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How your smartphone could replace a professional camera in 2023

The steady decline in digital camera sales is barely a mystery. Mobile phones have largely replaced point-and-shoot cameras and are now coming after more expensive and professional-grade equipment. 2023 is set to witness various emerging trends that could result in mobile phones replacing DSLR cameras.

While hardware is at the forefront of this transition, we also expect advancements in computational photography and videography, along with reliance on machine learning tools. Here are the top reasons why camera brands need to acknowledge and be wary of smartphone cameras.

1-inch sensors are becoming mainstream

Xiaomi 12S Ultra in gray color on a red and white armchair.
Tushar Mehta/Digital Trends

After flooding us with notions about more megapixels being better, smartphone companies are shifting toward what can be labeled the first actual strike against professional cameras — and it came in the form of “1-inch” sensors, which is the buzzword companies are after now.

While there is no denying that more pixels on a camera sensor improve the camera’s output, it can’t be treated as a blanket statement. This is because limitations in space lead companies such as Sony or Samsung, which manufacture smartphone camera sensors, to cram more pixels into the same jam-packed area. As phones with 48MP or 64MP cameras, the general idea of more megapixels translating to better image quality comes to be questioned and countered. At the same time, the novelty of higher-megapixel cameras continues to fade.

Google Pixel 7, iPhone 14 Pro Max, iPhone 14 Pro, Pixel 7 Pro, OnePlus 10 Pro, and Galaxy Z Fold 4 all lying on a table.
Joe Maring / Digital Trends

Even with a higher megapixel count, there are nuances. For instance, Samsung has been selling 108MP camera sensors for several years as part of its ISOCELL HM lineup, but every year there are two variations — one for mid-rangers and another for flagships. The difference between the two lies in the physical size of the actual sensor.

A bigger sensor size means it will admit more light. Furthermore, the same number of pixels spread over a larger surface area translates to bigger pixels. On a microscopic level, these pixels capture and thus process more information about the image.

Xiaomi 12S Ultra Concept with separate lens.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Therefore, smartphone companies’ next obvious step has been to gravitate toward bigger camera sensors. In 2022, Sony introduced IMX989, the world’s first 1-inch smartphone camera sensor, with Xiaomi’s 12S Ultra being the first phone to deploy this particular sensor. We compared the Xiaomi flagship with the Galaxy S22 Ultra and were impressed by the shallow depth of field and level of detail the 1-inch sensor preserves.

The Xiaomi 12S Ultra wasn’t the first phone with a 1-inch sensor. Japanese company Sharp launched the Aquos R6 in 2021 and followed it with the Aquos R7, and both phones featured 1-inch sensors, albeit not those made for smartphones. Sony also launched the Xperia Pro-I, an $1,800 phone with a 1-inch sensor borrowed from its Sony RX100 VII compact digital camera. Furthermore, all these phones, despite using 1-inch sensors, used them in cropped formats — unlike the Xiaomi 12S Ultra, which used the sensor without any cropping. Years before the concept was cool, Panasonic even tried to fit a 1-inch MOS sensor inside a smartphone-digital camera hybrid. But as we know, it failed to garner much attention.

Sony IMX989 1-inch smartphone camera sensor size comparison

What makes the 1-inch sensor a big deal is the fact that it has been one of the standard sizes for compact camera sensors for several decades. In his video, YouTuber MKBHD debunks myths about the 1-inch sensor and how it’s physically much smaller — the diagonal of the sensor measures about two-thirds of an inch.

Physically, a 1-inch sensor is about 70% larger in terms of surface area compared to the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s 1/1.33-inch ISOCELL HM3 sensor with a 108MP resolution. Despite its misleading name, the 1-inch sensor depicts a massive increment in sensor size over the Galaxy S22 Ultra.

In addition to already being a widely accepted and standardized size for compact professional cameras, 1-inch is much easier for consumers to recall and, thus, for companies to market.

Xiaomi 13 Pro with 1-inch Sony IMX 989 sensor and Leica colors
Xiaomi 13 Pro Image used with permission by copyright holder

The availability of a 1-inch sensor made dedicatedly for smartphones will allow more companies to opt for the technology, and 2023 feels about the right time when this happens. In fact, smartphone company Vivo already launched two devices — Vivo X90 Pro and the X90 Pro Plus — in China with this sensor before the end of 2022. Xiaomi’s flagship for 2023, the Xiaomi 13 Pro, is also equipped with a 1-inch sensor from Sony. Meanwhile, Oppo is also rumored to adopt the sensor for its next flagship — the Find X6 Pro, which is also expected to get Hassleblad’s color science. With the OnePlus 11 Pro reportedly being dropped, Oppo might even market this phone as its replacement in the U.S.

