Do Phones with a High Megapixel Camera Take Better Pictures?
One of China’s big-name phone manufacturers, Xiaomi, recently dropped the news that they’re using Samsung’s 108-megapixel ISOCELL camera sensor in one of their upcoming smartphones.
Samsung seems to be putting a lot of its resources into high resolution sensors for phones, as evidenced by the doubling of the MP count since the last ISOCELL Bright GW1 in May 2019, rocking an impressive 64-megapixel count.
These stories made waves with the enthusiast crowds, as the previous golden standard for premium smartphones was 48MP, as used by companies like Huawei, Oppo, Oneplus, and even Samsung themselves.
It seemed like the whole industry is chasing higher megapixel counts, an occurrence that feels like the digital camera industry’s pursuit of ‘the more megapixels the better’ back in the early 2000s.
It does beg the question though, how important is a high megapixel count in phone cameras?
Well, megapixels are just image resolution, right?
That’s right. I’m sure we’re all familiar enough with the concept of pixels. A screen with a 1920x1080 resultion has 1920 pixels from left to right and 1080 pixels from top to bottom.
So, a phone with a specification of 8-megapixels can capture 8 million pixels (for reference, a 1920x1080 image has roughly 2 million pixels).
That’s straightforward enough to understand, and in a sense, more megapixels is indeed better if all you want is raw quality (perfect for zooming in and cropping images).
However, a camera is the sum of its parts, and image resolution is only a small cog in the complex machine.
How Digital Cameras Work
Most modern cameras, from your smartphone’s shooter to premium DSLRs, are digital rather than analogue. They capture images by digitizing light, converting the analogue source into a digital representation comprised of 1s and 0s.
The key to achieving this lies in the sensor, also sometimes referred to as the light detector. When you trigger the image capture, the aperture opens up, and light passes through the lens. The image then travels down the lens before reaching the sensor at the end.
The sensor has millions of pixels spread across its surface, and these actually absorb light, rather than emitting them like those in LCD or LED TVs. The absorbed light gets converted into a digital format with the magic of software and hardware.
How are smartphone camera’s different?
So far, it seems like higher megapixel counts are definitely better.
Well, hold your horses. The sensor pixels we’ve been discussing so far are more commonly described using the term ‘pixel size’. Megapixels refer to the resolution of the final image.
Still, it begs the question, why get a DSLR like the Canon EOS 200D with 24.2-megapixels when I could get something like the Huawei P30 Pro with a 40MP camera?
You’ve probably already guessed this, but pixel size is a major factor. DSLRs and even compact digital cameras have a lot more component space to work with, and this means less compromises have to be made in the name of slimness.
The main thing of note here is the sensor’s pixel size. Ever wondered why phones struggle in low-light conditions? It’s because of pixel size.
Light exists as photons, and these ‘particles’ get absorbed once they’re in contact with the sensor diode. Since DSLR sensors have a larger exposed surface area per pixel. Under the same conditions and settings, that means a brighter image (more light means a brighter image).
Low-light performance isn’t the only pro either. A larger sensor can capture more detail naturally, without relying on too much software enhancement. If you’ve ever wondered why smartphone photos are more prone to noise than DSLR variants, that’s why.
So, are megapixels irrelevant?
Despite our complaints, a decent megapixel count remains essential for digital photography. Imaging snapping a photo of a subject far away. While some cameras can rely on optical zoom to get a more focused image, most digital shooters rely on digital zoom.
Instead of pushing the lens forward, digital zoom literally crops out the outer parts of the image. Hence, a camera with around 12-megapixels and a resolution of 4000x3000 pixels, when zoomed in, will have a lower overall resolution.
A higher initial megapixel count grants a lot more wiggle room, and when combined with AI enhancements, produces incredible tech like the Huawei P30 Pro’s insane 50x zoom.
With that said…
Megapixels really are just a small part of the full equation. Other aspects like aperture size and ISO performance are just as, if not more important that a simple number.
Most DLSRs hit the 40+ megapixel mark, but these are also meant for enthusiasts who will stop at nothing to get the perfect shot. This process will inevitably involve editing and further processing, which makes the extra resolution much appreciated.
I’d also like to bring up the processing aspect. You might have gotten these popups while using your phone’s camera, requesting that you hold steady while the image is processed. Higher resolution images require more time to fully process, and do remember that most smartphones now superimpose two or more images with their multiple lenses, further adding to the processing load.
Megapixels are a necessary part of digital photography, and higher numbers are certainly desirable, at least up to a certain extent.
Most people can agree that Apples iPhones and Google’s Pixel are some of the best smartphone cameras out there, and they’re definitely among the cream of the crop. It might surprise you to know that they’re rocking a 12-megapixel and 12.2-megapixel sensor respectively.
The magic comes from a combination of software processing and analogue elements such as optical image stabilization, aperture and pixel size. As clichéd as it may sound, no single aspect can stand alone in this case.
While Xiaomi’s upcoming phone has 9 times the megapixels of even Samsung’s own current-generation Galaxy Note 10+, it doesn’t mean its 9 times better.
Then again, we’re looking forward to seeing how things pan out. Xiaomi has always been a prominent figure in the value-oriented midrange phone market, so it’ll be interesting to see what they do with state of the art technology.
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