You can’t work for a site called Review Geek without getting hands-on experience with a ton of smartphones. But every time a new budget phone crosses my path, I get more and more frustrated with a stupid trend. These affordable phones all have three, four, or even five cameras, but they can’t take a half-decent photo.
Budget manufacturers are sacrificing camera quality just to say, “look how many cameras are in our phone!” It’s a terrible situation that doesn’t benefit customers, and it could all be solved by paring these phones down to just one good camera and focusing money toward quality.
Twenty years ago, people began to realize that their flip phones could stand in for a point-and-shoot camera. Sure, flip phone cameras didn’t capture the best pictures, but they were incredibly convenient. And after a few years of technological advancements, cameras suddenly became one of the biggest selling points for mobile phones.
It’s been over a decade since the first smartphone launched, and still, camera quality is at the center of nearly every phone advertisement. I’d argue that phone camera quality is more important than ever before, as there aren’t many ways to make modern phones stand out from one another.
This demand for high-quality cameras has pushed manufacturers toward an interesting trend. Manufacturers now stick multiple cameras in phones, each with a specific purpose. And honestly, it’s a great idea. Some phones now contain a standard, ultra-wide, telephoto, and macro lens to accommodate a variety of shooting styles and environments.
If you buy a high-end phone with multiple cameras, you can expect each lens to shoot high-quality photos. Having on-demand access to all of this hardware is an amazing convenience—unless all the cameras suck, of course.
Most new budget phones come packed with three or four terrible, awful cameras. It’s one of the most bizarre trends in this market, and it doesn’t do any good for customers. But here’s the thing; manufacturers can’t join the multi-camera trend without sacrificing camera quality. It’s a very straightforward trade-off.
In order to make great phone cameras, manufacturers need to spend a lot of money picking worthwhile parts, going through R&D, and employing talented individuals. In the world of $1,000 iPhones, this stuff pays for itself, but budget phone manufacturers need to cut corners.
Cutting corners isn’t always a bad thing—it’s the reason we have cheap phones in the first place! But when a manufacturer decides to stick four cameras on a $200 phone, it can only make stupid compromises. Resources get spread thin, leading to things like low-quality camera hardware or an unfocused R&D process. In the end, we get a bunch of crappy cameras in an otherwise decent phone.
I should clarify that this isn’t just a hardware thing. Some cheap phones have huge camera sensors, which should capture amazing photos! But software seems to be a bit more important. Without good software, photos look washy and discolored. The OnePlus Nord N10 5G is a great example; its massive 64MP camera takes some of the smudgiest photos I’ve ever seen.
Brands like Google and Apple are masters of software, which is why iPhones and Pixel phones use relatively small camera sensors. The iPhone 13, for example, has a 12MP main camera. But it takes amazing photos because Apple spends a ton of money developing computational photography algorithms.
Obviously, small brands don’t have the money to beat Apple or Google’s camera software. But budget phones don’t need perfect cameras; they just need cameras that consistently shoot good photos. It’s clear that these brands simply aren’t spending money on the right stuff—so, what’s the solution?
Instead of stretching a small budget to dump four cameras in a cheap phone, manufacturers should focus on developing just one good camera (plus a decent selfie camera, obviously). That will give the companies more money to invest in hardware, software, and optimization.
At first, the results of this scheme may not be too impressive. But a budget manufacturer can reuse the same cameras in multiple phones, thereby extending software development over several years. That’s what Google and Apple do with their cameras, and it seems to work pretty well!
I’ll admit that using just one camera in a phone has its drawbacks. You can’t take an ultra-wide shot without an ultra-wide camera, and all that. But I’d still prefer to have just one good camera, and realistically speaking, some people don’t even know how to use the extra cameras on their phones.
Also, some brands have successfully tested the single-camera strategy. The Google Pixel 3a, which is one of the best budget phones of all time, has just one rear camera. And while Apple’s iPhone SE regularly gets thrown under the bus, people usually complain about its outdated design, not its lack of lenses.
It’s clear that budget manufacturers should focus on substance, not appearance. That’s what customers want and need from their phones. But I doubt that this situation will change any time soon, because any attempt to solve the problem could hurt a manufacturer’s bottom line.
Phones are not free, and neither are phone plans. Yet a phone is basically required if you want to maintain an income, a home, and other necessities. Suffice to say, people don’t want this money to go to waste—they want a decent phone!
Here’s the problem; learning about phones takes time, and the knowledge you gain constantly becomes outdated. The average person just buys a good-looking phone when their old one stops working. Taking the time to learn about this stuff would be a waste.
If you don’t know much about phones and need a new one right away, you’re going to take things at face value. And that includes the cameras. From a business standpoint, sticking just one camera in a phone is a stupid idea, because that phone will look like a ripoff sitting next to the $200 handset with a massive four-camera hump on its back.
While it may not be the most profitable stance, I really hope that manufacturers ditch the multi-camera trend and focus on quality. But I’m not optimistic.
If there’s any silver lining, it’s that camera quality will slowly improve across the industry. Affordable phones of the future will take better photos than the iPhones of today. At least, I certainly hope so!