But while Chinese phone companies experimenting with a 1-inch sensor seems exciting, the only way it becomes mainstream is when more brands globally, such as Google and Samsung, bring it to the fore. Luckily, a rumor dating to October 2022 states that a third phone in the Pixel 7 series — namely, Pixel 7 Ultra — could feature a 1-inch sensor. Meanwhile, Samsung already appears to have invested its stakes in a 200MP sensor.

Although the 1-inch sensor has its critics, it appears to be the most promising addition to smartphone cameras in 2023.

200MP cameras carry the baton further

The camera on the back of the Motorola Edge 30 Ultra.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The previous decade was an intense battleground for smartphone companies to compete in megapixel wars. It started with 2MP cameras as standard and ended as the industry gracefully breached the 100MP mark. Although the ambitions for bigger sensors have replaced the intensity and enthusiasm for higher megapixel figures, 200MP is set to be the landmark upgrade following the previous 108MP stead.

While Sony has been heading to take over the 1-inch sensor market, Samsung already has not one or two but three 200MP sensors up its sleeve. The three sensors, namely Samsung ISOCELL HP1, HPX, and HP3, are designed for different price segments. The ISOCELL HP1 and HP3 are for upper-mid and high-end smartphones, such as the Motorola Edge 30 Ultra and the Xiaomi 12T Pro. In contrast, the HPX belongs strictly to the midrange segment and has been introduced with the Redmi Note 12 Pro in China and India.

Because of the remarkably high megapixel count, the Samsung sensors support 16-in-1 pixel binning (i.e., 16 pixels combine to form one super pixel), resulting in 12.5MP images. As we noted above, bigger pixels allow more light to be captured by the sensor, resulting in better picture quality.

To clarify the description, we can compare the resulting pixel sizes of the Sony IMX989 and Samsung’s 200MP sensors. The ISOCELL HP1 is a 1/1.22-inch sensor, which is physically smaller than the 1-inch Sony IMX989. An individual pixel on the HP1 measures 0.64 microns (one-millionth of a meter), and with pixel binning, this size increases to 2.64 microns per pixel. In contrast, a Sony IMX989 is a 50MP sensor has pixels measuring 1.5 microns, with the resulting effective pixels after pixel binning turning out to be 3.0 microns.

The Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra in Phantom Black with S Pen.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

While Sony trumps Samsung again in these figures, the Korean giant is claiming to use what it calls “Front Deep Trench Isolation” to maximize the absorption of light and reduce noise. Additionally, the jump from 108MP to 200MP results in both — bigger pixels and a physically larger camera sensor.

Meanwhile, the missing block in the jigsaw puzzle — i.e., the ISOCELL HP2 — has been rumored to launch alongside the Galaxy S23 series in the first week of February 2023. The Galaxy S22 Ultra is a prominent example of how Samsung’s color absorption technology can result in highly sharp and saturated photos, which is expected of the next flagship 200MP sensor from Samsung.

Besides the Galaxy S23 Ultra, more phones, including a Nokia X60 Pro, have been rumored to sport 200MP cameras, and we expect Samsung’s adoption to diffuse this trend through different price categories.

Optical zoom and moving lens modules

Person holding Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom white color.
Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom Image used with permission by copyright holder

In 2023, phones may borrow another vital feature from professional cameras: moving zoom lens modules. Phone companies, especially Samsung, have toyed with the idea of merging phones and digital cameras in the past but failed to attract any tremendous response, probably due to the humongous form of the expanding lens.

While telephoto cameras have been abundant in the smartphone world, brands such as China’s Tecno are taking another dig at moving zoom lenses in 2023. The Tecno Phantom X2 Pro features a retractable camera lens for optical zooming.

Although the optical zooming is limited to only 2x, the tractile lens setup allows you to zoom in accurately on a subject without cropping in on the image — as is the case with regular fixed zoom telephoto or periscope cameras. Compared with a phone like the Pixel 7 Pro, the X2 Pro’s zoom lens is unmatched.

