A Decade Later, Your Cellphone Nonetheless Cannot Substitute a Professional Digital camera


On a cold Saturday afternoon in San Francisco, I used to be below a patio heater with a gaggle of mates when somebody stated we must always get a gaggle picture. What occurred subsequent was stunning. As a substitute of utilizing his cellphone to take a commemorative picture, my good friend pulled out a point-and-shoot digital camera. I assumed to myself, “Wait. The cellphone killed the point-and-shoot digital camera years in the past. Why did not he simply use his iPhone?” Granted it was the high-end Sony RX100 VII, which is a wonderful compact digital camera and one of many few point-and-shoots nonetheless made right this moment.

Telephones from Apple, Samsung and Google embrace a number of the finest cellphone cameras you should purchase, just like the iPhone 14 ProfessionalGoogle Pixel 7 Professional and Samsung Galaxy S22 Extremely. However for skilled photographers and filmmakers, that is not all the time sufficient. The holy grail is having the ability to have a very massive picture sensor just like the one you’d discover in a high-end mirrorless digital camera and a lens mount that would connect to your cellphone. Sounds easy sufficient proper? Flawed.

Everybody from Samsung to Panasonic, Sony and Motorola has tried to make this dream a actuality not directly. Now Xiaomi, the world’s third largest phone-maker (behind Samsung and Apple) is the newest to rekindle the search for the cellphone digital camera holy grail. The corporate has a brand new prototype cellphone that permits you to mount a Leica M lens on it. 

However that is only a idea. In the event you’re questioning whether or not telephones will ever make devoted professional cameras out of date the way in which they did with point-and-shoots, the reply is a convincing no. The previous decade has proven us why.

Why cellphone cameras are restricted

First, it is vital to grasp how your cellphone’s digital camera works. Behind the lens is a tiny picture sensor, smaller than a single Lego brick. Generally there are headlines that Sony, Sharp or, years in the past, Panasonic put a 1-inch sensor in a cellphone. Sadly, that identify would not seek advice from the precise dimensions and in actuality, a 1-inch picture sensor is about 0.6 of an inch diagonally or, for the sake of approximation, two Lego bricks. The 1-inch sensor is the hoverboard of cameras, nevertheless it’s nonetheless one of many largest to be put right into a cellphone.

Devoted cameras have sensors which might be nearer to 12 Lego bricks (positioned side-by-side in a four-by-three rectangle) and most include a lens mount that permits you to change lenses. The “holy grail” is to place considered one of these bigger sensors right into a cellphone.

However greater sensors are costlier than the little ones utilized in your iPhone and there are area concerns. A lens for a cellphone digital camera sensor is comparatively small. However lenses for a full-frame sensor are bigger and require extra space between the again of the lens and the sensor. Telephones merely lack this room with out turning into considerably thicker. 

Yearly we see Apple, Samsung and the like take small steps towards enhancing cellphone pictures. However cellphone digital camera {hardware} has largely hit a ceiling. As a substitute of radical digital camera enhancements, we get modest upgrades. This could possibly be an indication that corporations have honed in on what shoppers need. However it may be a consequence of area and measurement limitations of tiny sensors.

As a substitute smartphone-makers use computational pictures to beat a tiny sensor’s limitations — smaller dynamic vary and lightweight sensitivity. Google, Apple, Samsung all use machine studying algorithms and synthetic intelligence to enhance the photographs you’re taking together with your cellphone.

However {hardware} can also be vital. Earlier this month Tim Prepare dinner, Apple’s CEO, shared a photograph on Twitter, above, of a go to to Sony in Japan. Whereas it has been broadly assumed that Apple makes use of Sony’s picture sensors within the iPhone, that is the primary time Prepare dinner formally acknowledged it. And as CNET readers already know, Sony telephones just like the Xperia 1 IV have a number of the finest digital camera {hardware} discovered on any cellphone bought right this moment.

The Xperia 1 IV received a CNET Innovation award for its telephoto digital camera, which has miniature lens components that really transfer backwards and forwards, like an actual telephoto lens. The result’s that you need to use the lens to zoom with out cropping digitally, which degrades the picture. Are you able to think about an iPhone 15 Professional with this lens?

The Sony Xperia 1 IV's camera bump

The underside cutout on the Sony Xperia 1 IV’s digital camera bump is for the telephoto digital camera. The cellphone has a lens with components that really transfer to zoom in — a primary on a contemporary cellphone.

James Martin/CNET

The Xiaomi 12S Extremely Leica lens prototype is so 2013

That brings us to Xiaomi, which is the newest firm trying to merge pro-level cameras together with your cellphone. In November, Xiaomi launched a video of a cellphone digital camera idea that exhibits a Leica lens mounted on a 12S Extremely cellphone. This prototype is sort of a idea automotive: Irrespective of how cool it’s, you may by no means get to drive it.

The Chinese language firm took the 12S Extremely and added a detachable ring round its round digital camera bump. The ring covers a thread across the exterior fringe of the digital camera bump onto which you’ll be able to connect an adapter that permits you to mount Leica M lenses. The adapter’s thickness is similar distance {that a} Leica M lens must be positioned away from the sensor so as to focus.

