This is why 100MP smartphones seem like a terrible idea

Last year saw the return of the 40MP smartphone to the table, five years after the Nokia Lumia 1020 delivered a 41MP camera. The ante has been upped considerably since then, as the likes of Huawei, Xiaomi, and others offer 48MP cameras.

But in an interview with MySmartPrice last month, a Qualcomm executive claimed that phones with 64MP and 100MP sensors are coming. In fact, the executive told the outlet that a number of OEMs will be releasing phones with 64MP and 100MP+ cameras by the end of 2019. A phone with a 100MP+ sensor in particular sounds like an awful idea, and here’s why.

Why did we go high-res in the first place?

The Huawei P20 Pro.

Smartphone camera sensors have to be very thin and small in order to fit into today’s smartphone designs. This reduced size means that the sensor’s photo sites or pixels — used to actually capture light — have to be cut down in size as well. Smaller photo sites/pixels are simply unable to capture as much light as larger ones, making a big difference in low light. Sensor manufacturers have traditionally been caught between using many small pixels (a higher resolution that fares poorly at night) or fewer, larger pixels (a lower resolution that does better at night).

In recent years however, smartphone sensors have begun using pixel-binning technology to essentially combine data from four pixels into one “super pixel.” This comes at the expense of resolution, with the output resolution usually a quarter of the sensor’s maximum resolution. Sony’s IMX586 48MP camera sensor is a great example of this technology, as its pixels are quite tiny (0.8 microns), but pixel-binning essentially produces the equivalent of a 12MP 1.6-micron pixel image.

Why would 100MP smartphones be bad?

This technology clearly works for 48MP cameras, as evident by the likes of the Honor View 20 and Redmi Note 7 Pro, but a 100MP smartphone is a significant challenge even before you take pixel-binning into account.

The biggest challenge is to simply fit all those pixels onto a smartphone sensor. One solution is to increase the size of the sensor to accommodate all these pixels while still maintaining pixel size, resulting in a massive camera bump. Another option is to dramatically reduce the size of the pixels while relying on pixel-binning for low-light shots.

A 100MP smartphone camera will likely have pixels that are too small for even pixel-binning to make a big difference.

As we know it today, pixel-binning might not be able to produce great results with a 100MP camera, as the pixels could be far too small. A 100MP camera sensor with 0.3- or 0.4-micron pixels will essentially produce pixel-binned results that are equivalent to a 25MP 0.6-micron or 0.8-micron camera. It seems like a lot of work for inferior low-light results, especially when you compare it to phones like the Galaxy S10 Plus and Pixel 3. Both of these devices offer a 12MP 1.4-micron pixel main camera. Heck, the OnePlus 6T and its 16MP 1.22-micron pixel camera also seems like it would offer better results on paper than a 100MP pixel-binned camera.

Even if 100MP smartphones adopted a much bigger sensor size and only see a slight reduction in pixel size (to 0.5- or 0.6-micron pixels), you’re still looking at results that are effectively the equivalent of a 25MP 1- or 1.2-micron pixel camera — a way off from 48MP phones. The difference is that you’ve now got a gigantic camera bump to deal with. But at least you’ve got oodles of resolvable detail during the day, right?

Say goodbye to storage

A SIM and microSD card tray.

Another important consideration with 100MP smartphones is their output file size. Your typical 40MP shot on a Huawei flagship can vary from 7MB all the way up to 15MB. This means you’re potentially looking at a 100MP snap weighing in at over double the size, in excess of 30MB per snap. That’s before you get to RAW territory, with the Galaxy S8‘s RAW snaps coming in at just under 24MBs, while the Mate 20 Pro’s DNG images weigh in at roughly 80MB. A RAW image taken by a 100MP camera will undoubtedly be exponentially larger.

It’s worth noting that today’s 48MP and 40MP smartphones generally shoot at their pixel-binned resolution by default, so we’d expect the same from 100MP phones. You can still expect a noteworthy file size increase as these phones would likely shoot at a pixel-binned 25MP. There are also technologies like the HEIF format to reduce file sizes while maintaining picture quality. It’s clear that any 100MP phone without this technology is almost certainly going to require a ton of storage.

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We also need to take image processing into account. Great smartphone photography is about more than just capturing a simple scene, as multi-frame processing, machine learning, image segmentation, and other techniques are the life-blood of the best mobile cameras. Today’s ultra-high-resolution smartphone cameras can indeed deliver pixel-binned shots that get the full processing treatment. However, few chips today offer support for processed 48MP snaps, let alone processing at even higher resolutions.

Speaking of chips, horsepower is another challenge for 100MP smartphones. Qualcomm has already staked a claim to supporting 192MP snapshots (i.e. images without additional processing) with its recent SoCs, but the execution is another question. Using the Mate 20 Pro’s RAW mode already results in a brief “saving” notification and some lag. We’ve also seen how the Nokia 9 PureView copes with a ton of imaging data, albeit from different cameras, as it takes ages to process and actually save these snaps.

All of this isn’t to say that there isn’t a benefit to offering a 100MP smartphone camera. The key benefit is that you could gain plenty of resolvable detail for zooming during the day. But why go there when today’s smartphones offer telephoto secondary cameras and even periscope zoom anyway? Unless sensor manufacturers have figured out an all-new way to distill 100MP of information into a good quality night shot, this seems like a bad idea.

NEXT: Why the Google Pixel 3a could be a game-changer

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What is portrait mode and which phones have it?