The side of the Tecno Phantom X2 Pro with the camera extended.The Tecno Phantom X2 Pro’s camera is extended.

Moving lenses have primarily two benefits. First, it allows you to use the primary sensor with a telephoto lens, which otherwise is paired with an inferior sensor. Secondly, with sensors and other internal components of a smartphone getting bigger and space inside limited, it becomes increasingly vital to reinvent ways in which the same sensor can be used for multiple purposes.

Tecno is not the first or the only brand to experiment with retractable lenses. Both Oppo and Xiaomi have been working on their own concept devices with retractable zoom lenses — although none has made it to the market on a smartphone you can buy. With underdog brands such as Tecno launching commercially available devices and brands such as Samsung, Huawei, and Honor already overusing telephoto and periscopic lens modules, moving lenses has the potential to become a rage in 2023.

Custom imaging chipsets

The Vivo X80 Pro held in a man's hand, seen from the back.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The early Google Pixel smartphones, starting with the Pixel 2 series, featured a dedicated image signal processing chip for imaging called the Pixel Visual Core. Although deprecated with the Pixel 5, Google’s reintroduced the image co-processor to its bespoke Tensor chipsets for the Pixel 6 and the Pixel 7 series.

One of the reasons for Google to choose a tailor-made chipset instead of an off-the-shelf solution from Qualcomm or MediaTek is because of the limitations these mobile platforms posed to Google’s computational photography and other algorithms for on-device machine learning applications. Other smartphone manufacturers, especially those with lower R&D budgets, may be unable to create an entirely new chipset.

As a solution, smartphone companies are using custom co-processors that improve image processing by reducing the load on the image signal processor embedded in the primary chipset. Vivo has already invested heavily in adding custom V1 and V1+ chips specially designed to tackle tasks relating to the cameras. This custom chip functions as a scheduler in congruence with the phone’s memory (RAM) to arrange tasks in an order that ensures more optimal utilization of resources. By taking the load off the memory, this custom chip also enables more efficient power consumption.

Vivo custom V1+ imaging chipset for computational photography.

You may look at it as a security guard outside a football stadium ensuring attendees only enter in straight lines, so there’s no chaos or wastage of time and energy. In addition to its role in optimizing camera-related tasks, the Vivo V1+ chip also helps with processes related to the phone’s display, such as optimizing the color output and maintaining a high output frame rate.

Vivo’s sister company Oppo has also been using a custom imaging chip on its flagship Find lineup. One of the recent additions to the series — the Oppo Find N2 — deploys the custom MariSilicon X chip for imaging.

As hardware on smartphones — especially the components inside the camera — become more compound, we can expect many more manufacturers to hop onto the bandwagon.

Other key camera improvements to expect in 2023

The rear cameras on the iPhone 14 Pro Max.
Joe Maring / Digital Trends

Among other camera features that can see a significant rise in 2023 are computational photography and videography. Google is already making strides to give your professional camera tough competition, and it could get even more heated as brands adopt Google’s computational photography and other machine learning quirks for improving the image and video quality using the CameraX API.

Simultaneously, HDR algorithms and cinematic video modes with film-like zoom and broader dynamic range could break into the mainstream after being popularized by iPhone 14 and the Pixel 7 Pro.

What the experts say about 2023 phone cameras

The Google Pixel 7 Pro standing up.
Joe Maring/Digital Trends

While the advancements in phone cameras are definitely promising, we’ve heard from celebrity photographer Joseph Radhik (aka Joe) about his views on the matter.

Joe tells us that despite the improvements in hardware, software remains essential for smartphone cameras to breeze past professional cameras. One of the biggest challenges is the foiling shutter gap on smartphones. A smartphone must catch up to a professional camera to capture bursts or sequences of shots without tapping out because of quick battery consumption or overheating.

Not impressed by tricks like 1-inch or 200MP sensors, Joe says a standard phone camera sensor — for instance, the 50MP Samsung GN1 sensor found on the Pixel 7 series — is enough to bear the burden of professional-grade photography. Ideally, he remarks, a phone should be able to take care of the different scenarios without the user having to intervene or switch modes (or make that transition seamless and difficult to notice), and smartphone cameras will go a long way.

Despite these reservations, 2023 is tempting enough for us to hold onto our seats as the year ahead unfolds.

Tushar Mehta
Tushar has a passion for consumer tech and likes to tinker with smartphones, laptops, wearables, smart home devices, and…
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