The camera has become one of the most decisive elements when opting for a mobile phone. Aware of this, manufacturers have opened a war without quarter that has led to the development of mobile photography at a speed much higher than that of the traditional one. The number of lenses in the devices is multiplied to offer the user a growing focal range – from large angles that cover a wide field of vision, to telephoto lenses that bring the smallest details closer together – the lenses are increasingly bright, the sensors gain size, and the software is responsible for compensating the deficiencies and limitations of a hardware constrained by the dimensions of the device on which it is mounted.
However, Zake Zhang acknowledges that, no matter how much people insist on saying it in marketing campaigns, mobile photography does not come near the quality and possibilities offered by SLR cameras. He knows what he is talking about, because he is responsible for the images taken by mobile phones. Oneplus. “Currently, the hardware It provides more than 80% of the image quality. The objective and the sensor are the fundamental elements. And, since the latter is much smaller than that of SLR cameras, it is impossible to compete. That is also why mobile photography is much more computational. It requires further development of software to squeeze out the performance to the maximum ”, he explains in an interview with EL PAÍS on the occasion of the visit to the image laboratory that the Chinese brand has in the capital of Taiwan, Taipei.
Zhang argues that the future of mobile cameras goes precisely through the improvement of image processing systems. “The algorithms will be increasingly decisive. Above all, in the video section, ”he emphasizes. However, Zhang shakes his head and sketches a mischievous smile when asked about companies that claim to use artificial intelligence systems to improve results. “We prefer to be honest and say that it is an intelligent scene selection, with certain parameters for the shots that the device recognizes. That is not artificial intelligence, ”he says.
"Natural, but not flat"
But Zhang points out that there is room for improvement within the limits imposed by current technology. “We have developed a system that converts four pixels into one to capture more light at night – the resolution goes from 48 to 12 megapixels – and our goal is to improve the HDR – a system that takes several photographs of the same scene with exhibitions different to combine them and offer a greater dynamic range. We want the images to be natural, but not flat, ”Zhang explains.
But it is obvious that it is very difficult to please all audiences. It is demonstrated during a session in which OnePlus asks journalists from different parts of the world to point out the defects they see in the camera of their last flagship, the OnePlus 7 Pro. While Westerners prefer very natural images, Chinese and Indians need more filters to modify the photograph and, above all, to make the "selfies" more attractive. "It is clear that we will have to look for ways to offer different possibilities in each market," says Zhang.
All this is refined in the imaging laboratories, where engineers carry out countless tests to obtain colors that match the real ones, detect the white balance required by each type of light, correct the distortion produced by the objectives, or analyze how the camera behaves in each of the default scenes. One of them, aimed at improving the portrait mode, involves three heads of women from different backgrounds who, however, share a pale complexion. Making the mobile profile the face well to blur the background and make it stand out is not easy. “In previous models we used an exclusive lens to estimate the distance that the subject is and make the cut, now, in the OnePlus 7 Pro two of the three that it incorporates – wide angle, standard, and telephoto lens – work together to do it more precisely, ”explains Zhang.
“There are two types of analysis in photography. The subjective, which is made going out and taking different photographs to analyze them later with personal parameters, and the objective, which is the most complex because it requires advanced machinery to analyze images in controlled conditions that allow comparing the result of the changes made at software”, Says Gary Lee, one of the engineers in the laboratory, while he shows how the tests performed to calibrate the OnePlus 7 Pro cameras work. From the computer, modify the temperature of the light to simulate different environments and verify that the camera It behaves correctly when choosing the parameters with which it captures the image. With a robotic arm, zoom in or out to test the autofocus.
"Most users take pictures automatically, so we have to make sure the results are correct in all situations," emphasizes Carl Pei, co-founder of OnePlus. The brand also has to make sure that all the components work correctly, which is why, in a room, dozens of mobiles in different trays operate all camera functions 24 hours a day and send the diagnosis to a computer in the that the data is analyzed. The phones open and close the application, do the same with the flash, take photos and videos, and the results are reflected in a river of white letters and numbers that flows at full speed on a black screen.
Now that the triple camera seems to have become the industry standard for more advanced mobiles, it is logical to ask what is the limit on the number of cameras that can be mounted on a mobile. Zhang doubts. “It's not that we like to add sensors, because they take up a lot of space. But users demand greater versatility, ”he replies. Couldn't a zoom be incorporated? Zhang denies. "That would require a totally different architecture on mobile." And you can't include larger sensors to improve the current quality? “Folding devices can open a new path there, because they will have more space for that component,” he adds. Maybe then they do get closer to the results offered by SLR cameras and full format.
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