A number of caveats: The Xiaomi 12S Extremely idea makes use of an uncovered 1-inch sensor, which as I discussed earlier, is not truly 1-inch. Subsequent, that is purely an idea. If one thing like this truly went on sale, it will price hundreds of {dollars}. A pleasant devoted digital camera just like the Fujifilm X100 V, which has a a lot greater sensor, prices $1,399 as compared. 

Xiaomi is not the primary phone-maker to do that. In 2013, Sony took a picture sensor and put it on the again of a lens that has a grip to connect to the again of a cellphone. The thought is to make use of your cellphone’s display because the viewfinder for the digital camera system, which you’ll be able to management by means of an app. Basically you bypass your cellphone’s cameras.

Sony made a number of completely different variations of this “lens with a grip” and used sensors that had been only a bit greater than these present in cellphone cameras. Sony additionally made the QX-1 digital camera, which had an APS-C sized sensor that in our Lego approximation is about six bricks positioned side-by-side in a three-by-two rectangle. That is not as massive as a full-frame sensor, however vastly greater than your cellphone’s picture sensors.


From left to proper: a Sony lens, the QX-1, a cellphone grip and a Sony Xperia cellphone.


The Sony QX-1 has a Sony E-mount, which means you need to use numerous E-mount lenses or use adapters for Canon or Nikon lenses. As a result of the QX-1 is managed with Bluetooth, you might both connect it to your cellphone or put it in other places to take photographs remotely.

The QX-1 got here out in 2014 and price $350. Think about having one thing like this right this moment? I’d positively purchase a 2022 model if Sony made it, however sadly the QX-1 was disconitntued a couple of years after it went on sale. That is across the time that Purple, the corporate that makes cinema cameras used to movie exhibits and flicks like The Hobbit, The Witcher, Midsommar and The Boys, made a cellphone referred to as the Purple Hydrogen One.

A Red Hydrogen One phone is someone's hand

The Purple Hydrogen One was a beast of a cellphone with a number of hope and hype.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Regardless of being a cellphone made by probably the greatest digital camera corporations on the earth, the $1,300 Purple Hydrogen One’s cameras had been on par with these from a $700 Android cellphone. The again of the cellphone had pogo pins designed to connect completely different modules (like Moto Mods), together with a “cinema digital camera module” that housed a big picture sensor and a lens mount, in accordance with patent drawings. The thought is that you’d use a Hydrogen One and the cinema mod to show the cellphone right into a mini-Purple cinema digital camera.

Nicely, that by no means occurred.

The Purple Hydrogen One was discontinued and now exhibits up as a cellphone prop in movies like F9, on the dashboard of Dominic Toretto’s automotive or within the fingers of Leonard DiCaprio in Do not Look Up.

An illustration showing a Red Hydrogen One phone and possible attachments

A diagram that exhibits the Purple Hydrogen One cellphone and attachable modules for a battery and a cinema digital camera with sensor and lens mount.


2023 will present that professional cameras will not be killed off by our telephones

There are no rumors that Apple is making an iPhone with a digital camera lens mount, nor are there murmurs of a Google mirrorless digital camera. But when Xiaomi made a prototype of a cellphone with knowledgeable lens mount, you need to think about that someplace within the basement of Apple Park sits an previous idea digital camera that runs an iOS-like interface, is powered by the iPhone’s A-series chip and ready to make use of a number of the identical computational pictures processing. Or at the least that is what I would prefer to consider.

How wonderful would photographs look from a pro-level devoted digital camera that makes use of the identical processing methods that Apple or Google implement on their telephones? And the way good would it not be to have a phone-like OS to share these photographs and movies to Instagram or TikTok?

The back of the Samsung Galaxy Camera

The Samsung Galaxy Digital camera was a point-and-shoot that ran on Android. The menu had apps identical to a cellphone.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Seems, Samsung tried bringing an Android cellphone’s interface to a digital camera in 2012. Noticing a theme right here? Most of those holy grail cellphone digital camera ideas had been tried 10 years in the past. A number of of those, just like the Sony QX-1, had been really forward of their time.

I do not suppose Apple will ever launch a standalone iOS-powered digital camera or make an iPhone with a Leica lens mount. The reality is that over the previous decade, cameras have shrunk. The cumbersome dSLRs that signified skilled cameras for years are rapidly heading into the sundown. Mirrorless cameras have risen in recognition. They are typically smaller, since they do not want the area for a dSLR mirror field.

If there’s a takeaway from all of this, it is only a reminder of how good the cameras on our telephones have gotten in that point. Even when it looks like they’ve plateaued, they’re reliable for many on a regular basis duties. However they will not be changing skilled cameras anytime quickly.

If you wish to step up into knowledgeable digital camera, discover one just like the Fujifilm X100 V or Sony A7C, that pack a big picture sensor, a pointy lens and might match right into a coat pocket. And subsequent time I am at a cocktail party with mates, I will not act so shocked when somebody needs to take an image with a digital camera as a substitute of a cellphone.

Learn extra: Pixel 7 Professional Truly Challenges My $10,000 DSLR Digital camera Setup

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