If you’ve been a photographer in the last 20 years you can probably remember the megapixel wars between the major camera manufacturers in the first decade of the 2000s. As we push into the 2020s the megapixel race has reignited not with the once-mighty DSLR but with everyone’s new camera of choice, the smartphone. So which smartphone camera has the most megapixels?
It’s a rather complex question. With traditional interchangeable lens cameras we’ve come to realise that more megapixels doesn’t necessarily mean better image quality. Every sensor is divided into however-many-million-pixels, each of which gathers light independently.
That means pixel size also plays a role as the larger the photosites, the more data they can record. It’s a question of balance, but generally speaking, a larger sensor with fewer, bigger pixels will produce better quality images with greater dynamic range.
So how do smartphone cameras like the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, which boasts 108 megapixels, produce such sharp images? Well, technology has evolved and smaller pixels have more light-gathering ability.
As mobile phone processors and software have advanced, there are digital tricks to improve image quality. In short, smartphone sensors are now able to combine data from multiple pixels in order to create a ‘final image’ that theoretically increases image quality.
Some smartphone cameras, such as the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra for instance, combine data from 9 megapixels into one for more detailed images.
In other words, when it comes to smartphone cameras, the hardware is no longer the most important component. The evolution of AI and computational photography software has enabled smartphone camera sensors to exceed the limitations of their physical size.
So with smartphone cameras it’s interesting: it’s all about the megapixels… but it also isn’t. The more megapixels on your interchangeable lens camera, it really depends on the size of the pixels. But with smartphone cameras it’s largely down to the software.
Smartphone cameras with the most megapixels also tend to incorporate software that combines data from multiple pixels. And where this really shines is in these cameras’ night modes. Typically, they are able to harvest the best bits from the frames of a short burst of video that recreate the effects of stabilisation.
So when you’re looking for the smartphone camera with the most megapixels, rest assured that this isn’t a reboot of the halcyon days of the 2000s megapixel wars. A 108MP smartphone sensor is indeed much more powerful than those other 48-megapixel offerings.