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Front cameras can't cut it, but there's a panacea for my selfie obsession

It's time to make it easier to use the rear cameras for capturing selfies.

Published onAugust 20, 2022

Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra with rear display turned on

It’s hard to put a number on it, but by some estimates, over 90 million selfies are shot daily. And yet the selfie camera just hasn’t seen the dramatic improvements that rear-facing cameras have. As the number and size of rear cameras on smartphones continue on a northward trajectory, the front-facing camera has admittedly been left behind. But there is a better way to obtain higher-quality selfies than throwing yet more camera tech at the problem.

I grew up around phones like the Samsung X600 with a rotatable VGA camera. A few years ago, I was equally enthused by the ASUS Zenfone Flip. Tossing the power of the rear-facing camera at my ugly mug at the literal flip of a switch was magical. But the phone’s okay-to-good camera and dubious flip mechanism would never catch the mainstream audience. However, 2021’s Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra offered an implementation that could.

The Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra repurposed the Mi Band's display as a rear-facing viewfinder for glorious selfies.

When it launched in 2021, the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra came packed to the gills with all the performance bells and whistles you could hope for, and it topped it all off with a trio of cameras that could hold their own against most flagships. However, the real magic lay elsewhere. I’m talking about the nifty little display tucked along the side of the enormous camera module.

The Mi 11 Ultra’s trick was to repurpose the display from the ever-popular Mi Band and prop it up at the rear as an always-there viewfinder for capturing selfies using the might of the primary or ultrawide shooter. Yes, it could be used as a clock and notification display too, but for me, it was the phone’s secret to unlocking the power of glorious selfies.

Using the rear cameras for capturing selfies just makes sense

ASUS Zenfone 8 Flip 6

Obvious hyperbole aside, having a tiny display alongside the rear camera makes a whole lot of sense. We’re reaching a point where companies like Sony, with a history steeped in digital imaging, have come out and said that phones would soon surpass traditional SLRs in image quality. Computational photography continues to make leaps and bounds to take smartphone imaging to the next level. Why shouldn’t a user be able to use the best possible camera to capture selfies — one of the most common expressions of narcissism boosting your self-esteem?

A rear-facing viewfinder lets you take advantage of your phone's best lenses for great selfies.

It’s not just regular photos either. While some phones experimented with tossing in an ultrawide selfie camera over at the front, that feature has long been forgotten in the chase for ever slimmer bezels. A rear-facing display would easily let us use the ultrawide camera for capturing high-quality group shots.

Would you like a viewfinder at the back of your phone?

240 votes

There’s also video to consider. Optical image stabilization is a rare feature on front-facing cameras, and few other devices have employed it. Elsewhere, many phones, especially in the budget and mid-tiers, can’t capture front-facing videos in 4K. That’s yet another problem a rear-mounted display can fix.

Foldables embrace this approach to capturing selfies

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 4 closed selfie

Interestingly enough, while Xiaomi itself banished the feature from the successor to the Mi 11 Ultra, it’s finding a home as new form factors emerge. The foldable Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 4 lets you use the cover display as a camera viewfinder to accomplish the same task.

In fact, the Z Flip takes the idea and runs with it in new directions. Samsung’s Quick Shot feature allows you to pick ultrawide and portrait modes just by swiping the cover display. You can also use the phone like a camcorder or prop it up as a tripod. It’s a great solution to the problem of poor-quality selfies.

See also: These photography tips will help you take your photos to the next level

As some of the best foldables gradually move down the price ladder, using the cover display as a viewfinder will become commonplace. Still, till then, I’d like to see more smartphone brands crib this low-key breakthrough in innovation to let me capture my best self. While the Mi 11 Ultra is now a rare curio that’s extremely hard to find, Xiaomi discovered the perfect solution for my narcissistic tendencies, and it’s time for the feature to find broader adoption.