camera phones coming back? If yes, when? And what are going to be the trade-offs and benefits of going "backward" when it comes to camera count? Let's explore!

Single-camrea smartphones: The beginning of the end

October 18, 2018. That's when the last mainstream flagship phone with only one camera on the back was released.

Sandwiched between the camera monsters of that time - Huawei's Mate 20 Pro and P30 Pro, as well as Apple's iPhone XS and iPhone 11 series, the Pixel 3 looked… disadvantaged. It lacked an ultra-wide-angle camera, which was "all the rage" back in the day, and it didn't offer any optical zoom - my personal "rage".

However, Google knew how to make something out of nothing. The single and frankly dated camera sensor on the Pixel 3 and 3 XL still managed to produce some of the most appealing point-and-shoot snaps at that time and almost managed to rescue the Pixel 3 series.

Almost, because the 2018 Pixels had a lacklustre design and underwhelming battery life, but also because triple-camera systems started to become the norm. So, it was clear - Google wasn't going to be able to get away with using a single camera on next year's Pixel. And it didn't. You probably know how the story goes from there on...

2021: We have our first single-camera flagship in 3 years

But that was 2018. What about 2021? Well, to my utter shock and disbelief, the Japanese tech giant Sharp decided to drop a smartphone bomb with the Sharp Aquos R6, announced back in May of this year.

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Jam-packed with a number of "firsts" for a smartphone, the Asia-exclusive device did something quite interesting. It rewinded the clock to when phones came with only one camera on the back, but also managed to fast forward and step into the future, thanks to the fact that its single rear camera featured a giant 1-inch sensor.

That's a first for commercially available modern smartphones. I say "available", but unfortunately, availability was limited to a handful of countries like Japan and Indonesia. Still, the fact that any company committed to a device with only one camera on the back means there's hope at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps single-camera phones will come back!

To be clear, this isn't about bashing phones with multi-camera systems. I use them myself. But exactly because I'm using phones like the Huawei P30 Pro and Google Pixel 6 Pro, I'm able to spot not only the advantages three or more cameras bring to the table but also the weaknesses of having more than one (amazing) camera on a phone...

Multi-camera system might be holding smartphones back

Let's start by taking a look at what attributes of a multi-camera system actually make our smartphones work and feel less like a "real camera".

And I have to begin with lens-switching. Off the bat, we can sort of let the iPhone off the hook here because the triangular camera system has proven to be effective in tackling some of the challenges of switching between multiple lenses. The iPhone can switch between its three cameras almost seamlessly, and the color profile tends to also stay somewhat consistent across the board.

However, software and physics can only go that far. Even with Apple's iPhone 13 series, you'll notice that pictures from the different cameras aren't consistent when it comes to quality. Of course, the primary sensor will have the upper hand since it's the biggest of the bunch. However, it's the ultra-wide-angle camera that starts to fall apart in mid-low light conditions. The same is more or less true for the zoom lens.

Not to make this only about the iPhone, the Pixel 6 Pro's ultra-wide-angle shooter is just as bad, if not worse, in low light. The 4X zoom lens on the Pixel 6 Pro is the biggest and perhaps the best (quality) zoom lens we've ever seen on a phone, but it also starts to gather noise when the light goes down. That's why the Pixel 6 Pro and other flagships would often default to cropping from their main cameras when the shooting conditions are too difficult.

But one of the biggest problems with Android flagships when switching cameras has to be the abrupt lens switching. It's seriously underwhelming on the Pixel 6 Pro, but noticeably underwhelming on other flagships from Samsung or Huawei too.

Furthermore, the color science and exposure of the different lenses tend to be inconsistent with most Android phones. This is a matter of tuning, but also physics - the closer you get with a zoom lens, the less light it will be able to gather, as the aperture shrinks. But the bigger the sensor, the better the chance to gain some of the lost light back.

The presence or lack of light affects absolutely everything in your picture - sharpness, colors, dynamic range, noise control, etc. When those same granular elements of a picture vary, that's when you start noticing how it all affects the end result.

Why we currently (still) need smartphones with multiple cameras

However, it's not all bad. Multi-camera systems have made smartphones more powerful and even more fun, and I can't deny that!

Ultra-wide-angle cameras

While back in the day, the ultra-wide camera used to be LG's thing, now it isn't. Not just every flagship, but pretty much every mid-range or even budget device will have one. Sure, the quality usually isn't on par with the phone's main camera, but the perspective an ultra-wide shooter offers is unique and worth the trade-off.

Zoom cameras

Being able to get closer to your subject is another thing modern multi-camera phones made possible. To tell you how much I love zooming in, I'll simply say that the favorite hardware feature of both my P30 Pro and Pixel 6 Pro is by far their zoom cameras.

A telephoto shooter will always provide a more "real camera-like" perspective for anything from street photography to portraits, without using "Portrait Mode''. This works especially well with the Pixel 6 Pro, bringing me to the last thing that multicam systems make possible, and that is Portrait Mode.

Portrait Mode

You either use Portrait Mode all the time, or you don't use it at all. I fall into the latter bracket of people, but despite that, I have to admit that some Portrait Mode photos, especially from iPhones, sometimes make me go "wow". Apple's managed to find the right recipe for doing portrait mode, and this surely wouldn't be possible without the 2-3x telephoto cameras on modern iPhones. At least not yet.

