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What to expect from smartphone cameras in 2021
Camera phones have made major strides in the past few years. Even mid-range phones now offer 4K recording and night modes. Looking at the flagship segment, there are even further improvements, with devices sporting 108MP cameras, 8K recording, and even penta-lens camera setups.
It can be hard to imagine just how smartphone manufacturers could improve matters next year, but we’ve got a good idea of what to expect from cameras in 2021.
More 8K video
2020 saw the proper debut of 8K video recording on smartphones. Sure, 8K isn’t exactly ready for mainstream consumption yet, owing to the price of 8K TVs and monitors, but that didn’t stop Samsung, LG, and Xiaomi from supporting it.
We’re expecting this trend to continue in 2021, with the aforementioned brands refining their debut 8K efforts. We wouldn’t be surprised to see a few more brands hop on the bandwagon. Prominent 8K holdouts include Apple, Google, Motorola, OnePlus, and Sony — although we’re guessing some of these brands might wait until 2022 or later.
History also tells us that we should eventually expect 8K/60fps video recording as well as 8K HDR capabilities. However, we think 2021 might be too soon for these additions. After all, 4K recording debuted in 2013, but it took at least four years for 4K HDR recording and 4K/60fps support to hit phones. Furthermore, the newly announced Snapdragon 888 doesn’t support 8K/60fps recording.
More brands adopting high res cameras
8K recording requires a camera with a 33MP resolution or higher, much like 4K recording requires an 8MP+ sensor. So, if more manufacturers adopt 8K recording, then they’d have to adopt 33MP+ camera sensors as well.
The likes of Apple, Google, and Sony all lack 8K and stick to 12MP main cameras. They’d have to offer an ultra high-resolution camera if they want 8K in 2021 or 2022. These brands could opt to ditch their 12MP main camera entirely in favor of 33MP+ shooters. Or they could do what Samsung did: keep its 12MP cameras while adding a higher resolution secondary sensor for 8K and improved hybrid zoom.
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Along with the possibility of more brands adopting high-resolution cameras, we’re also on the lookout for manufacturers to improve image capture at full resolution. Multi-frame processing is one of the tried and tested methods to deliver better results in this regard. It offers reduced noise, better brightness, and HDR.
However, multi-frame image processing is usually restricted to lower resolutions due to the bandwidth involved. For example, the LG V60 doesn’t offer multi-frame processing when shooting at 64MP. However, there have been a few exceptions in 2020, such as the Redmi Note 9 Pro Max and Samsung’s 108MP flagship phones. They combine multiple ultra high-resolution frames for a cleaner or more vibrant shot. We’re therefore on the lookout for more brands making their full resolution shots better in 2021.
4K video to get a boost too
8K is all the rage, but it doesn’t mean brands are going to forget about 4K recording. We’ve seen OnePlus tout richer 4K HDR capabilities while Asus and Sony added 4K 120fps slow-mo to its phones.
We’re definitely expecting these kinds of improvements to 4K recording in 2021. However, Samsung Semiconductor’s Jinhyun Kwon previously told us that 4K 240fps could also be a possibility in the future. This could be a far more practical solution than 960fps video, which only has a small window of recording and can often look bad in anything other than the bright outdoors. Unfortunately, Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 888 doesn’t actually support 4K 240fps, so we’ll likely have to wait until 2022 at the very least.
We’re definitely holding our breath for 4K/60fps to land on more mid-range phones, as we saw with the OnePlus Nord and Pixel 4a 5G. This way, you don’t need to choose between smoother video or sharper video on more affordable phones. Aside from Snapdragon’s 700 series, the new Exynos 1080 chipset also supports 4K/60fps recording in this price segment. So hopefully Samsung’s upcoming mid-range phones will nab 4K/60fps capability too.
Simultaneous capture could be a thing
Qualcomm’s newly announced Snapdragon 888 will likely power many 2021 flagships. One of the more interesting features it enables is simultaneous capture from up to three cameras. Yep, the firm is promising the ability to capture 28MP images from three different cameras at the same time. Videographers aren’t left in the lurch either. The same tech enables simultaneous 4K HDR capture from three different cameras too.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen brands take a stab at simultaneous capture, as Samsung’s phones previously touted the ability to take snaps from the main and telephoto camera at the same time. We also saw LG’s V40 boasting a mode to quickly capture images from the main, ultra-wide, and telephoto lenses with one press of the shutter key. Unfortunately, this wasn’t really simultaneous, as the phone took one photo after the other.
