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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.
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 S21 has a 12MP main camera with a field of view (FoV) of roughly 80 degrees. Meanwhile, ultrawide cameras go even wider than that, with the S21’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 S20 FE’s 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 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.
Other companies like Google, Huawei, Oppo, and LG simply opt 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 year or so 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 the OnePlus 9 series, and the company compares 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 8MP for decent results. We also see 5MP ultrawide 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 ultrawide camera also means you’re going to be limited to 1080p for ultrawide video recording since 4K recording requires 8MP or higher.
We’ve recently seen a trend towards cramming plenty of megapixels into an ultrawide 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 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 6 series lacks this option too. 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 2MP macro sensor.
Related: What is macro photography?
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 back in 2019. 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 extremely 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.
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 LG, Samsung, Oppo, 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.
These firms aren’t the only ones doing interesting video-related things with ultrawide cameras, however. 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 pack an ultrawide camera that’s devoted to video alone, although LG also includes a second ultrawide camera for photos.
Meanwhile, Vivo has adopted a so-called micro-gimbal camera system on the ultrawide camera of its recent flagships, combining this hardware with smart software to offer even smoother video than Super Steady modes. In fact, the Vivo X70 Pro Plus has a so-called Horizon Line stabilization mode that can keep the horizon level even when the phone is tilted by 45 degrees or more.
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 still lack 8K recording via their ultrawide cameras.
The best ultrawide camera phones
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 X70 Pro Plus
Vivo’s X70 Pro Plus is only available in China and India, but you should definitely consider this flagship if you’re on the hunt for a great ultrawide experience.
The phone has a 48MP ultrawide 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 rear camera system is pretty handy too, featuring a 50MP main camera, a 2X 12MP telephoto lens, and a 5X 8MP periscope camera. Otherwise, the Vivo X70 Pro Plus packs a Snapdragon 888 Plus SoC, 55W wired charging or 50W wireless charging for the 4,500mAh battery, and a rather cool (but slippery) glass back.
OnePlus 9 series
The OnePlus 10 series is nearly here, but the OnePlus 9 series is still worth considering if you want a great ultrawide experience.
Yes, the OnePlus 9 and OnePlus 9 Pro both use a 50MP IMX766 camera sensor for ultrawide 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
Oppo uses the same high-quality sensor for both the main and ultrawide cameras. That’s right, it uses a pair of IMX789 sensors to ensure comparable levels of detail, dynamic range, and color reproduction when shooting standard or wide snaps.
So it stands to reason that if you want an ultrawide 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 ultrawide 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 ultrawide 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.
The big downside is that only the Galaxy S21 Ultra has autofocus on the ultrawide camera, which means only it enjoys macro shots via this sensor. Nevertheless, the addition of ultrawide night mode on all three models helps ensure a solid ultrawide experience nonetheless.
Do you love ultrawide cameras? Share your thoughts and any ultrawide photography tips in the comments!