Perhaps more than any other piece of consumer technology, smartphones are both beholden to and judged by their adherence to popular trends. Whether it’s the unlock method, screen size, or any of the countless features in between, if your device doesn’t include some en vogue options, it’s more likely to be judged as less than top tier. One recent example of these mandatory must-haves is the dual camera setup, which alleges better image quality, enhanced shooting versatility, and many other nebulous taglines that often skirt specifics for a flashier phrase.
But beyond their strong sales pitch, what, exactly, is a dual camera system? Are there, as the marketing suggests, legitimate advantages over the more traditional single camera setup? And if so, if more really is better, why not make a phone with three lenses, or four, or a hundred? Why not just tape two Hasselblads to an old rotary and call it a day? For those answers and more, read on.
What’s in a Name?
Talking about these systems, the first thing we should cover is the name itself. On the surface, “dual camera” seems straightforward enough. It implies a setup that uses—you guessed it—two cameras. Now, we can refine this definition further by saying that, regarding smartphones, a dual camera system typically includes two separate cameras—each with its own sensor and lens—on the back of the phone. Beyond that general definition, what constitutes a dual camera system and what its applications are is a definition that’s more diffuse, but we’ll cover that information farther down the road. For now, it’s enough to understand what we mean when we say dual camera system: two independent camera sensors on the back of your phone. Got it? Cool, let’s keep going.
Before we dive any deeper into these systems, it’s worth noting the history and evolution of the dual camera setup. As you probably recall, before dual camera systems came onto the scene, smartphones were typically outfitted with a single rear camera sensor (in addition to an optional front-facing lens). That changed in the late 2000s, when the first iterations of the dual camera setup started to appear. Back then, these systems were designed largely in service of another popular trend: 3D technology (remember that?). Unfortunately, 3D didn’t pan out quite as well as expected, and the push for 3D content was mostly abandoned. But despite that setback, the rise of dual camera systems continued. Over the next 10 years, new iterations of the dual camera system surfaced, gradually evolving from its humble 3D beginnings to the more practical setups we see today from major manufacturers like Apple, Samsung, ASUS, and LG.
Back to the name: Because it’s so general, the term “dual camera system” can be applied to a wide range of setups. This can be problematic because not all dual camera systems are of the same quality, nor do they come in the same configurations or enable the same features and performance.
Consider the LG Optimus 3D and the Samsung Galaxy S9+. Technically speaking, both phones have dual camera systems. But suggesting they are anywhere close to each other in terms of performance and application would be like comparing the Incredible Hulk with Hawkeye. Sure, they’re both superheroes, they’re both on the Avengers, but one is an unstoppable wrecking machine with superhuman strength and durability and the other is… really good at darts?
Now, obviously, comparing the antiquated Optimus 3D to a modern phone is an extreme example, but even among present-day smartphones, there exist significant differences among dual camera setups.
Let's look at two of the best camera systems on the market: the iPhone X and the Galaxy S9+. Both phones are equipped with dual 12MP cameras that come in a wide-angle and telephoto configuration. Based on those numbers and their overall performance, you might guess these systems are similar, but a closer look reveals each system utilizes several key differences—from sensor size to aperture to focus method—that distinguish it as something unique with individual strengths and weaknesses.
Countless other system variations exist, as well: different lens types, different sensor sizes, different resolutions, different configurations, and so on. The underlying point is that, like the cameras themselves, not all dual systems are created equal. You must look beyond the name “dual camera” to see what’s really going on.
The Spice of Life
But staying with variation: You might be wondering why there are so many differences among dual camera systems. The answer has to do with what manufacturers put a premium on and what features they think customers are seeking.
Take the LG V30, for example. Benefitting from early adoption of dual camera technology, LG equipped the V30 with a very powerful dual camera setup that includes a standard wide-angle and an ultra-wide-angle lens. You’ll notice this is different from the iPhone X’s configuration, which uses a wide-angle and a telephoto lens. Why the difference? Well, we weren’t in the room, but it seems apparent from the final products that LG put more of a premium on offering customers the ability to capture wider-angle shots and panoramas, while Apple focused on the zoom applications afforded by its telephoto lens.
Now, regardless of which is better (they’re both great, IMO), what’s important to take away is that, again, different variations offer different strengths and features, and those features should be considered when selecting a phone based on its camera system.
But Are They Better?
OK, so we know not all dual camera systems are created the same, but regardless of the variations within the category, are they, as a system, better than a single camera? Well, because nothing is simple, the answer is a little convoluted. Generally, yes, the modern dual camera systems tend to offer better overall performance over a single camera system—especially in the most recent systems, which have evolved past limited use-cases to full implementation—but there are caveats and exceptions.
One such example is the Google Pixel 2, which employs a single camera system and by all accounts can hold its own and, according to some, even outperform the best dual camera systems. How? Part of the reason is owed to the Pixel’s high-quality sensor, as well as its sophisticated software and processing ability, which underscores how important it is to look beyond the name “dual camera system” to discover a camera’s true capabilities.
However, moving forward, phones like the Google Pixel 2 appear to much more likely to be the exception, not the rule, and on the whole, the best dual camera systems on the market will consistently outperform the best single camera systems in terms of overall experience.
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?
Not all new technology blossoms into a full-blown trend. We mentioned the rise and fall of 3D tech. The iris scanner, too, seems to have already been usurped by face-unlock tech, which itself is far from assured survival. Will dual camera setups stick around? Based on the accelerated adoption rate over the last two years, the refinement of implementation, and the generally positive reviews of these systems, it appears as if multi-camera systems are here to stay. Does this mean the dual system will eventually evolve into a tri-camera setup? Big-name companies like Huawei appear to think so. But whether the number of cameras on the back of your phone continues to grow, remember that a camera system is more than a name, more than a marketing material. And when evaluating a phone’s camera system for purchase, always consider what your needs are and whether the system offered can meet them.
Do you already own a phone with a dual camera setup? How does it compare to previous systems you’ve used before? Do you think dual cameras are a fad or the way of the future? Sound off in the Comments section, below.