Little has changed in smartphone cameras over the years. The megapixel count has gone up and low light performance has improved, but these tweak do not constitute innovation.
The line between gimmick and innovation is a fine one. Improving a camera is a bit like reinventing the wheel in that we can make them better, but in making them different, we risk ruining them altogether.
Some companies have tried to redefine what smartphone cameras can do. HTC introduced refocusing after a photo was taken, though the perk was undermined by a low 4 megapixel resolution and the impracticality of small photos deemed it a gimmick.
Chinese smartphone maker Oppo faces a similar dilemma. The Oppo N3 brings a rotating camera — first seen of feature phones, the likes of LG’s U880 — to the smartphone. This means its high resolution rear camera can double as a high resolution front camera. And at 16 megapixels, it’s likely capable of capturing the largest selfie photos of any smartphone cam to date.
Other changes differentiate it from the masses. The camera is automated so that it rotates 206 degrees without being handled. At all. The rotating camera can take large vertical panoramic photos of buildings and structures reaching well into the sky.
Then there’s its companion ‘O-Click’, which is a Bluetooth remote control for the smartphone’s camera. It is part of the N3’s standard kit and it makes it possible to launch the camera and take a photo from afar. This means selfies can be mid-range shots bordered by an environment and that more people can fit in a frame.
Some mastery is needed to take the perfect vertical panorama. Steady hands are a must if photos are not to come out crooked. It’s even harder taking ordinary panoramic shots that are levelled to the floor. The camera module rotates on its own and, if you don’t get the framing right from the start, the photo captured won’t be horizontal as much as it is diagonal.
Mastering the holding position reaps results. Panoramic shots 64 megapixels in size can be stitched together and they are characterised by smooth lines and true colours. Oppo has partnered with Schneider Kreuznach for the optics and the resulting photos are good enough to rely on the N3’s camera daily.
Ordinary photos remain the strong point of the N3. The camera has good low-light performance and image noise is generally kept to a minimum. The photos are rich in detail and sharp in these situations. Several photos taken at dawn best illustrate the cameras proficiency. Other photos taken during an overcast days reveal sore points.
Detail and colouring is washed out of photos during these conditions, though often it still fares better than rivals. Light bouncing off white surfaces, such as the buildings in the above panorama, results in detail being washed out. Sun flare is also a problem the N3’s camera faces. The ability to find light in dim situations costs the N3’s camera when lighting is ample.
Point the camera away from a source of light and it has the potential to deliver stunning photos. Macro photos approximately 10 centimetres away from a subject stay in focus and at times the camera will create a blurred ‘bokeh’ background.
Letting this camera down is its video recording capabilities. Videos are slow to focus and the microphones are overwhelmed by low-end frequencies. The Oppo N3 won’t serve well at any concert because the bass will completely fluster its inadequate microphones. Future-proofing is another problem as the N3 snubs support for UHD and maxes out at a resolution of 1080p.
Gimmick or innovation
A price is paid for the rotating camera of the N3. The smartphone stands ludicrously tall and is not pretty. The camera doesn’t stay fixed so it will pivot when the phone slides in or out of pockets. The O-Click remote too is thwarted by pockets as the button automatically turns on the camera. Clearly this smartphone is not for everyone.
It is for the few who value the quality of a camera as much as they value making phone calls. Beyond the novelty of vertical panoramas and an automatically rotating module is a camera of substance. Photo enthusiasts will see these differences as innovations. As for everyone else: they won’t.