This year really has become known as the era of the double lens, as people across the globe vie to snap up the latest handset with a dual camera. Whether it’s a high end smart phone like the new iPhone 7 plus, or the Huawei P9, or one of the cheaper options, such as the Xiaomi Redmi Pro, dual camera handsets are flying off the shelves.
But what’s so great about a phone with a dual camera?
With a smartphone handset, having a second lens to capture the detail, really does deliver a better image. Over the next few years, more and more smartphone brands will be picking up the dual camera option.
Basically, the dual cameras don’t usually have two matching sensors – normally one is set up to be used for a main image, while the other provides more detail. The second camera is also able to take a different photo, say from another angle, and they can both then be melded together by the phone software which makes a final, better picture.
Why haven’t we had this technology before?
Actually, dual cameras aren’t as new as we think. They first came out during the revolution across our televisions and cinemas that was 3D! It was no different for smartphones and 2011 saw the launch of two dual camera, 3D smartphones – the LG Optimus 3D and the HTC Evo 3D.
Bothe of these phones, along with some other models as well, used their dual camera lenses to help the user take both 3D photographs and video films. It was achieved in the same way as normal 3D cameras work – using the two lenses to create a false depth of field within the images. It was also supported by the use of a 3D display meaning the user could actually see the 3D image without the need to wear the stylish 3D glasses.
However, although 3D may have been a passing phase, this was certainly the start of the new and exciting tech gadget field of dual lens mobile phone cameras.
And then a few years ago HTC launched the One M8 handset which included two cameras. It had a 4-megapixel sensor on the back but the second camera was able to take more in depth detail from the pictures.
It was really the HTC One M8 which actually introduced us all to the idea of a dual lens camera and was part of HTC itself trying to stand out from the crowd. It was launched in 2014.
It had its 4-megapixel UltraPixel main image sensor, running alongside a second 2-megapixel sensor which was able to capture extra information and detail. It was used, similarly to the 3D experience, to create a new sense of depth to the images being taken. The aim was for the second lens to capture very detailed depth of information and to feed it back into the software which would then use it to create the resulting high quality picture.
It also meant that you could now create bokeh/background blurring effects. It was possible to refocus the image just by tapping it and it was very easy to play with and manipulate photographs, both by keeping the subject of the image sharp but also by adjusting the backgrounds.
However, overall while the One M8 was clever, sadly the camera was really more of a gimmick and wasn’t actually particularly impressive. The benefits of the dual camera option still hadn’t really come to light using this handset.
But then moving a few years forward to this year, we had the announcement by LG that they were about to launch the new LG G5. It was going to be their first attempt to integrate modular accessories and it also featured dual cameras.
This LG phone featured a 16-megapixel sensor and then an additional 8-megapixel sensor. But rather than having the lenses working together for effects, the LG approach was straight down the line with the 16-megapixel camera taking regular photos, while the second one offers a wide-angle option.
So the rear lens for the 8mega pixel camera also has a 135-degree rotation, allowing the LG G5 to take amazing wide-angle photographs. By switching from one camera to the other, using the phone’s app, you can get a lot more into any photo and it’s very straightforward to use.
It was a very worthwhile addition which does add to the features offered to users of this particular handset. Although panorama settings are relatively common because there is certainly no shortage of wide-angle lenses you can buy on the market to clip on to your phone, it is very clear that the G5’s pairing is very simple to use and more useful.
iPhone 7 Plus vs Huawei P9
So which are the leading new dual-camera handsets on the market today? They would have to be the Huawei P9 and the iPhone 7 Plus. So what makes these two stand out in particular?
The Huawei P9
Well, with the Huawei P9, strangely, its secondary sensor is actually black and white, which allows it to focus on the detail in the image, while the color sensor picks out all the colors. The black and white image and the color image are then sewn together to create a very detailed strong picture.
The Huawei P9 features twin cameras from Leica. These both combine 12-megapixel sensors and they sit behind f/2.2 lenses, providing very clear images with fine contrast and impressive detail.
With the Huawei P9 comes a unique Leica camera app. You can actually use the black and white sensor on its own, and use the app to create some amazing monochrome images.
There is also an option for low depth of field, which is based on the depth of the information which the second sensor picks up. The increased processing power and the higher resolution also help to improve the images, however, the Huawei cameras are still fooled by see through objects.
