Google is one of the latest major brands to adopt an ultra-wide angle rear camera, long after the likes of Huawei, Samsung, LG, Apple, and Xiaomi brought the technology to the table.
There are plenty of phones out there with ultra-wide shooters, but the best of the bunch deliver far more than just a wider field of view. In fact, an ultra-wide 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 ultra-wide camera? We’ve got you covered with our guide to the technology.
What is an ultra-wide 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, last year’s Samsung Galaxy S20 had a 12MP main camera with a 79-degree field of view (FoV). Meanwhile, ultra-wide cameras go even wider than that, with the S20’s ultra-wide sensor offering a 123-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 Huawei Mate 20 Pro’s main (left) and ultra-wide shots below.
One downside to ultra-wide 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 a 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 Xiaomi Mi 9T Pro, with the distortion correction toggle off.
It’s tough to create ultra-wide 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.
Other companies like Google, Huawei, and LG simply opt for a narrower field of view (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 ultra-wide sensors. Of course, dialing things back too far can mean you’re left with an ultra-wide shot that isn’t all too different from the main camera.
What makes a good ultra-wide camera?
Now that we know what an ultra-wide camera is and how field-of-view works, let’s take a closer look at the ingredients you need for a great ultra-wide shooter.
The right amount of megapixels
Megapixels aren’t the number one factor for determining ultra-wide image quality, but they’re still a significant consideration. They are particularly important if you plan to print ultra-wide snaps, or if you simply want to crop into an ultra-wide image.
We generally see the best ultra-wide cameras on the market opt for no less than 8MP for decent results. We also see 5MP ultra-wide sensors on 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 ultra-wide camera also means you’re going to be limited to 1080p for ultra-wide video recording since 4K recording requires 8MP or higher.
We’ve also recently seen a trend towards cramming plenty of megapixels into an ultra-wide camera, with some phones reaching as much as 50MP. All those megapixels result in tiny photo-sites, used to capture light. However, small photo-sites mean less light is being captured. 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 ultra-wide camera experience is simple consistency in terms of color reproduction between the main camera and the ultra-wide 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 ultra-wide 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 ultra-wide 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 5 lacks this option too. Thankfully, it’s becoming more common on flagship phones in 2021.
The main reason you’d want autofocus on your ultra-wide 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 2MP macro sensor.
Related: What is macro photography?
Macro shots via the ultra-wide 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 ultra-wide lens using macro mode back in 2019. It was cropped from a slightly larger image. Not too bad, right?
Autofocus on an ultra-wide camera also makes for a more flexible camera in general. It allows you to treat the ultra-wide 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.
Phones with fixed focus ultra-wide 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 ultra-wide images in general, as the camera is able to properly focus on the desired scene instead of just taking a fixed-focus shot that ends 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 ultra-wide rear camera in the same way. Instead, it’s extremely common to find a major difference in quality between main and ultra-wide 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, and others have offered night mode on the ultra-wide camera for over a year now. The combo of night mode and an ultra-wide 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 ultra-wide camera above, with the standard shot on the left and the night mode snap on the right.
The different types of ultra-wide video
Ultra-wide angle cameras are generally 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 LG and Samsung offer a so-called Super Steady or Steady Cam mode, filming video via the ultra-wide camera but cropping in. This serves as a form of electronic image stabilization. We’ve seen Samsung take this mode a step further by adding optical image stabilization to the mix for even smoother video.
South Korean brands aren’t the only ones doing interesting video-related things with ultra-wide cameras, however. Last year’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 Motorola and its One Action smartphone. This phone packs an ultra-wide angle camera that’s devoted to video alone.
Meanwhile, Vivo has adopted a so-called micro-gimbal camera system on its flagship’s ultra-wide camera, combining this hardware with smart software to offer even smoother video than Super Steady modes.
It’s also worth noting that few if any ultra-wide 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, and OnePlus that do have high-resolution cameras still lack 8K recording via their ultra-wide cameras.
The best ultra-wide camera phones
There are a variety of smartphones with great ultra-wide 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 X60 Pro Plus
Vivo’s X60 Pro Plus isn’t available in many countries (with China and India being the main markets), but you should definitely consider this flagship if you’re on the hunt for a great ultra-wide experience.
The phone has a 48MP ultra-wide camera mated to a micro-gimbal system. This means you can expect much better stabilization than traditional OIS, allowing for smoother video clips and low-light shots that aren’t too far off the main camera. You can also capture great macro shots thanks to the presence of autofocus.
The rest of the X60 Pro Plus camera system is pretty handy too, featuring a 50MP main camera, a 2X 32MP telephoto lens, and a 5X 8MP periscope camera. Otherwise, the Vivo X60 Pro Plus packs a Snapdragon 888 SoC, 55W wired charging for the 4,200mAh battery, and a neat faux leather back.
OnePlus 9 series
OnePlus upped the ultra-wide ante in a big way with the OnePlus 8 Pro, and it’s continued this trend with the OnePlus 9 series. Only now, both the Pro and standard models have gained identical ultra-wide snappers.
Yes, the OnePlus 9 and OnePlus 9 Pro both use a 50MP IMX766 camera sensor for ultra-wide shots. And both cameras offer autofocus and a free-form lens for more flexibility and reduced distortion respectively. This setup paid dividends, as our reviewers praised the wide-angle snaps from these devices.
Otherwise, the Pro variant packs faster wireless charging, water resistance across the board, a QHD+ screen, and a telephoto lens. Meanwhile, the standard model has bog-standard wireless charging (or wired-only in India), no official IP rating on unlocked phones, an FHD+ panel, and no telephoto camera.
Oppo Find X3 Pro
Last year’s Oppo Find X2 Pro delivered a 48MP ultra-wide camera (IMX586) alongside a 48MP IMX689 main camera, so how does 2021’s Find X3 Pro step things up? Well, Oppo uses the same high-quality sensor for both the main and ultra-wide cameras. That’s right, Oppo uses a pair of IMX789 sensors to ensure comparable levels of detail, dynamic range, and color reproduction.
So it stands to reason that if you want an ultra-wide camera that’s as close to the main shooter as possible, you should give the Oppo Find X3 Pro a look. Otherwise, the phone also sports a 13MP 2X telephoto camera and a 3MP microscope lens for microscope-style shots.
Other notable Find X3 Pro features include a unique glass design, Snapdragon 888 chipset, a QHD+ 120Hz OLED panel, and IP68 water/dust resistance.
Samsung Galaxy S21 series
Samsung’s Galaxy S21 series doesn’t have the high-resolution ultra-wide cameras seen on rival phones, but you’re still getting a great experience anyway. The S21, S21 Plus, and S21 Ultra all sport a 12MP camera with 1.4-micron pixels and a 120-degree field of view.
Samsung’s recent smartphones have a Super Steady video recording mode that harnesses the ultra-wide camera too, and the S21 series is no exception. As the name implies, you’re getting much smoother video recording in this mode, with the S21 series offering 60fps support too.
Another major addition to the S21 family’s ultra-wide repertoire this year is autofocus, enabling much better macro shots than a token macro camera and making the ultra-wide more versatile. Toss in night mode via this camera and Samsung is certainly making great use of its ultra-wide sensors this year.
Do you love ultra-wide-angle cameras? Share your thoughts and any ultra-wide photography tips in the comments!