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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 camera phone with a great ultrawide shooter? 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 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 has 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 Samsung, Xiaomi, vivo, and others have offered night mode on the ultrawide camera for several 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 night mode on the aging LG V60’s 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 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.
Ultrawide cameras are the foundation behind the Super Steady video modes seen on modern smartphones.
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 few years.
It’s also worth noting that few 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.
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.
- Google Pixel 7 Pro ($589.98 at Amazon): The Google Pixel 7 Pro brings a 12MP ultrawide camera with an expansive 126-degree field-of-view and autofocus (the latter enabling macro mode). The rest of the phone is pretty swell too, owing to a QHD+ OLED screen, IP68 rating, great zoom, and Pixel-exclusive software features.
- OnePlus 11 ($1296 at Amazon): OnePlus’ 2023 flagship brings a 48MP ultrawide camera with autofocus and a 115-degree field-of-view. That’s not the widest camera on the list, but we were still happy with the results. OnePlus has also traded some premium features like wireless charging and water resistance for a more competitive price tag.
- OPPO Find X5 Pro ($999 at Amazon): OPPO’s 2023 flagship is a China-only release, but last year’s X5 Pro still brings a great ultrawide camera. Both the main and ultrawide cameras use the same IMX766 sensor, while the ultrawide lens has multi-directional PDAF tech for better focusing. Toss in water resistance and a great design, and you’ve got a slick, premium-tier device.
- Samsung Galaxy S23 series ($799 at Amazon): The Galaxy flagships maintain 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. Unfortunately, only the Ultra model gets autofocus/macro capabilities. But all three phones bring powerful chips, IP68 ratings, and wireless charging.
- vivo X80 Pro (₹86999 at Manufacturer site): The vivo X90 Pro is already a thing, but the 2022 model arguably has the better ultrawide camera experience. The X80 Pro brings a 48MP ultrawide camera with OIS, autofocus, and an anti-glare lens coating. You’re also getting by far the biggest in-display fingerprint sensor on the market.
Do you love ultrawide cameras? Share your thoughts and any ultrawide photography tips in the comments!