But regardless, I much prefer the natural bokeh I get when using the primary camera on my P30 Pro or Pixel 6 Pro, which come with big enough sensors to give me plenty of depth-of-field. Furthermore, as mentioned above, the 4x zoom snapper on the Pixel 6 Pro yields out incredible portraits with just the right amount of natural subject separation, compression, sharpness, and that inexplicable intimacy of a portrait/zoom lens. All without using "fake" Portrait Mode.

What will it take to make single-camera phones great again?

So, with all our favorite features made possible by multicam systems on the table, let's see what it will take to make a single-camera phone that will bring us as close as possible to having two-three cameras and eliminate some of the challenges that come with them!

Ultra-wide cameras need to go

Apologies to their fans, but that's the first step towards DSLR-ing smartphone cameras. I'll admit I have a personal bias in this one, but if someone told me I need to get rid of one of the cameras on my P30 Pro or Pixel 6 Pro, I wouldn't even hesitate before ditching the ultra-wide-angle camera.

In fact, I'd go as far as to say that the standard Pixel 6 would have been the steal of the decade if Google had given it the 4X zoom shooter from the Pixel 6 Pro instead of the ultra-wide-angle one that it has now. Just me? Please, leave a comment to let me know if I'm alone here.

To solve the problem with the removal of the ultra-wide camera, phone-makers can simply make the primary camera a bit wider than usual and let you digitally zoom in and out. The Sharp Aquos R6 can do that, and it helps it retain a consistent color profile and exposure.

Sure, it's never going to be as wide as 120-degrees, but I believe most people won't miss that dearly. Moreover, in most day-to-day situations, you'd be able to take a few steps back and capture more of your subject anyway.

Variable or continuous smartphone zoom

However, what you wouldn't be able to do is climb a skyscraper or learn to fly in order to capture those 5-10x zoom photos.

Smartphone optical zoom is here to stay. However, this doesn't mean it will always require an additional camera. Sony already proved optical zoom is achievable with only one camera. The Sony Xperia 1 III can achieve 2.9x as well as 4.4x optical zoom with a single snapper.

An important distinction to make is that this is not a continuous zoom. The two lenses are fixed, meaning the zoom values between 2.9x and 4.4x will be a crop from the 2.9x camera. It's still remarkable that Sony was able to pack the two focal lengths into one without requiring an additional camera.

What would be truly incredible is continuous zoom, and it seems like we’re finally closing in on the first phones that are going to be able to use this feature!

Oppo showed off the first concept of smartphone optical zoom back in August during the "Future Imaging" event, and just a few days ago the Chinese company teased an Oppo phone with a proper retractable camera, which the company showed off yesterday during the Inno Day event.

As far as we know, Oppo is actually planning to release a phone with that tech in 2022. Unfortunately, the current version of the retractable lens doesn't seem to offer variable focal length. In other words, it's simply there to create more space between the sensor and the lens (as it retracts).

According to Oppo, this lets the camera capture more and clearer detail compared to standard telephoto lenses. Another advantage of the retractable camera is that it'd be able to give you better bokeh, with natural subject separation, without the need for software-enhanced Portrait Mode.

Variable aperture & LiDAR / ToF-enhanced portrait mode

We already have phones with a variable aperture in the face of the ancient Galaxy S9 and Sony's new Xperia Pro-I. The goal behind having one camera with a variable aperture is to eliminate edge fringing with close-up photos but also allow the background to get nicely blurred out when needed. Let's say going from f/1.5 to f/4.0 and vice versa.

If you'd like to know more about the effect of the aperture on your photos, check out my "The negative effect of large camera sensors on new smartphones: The solution might be in the Galaxy... S9" story.

Combining a large aperture with a 1-inch sensor will let us take portrait photos without the need for Portrait Mode. This way, the imperfections that software Portrait Mode often carries would be eliminated.

As mentioned earlier, even the Pixel 6 Pro's primary 1/3.1, 50MP camera is currently good enough for giving you just enough subject separation, as long as you aren't too far from your subject. The same applies to the 48MP 4x folded telephoto lens, which again - might be the best (single) telephoto camera in any phone right now, alongside the 48MP 5x tele lens from Xiaomi's Mi 11 Ultra (the two use the same sensor).

The camera can be aided by LiDAR or a more traditional ToF sensor for estimating depth in low light without making bokeh shots look totally artificial. Apple is already doing this with the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro series. Furthermore, Night Mode (which we won't need as often thanks to the larger sensors), will also be able to assist with super low-light portraits.

When will smartphones go back to having just one camera

In the end, as you can see for yourself, the future of the smartphone camera is bright. Although smartphone photography is on a whole new level compared to a few years back, I truly believe smartphone cameras haven't reached their "final form" both because of hardware as well as immature software, often tailored to suit an Instagram user's needs rather then emulate an actual camera (which is understandable).

Personally, I'm a strong believer in having a "real camera"-like experience on a phone. Therefore, I'm looking forward to the moment when our phones will start to look and feel more like pocket cameras, and going "back to the future" or back to single-cam phones might be the biggest step towards that.

I also need my shutter button, physical zoom dial, and even a detachable camera grip for extended photoshoots. Thankfully, accessories can take care of that. Fjorden is already working on making my dreams come true!

Sure, it will take a few years for the hardware to get there, but with the current push from Oppo, Sony, Xiaomi, etc., I'm positive we are close! The good news is that the software is already there thanks to companies like Google, Apple, Huawei, etc, which have set the standard for computational photography. 

Remember when phones didn't look like multi-eyed monsters? Those were the days… So, cheers to losing the weird-looking camera bumps sooner than later!

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