Triple rear camera - Huawei P20 Pro

When the Huawei P20 Pro launched earlier this year with three rear camera sensors, many considered it an anomaly. No one though phones with such a setup would start coming out regularly. However, it appears the early sales success of the P20 Pro, combined with all the media attention Huawei received for the first phone with a triple rear camera setup, might have made other smartphone companies step up their efforts to launch phones with three rear cameras.

Read more: Best smartphone cameras

In just the past few weeks, we have heard rumors that the Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus could three rear cameras when it launches in early 2019. Another rumor claims LG is working on the V40 for launch later this year. This report claims the phone will not only have a triple rear camera design, but also two front-facing cameras, making it the first phone with five cameras on board.

Even Apple may be jumping on the triple camera bandwagon, as a number of rumors claim a future version of the iPhone will have three rear sensors on board. Some rumors claim Apple will wait until 2019, but more recent ones claim Apple will include three rear cameras on the back of the iPhone X Plus, which may be out as early as September.

We may be on the cusp of the latest smartphone trend. It could be adopted by phone makers even faster than the dual rear camera trend. But what can three cameras do that’s impossible with one or two camera sensors? Is it really all that much of an innovation, or just a fad?

A quick history of the dual rear camera phone trend

When a new phone trend’s around the corner, it’s usually wise to look at the history of how similar phone features started and progressed. In the case of triple rear camera phones, that’s pretty simple — just look at how the dual camera phone trend got started, and how it has evolved. Smartphones with two rear cameras started appearing as early as 2011, with the HTC Evo 3D and the LG Optimus 3D.

Both phones had two 5MP cameras on the back, but as their brand names indicated, they were designed to create 3D photos and video clips. Both phones even had displays to watch 3D content without glasses.

The 3D phone and camera trend died almost as quickly as it started, and these handsets failed to reach a wide audience.

In 2014, the HTC One M8 came out with what the company called a “depth sensor” on top, in addition to ti main camera. Technically, this was not even a secondary camera at all. It recorded depth data for each photo you took with the main rear camera, and you could then select which part of the picture would be in focus. This was mainly done so that owners could blur the background in their pictures. The Honor 6 Plus released in 2015 and did the same thing, but with a real camera lens, packing two 8MP sensors in its back.

The dual rear camera trend really started to take hold in 2015, thanks to phones like the LG G5, which had a main 16 MP camera for normal pictures, and a secondary 8MP camera with a wide-angle lens that took images with up to 135 degrees. The Huawei P9, released in early 2016, used a different approach for its two main cameras. One was a color sensor, while the other took monochrome images. In addition to allowing owners to refocus pictures after they have been shot, the two cameras on the P9 worked together, giving pictures more detail.

In late 2016, Apple joined the growing trend of dual rear cameras with the release of the iPhone 7 Plus. Its dual 12MP rear cameras included one with a wide-angle lens and one with a telephoto lens that supported 2x optical zoom. In 2017, the flood gates opened, and lots of flagship devices added dual rear cameras, including Samsung, which joined the trend with the Galaxy Note 8.  Looking back at the dual camera trend up to this point, it’s clear some phone companies have tried different ways to incorporate this feature in their phones. Maybe we can expect to see the same when more phones include three rear cameras.

What are triple rear cameras good for, anyway?

There’s still very much a question what a third camera will actually do. The only real world example we have to go on is the Huawei P20 Pro.

Read more: Huawei P20 Pro camera explained | Huawei P20 Pro camera vs the competition

The three sensors are placed vertically on the left side of the P20 Pro’s back. In the middle, there’s a huge 40MP RGB sensor with an f/1.8 aperture and 28mm focal length, while on the bottom there is a 20MP monochrome shooter with an f/1.6 aperture. On top of the triple camera setup, there’s an 8MP telephoto lens with an f/2.4 aperture and 52mm focal length that supports optical image stabilization (OIS).

As with earlier Huawei phones with dual cameras, the 40MP RGB sensor can work together with the 20MP monochrome camera to deliver images with a higher dynamic range. The third 8MP telephoto lens supports 3x optical zoom, but works together with the main RGB camera for what Huawei calls Hybrid Zoom. This allows P20 Pro owners to take telephoto shots as high as 5x without a loss in quality. While the Huawei P20 Pro has lots of other camera qualities, the company has come up with an excellent way to use three rear cameras to help improve image quality on a mobile device.

Of course, that may not be the only thing that a triple rear camera setup could do for a phone. With the rise in augmented reality technology, its possible a third camera sensor could come in handy for 3D mapping of the outside world, similar to what Google tried to do with its now shut down Tango technology.

LetsGoDigital

In fact, that kind of tech could be included on Apple’s first triple camera iPhoneLetsGoDigital posted some concept renders showing what an iPhone X with three cameras on the back might look like.

One thing is also clear; if you really want to buy a phone with three rear cameras, expect to pay more. This kind of technology will likely be reserved for high-end flagships like the P20, the next major iPhone release, the Galaxy S10 and the LG V40. Don’t expect these kinds of camera setups to make their way to the cheaper mid-range phones for quite some time.

Will other technologies stop the triple rear camera trend?

Of course, smartphone technology has evolved massively in the past few years, and its possible adding three cameras on the back of a phone may not be the best solution for the future of mobile photos. Just look at Google’s Pixel phones. The Pixel line is the only major smartphone range that hasn’t embraced the dual rear camera trend, yet they rank among the best mobile camera offerings on the market, even against those with dual rear sensors.

In addtion, the 2017 release of the Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL included a special processor on board, the Pixel Visual Core chip. This secondary chip is supposed to compile HDR+ images 5x faster while using just 1/10th of the power compared with running on an application processor. The Pixel Visual Core processor also handles complex imaging and machine learning tasks related to the camera.

While the Google Pixel 3 XL is rumored to have two front-facing cameras, the most recent reports suggest the next generation Pixel devices will continue to use just one rear camera when they launch later in 2018. We could see even more new features and improvements for that camera, augmented by the use of a next-generation Pixel Visual Core processor. Perhaps two or three cameras won’t really be necessary if smartphone makers like Google continue to add internal dedicated hardware and software in their devices for mobile photography.

Conclusion

The race to launch phones with three rear cameras has begun. The Huawei P20 Pro proved it’s not just a sales or marketing gimmick. It can actually improve photos taken from your phone. However, we may have to wait until well into 2019 to see if this trend takes hold or if it flames out.