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The complete guide to ultrawide camera phones
There are plenty of phones out there with ultrawide cameras, but the best of the bunch deliver far more than just a wider field of view. In fact, an ultrawide perspective is only one part of the equation when it comes to delivering a great wide-angle experience.
So, what should you be looking for if you want a phone with a great ultrawide camera? We’ve got you covered with our guide to the technology.
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What is an ultrawide camera anyway?
Today’s primary rear cameras on smartphones are also known as wide cameras. They offer a field of view that’s wider than traditional digital cameras. For example, the Samsung Galaxy S23 has a 50MP main camera with a field of view (FoV) of roughly 85 degrees. Meanwhile, ultrawide cameras go even wider than that, with the S23’s ultrawide sensor offering a 120-degree FoV.
This wider field of view allows you to cram more into your picture and is also more in line with what your eyes see. Check out the difference between the Samsung Galaxy S23 main (left) and ultrawide shots below.
One downside to ultrawide cameras is that many of them suffer from fish-eye lens distortion. Those with an extremely wide field of view (~120 degrees or higher) usually have more pronounced distortion in this regard. For example, straight lines at the edges of a photo can appear curved, while people on the periphery can look squashed or have abnormally shaped features. Nevertheless, some people like this distortion because it gives images a look akin to a GoPro.
Check out an example of distortion below, with the left-hand side of the door taking on a warped appearance. This photo was taken with the 2019-era Xiaomi Mi 9T Pro, with the distortion correction toggle off.
It’s tough to create ultrawide lenses that avoid this distortion. The light is essentially being bent by the lens near the edges to capture as much of the scene as possible. Many manufacturers try to correct it via a software algorithm or by simply cropping the distorted edges out of the final image, commonly activated via a toggle in the camera app.
Some companies like Google, HUAWEI, and OPPO have previously opted for a narrower field of view in the first place (~110 degrees and lower). This way, you’ve still got a sensor capable of capturing more than a typical phone camera, but distortion is reduced compared to traditional ultrawide sensors. Of course, dialing things back too far can mean you’re left with an ultrawide shot that isn’t all too different from the main camera.
Another solution we’ve seen in the last few years is a so-called free-form lens that uses an asymmetrical design compared to more conventional camera lenses. This ultrawide camera lens can be found on 2021’s OnePlus 9 series, and the company compared them to progressive lenses used in spectacles.
What makes a good ultrawide camera?
Now that we know what an ultrawide camera is and how field-of-view works, let’s take a closer look at the ingredients you need for a great ultrawide shooter.
The right amount of megapixels
Megapixels aren’t the number one factor for determining ultrawide image quality, but they’re still a significant consideration. They are particularly important if you plan to print ultrawide snaps, or if you simply want to crop into an ultrawide image.
We generally see the best ultrawide cameras on the market opt for no less than 12MP for decent results. We’ve also seen 5MP ultrawide sensors on older low-end phones that will do an okay job in ideal conditions. However, they often lack detail and tend to quickly fall apart in super-bright or dark scenes. A 5MP ultrawide camera also means you’re going to be limited to 1080p for ultrawide video recording since 4K recording requires 8MP or higher. But mid-rangers typically opt for an 8MP ultrawide camera.
We’ve also seen a trend towards cramming plenty of megapixels into an ultrawide camera, with some phones reaching as much as 50MP or 64MP. All those megapixels can result in tiny photo-sites, used to capture light. However, small photo-sites mean less light is being captured which theoretically means poor low-light ultrawide shots. Fortunately, OEMs often use a technique called pixel binning to churn out lower resolution yet cleaner images, especially at night.
Another important factor in a good ultrawide camera experience is simple consistency in terms of color reproduction (and dynamic range) between the main camera and the ultrawide lens. Many budget phones and even some flagship models lack consistent colors between the two cameras, resulting in photos that can look overly saturated with the ultrawide shooter but washed out with the main camera. Check out the example above for color profiles that don’t quite remain consistent.
The main reason for this discrepancy tends to be a difference in lenses, aperture, sensor size, and more. All of these differences affect the light-gathering capabilities and color capture of each camera. Taking a one-size-fits-all approach to image processing is therefore not ideal. It requires significant work on the part of OEMs to ensure consistency between the two cameras. Unfortunately, some brands lack the resources, time, and/or will to do the legwork.
