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Monday, May 7, 2012

Camera megapixels: Why more isn't always better (Smartphones Unlocked) | Crave - CNET

Camera megapixels: Why more isn't always better (Smartphones Unlocked)

It's time to forget megapixels as the measure of smartphone camera performance and pick a new yardstick.


Samsung Galaxy S III

(Credit: CNET)

Just days ago, Samsung announced the Samsung Galaxy S III, the global, quad-core, Android Ice Cream Sandwich successor to its best-selling smartphone ever, the Galaxy S II.

CNET readers' reactions were mixed, with several comments that the 8-megapixel camera didn't seem too hot.

Rumors of a 12-megapixel camera leading up to the announcement were partly to blame. It's no wonder that some felt that a perfectly good 8-megapixel spec was taking a step back, especially with the 16-megapixel shooter on the HTC Titan II out in the wild, and Nokia's 41-megapixel 808 PureView, a Mobile World Congress stunner.

Despite the fact that 8 megapixels is pretty standard for a high-end smartphone camera these days, one CNET reader described the Samsung Galaxy S III's camera as "so last year." Never mind that at least one high-end phone, like the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, still touts a 5-megapixel camera.

It isn't that 5-megapixel cameras can't be good, even better than phones with an 8-megapixel count lens; or that we're due for another bump along the megapixel scale. It's that to many shoppers, 5 megapixels just doesn't sound as good as 8, even if the camera produces terrific, knock-your-socks-off shots. And well, if 8 is good, then 12 is better.

The dirty secret lurking behind today's 8-megapixel yard stick for high-end status (and what any photography nut will tell you) is that the megapixel number alone is a poor way to predict photographic performance.

For instance, the original Samsung Focus took some lovely shots on its 5-megapixel camera, while the Motorola Droid Razr's 8-megapixel lens creates disappointing pictures. And the 5-megapixel camera on Apple's iPhone 4 beat out some 8-megapixel cameras on the market and delivered good low-light results.

Of course, that's not to say that bigger can't also be sometimes better. For instance, HTC's One X high-performance 8-megapixel smartphone camera boasts rapid shot-to-shot action, and its Titan II takes 16-megapixel shots of solid quality.

So what's the formula for fantastic photos? It involves an entire camera module that includes not just the size and material of the main camera lens, but also the light sensor behind it, the image processor, and the software that ties it all together.

Note: As always with this column, if you already consider yourself an expert, then this article is probably not for you.

Shot with the Nokia 808 PureView.

(Credit: Nokia)

Key ingredient #1: Sensor
Most budding and professional photographers will tell you that the most important ingredient in the optical system is the sensor, because that's that's the part that captures the light. The sensor is essentially the "film" material of a digital camera. No light, no photo.


The secret behind Nokia's 41-megapixel camera phone

Saying a smartphone has an excellent 5-megapixel camera doesn't make for good headlines, but that's what Nokia's promising with its 41-megapixel 808 PureView. Well, that, and a usable digital zoom.


When Nokia announced the 41-megapixel 808 PureView smartphone at MWC 2012, CNET's associate editor Lynn La said "it is a phone that has so many megapixels, its megapixels have megapixels." That, it turns out, was a pretty accurate statement.

But, before I get into what that all means, judging by comments I've read there seems to be some confusion about the largeness of the sensor. The 808's image sensor is not only larger in resolution, but physical size. It's larger than the ones in most--if not all--current smartphones as well as the majority of point-and-shoots.

The 8-megapixel iPhone 4S, for example, has a 1/3.2-inch type sensor while most compact cameras use a 1/2.3-inch type sensor. The 808's in comparison is a 1/1.2-inch type, which is quite a large sensor for a mobile device. (Do the division and you get the approximate diagonal measurement of the sensor.) That's 2.5 times larger than the one Nokia used in its 12-megapixel N8.

Of course, packing a larger sensor with more than three times the number of pixels doesn't translate into better photos: smaller pixels collect less light, which worsens image quality. The thing is, Nokia doesn't really want you to use the full resolution of its sensor. Not for giant photos, anyway.

Instead, the 808 defaults to a 5-megapixel resolution. Through a process called pixel oversampling (though some might call it pixel binning), Nokia combines seven pixels into one superpixel. Doing that helps eliminate image noise in low-light conditions and, according to Nokia, makes noise virtually nonexistent when shooting in good lighting. So while the 808 can be set to take 38- or 34-megapixel images depending on the aspect ratio used--4:3 or 16:9, respectively--it's not why Nokia used such a high-resolution sensor.

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Interesting, I haven't owned a Mobile Pone in 11 years now. So, I'm a bit behind on Phone Camera Tech. But, I do know, that things work similarly with regular Digital Cameras too. The Quality of the Camera Lens is often over looked. But, it is a very important part of the Camera. And is the main component of making a clear and sharp Photo. I have an old 2.1 mega pixel Nikon Coolpix 775. And it takes a nice clear Picture. People often comment on the Clarity and Sharpness of the Pics that I take with it and are surprised when I tell them what I took them with. It can take a clearer Picture than, say a 10 mega pixel Kodak with a Plastic Lens... Of course if you wanted to print an 8x10 Photo with it's images. They turn out ok, but nothing spectacular (5x7's look good though). If you are like me and hardly ever Print out anything any more and use your Pics on the Web, Digital Picture Frames and such. Then, you can get along just fine with an old camera like this one, with a good Lens. Though, I'm still dreaming of one day owning a DSLR!;)


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