While some smartphone makers such as Samsung, Nokia, and Sony are busy cramming megapixels into their smartphone cameras, Apple is expected to continue its strategy of improving the iPhone’s camera in different ways.
A new report from Apple Insider claims that “people familiar with the matter” have said Apple won’t prioritise the megapixel count for cameras in its 2014 smartphones. This isn’t necessarily surprising, but it reiterates the idea that the sheer number of megapixels doesn’t always dictate the quality of a camera.
The quality of an image depends on how much light the camera is able to take in. The size of a camera’s sensor and the pixels on that sensor are both crucial in dictating how much light a camera is able to absorb. Typically, bigger sensors come with larger pixels, and larger pixels are capable of drawing in more light. So, the size of the megapixels actually matters more than the number of megapixels.
Here’s how Matthew Panzarino, a professional photographer that claims to have shot everything from wedding portraits to wildlife, explained the megapixel’s role to TechCrunch:
“This of this as holding a thimble in a rain storm to try to catch water. The bigger your thimble, the easier it is to catch more drops in a shorter amount of time.”
The thimble, in this metaphor, refers to megapixels while water represents light.
Apple upgraded the size of the megapixels in the iPhone 5s’ 8-MP camera sensor to 1.5 microns, which is slightly up from the 1.4-micron megapixels in the iPhone 5’s camera. Apple isn’t the only smartphone manufacturer to observe that megapixel size matters. HTC’s flagship One comes with a 4-megapixel camera, but the megapixels measure at 2.0 microns.
According to Apple Insider, this doesn’t necessarily mean Apple will stick with the 8-megapixel camera we’ve seen on the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s. It just means Apple won’t try to stuff 20 megapixels into the camera on its next iPhone, which is an obvious move for Apple based on its history.
The report comes as smartphone vendors are making dramatic improvements to mobile device cameras. The next-generation HTC One, for instance, is rumoured to be able to capture images with 3D aesthetics. Nokia’s Lumia 1020 comes with a noticeably large lens that’s capable of absorbing just as much light as a standalone point-and-shoot.
While upcoming smartphone camera technology is impressive, it can be difficult to discern advancements from gimmicks. For example, there’s a chance that a smartphone with a megapixel count as high as 20 or 40 could distort an image’s colour or add noise to the photo. The more megapixels are shoved into a small camera sensor, the smaller they are. This means the camera could have more trouble taking in light, which may distort the image.
Bottom line: If you want to take the best photos with your smartphone, ignore the megapixel count. It’s more important to check how big the camera’s sensor is.