In 2021, several big players in the industry including Apple and Google are still using 12MP cameras in their flagship devices. Considering 40 megapixels has been common for years and 108MP main sensors have also entered the market, what gives? Why has it taken so long for the big guns to put more importance on the resolution of their cameras? It’s quite simple: 12MP is the ideal resolution for smartphone sensors.
There are several reasons for this, including storage space, processing time, and low light photo quality. Video resolution and viewing devices also play into how large a camera sensor should be. Then there are indirect effects like battery life and camera app performance.
Let’s dive a little deeper into some of those areas to see why 12MP is the optimum smartphone camera resolution right now.
More pixels = more data
More pixels generally means more data to process (at least for full-resolution shots), resulting in slower processing times and shorter battery life. This is especially true in more demanding scenarios like taking Night Mode photos or Portrait Mode shots, where there’s a lot more processing involved.
In fact, it’s not uncommon to find phones with ultra-high resolution cameras that don’t offer HDR, night mode, or other advanced modes when shooting at full-resolution. There’s simply too much data to process.
Not only does a higher resolution need more processing power then, but it also demands more storage and bandwidth too. With fewer phones sporting a microSD card slot these days, cloud storage is an increasingly attractive backup method.
The issue is that if you’ve got a low data cap, you may have trouble uploading a bunch of snaps when not on Wi-Fi. You also end up needing to pay for larger cloud storage plans if you take lots of shots and upload video.
We view images on sub 10MP displays
Here’s another hard truth for megapixel obsessives: Most users aren’t viewing the high-resolution images that we share from our phones on Ultra HD displays, and even if they were, that’s only an ~8.3MP canvas.
Ultra HD is still only ~8.3MP
12MP is more than enough resolution to look crisp on pretty much any display — phone displays, digital photo frames, computers, TVs, and even projectors! To get the most out of a 12MP image on an Ultra HD display, you’d need to zoom in. Fun fact: many telephoto cameras from the industry’s biggest names are 12MP or below, anyway.
The most popular video resolution caps out at ~8.3MP
Ultra HD 4K video has been the standard in smartphones for well over five years now. If you don’t have it, you likely have a low-end smartphone. Since you don’t even need more than 10MP to be able to shoot at 4K, 12MP is more than enough to get you going — as long as your SoC and ISP can handle shooting 4K video. This means that whether you want to shoot UHD 4K at 60fps, or 720p video at 960fps, a 10MP sensor will do you just fine.
The Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 and Snapdragon 888 SoC brought 8K video recording. It should be noted that to be able to shoot in 8K you’ll need a sensor with a resolution of around 33MP or higher. One valid reason to record in 8K is that you can treat it like a burst mode, grabbing high-quality frames from a recorded clip. However, 8K displays aren’t affordable or ubiquitous enough to justify the option solely for video. Space is also a concern with 8K, even with new codecs that shrink file sizes down.
Resolution isn’t the be-all and end-all
The amount of pixels in your photo isn’t the be-all end-all — other factors come into play. Dynamic range, color accuracy, lens quality, image processing, and user experience are all vital to be able to create great photos. Evidence of this is easy to find in the Pixel 5, iPhone 12 series, and Samsung Galaxy S21.
Comparing a 12MP camera from 2016 to a more modern camera is another great way to illustrate how important other aspects of photography are. Below is a shot comparing the original Pixel against the Pixel 4. They both sport 12MP camera sensors, yet the Pixel 4 captures much more color information and has better dynamic range. This is due to newer hardware, and a leap forward in software processing on Google’s front, with HDR+ technology doing the majority of the heavy lifting.
Where Google’s Pixel phones rely on the search giant’s software to achieve the best results possible, many OEMs rely on a technique called pixel binning. The net result of this technique is that it brings the effective pixel count down by four times (or by nine times with some 108MP cameras). This means that a 40MP sensor is going to produce a 10MP image. So even though your phone may have 48MP stamped on the back of it, you’re only really getting 12MP photos when you press the shutter button.
With pixel binning, you're getting one-quarter final image resolution
OEMs use pixel binning techniques to increase light gathering capabilities by merging data from four smaller photosites together. When you want a high-resolution image, you simply switch to the native resolution mode but sacrifice low-light performance and dynamic range. The effects of pixel binning — higher dynamic range, more color information, better low-light performance — can be had with natively larger photosites seen on most 12MP cameras.
Continue reading: Samsung Galaxy S11 tipped to carry the best 108MP camera so far
Granted, you’d lose the option to capture more detail with a 12MP camera, but in return, you’d get a lower cost and potentially brighter images from the get-go. Of course, this depends on the individual manufacturer and model of the phone due to different processing techniques.
Software and processing are more important
“AI camera” is a term thrown around by a lot of companies. Whether we’re talking about software from Google, Huawei, Apple, Samsung, or any other manufacturer, image processing plays a massive part in the final image.
Image processing plays a massive part in image quality
Below is an example of a photo taken with the stock camera app on the OnePlus 7 Pro compared with one taken on the same phone using the Google Camera APK. You can see how different the colors, sharpness, and dynamic range are. Google’s version of this image has so much more dynamic range which is most evident in the left half. The colors are also far more representative of real-life in the Google Camera photo. OnePlus’ version features more contrast and saturation but ultimately lacks the clarity of the Google Camera picture.
Low light and pixel size
As we mentioned before, 12MP cameras usually allow for larger individual pixels than super high-resolution sensors. The larger the pixel size, the more light each pixel can capture. A 12MP half-inch sensor would produce far cleaner low light shots than a 48MP half-inch sensor, given that every other variable is equal. Here’s an example of Auto Mode vs. 48MP mode on the Xiaomi Mi 9. The results are staggering! Just look at how much color information is lost when switching to 48MP mode, and the dynamic range falls through the floor.
Pixel size, and therefore sensor size, is very important. It’s why we’ve seen phones like the Huawei Mate 40 Pro and Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra use huge sensors compared to Google and Apple. It makes so much difference, especially in a small form factor such as a smartphone. Night Modes have been introduced to try and make up for the lack of sensor size, by taking multiple exposures and merging them together. These modes have helped low light images dramatically, but they aren’t necessarily a direct replacement for a large camera sensor.
12MP is enough, for now
Given the hardware limitations in 2021, such as processing power, storage space, and lens quality, there really isn’t a need to push for higher-resolution sensors right now. Larger sensors with larger pixels provide a much more noticeable improvement to image quality than pure pixel count, while a wider focus on optics and software has already enabled growth in the smartphone camera industry.
When higher resolution video, more powerful processors, and faster storage are all standard, we’ll start to see the need for 40MP or above. Until then, however, a 12MP camera will do me just fine.
You know what else makes a great image? Knowing how to shoot an aesthetically pleasing one! Photography is a complex art, so we have put together a series of tutorials and learning material for you to learn more!
We also have plenty of recommendations for those looking to get new camera equipment!