We’re Running Out of Ideas for Phone Cameras, and the Rumors About the iPhone 16 Prove It

Mobile photography has been stagnant for a few years now, and it’s not hard to see why.

a hand holding an iphone, showing the camera lenses
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I’m fortunate enough to have a job that entails testing practically every high-end phone that hits the market, and I can’t remember the last time I was amazed by a groundbreaking innovation in camera hardware. Apart from possible sensor improvements (there’s still some potential here), it feels like we’re running out of possible formats.

In fact, some manufacturers are trying to sell features that have been present in phones for several years as if they were new. This reflection comes to mind after learning about the rumors surrounding the iPhone 16 Pro’s camera; in short, don’t expect any major innovations this year.

Megapixels: Apple’s big novelty for 2024. The latest leaks suggest that Apple is planning a change in the iPhone’s camera for 2024. The rumors state that ultra-wide sensor will be customized by Sony with a resolution of 48 megapixels. The main sensor is expected to remain the same.

A complete transition to a triple 48-megapixel system will purportedly come in 2025, when the telephoto lens will also offer this resolution. Apart from possible changes in the focal length of the telephoto lens and some variations in the size of the main sensor, the roadmap doesn’t reveal any significant changes.

But it’s not just the iPhone. Phone cameras in general have been quite stagnant for years, both in terms of results and hardware.

a smartphone's camera lens

No room for bigger sensors. There’s no use beating around the bush: Sensor size is peaking. A one-inch sensor still seems novel because that’s not the norm yet–but in fact, they were present in Sharp phones back in 2021, and they haven’t changed much since.

Elements such as sensor structure and processing technologies can be improved, but one-inch sensors already pose a significant physical challenge inside a smartphone. Their size makes it difficult to include them without massive modules, complicating the possibility of increasing the size of the other sensors and taking up space from other components.

We already have the entire focal range covered. The phones we have right now can shoot from 16mm (ultra-wide) up to nearly 1,000mm in some cases. Achieving this focal range with a professional camera would take thousands of dollars and quite a few interchangeable lenses.

We have a fairly wide main sensor, an ultra-wide sensor for more coverage, and telephoto sensors with 3x, 5x, or 10x zoom. Some even include macro sensors, although those are less popular.

a google pixel phone

Making software is cheaper. Considering how difficult it is to keep increasing sensor size, the excellent quality of current lenses, the fact that it makes no sense to keep adding cameras, and the fact that camera hardware reached its highest point years ago, the solution lies in software.

Refining algorithms usually costs less than rethinking a photographic system's entire hardware structure, and many manufacturers have been doing this for years. So what’s the problem? The usual. Cameras are set up to deliver the most eye-catching photos, which often clashes with more natural photography.

We're at a strange moment in the history of mobile photography, full of back-and-forths; a moment in which it’s not uncommon to find current phones that process photos worse than others from one or two years ago.

Image | Xataka

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