One of the features I tend to look for on ultrawide mobile cameras is autofocus. You’d be surprised how many brands don’t include this option. Even wide-angle pioneer LG didn’t include this on its flagships, and the Pixel phones lacked this option too until the Pixel 7 Pro. Thankfully, it’s becoming more common on flagship phones these days.
The main reason you’d want autofocus on your ultrawide camera is that it opens the door for macro shots with no dedicated macro camera. This way, you can take extreme close-up images without relying on a cheap, fuzzy 2MP macro sensor.
Macro shots via the ultrawide camera are also of a far higher resolution than your typical macro lens, enabling you to crop in even further. The shot above was taken with the HUAWEI Mate 20 Pro’s ultrawide lens using macro mode. It was cropped from a slightly larger image. Not too bad, right?
Autofocus on an ultrawide camera also makes for a more flexible camera in general. It allows you to treat the ultrawide lens more like a normal camera, focusing on the foreground or the background as you see fit. Want to take a photo of some flowers with a mountain in the background? Or vice-versa? You can take both if you have autofocus on your wide-angle sensor, as the samples above show.
Autofocus is becoming common on flagship phones with ultrawide cameras, but there are few brands that haven't embraced this feature yet.
Phones with fixed focus ultrawide cameras don’t give you the benefit of tapping to focus anywhere. Tapping usually only adjusts the exposure. Instead, your phone can only focus on objects/subjects far away or landscapes and other backgrounds.
Having autofocus can also yield better ultrawide images in general, as the camera is able to properly focus on the desired scene instead of just taking a fixed-focus shot that might end up looking soft.
Smartphone cameras have made major strides in low light performance in the last few years, but this hasn’t extended to the ultrawide rear camera in exactly the same way. Instead, it’s still somewhat common to find a major difference in quality between main and ultrawide cameras when the sun goes down. This is largely due to the fact that primary or main smartphone cameras tend to offer wider apertures, larger sensors, bigger pixels, and/or pixel binning in order to deliver better low-light performance. We have seen improvements in this regard though, but there’s still generally a quality gap.
Another increasingly common tool used by OEMs today is the ever-popular night mode. The likes of HUAWEI, Samsung, vivo, and others have offered night mode on the ultrawide camera for a couple of generations now. The combo of night mode and an ultrawide camera can struggle in the darkest environments, but it can definitely make a difference when the scene is just a little too dark. Check out the LG V60’s night mode on the ultrawide camera above, with the standard shot on the left and the night mode snap on the right.
Read next: 6 tips for improving smartphone low light photography
The different types of ultrawide video
Ultrawide cameras are capable of video recording too. The wider perspective means you aren’t likely to notice judder as often as with the main camera or a telephoto lens.
We’ve also seen the likes of Samsung, OPPO, Xiaomi, and others offer a so-called Super Steady or Steady Cam mode, filming video via the ultrawide camera but cropping in. This serves as a form of electronic image stabilization. We’ve seen Samsung and others take this mode a step further by adding optical image stabilization to the mix for even smoother video.
Meanwhile, vivo has adopted a so-called micro-gimbal camera system on the ultrawide camera of some flagships, combining this hardware with smart software to offer even smoother video than Super Steady modes. In fact, several vivo flagships have a so-called Horizon Line stabilization mode that can keep the horizon level even when the phone is tilted by 45 degrees or more.
We’ve also seen some older phones doing interesting video-related things with ultrawide cameras. 2020’s HUAWEI P40 Pro phones touted 16-in-one pixel-binning on their 40MP wide cameras to capture brighter video in low-light conditions. There’s also the Motorola One Action and LG Wing. These phones packed an ultrawide camera that’s devoted to video alone, although LG also included a second ultrawide camera for photos. But ultrawide features like this haven’t been common in the last couple of years.
It’s also worth noting that few if any ultrawide cameras actually record in 8K right now. That’s because a camera needs to be 33MP or higher to support 8K. Even phones from HUAWEI, OPPO, vivo, and OnePlus that do have high-resolution cameras often lack 8K recording via their ultrawide cameras.
