The growing trend of dual smartphone cameras
Just over a month ago Apple announced its two newest smartphones: the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. If you’ve heard or read about any of the new hardware features, then you probably know that the dual camera system is a key selling point for iPhone 7 Plus. To the average smartphone user, this might seem like a pointless feature; why would you need two cameras when you already have one that works perfect? But with a bit of research and some general knowledge of cameras, the advantages of a two-lens system become apparent.
The iPhone 7 Plus sports two 12MP cameras, one is a wide-angle, 28mm, with a f/1.8 aperture, and the other is a “telephoto,” 56mm, with a f/2.8 aperture. What does all that mean? Let’s start with 12MP, or megapixels. This means that both cameras will produce the same size pictures, which at 12MP can print as large as 13.3”x10” and stay sharp. Cameras with less megapixels have to print smaller sizes to stay sharp, and more megapixels can print larger pictures.
The next two facts go together: wide-angle/28mm and “telephoto”/56mm. The word is the general type of lens based on its viewing range, and the number specifies exactly how much you can view. The lower the number, the wider your camera can see, and the more your picture will include. For that reason, the wide-angle lens is the standard one on most smartphones now. But if you want to zoom in on a subject, you’ll want to use a telephoto lens. These lenses zoom in farther – in the case of the iPhone 7 Plus, 2x farther – and keep the same quality as the wide-angle lens. This “optical zoom” is significantly better than the digital zoom (which loses quality) found on other smartphone cameras today.
And finally, the aperture. Aperture in lenses controls how much light is let into the camera. The closer the number is to zero, the wider the aperture is, letting in more light. Since the wide-angle lens has a f/1.8 aperture and the “telephoto” has f/2.8, the wide-angle is slightly better in low-light situations.
Putting it all together, the answer to our question is optical zoom – being able to focus on a far-away subject without losing camera quality. By having two cameras, Apple and other companies are trying to simulate a feature traditionally reserved to expensive high-end, interchangeable lens cameras. While those cameras are still significantly more powerful and more diverse in their functionality, this is just one more feature that narrows the gap between the two types of cameras. In the future, Apple also has plans to simulate depth-of-field (the blur you see behind subjects in professional pictures) using the dual lenses, and to possibly allow users to change it after the picture has been taken.
Like many of Apple’s newest features nowadays, the company was not the first to implement the dual-camera system into a phone, but they are the company that is bringing it into popularity. Apple certainly won’t be the last brand to add the feature either, as I would expect it to become standard on most phones within the next two years just like how fingerprint sensors became the norm after the iPhone 5s was released. So even if you aren’t an Apple fan, the information above will likely apply to your next smartphone too.
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*All information accurate as of 10/22/16