OnePlus was able to source some competent camera hardware for the One, grabbing a Sony Exmor 13MP sensor with an f/2.0 aperture, stacked behind six lenses and supported by a dual LED flash. There are just a couple of omissions, though. As I noted before, that dual LED flash isn't of the two-tone variety, so it's just blasting double the useless light at your subject. There's also a notable lack of OIS (Optical Image Stabilization), which means low-light situations have fewer options for slow shutter speeds, and it takes an extra-steady hand to get clear shots.
Backing up that hardware is a newly-redesigned camera interface in CyanogenMod 11S, along with its latest gallery app exiting beta status. The camera app is a simple remix of the stock Android (that is, before the new Google Camera came about) that's overall easier to get around and manage. A grouping of settings buttons stands guard on the bottom (or side, in portrait) of the interface, showing off nested menus for deeper controls when touched. You can change white balance, exposure, location access and more from this quick settings menu.
The most-used feature of the camera will likely be the ability to quickly switch between different shooting modes, which is done by swiping up or down across the entire viewfinder. A quick swipe moves you from Auto to HDR to Night to a variety of live filters — and you can customize in the settings which ones you want available.
The camera app is a joy to use, especially for when you just want to take a picture rather than fiddle with settings.
The camera app is a real joy to use, especially considering how often many of us just want to pick up the phone and take a picture rather than fiddling with settings. Being able to switch between HDR, Auto and live filters with a simple flick just makes sense, and was something I used on a regular basis. The one thing this camera app was lacking is in the viewfinder — it's 2014 and the phone still shows a 16:9 live preview, but takes 4:3 photos. It makes composition a real hassle, and there's no option in the settings to change the viewfinder or picture aspect.
It's clear the OnePlus has the right hardware to take great photos, but for some reason the photo output just isn't living up to the full potential of the device. It's not that the phone doesn't take some amazing pictures — it's capable of taking pictures that could come from any leading phone today — but that it's just not a complete package. Let me explain.
The OnePlus One camera was not consistent, shot-to-shot. I would either get a great photo, or a so-so photo.
The first major shortcoming on the One is what I like to refer to as shot-to-shot consistency. When I grabbed the One out of my pocket and went to take a picture, I wasn't entirely sure what I was going to get. Whether I tweaked things and used tap-to-focus or just let it go full-on automatic, I would either get a great photo or a so-so photo.
In order to presumably cut down on dark and grainy pictures, the One often let in far too much light to the point where it completely washes out photos or gives inaccurate white balance. Under perfect conditions it nailed everything just as you'd expect, but deviating from that the camera was clearly just guessing. It's notable to say that I rarely got outright bad shots, but not having consistency in shooting is almost as bad as getting subpar shots all of the time.
Some of the inconsistency of the One's camera comes when deciding whether to take an HDR or Auto photo. On most of my phones I simply leave the camera in HDR (or better yet, Auto-HDR when available) full-time as it provides a nice, punchy and high-contrast look that can make up for some of the shortcomings of using a phone camera. With the One, HDR mode goes dramatically overboard with processing to the point where it makes photos look far too unnatural and unappealing to my eyes.
Understanding that the HDR "style" covers a wide range of looks, this camera software just goes too far to be used in even a majority of situations. HDR was a saving grace in less-than-ideal lighting situations, such as around sunsets or inside, often using that over-processing to add much-needed light to the frame. It should also be noted that HDR proved to keep noise down in photos as well. But using HDR mode was no way to get a natural-looking picture — every photo looked like an Instagram filter.
Most of the camera problems can really be ironed out in software over time if Cyanogen decides to make the investment.
The overall inconsistency added to the awkward HDR experience meant that I was stuck moving between Auto and HDR, taking multiple pictures to get the "right" one. HDR mode also annoyingly saves a non-HDR shot when you use it (a setting you can't turn off), but the single-exposure picture captured is completely different than what I'd normally get using Auto mode.
Stepping into night shots, the One again performed below the pack. The lack of OIS means the camera really can't take advantage of long shutter speeds, and instead the camera has to try and crunch the photo data and smooth things out manually. The end result is roughly average night shots, so long as you have a very steady hand and don't attempt to use HDR mode (which only made things worse). The One also misses focus from time to time at night, but that's hard to avoid.
It should be noted that aside from the lack of OIS, all of these problems can really be ironed out in software over time if Cyanogen decides to make the investment. Exposure, menu settings, viewfinder layout and low-light processing can all be fixed — they'll just have to devote the man hours to get it done. If Cyanogen were to release an update or two and improve the camera experience, it'd be enough to bring the OnePlus One from an average camera to a great one.
UHD and high frame rate video
The OnePlus One is capable of recording UHD (often referred to as "4K" or "2160p") video. It is also capable of 60 fps and 120 fps slow-motion video, but only at 720p resolution.
UHD video looks good, but I honestly didn't notice a difference in quality over 1080p. It looked a bit over-saturated to my eyes as well, but I think I'd prefer that to a dull picture. Audio capture during video (from the three microphones) was good, and didn't distort even on a loud street.
120 fps video is only available in 720p or lower resolution, but the settings don't tell you that until you're trying to shoot and get an error message. Just like high frame rate video on other phones, being limited to 720p doesn't look great but the frame rate is smooth and is a neat effect to throw in if you're taking short clips.