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Phones

Your next iPhone could be more camera than phone

Dual rear cameras on smartphones are officially a thing. But will phone makers stop at just two?

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On top is the Light L16 camera. It's slightly larger than a Galaxy Note 8 and has 16 phone cameras to create DSLR-quality photos.

Josh Miller/CNET

It's just before sunset and I'm cruising across San Francisco Bay on a ferry. As I pass Alcatraz Island, the sun is melting into the Pacific behind the Golden Gate Bridge, like a ball kicked through the uprights at a football ball game for an extra point. It's a jaw-dropping moment so I quickly grab my Samsung Galaxy Note 8, tap the optical zoom and take a picture.

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Here's a picture of a sunset taken with a Samsung Galaxy Note 8. I was on a moving boat going across choppy water.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Later when I look at the photo on my laptop, I'm blown away by how great it looks. Despite the challenging dusk lighting, the ferry's motion and being far away from the bridge, the Note 8 was able to capture the moment surprisingly well.

It wasn't always this way. The diminutive size of phones means they have a tiny camera sensor and lens, which in photography is a recipe for a low-quality image. It's a trade-off many people are willing to make -- embracing the convenience of using a phone as their main camera at the sacrifice of better-looking pictures. Phone manufacturers face a similar dilemma: How can they make cameras produce better images without making phones bigger?

One answer has been to add a second rear camera. But is this approach just some trendy flimflam or can two cameras actually create better images? And if the latter is true, will phone makers stop at just two?

Just the two of us

I rolled my eyes when I first heard about a phone with two rear cameras. It seemed like a gimmick in the way multiblade safety razors are: First, there was a dual-blade cartridge. Then, a triple-blade one, and then a quad. The company Dorco has a razor called the Pace 7 which has... yes, seven blades. But, really, what's the point? You can still shave with one razor.

But dual rear cameras aren't a gimmick. They produce better photos in a conveniently small device. It's kind of a "have your cake and it eat too" philosophy applied to phone photography.

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Currently, there are three main setups for phones with two rear cameras. The first is what the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, Galaxy S9 Plus and the iPhone X have: a standard camera plus a telephoto camera that makes 2x optical zoom possible. The result is zoomed-in photos that look sharp and are noise-free, unlike pictures taken with a digital zoom. The Note 8 and the iPhone X also have portrait settings that combine images taken with both cameras to artistically blur the background to look like a DSLR photo taken with a shallow depth of field.

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The second setup is what LG designed for its G6 and V30: one standard camera and one ultra-wide-angle camera that lets you optically "zoom out" for a wider view. It's great for getting more of your scene into a photo and gives your shots a widescreen cinematic look.

The final implementation is what Huawei puts on its phones: two cameras at the same focal length -- one with a regular color sensor and the other with a monochromatic one. Each camera acquires different aspects of a photo. The black-and-white camera captures the details while the regular camera fills in the color information. All this picture data is combined into a single photo with better overall detail and color range.

But is three a crowd?

If two cameras are great, maybe three could be better. Huawei uses this reasoning for its P20 Pro. It has three rear cameras: a regular camera, a monochromatic camera and a telephoto camera which allows 3x optical zoom.

And what if there's a phone with 16 cameras? Could it rival a DSLR in photo quality?

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The Light L16 camers is made up of 16 different phone cameras. The L16 combines images to produce images that rival a DSLR.

Josh Miller/CNET

It's not that far-fetched an idea thanks to a company in Palo Alto, California, called Light. Last fall, Light released a $1,950 phone-size camera called the L16, which (you guessed it) uses 16 13-megapixel cameras. Some of the cameras are wide-angle and others are telephoto, permitting a 5x optical zoom. Though the L16 isn't a phone (it does run Android), its design makes it easy to envision a similar multicamera array making its way onto a handset.

The L16 came about after Light chief technology officer and co-founder Rajiv Laroia found himself in a photographic predicament: He owned a DSLR and expensive lenses but used his iPhone more because it was convenient. Frustrated with his phone's photo quality, Laroia contemplated how to get DSLR-level image quality inside a small, pocketable device.

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"With phones, we convince ourselves a photo looks good on the screen," Laroia says. "But if we take a look at photos from years ago we realize that the image quality is not exactly how you remember the moment."

The metal body and conspicuous 16 lenses make the L16 look less like a camera and more like an eccentric invention that Doc Brown from "Back to the Future" made. When you take a picture, it chooses a combination of 10 or more of its cameras to fire simultaneously based off how much you've zoomed in. The L16 stitches the individual images into a single photo with a resolution between 13 and 52 megapixels. Photos I've seen from the L16 are sharp, detailed and on the same level of those from a DSLR.

Goodbye DSLRs?

Even if 16 cameras in a phone is too ambitious, I'm excited to see what phone makers will do to improve the photographic prowess of their cameras. To get the same level of image quality as a DSLR, phones will need a couple of things first: faster chips and software to process and power all of the computational photography going on, and more reliance on machine learning to further improve photo rendering.

Ultimately, though, I think about my photo of the Golden Gate Bridge sunset and how wonderful that moment was. Whether it's one camera, two or 16, what matters most is being able to capture a moment in a way that means the most to you.

This story appears in the spring 2017 edition of CNET Magazine. Click here for more magazine stories.

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