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Sony’s Camera Sensors May Be Too Big for Smartphones 2021

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Key Takeaways

Rumors say Sony has built a 1-inch smartphone sensor.A larger sensor means better images, but bigger lenses.It may be a struggle to use bigger sensors without huge camera bumps. Dan-Cristian Pădureț / Unsplash

Sony may be about to release a 1-inch image sensor for smartphones. This could be revolutionary—if only manufacturers can fit them in.

One-inch sensors are small by camera standards—they're typically found in cheap point-and-shoots—but they are way bigger than the sensors found in smartphones. A bigger chip means better images, but there's a reason that they aren't used in phones.

"One of the biggest issues for camera manufacturers so far has just been figuring out ways to physically fit that technology in phones," Brandon Ballweg, of photo tutorial site ComposeClick, told Ach5 via email. "And in general, the larger the sensor size, the larger the lens is going to need to be."

Fitting It All In

It's simple enough to fit a bigger sensor into a phone. The problem is with the lenses. A bigger sensor requires a bigger lens, and that lens will typically need to sit further from the sensor.

A 1-inch sensor measures 13.2 x 8.8 mm. A typical phone sensor, like the one found in the iPhone, might be 7 x 5.8 mm. That's quite a difference, and slimline phones like the iPhone 12 already have trouble packing in their existing camera arrays.

"One downside may be that by using a 1-inch sensor, phone manufacturers may have to increase the size of their ‘camera bumps' on the back of the phone," says Ballweg.

"Computational photography has come a long way, but is no substitute for larger sensors, which will always be able to output better image quality."

Bigger is Way, Way Better

Bigger camera sensors bring many advantages. One is that they're better at gathering light. Given the same number of pixels on two sensors, the bigger one can have larger pixels, which are able to gather more light. This really helps out in low light, where every photon counts. Bigger sensors also have an optical advantage: shallower depth-of-field.

Depth-of-field (DoF) is the amount of an image that looks to be in focus. With a small sensor, everything appears in focus, from close up to far away. With a big sensor, you get a shallower DoF, which can blur the background and make your in-focus subject pop out.

Parker Johnson / Unsplash

Modern phone cameras fake this shallow DoF with depth modes that detect the subject, then computationally blur the background. It can look pretty good, but it's not quite perfect yet. Which brings us to…

Computational Photography

Modern smartphone cameras have one big advantage over even the most advanced cameras: they have super-powerful computers built in. This lets them overcome many of the disadvantages of small sensors. Night modes compensate for the poor low-light capabilities of small sensors, depth modes make subjects pop, and image stabilization helps squeeze extra light into those pixels. Panorama modes let you stitch together small images to make bigger ones, and so on.

"Computational photography has come a long way, but is no substitute for larger sensors, which will always be able to output better image quality," says Ballweg. "Likewise, computational photography still has a long way to go to smooth out the somewhat frequent errors you get with the technology, like improperly blurring parts of a photo that should remain in focus."

The Future

Bringing larger sensors to smartphones can make real differences, but perhaps only for more specialized models. That rules out the iPhone, which is about as mass-market as it gets. But perhaps there's room for a hybrid, a phone/camera that offers the sensor and lens performance of a regular point-and-shoot camera, but with the computer brain of a phone? 

Sony already has tried that with its Xperia Pro, a phone designed to be used as a monitor for pro video cameras.

"I'm no expert on the cell phone market, but I'd imagine these sorts of experiments will continue," Lensrentals video marketing strategist Ryan Hill told Ach5 via email, responding to questions about the Xperia Pro. "I do think photographers and videographers make sense as specialized customers to pursue. I'm just not aware of any products that have really succeeded in that goal."

Perhaps hybrid cameras might get more popular as photographers trained on smartphones look for something better, but with all the comforts they're accustomed to? That would be pretty sweet.