Which phone has the best ultrawide camera? Our top picks
There are a variety of smartphones with great ultrawide cameras out there, generally offering consistent color profiles, autofocus, great detail, good night-time capabilities, and all the other important factors detailed above. We’ve picked a few options worthy of your consideration.
vivo X80 Pro
The vivo X90 Pro has been out for a while, but we think the X80 Pro is still a better choice if you simply want a great ultrawide camera. You’ve got a 48MP ultrawide shooter with autofocus and optical image stabilization, although it doesn’t have its predecessor’s micro-gimbal stabilization. Nevertheless, you can expect good low-light shots and smooth video out of this sensor.
Vivo’s phone also brings a well-rounded camera system otherwise, serving up a 50MP main camera, 2x 12MP telephoto camera with micro-gimbal stabilization, and a 5x 8MP periscope lens. Each rear camera also has Zeiss lenses with a special coating to reduce glare, and this makes a notable difference.
Our verdict: vivo X80 Pro review
Other features worth knowing include a Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chipset, a 4,700mAh battery, 80W wired charging, 50W wireless charging, an IP68 rating, and the best in-display fingerprint sensor in the industry.
The OnePlus 10 Pro was a bit of a miss for the company, and that’s at least partially due to the ultrawide camera being worse than its predecessors. Fortunately, the OnePlus 11 goes some way to rectifying that misstep.
OnePlus’ latest flagship brings a 48MP ultrawide camera with a 115-degree field-of-view. That’s not the widest camera on this list, but it should still do the job well enough. And this shooter also offers autofocus so you can take macro shots, making it a more flexible ultrawide lens. Fortunately, we thought the ultrawide camera was pretty good in our review.
Our verdict: OnePlus 11 review
Otherwise, the OnePlus 11 represents a bit of a departure from the company’s previous efforts owing to a lower price. That price comes at the expense of wireless charging and a water-resistant design. But at least you’re still getting features like a QHD+ OLED screen, Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor, and a 32MP 2x tele camera.
Google Pixel 7 Pro
The Google Pixel 7 Pro ultrawide camera doesn’t have the most megapixels, but it still delivers a great ultrawide experience. You’re looking at a 12MP shooter here with an expansive 126-degree field-of-view and autofocus. Yes, Google has finally brought autofocus and therefore a macro mode to its Pixels.
Unfortunately, the standard Pixel 7 lacks autofocus for its ultrawide camera. But at least you’re still getting a 12MP shooter (114-degree FoV). Google’s Pro model also serves up a 48MP 5x periscope lens, capable of spitting out good zoomed shots up to 10x.
Our verdict: Google Pixel 7 review | Google Pixel 7 Pro review
Otherwise, the Pixel 7 phones also come with a 50MP main camera, quite a few neat camera tricks (like Photo Unblur, Face Unblur, Long Exposure modes), a capable Tensor G2 processor, big batteries, wireless charging, and IP68 ratings.
OPPO Find X5 Pro
The OPPO Find X6 Pro is already out, but it’s not coming to global markets. Fortunately, the Find X5 Pro can still make a strong claim for having the best ultrawide camera on the market, as both the main and ultrawide shooters use the 50MP IMX766 sensor. And our own review noted consistent exposure and noise between the main and ultrawide shooters, as well as good low-light results from either sensor.
Our verdict: OPPO Find X5 Pro review
The ultrawide camera also packs multi-directional PDAF tech for better focusing, while enabling macro shots too. Otherwise, the biggest downside to the Find X5 Pro ultrawide camera is that the 110-degree field of view isn’t much wider than the main camera.
OPPO’s phone also packs a 13MP 2x telephoto camera, a unique glass design, Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 SoC, a QHD+ 120Hz OLED screen, and IP68 rating.
Samsung Galaxy S23 series
Samsung’s Galaxy S23 series maintains the 12MP ultrawide camera seen on the previous two generations of phones, offering a 120-degree field-of-view and 1.4-micron pixels for decent low-light results. Sure, you’re not getting the high-quality 48MP or 50MP sensors seen on rival devices, but you can still do much worse than this.
Our verdict: Samsung Galaxy S23 review | Samsung Galaxy S23 Plus review | Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra review
The good news is that the ultrawide camera delivers images with similar colors and contrast as the main sensor, no matter the model. However, the biggest downside is that only the Ultra’s ultrawide camera has autofocus capabilities once again, which means only it’s capable of macro shots via this sensor.
Samsung’s 2023 phones also bring a Super Steady video recording mode as you’d expect, harnessing the ultrawide camera to deliver smoother video recording.
Do you love ultrawide cameras? Share your thoughts and any ultrawide photography tips in the comments!