A Decade Later, Your Cellphone Nonetheless Cannot Change a Professional Digicam

On a cold Saturday afternoon in San Francisco, I used to be underneath a patio heater with a gaggle of pals when somebody stated we must always get a gaggle picture. What occurred subsequent was shocking. As an alternative of utilizing his telephone to take a commemorative picture, my pal pulled out a point-and-shoot digital camera. I assumed to myself, “Wait. The telephone 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 superb compact digital camera and one of many few point-and-shoots nonetheless made as we speak.

Telephones from Apple, Samsung and Google embrace among the finest telephone 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 really giant 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 telephone. Sounds easy sufficient proper? Mistaken.

Everybody from Samsung to Panasonic, Sony and Motorola has tried to make this dream a actuality indirectly. Now Xiaomi, the world’s third largest phone-maker (behind Samsung and Apple) is the newest to rekindle the hunt for the telephone digital camera holy grail. The corporate has a brand new prototype telephone that allows you to mount a Leica M lens on it. 

However that is only a idea. When you’re questioning whether or not telephones will ever make devoted professional cameras out of date the way in which they did with point-and-shoots, the reply is a convincing no.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 telephone cameras are restricted

First, it is necessary to know how your telephone’s digital camera works. Behind the lens is a tiny picture sensor, smaller than a single Lego brick. Typically there are headlines that Sony, Sharp or, years in the past, Panasonic put a 1-inch sensor in a telephone. Sadly, that title does 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 telephone.

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 allows you to change lenses. The “holy grail” is to place considered one of these bigger sensors right into a telephone.

However larger sensors are costlier than the little ones utilized in your iPhone and there are area issues. A lens for a telephone 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 changing into considerably thicker. 

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

As an alternative 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 pictures you are taking along with your telephone.

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

The Xperia 1 IV received a CNET Innovation award for its telephoto digital camera, which has miniature lens components that truly transfer forwards and backwards, like an actual telephoto lens. The result’s that you should 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 telephone has a lens with components that truly transfer to zoom in — a primary on a contemporary telephone.

James Martin/CNET

The Xiaomi 12S Extremely Leica lens prototype is so 2013

That brings us to Xiaomi, which is the newest firm making an attempt to merge pro-level cameras along with your telephone. In November, Xiaomi launched a video of a telephone digital camera idea that exhibits a Leica lens mounted on a 12S Extremely telephone. 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 connect an adapter that allows 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 with a purpose to focus.

Just a few caveats: The Xiaomi 12S Extremely idea makes use of an uncovered 1-inch sensor, which as I discussed earlier, is not really 1-inch. Subsequent, that is purely an idea. If one thing like this really went on sale, it might price hundreds of {dollars}. A pleasant devoted digital camera just like the Fujifilm X100 V, which has a a lot larger sensor, prices $1,399 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 telephone. The concept is to make use of your telephone’s display because the viewfinder for the digital camera system, which you’ll management via an app. Primarily you bypass your telephone’s cameras.

Sony made a number of completely different variations of this “lens with a grip” and used sensors that have been only a bit larger than these present in telephone 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 giant as a full-frame sensor, however vastly larger than your telephone’s picture sensors.


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


The Sony QX-1 has a Sony E-mount, which means you should 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 would both connect it to your telephone or put it elsewhere to take pictures remotely.

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

A Red Hydrogen One phone is someone's hand

The Pink Hydrogen One was a beast of a telephone with loads of hope and hype.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Regardless of being a telephone made by probably the greatest digital camera corporations on the planet, the $1,300 Pink Hydrogen One’s cameras have been on par with these from a $700 Android telephone. The again of the telephone 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, based on patent drawings. The concept is that you’d use a Hydrogen One and the cinema mod to show the telephone right into a mini-Pink cinema digital camera.

Effectively, that by no means occurred.

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

An illustration showing a Red Hydrogen One phone and possible attachments

A diagram that exhibits the Pink Hydrogen One telephone 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 not any 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 telephone with knowledgeable lens mount, it’s important 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 among the similar computational pictures processing. Or no less than that is what I would prefer to consider.

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

The back of the Samsung Galaxy Camera

The Samsung Galaxy Digicam was a point-and-shoot that ran on Android. The menu had apps identical to a telephone.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Seems, Samsung tried bringing an Android telephone’s interface to a digital camera in 2012. Noticing a theme right here? Most of those holy grail telephone digital camera ideas have been tried 10 years in the past. Just a few of those, just like the Sony QX-1, have been actually 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 reduced in size. The cumbersome dSLRs that signified skilled cameras for years are shortly 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 pals, I will not act so shocked when somebody needs to take an image with a digital camera as a substitute of a telephone.

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

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