Phone Cameras Won’t Improve No Matter How Much the Sensor Size Increases. There’s One Clear Culprit

1-inch camera sensors want to be the norm. However, they won’t do any good unless manufacturers improve their biggest current deficiency.

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The advancement of camera sensors has been a key factor in the recent progress of mobile photography. I’ve had the opportunity to assess the vast majority of flagship smartphones entering the market, and my conclusion is clear: Despite sensor improvements, phone cameras have reached a plateau in terms of overall performance.

It's become increasingly challenging each year to discern the differences in new models without having the previous iteration in hand. Except for some notable changes, the improvements largely consist of subtle adjustments in dynamic range, slightly enhanced detail in higher-resolution image outputs (such as Apple’s 24-MP capture on the iPhone 15), and maybe some alterations in color interpretation.

Current Processing Is Terrible. No One Can Convince Me Otherwise

Let’s be clear: The processing of most current cameras is subpar. The Google Pixel 8 Pro, Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra, and iPhone 15 Pro all suffer from the same issue: Heavily overprocessed photos.

The main culprits are the users themselves. We often desire vibrant, punchy colors, leading Google to process photos aggressively and resulting in oversaturated colors in other devices. We don’t usually care that the images are far from reality.

Camera 1 200 MP vs. Expert RAW 50 MP vs. RAW (Pro) 50 MP. The three ways to shoot in high resolution with maximum detail.
Camera 2 Left: The photo the phone takes in JPEG. Right: The photo I could take (manually edited RAW). I’m speechless at the difference.

However, I believe that if users saw the difference between what our phones can capture and the heavily processed results, they'd be disappointed. A great example is the photos taken with Samsung phones. If they don’t show you what the RAW photo can produce, you might think the heavily processed one is good.

When you see the results that can be obtained from RAW, it’s a different story. It’s not easy, as our phones prioritize shooting quickly and processing in the gallery before we even open the photo. However, there’s still no middle ground: Photos are consistently overprocessed in color, sharpness, and contrast year after year.

Camera 3 The sharpness in the Xiaomi 13 Pro’s pictures.

This isn’t a problem that can be solved with large sensors. In fact, there are some interesting cases to consider. I was disappointed with the camera when I reviewed the Xiaomi 13 Pro, which, in general, isn't sold in the U.S. Despite having a 1-inch sensor, the artificial sharpening added to the photos was excessive. In fact, the photos weren’t any better than those taken by some of its competitors with smaller sensors.

Camera 4 Xiaomi 13 Ultra without added sharpening.

On the other hand, the Xiaomi 13 Ultra’s indoor photographs didn’t show artificial sharpening. I really like this phone because, during its launch event in China, the company emphasized its goal of producing natural-looking photos without any artificial sharpening. So, every time someone tells me that sharpening is unavoidable, I always mention the Xiaomi 13 Ultra.

I've been thinking about this in light of the recent leaks about the Samsung Galaxy S25 Ultra’s sensor. It’s rumored to have a 1-inch, 200-MP sensor. I’m not excited about the numbers; I’m more interested in what the company will do with them.

The potential of the cameras in our phones is much greater than we think. When you zoom in on an image and realize that the quality is much closer to that of a professional camera, it’s quite impressive. This is achievable, as long as manufacturers are willing to pursue it.

Image | Xataka

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