Author(s): Raghu Gopal
Last month, Huawei together with partner Leica unveiled the P9 and P9 Plus smartphones (see Instant Insight: Huawei Announces P9 Smartphone). Each phone has two primary cameras on the back to help optimize the devices' imaging capabilities.
Huawei wasn't the first smartphone with a dual camera. HTC and LG experimented with such a build years ago with disappointing results. At that stage, the main purpose was to try and jump on the 3D bandwagon — something that never really got any traction. More recently, HTC combined two lenses to offer refocusing options on its One M8 phone. It was an interesting approach but failed to capture the imagination of consumers. Last year, Honor, Huawei's sub-brand, included a second eight-megapixel camera to allow refocusing and a variable aperture, but the resulting pictures appeared unnatural.
These were respectable attempts to stand out in a crowded field of lookalike phones. As phones have become highly homogenised, it's getting difficult for hardware makers to create market excitement. In general, smartphones in the same price band carry very similar specs. Leading device manufacturers have been searching for new, marketable features, and dual camera builds may be one of them.
In the past few months, LG and Huawei have led the way by introducing two very different dual cameras, which indicates the direction the industry is moving in. Both LG and Huawei added secondary rear cameras without sacrificing much in the way of design.
For its P9 device, Huawei partnered with the venerable German photography brand Leica. The device has both an RGB (colour) camera and a monochrome (black and white) sensor, which specialises in capturing detail. The two rear cameras of the P9 phone work together to enable users to capture images of superior detail, depth and colour even in low-light conditions, as the dual-camera architecture allows more light in.
These pictures, taken by CCS Insight's Ben Wood using the Huawei P9 phone, demonstrate a bokeh effect and a low-light picture.
The LG G5 model features a standard 16-megapixel camera with an f1.8 aperture and a 78-degree angle of view (common on most high-end smartphones), as well as a second eight-megapixel camera with an f2.4 aperture and a 135-degree super wide angle lens. Users are able to switch between lenses in the camera app. When zooming, the device switches seamlessly between the two cameras.
Smartphones still have a way to go before they can match mirrorless and DSLR stand-alone cameras, which have large sensors and weigh significantly more than smartphones. But smartphone manufacturers are using new tricks to approach the quality of DSLRs, using hardware advancements in small sensors and smart software processing such as fast automatic high dynamic range for images.
Smartphone makers will continue to differentiate themselves by including dual rear cameras to either augment the image quality or provide more depth of field. Huawei and LG have introduced impressive dual-camera imaging devices. Yet they're not breaking sales records and it remains to be seen if other companies will follow suit in 2016.
There are also rumours about leading smartphone brands moving in the same direction, doubling down on cameras. In the age of similar-looking smartphones, it may well be that aside from the technical benefits of dual cameras, some consumers may assume "two is better than one" and this could ultimately influence their purchasing decision and that of manufacturers when assessing this new approach.