Either way, we hope that manufacturers take advantage of this tech in 2021. It certainly sounds like it could save time and be pretty convenient.
Colors to see a step up
We’ve seen plenty of phones offer wide color gamut images, better HDR, and more accurate displays before, but it looks like this will be another focus area in 2021. Apple in particular made headlines by supporting the filming and editing of Dolby Vision HDR content on its iPhone 12 series. The firm claimed a leap from 8-bit to 10-bit color and therefore 60 times more color as a result.
The mobile industry tends to follow Apple in some ways so we wouldn’t be surprised if several Android OEMs jump on this bandwagon. However, Oppo is taking things further. It recently announced that its Find X3 flagship (coming in 2021), will offer the ability to capture, store, and display images with 10-bit color. It’s unclear if video recording will also see a jump to 10-bit color though.
Oppo’s announcement is partially made possible by Android bringing support for wide color photos back in 2019. And with Qualcomm announcing that the Snapdragon 888 has support for 10-bit HEIF storage, the groundwork is laid down for brands to offer more vibrant, accurate photos next year without a leap in file size.
Two telephoto cameras for more flagships?
The first smartphone with two telephoto cameras was the Mi Note 10, launched in late 2019. It has since been joined by the likes of the Mi 10 Pro, Vivo X50 Pro and Pro Plus, Huawei P40 Pro Plus, and Mate 40 Pro Plus.
The thinking behind two zoom cameras is that it helps to deliver higher quality images across zoom factors. Smartphones with 2x or 3x telephoto cameras use hybrid zoom beyond this range, but image quality falls apart the further you zoom in. Meanwhile, smartphones with 5x telephoto cameras use hybrid zoom at a shorter range (e.g. 2x to 3x), but we see a fall-off in image quality here too. Either way, two zoom-focused cameras ensure more consistent image quality across the range.
Could we see more brands adopting a dual telephoto setup in 2021, then? Well, the latest Samsung Galaxy S21 leaks point to the Ultra model joining the bandwagon with 3x and 10x telephoto cameras. We’d also expect the likes of Huawei, Vivo, and Xiaomi to continue this trend.
Gimmicky 2MP lenses won’t go anywhere
Unfortunately, another trend we’re expecting to see next year is that brands will still be using 2MP macro and/or depth lenses to inflate their camera count. From Samsung and Xiaomi to Realme and OnePlus, we’ve seen numerous manufacturers add one or even two 2MP sensors so they can boast of having triple or quad-camera setups.
Arguably the height of this laziness came via OnePlus, Oppo, and Xiaomi in late 2020. The OnePlus Nord N100, Oppo A53, and Poco M3 all offered two 2MP cameras as part of a triple rear camera setup. That’s right, we didn’t even get an ultra-wide shooter.
We’d like to see manufacturers ditch these lenses in favor of improving main or ultra-wide cameras, but I doubt we’ll see this happening at the budget tier. In any event, hopefully, we’ll see a few companies drop macro lenses in favor of doing macro shots via beefed-up ultra-wide sensors.
More in-display selfie cameras
We saw our first phone with an in-display selfie camera this year, as the ZTE Axon 20 5G offered the innovative technology. This places the selfie camera underneath the screen for a true full-screen experience — no notch, cutout, or pop-up camera needed.
Smartphones with in-display selfie cameras are likely to suffer from reduced image quality, while the display area directly above the camera might look noticeably hazy. However, both Samsung and Xiaomi are expected to offer this tech in 2021, so hopefully, they’ve overcome these hurdles.
Burst capture to get a boost (on paper)
Sony was one of the few smartphone brands focusing on burst capture technology, using the Xperia 1 II and 5 II’s 12MP camera in conjunction with its quick autofocus to yield a fast, accurate stream of shots. In fact, Sony’s flagships tout a 20fps burst mode.
Qualcomm is aiming much higher with the new Snapdragon 888 chipset, promising 120fps burst mode capabilities for 12MP shots. That’s just ridiculous on paper, and it’s a testament to the faster image processing on the new SoC. It stands to reason that we’ll see this capability on 2021 flagships, but this is far from guaranteed.
Nevertheless, we’re hoping brands use this fast image signal processor to improve their burst modes in general. We’re not necessarily holding out for 120fps burst modes, but we’d be happy if this horsepower was used to deliver much improved HDR and night mode bursts. For example, the Pixel 4‘s burst mode opts for much lower resolution shots (i.e. 6.2MP), with only a few images in that burst being HDR shots.
What would you like to see from Android phone cameras in 2021? Take our poll below or leave your thoughts in the comments!