So, in summary, the Huawei P9, uses the world’s first Leica lens which has been set up with dual cameras, and two large pixel sensors – one is full color and the other is black and white. These are alongside the Sony IMX286 1200-megapixel sensor which has an impressive pixel size – 1.25 microns.
The iPhone 7 Plus
Let’s take a look now at what Apple is doing with its version of the dual camera phone. So in a nutshell, the iPhone 7 Plus actually features the same camera as its smaller counterpart the iPhone 7.
Both handsets include two 12-megapixel, f/1.8, cameras, but the Plus model, comes complete with an additional telephoto lens which actually offers 2X optical zoom.
Once the two cameras are combined with the special magic of apple software, it is claimed the iPhone 7 Plus can actually zoom in 2X and still suffer no lack of detail in the resulting image. How?
Well, it’s because the second camera is pretty much permanently zoomed in – clever! Apple even claims that it’s iPhone 7 Plus can help with digital zooming of up to around 10x. While it still can’t zoom in as far as the specialist Galaxy S4 Zoom, it does have the advantage of being much thinner and lighter.
In summary, the iPhone 7 Plus features its own dual camera with both a wide angle and a telephoto lens. Both lenses are 12 megapixels each and they include apertures of F1.8, and F2.8 respectively. There is a 6P lens. Apple’s own software also provides support for impressive OIS optical image stabilization as well as the 2x optical zoom (10x digital zoom).
So, the only way to really tell the difference between the two smartphones, is to compare the photographs which they both take, including all the effects, and this was carried out recently by several reviewers.
In the first test, taking pictures of a glass lamp and flower petals in the environment, the iPhone 7 Plus outperformed the Huawei P9. This was largely attributed to the fact that the iPhone 7 Plus also features a post-simulation option. This processes more images in one place than the Huawei P9 is able to, providing a better quality image all round.
In the second image test however, it was the Huawei P9 which completely stole the show and took far more impressive images than the iPhone 7 Plus. The Huawei P9 camera without a doubt, included far more sharp details, and combined this with a really impressive color range that was far more pleasing on the eye.
The reason for this result was because the Huawei P9 is much better at being able to stimulate the SLR lens flare effect. It is also better at focusing.
So the test from the reviewers was rather inconclusive as both handsets have different and unique options and features, and they each outdo the other in different circumstances.
So will we really be able to improve our photography using a phone?
In theory yes we will. If the camera technology is correctly carried out then two sensors and lenses working together will certainly help reduce the limited photo options we had with our smartphones before.
For example, the dual lens will actually be able to simulate using an optical zoom lens and could also reproduce the benefits you get from a bigger sensor. Double cameras will also help if you want to do things like augmented reality or any kind of creative post image effects.
Really, the main shortcoming that smartphones handsets have when compared with small but high end cameras, is the sensor size. Phone sensors are generally about a fifth of the size of a camera sensor and in general, bigger sensors mean better quality of picture.
So now, with the dual lenses working together, the new smartphone handsets can actually mimic the effect of using a bigger lens.
So what else will the dual-lens camera phones be able to do that I can’t do now?
Generally, with a smartphone, you can only zoom the camera by moving closer to the object. Optical zoom was only available with an attached protruding lens. But now the new dual camera option could actually become a great way to create optical zoom within a mobile. You would just need one wider-angle lens working in tandem with a telephoto lens.
This is wishful thinking but there is a rumor that the new iPhone’s dual camera could be made by an imaging company called LinX, who were bought by Apple. They are experts in being able to refocus an image after it has been taken.
New photo apps
Using the two lenses together could create a wide number of new options for example, 3D fancy effects and also the option for instant cinemagraphs. It could pave the way for app developers to set up apps which run the two rear-facing cameras separately, creating a whole load of new and fancy photography apps.
It will be possible to use the two cameras for things besides taking pictures as well. For example, using the two cameras could help your phone work out distances, sizes and could even be used to create 3D models potentially by photographing from many different angles.
There is still a huge amount of innovation and development coming through into the mobile phone market.
Apple is still seen as leading the way in many areas and you can be sure that Android handset developers will be keeping a close eye on the Apple dual camera creation over the next year, to try to copy and improve upon it.
However, companies such as LG, HTC and Huawei will continue to claim they got their first, even though their phones with the two camera feature, actually operate in a totally different way.
Twin cameras offer so many features that whichever handset you ultimately choose to use, we are confident that dual lenses and features are here to stay and it is definitely going to be the dual camera era moving into 2017.