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The sad state of phone cameras

April 4, 2019

My cellphone is four years old. Every app I put on it seems to gobble up another half GB of storage, starting to make the 11GB it has look tight. The screen now seems on the small side, and not too bright. Android Lollipop is the last update it ever will get. The GPS is marginal. A nerd always wants the latest generation of the digital device he carries every day. I could spring for something newer. Something bigger. Something better.

I don’t require everything to be flagship quality. But I do insist that any new phone’s camera is an improvement over the previous. For me, two maxims speak to that. First, I only have enough pocket space for one electronic gizmo. My phone goes in one of my pants pockets. My wallet and keys in the other. There is no room to daily carry a separate camera. Which leads to the second maxim, that for most of us, the only camera that matters is the one that is always with you. Which is to say, your phone.

When the Nokia 9 was offered last month at an introductory price, advertising near DSLR photo quality using Light’s technology, I jumped. The day after it arrived, I took a short walk with both it and my current phone, snapping photos to compare. I am not a skilled photographer. I take photos as the mood and scene strike me, pulling out my phone, sometimes switching from one stock setting to another, then snapping. The pairs of photos below compare my current cellphone to the just-released Nokia 9. Each pair was snapped at the same time and place, of the same subject, from the same distance, with the cellphones on their default settings, except that the Nokia 9 was set to capture depth information, for better results. The cellphones have slightly different focal lengths. I purposely cropped each result to a square image of the same object field. Other than cropping, I did no editing of the results. While not at all a systematic comparison, this method seems to me to give a fair test of what kinds of results I could expect, given the kind of photography I do. I took a couple of dozen such test shots. The results were quite consistent. The three below are illustrative. All would be better photos had the day been sunny. The overcast made for a better test.

The Nokia 9 did its best on close ups. The winecups are now in bloom in our backyard, so I chose one as a subject for this shot. As with the pairs following, the left is with my current cellphone, and the right with the Nokia 9. Here, the latter’s depth of view and dynamic range shine, picking up the rear bloom that is just a blur in the older phone. I like what the Nokia does with the shadows. However, if you look at the foreground bloom and the bud above and to the right, the older camera picks up more detail with less noise. Click on each photo to see it full size.

The next shot is a typical outside scene, with some passersby providing human interest. Again, my current phone provides more detail, less noise, and makes a more natural photo. The two cameras differ in default white balance, contrast, and color saturation. I couldn’t say for sure which I prefer on that account. Those are reasonably edited some after the fact. There is no way to add detail that isn’t captured when the shutter clicks.

Though I rarely shoot monochrome, this last shot compares that. I thought the Nokia 9 might shine on this, since it has two dedicated monochrome sensors. It again has more contrast. And again, more noise and less detail. The single sensor on my current phone does the better job, leaving the Nokia 9 far behind.

Cellphone camera quality is one that suffers from the collision of physics and marketing. Camera sensors are photoreactive semiconductors. Everything else being equal, larger sensors pick up more light and see better. But, larger sensors require deeper lens systems. You cannot carry most DSLRs comfortably in your pocket. While pocketability is a core requirement for a cellphone, cellphone companies at some point became obsessed beyond practicality in marketing how thin their phones are. When engineering a digital camera, there is a huge difference between 0.8″, the thickness of my current phone, and 0.3″, the thickness of the Nokia 9. I don’t think that half inch difference much matters in my pocket. What other pocket items are so restricted? My wallet, even though minimal in the modern style and holding few cards, is as bulky as my cellphone. My car’s key fob is 0.7″ thick. I doubt its engineers obsessed over shaving off more fractions of an inch.

One possible work around, to gather more light with small sensors and shallow lens systems, is to use several in cohort. Combining their digital results to pick up more image detail is just a simple matter of programming (SMOP). So I was excited that the Nokia 9 aimed to deliver that technology, developed by a company named Light.

I carried a Pureview 808 for a few years. Until its power plug broke, and I bought my current Android phone. Steve Litchfield has made a more thorough comparison of the Nokia 9 with past Pureview phones, and finds it is a photographic step backwards from the Pureview 808, released in 2012. HMD Global is doing that brand no favor.

So the new phone has been sent back. For now, I will be sticking with my aging Lumix DMC-CM1. It has no stabilization. I never have gotten a good night shot from it. Digital camera technology has advanced quite a bit in the half decade since its manufacture. Still, it has a decent camera. And a dedicated button that turns the camera on without having to go through the phone’s security!

I hope some cellphone maker again targets photo enthusiasts, allowing itself most of an inch of thickness to do so. And with external design that takes photography into account. The professional camera company Red spent two years teasing its Hydrogen One. That phone’s huge feature turned out to be a holographic display that no one much wants. Maybe it will do something sensible for the Hydrogen Two, releasing a good phone with a great camera. Please. I would spend a boat buck for that.

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