A side-by-side comparison of two photos, one using a smartphone's Portrait Mode, and another using a basic mode.

There’s a good chance you use your smartphone to take pictures and capture video. There’s a relatively new feature a lot of smartphones have called portrait mode, and it can up your photography game big time if used properly. However, you might not know what portrait mode is or how it’s used. So what is portrait mode exactly? Good question.

Let’s examine portrait mode in an effort to separate the marketing jargon from the facts. We’ll also give you a list of current smartphones with portrait mode so you can make informed buying decisions.

Let’s get started!

What is portrait mode?

Portrait mode is a term used to describe the artificial bokeh (BOH-kay) effect produced by smartphones. Bokeh is a photography effect where the subject of a picture is kept in focus while the background falls out of focus. By using portrait mode to create a bokeh effect, you can take dynamic photographs which look more professional.

Years ago, if you wanted to take pro-quality photographs, you’d need a DSLR or analog camera. Nowadays, even mid-range smartphones can deliver exceptional results.

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However, one of the biggest historical limitations of smartphone photography had been the ability to simulate depth using bokeh. Without high focal lengths, large sensors, and control over focus, even high-end phones couldn’t create the blurred background effect.

Recently, though, advancements in computational photography — as well as the introduction of dual-lens smartphone cameras — have brought artificial bokeh to phones. Most smartphone manufacturers refer to this effect in marketing material as portrait mode. Additionally, the setting in most camera apps that creates bokeh is usually called “Portrait Mode” or simply “Portrait.”

Portrait mode examples

You know what they say: a picture is worth a thousand words. With that in mind, let’s check out some examples of photographs using portrait mode to create a bokeh effect. Below you’ll find a gallery of pictures captured with a variety of smartphones, all using the portrait mode setting.

As you scroll through the photos, pay attention to the backgrounds:

Google Pixel 2 camera

oneplus 6 portrait mode camera review


Portrait mode makes the subject of your photo really pop. Since the background is blurry, your eyes naturally gravitate towards the non-blurry section of the picture. It can be a powerful technique when used properly.

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However,  the images above are not “real.” The bokeh effect is not produced using just the smartphone’s lens (or lenses). Instead, the smartphone’s processor, software, and camera hardware work together to apply the bokeh effect to a non-bokeh image.

Because you’re relying on a computational algorithm to create portrait mode effects, results can vary. Check out the photo below where the phone’s portrait mode filter gets confused and can’t get the effect right:

An example how portrait mode can go wrong, with the subject's glasses being blurred out as if they were part of the background.

For some reason, the algorithm determined the edge of Lanh’s glasses was part of the background and thus blurred it out. If you were using a DSLR to take this photo and produced the bokeh effect using the lens itself rather than software, this problem wouldn’t happen.

However, when you’re using a smartphone to create a bokeh image, you don’t have to lug around a large DSLR, which is certainly advantageous. With that in mind, don’t let a few faulty images deter you. The algorithms responsible for portrait mode are only getting better, so problems will become less and less of an issue going forward.

Which phones support portrait mode?

Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of portrait mode and how bokeh effects can make your photos better. However, how do you know if your smartphone supports the feature?

In general, most phones with at least two lenses paired together can produce portrait mode pictures. Some phones can produce the bokeh effect with just one rear lens (the Google Pixel 2 and Google Pixel 3 being the most notable examples), and some dual-lens phones can’t do portrait mode (like the LG V30). However, if a new phone has two lenses on the back, it’s a safe bet it does portrait mode shooting.

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Some smartphones are now shipping with two lenses on the front, too. This allows for portrait mode pics in selfie mode. However, there are phones with a single selfie lens that can also do portrait mode.

Below, we’ve compiled a list of recent smartphones that have portrait mode abilities with the rear camera at least. This list is not completely comprehensive in that there are likely other phones out there with portrait mode not included here, but we did include all the most popular releases.

There are also numerous ways to “hack” your phone to get portrait mode when it is not offered by the original OEM. However, we are not going to cover that here.


Samsung

Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus Samsung Galaxy A9 (2018)
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 Samsung Galaxy A8 (2018)
Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Samsung Galaxy J7 Pro

LG

LG V40 ThinQ LG G7 ThinQ
LG V35 ThinQ LG Q8

HTC

HTC U12 Plus HTC U12 Life

Sony

Sony Xperia XZ3 Sony Xperia XZ2

OnePlus

OnePlus 6T OnePlus 5T
OnePlus 6 OnePlus 5

Google

Google Pixel 3 & 3 XL Google Pixel 2 & 2 XL

Huawei

Huawei Mate 20 & Mate 20 Pro Huawei P20 & P20 Pro
Huawei Mate 10 & Mate 10 Pro Huawei P10 & P10 Plus

Honor

Honor View 20 Honor 8X
Honor View 10 Honor 7X

Xiaomi

Xiaomi Redmi Note 7 Xiaomi Mi Mix 3
Xiaomi Redmi Note 6 Pro Xiaomi Pocophone F1
Xiaomi Mi 8 Pro Xiaomi Redmi 6 Pro
Xiaomi Mi A2 Xiaomi Mi A1

Vivo

Vivo Nex Vivo V11
Vivo X21 Vivo V9 Pro

Oppo

Oppo Find X Oppo R17 & R17 Pro
Oppo F9 Oppo R15 Pro

Motorola

Motorola Moto X4 Motorola Moto G6
Motorola Moto Z3 Motorola Moto Z2 Force

So now you know the answer to “what is portrait mode” as well as what phones currently offer it.