One-inch phone cameras are great, but they also need DSLR-like lenses

Close the Xiaomi 13 Ultra camera housing

Robert Triggs / Android Authority

One of the more notable trends in the best smartphone cameras over the past 12 months has been the move to one-inch sensors. The 50MP Sony IMX989 leads the charge in this regard, becoming the primary camera of choice for some of the best Android phones.

It goes without saying that a larger camera sensor is usually a good thing in the smartphone space, offering better light gathering capabilities. And more light captured means brighter photos, increased dynamic range, and improved detail.

However, our time with several one-inch camera phones shows that a variable aperture is also necessary.

What’s wrong with one-inch cameras?

In combination with a relatively large aperture, one-inch camera sensors don’t always offer the best focus. One issue is that only a small area is in focus, with subjects around a scene looking very soft and/or featuring blurry edges. In fact, you may find that only a small part of your main topic is in focus. That could be due to the poorer quality lenses not being able to focus light as well as the edges of the frame.

Second, large sensors and large apertures produce a narrow or shallow depth of field, making it difficult to capture a subject in full focus. This is particularly noticeable when trying to take photos that are fairly close to a subject but not close enough for macro mode to kick in. It can also be noticeable when taking group shots, resulting in people at the edge of the scene being out-of-focus. Although the large vivo X90 Pro camera proved to be good, it is also a good candidate to show these issues in some snaps below. Notice that the nuts on the edge of the bowl are blurry, while the flower petals have ghosted edges.

Extreme blur isn’t always a bad thing, as it allows for more natural bokeh effects in some situations, such as portraits. But this means you have to step back to keep everything in focus in some situations, while conventional phones with smaller sensors let you stay close and focused. Some examples include taking pictures of food, plants, and documents. This can be particularly annoying when taking photos of documents and other close-up snaps with flat surfaces.

How can a variable aperture help?

Huawei P60 Pro main camera housing close up angled

Robert Triggs / Android Authority

A handy solution to this problem is to slap a variable aperture on a large sensor. This is exactly what brands like Xiaomi and HUAWEI have done with the Xiaomi 13 Ultra, HUAWEI Mate 50 Pro, and HUAWEI P60 Pro. Xiaomi’s Ultra flagship, in particular, gets on board and pairs a one-inch sensor with an adjustable aperture. We were certainly impressed with the Xiaomi 13 Ultra camera during our review.

This technique means you can shoot at the widest aperture with a large sensor for natural bokeh effects and brighter snaps. However, you can also switch to a narrow aperture when you need to get closer to a subject or if you just want everything in focus with a wider depth of field. Check out the example below, shot on the P60 Pro.

This variable aperture approach means you can keep things in focus without pulling back. See comparisons between the X90 Pro and the predecessor Mate 50 Pro. You’ll notice the blurry edges on the planter in the background in the vivo shot.

That said, variable aperture isn’t a silver bullet for better photos with large camera sensors. For example, the Mate 50 Pro tends to oversharpen photos taken at ƒ/4.0. We also noticed some white balance inconsistency between different aperture levels. This is less of an issue with the P60 Pro but still something to be aware of. So consistent image processing at different aperture levels should be another important consideration for manufacturers.

Variable aperture already exists in several different forms. HUAWEI provides ten different aperture levels (f/1.4 to f/4.0), providing some of the flexibility you find in SLR cameras. However, you don’t need all that to benefit from technology. The Xiaomi 13 Ultra has a dual aperture design (f/1.9 and f/4.0) instead. Although less flexible, it still provides two different aperture options that help keep images in focus. Check out the comparison below to see what we mean.

It’s also worth noting that many, but not all, phones with variable aperture capability can automatically switch between aperture levels in standard portrait mode. This is particularly handy for photography beginners or those who simply don’t want to spend time adjusting settings to get the perfect shot. If variable aperture tech is going to be mainstream, it needs to be as user-friendly as possible.

It’s time for variable aperture to return

Variable aperture tech isn’t new, first arriving on Samsung phones in the late 2010s. But this feature wasn’t really needed due to the small size of smartphone camera sensors back then. It looks like the tech is coming back in 2023, and the timing couldn’t be more appropriate.

Whether it’s a simple dual aperture approach or a truly variable design, today’s giant, one-inch camera sensor will benefit from an adjustable aperture. So here’s hoping we see more phones with this feature in 2024 and beyond.

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