The selfie phone is an actual thing – or it’s becoming a thing.
As much as that makes me not want to live on this planet anymore, it’s actually a good thing. No, the word “selfie” itself is a monstrosity. But that front cameras on smartphones are finally getting the attention they deserve is a wonderful thing.
Today, the front camera is where fond memories and borderline narcissistic social culture meet. A group of friends out for an increasingly rare night on the town all huddle around one person’s phone to capture the fleeting moment forever. Meanwhile, fishing for compliments, a so-called Instagram star spends an hour taking dozens of selfies with her head cocked at different angles and applying just the right combination of filters to get the mythical “perfect selfie” so she can share it with her followers.
Point being, while it may not be quite as important as the primary camera around back, front-facing cameras are increasingly popular. Originally intended for low-res video calls – a la FaceTime – almost every smartphone and tablet has a camera fixated on its face somewhere.
Until recently, the different in quality between front and rear cameras has been profound. Rear cameras are quickly encroaching on point-and-shoot quality while front-facers have mainly been sufficient for pixelated video calls. Yet cameras on both sides are just as important for capturing moments, even if use is likely skewed towards the back camera.
This shift in importance in front cameras can be visualized by the rapid increase in front camera resolutions. Between 2008 and 2013, most front-facing shooters on smartphones were between 0.2- and 3-megapixel sensors. This year, however, we’ve seen multiple smartphones with notably higher-res front cameras. The HTC One M8, for instance, comes with a 5-megapixel wide angle front camera. Oppo’s Find 7 and Find 7a smartphones also have 5-megapixel front shooters. Sony’s so-called selfie phone, the Xperia C3, also features a 5-megapixel camera around front, as do a few rumored devices, like the Lumia 730. Even more, Xiaomi’s Mi4, which we recently reviewed, has an 8-megapixel front camera.
Despite higher-resolutions, front-facing cameras still aren’t all that great, and the reason why seems all too familiar.
Smartphone image sensors, by nature, are already much smaller than the sensors found in point-and-shoot cameras. Currently, we’re looking at a difference of a 1-inch sensor on something like the Sony RX100M III and a 2/3-inch sensor on the Lumia 1020. If you look at a more typical smartphone image sensor, it’s going to be more along the lines of a 1/3-inch sensor – or one-third the size of the RX100M III’s sensor.
This explains why point-and-shoots still have an edge on smartphone imagery. It also explains why simply bumping the resolution of front cameras doesn’t show immediate signs of drastic improvement. These front sensors haven’t actually grown in size all that much.
The One M7, for example, merely had a 2.1-megapixel front camera. The One M8′s front camera, of course, is 5-megapixels. Despite having more than doubled in resolution, the physical sensor size only grew from 1/5.8-inches to 1/5-inches – or approximately 0.028-inches diagonally.
Technically, this also means that the physical pixel size on the sensor has been nearly halved. And we all know pixel size matters … a lot.
What flash? I can’t see a thing!
Lighting is an issue all smartphone cameras struggle with. A vast majority of smartphone pictures are taken in poorly lit conditions – typically indoors or at night. The same especially goes for selfies. I see people at bars, concerts, and other dark places taking selfies with friends all the time.
Of course, you can’t always control the environment you’re in, so OEMs have worked on features to help capture more light and take brighter photos, even in dark environments. Some camera use optical stabilization, others use larger pixels on the sensor.
These techniques only sort of help low-light photography in primary cameras, but front shooters don’t have either. I just explained that the sensors only slightly grew in size while more than doubling resolution, and few manufacturers have put forth the effort to use hardware stabilization in rear cameras, much less front-facing cameras.
A last-ditch effort for smartphone users is to flick on the pesky, retina-burning flash to grab photo where the background is almost completely blacked-out, everyone’s face is an unnatural tone, and everyone’s pupils are a bright white glare.
With the exception of Sony’s C3 camera, none of the front-facing cameras have flash. Frankly, that’s probably a good thing. Asking some random passerby to take a group photo of you and your friends will likely yield a better photo, and the flash won’t be mere inches from your face. A front-firing flash might sting a bit.
The glass used in the lenses are very important, as well. With higher-quality glass, you get sharper focus, a cleaner image, and, based on what the manufacturer includes, filters. The iPhone 4S camera, for example, introduced a five-element lens (over the 4′s four-element lens) with a hybrid infrared filter. This helped in reducing chromatic aberrations and red ghosting, according to Gizmodo‘s Brent Rose.
The thing is, unlike on the back of smartphones, space is cramped on the front, and the glass used isn’t nearly as nice. You don’t see manufacturers promoting a five-element lens on a front camera … yet.
They’re still just fine
The fact of the matter is, front cameras on smartphones are about where rear cameras were back in 2008 – all resolution and practically no optimization. And we’ll likely go through the same process as before. OEMs will market the hell out of their front camera and explain why it’s better than the competitions’ when, in reality, they’re all pretty bad.
Regardless of all this, front cameras are far better than they’ve been in the past. And for their primary purpose – the selfie – they’re perfectly fine. People don’t typically frame selfies; they post them to Instagram, send them as ephemeral messages (Snapchat), or set them as their profile picture.
For that very purpose, the 5-megapixel front camera on the One M8 or 8-megapixel front shooter on the Mi4 are more than sufficient. I really loved having the wide angle lens on the One M8. Being able to capture a half-decent selfie (shiver) of my friends and I at my birthday cookout was nice. I normally wouldn’t have been able to squeeze everyone in, but it was quite easy with how wide the M8′s front camera is.
Some OEMs have even explored ideas like rotating primary cameras. The Oppo N1, for example, had a rotating 13-megapixel camera and flash for taking selfies with the rear camera. But I’m not a fan of moving parts and feel having two separate sensors is a better long-term solution.
Over time and as imaging becomes cheaper and more efficient on smartphones, front cameras will gradually improve, as well. Hopefully by that time, a decent enough software stabilization method will have been developed so we don’t go around blinding ourselves and all our friends trying to take selfies in the club.