I recently saw a story that I wanted to share, which is relevant because I just did a series on mirrorless vs DSLR cameras. I told you that because mirrorless cameras are smaller but just as good, if you’re buying new camera, mirrorless is the future proof way to go.
A few days later I saw a story in my news feed about a rumor that the 2016 iPhone will have a DSLR level camera. Then another story ran which featured a Qualcomm press release claiming that its new processors will be able to “support superior DSLR-quality photography and enhanced computer vision.” This implies that an Android phone hitting stores near you in the future will also have “DSLR” quality cameras. So if size is a major consideration, maybe we shouldn’t even go mirrorless? Maybe we just need to wait for the next iPhone?
Well even if we to take these claims at face value, there’s a couple different ways we could interpret these rumors. Lots of features combine to make DSLR quality photos. Let’s break down what these rumors could mean, and whether we would really get DSLR quality with the improvements.
A Less Pixelated Future?
One way these rumors could turn out is that iPhones and Androids may soon enter the megapixel war. iPhones have traditionally stayed at 8 MPs, and the next iPhone may see a significant bump in that number. And are DSLR level megapixels possible to achieve in a smartphone? Sure, I mean its already been done even. Check out the Nokia Lumia 1020, which boasts an insane 41 MPs. So why is this not bigger news? Are DSLR cameras already on the shelves?
Unfortunately, more MPs does not equate to amazing photo quality. The more megapixels you have, the larger your photos can be without looking like garbage. If you were to take a photo on a 4 MP camera, and then print it out poster size, there won’t be enough pixels captured to really make a recognizable image. DSLR photo quality does involve having enough MPs to get a good, large image, but for most prints, 18 -25 MPs is more than enough. Beyond that sharpness, color and accurate depths of field are the things that create DSLR quality photos, and the MPs does nothing for that.
A DSLR Sensor?
The rumors might also imply that smartphones will soon come with DSLR quality sensors. This is one is also feasible if we look at recent advances in sensor technology. Sony has developed a 21 MP Exmor RS sensor which boasts key DSLR features like a fast autofocus, true HDR, and the ability to shoot native RAW images. And at just about $18 a sensor, this is commercial ready technology. What’s the downside? Well bigger is not always better, but for sensors whose main job is to absorb enough light to create a high-quality image, even the most advanced smartphone camera sensor is too small to compare to a full DSLR or mirrorless sensor. The Exmor RS is 1.12 microns x 1.12 microns. That’s a .00112 milimeter square! An entry-level mirrorless sensor like the Sony APS-C is 22mm x 15mm. That’s almost 2,000,000% larger the Exmor. That huge size gap means that the Exmor RS is never going to be able to capture and manipulate light to the scale of a full-size camera, short of putting a black hole in it.
What can we expect in 2016?
Now that we know whats possible and whats not, will you be able to buy a DSLR quality camera in a smartphone this year? The short answer is no. You won’t come close to the lens guided, big sensor rendered DSLR photos. But what about in the farther future? The long answer is that the pieces are starting to be here. Qualcomm chips really could support DSLR quality image processing soon. Better sensors are being built which reduce dependence on size by stacking, a sign of outside the box thinking that will continue to lead to major innovation. And with optical technology having been perfected over millennia now, we may one day have tiny smartphone lenses capable of great things. But I would give it 5-10 years before I really take a hard look at these rumors again