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Essential offers a sneak peek at its camera capabilities

Between all their various space, cost and computation constraints, smartphone cameras are hard. Producing great photos from a tiny lens and sensor in a pocket-sized device is a serious challenge, even at the high end.

Essential, makers of the Essential Phone is one of the many manufacturers adopting a dual rear camera system in its handset, with one sensor capturing color detail and another capturing monochrome images for improved clarity.

Yazhu Ling, lead image quality engineer at the Andy Rubin-led startup, walks through exactly how this dual camera setup works in a new post on the Essential company blog:

The first rear-camera is designed for color, and like most cameras, it applies a red, green, or blue color filter at different pixel locations, and then assigns that pixel a value. As a result, the camera must interpolate the neighboring pixels to produce the final image. What does this mean? If only some of the pixels are assigned color values, the camera must infer what the rest of the image should look like, and this often leads to less-than-ideal resolution. That's why we made our second rear camera a true monochrome camera, which does not require any color filter. The lack of a color filter means that no interpretation is necessary—every pixel is assigned a true black or white value, which enables the camera to produce images with much less noise and much higher resolution, no matter the lighting conditions.

That's all well and good, but combining data from the monochrome and RGB sensors into a pleasing photo is another challenge altogether.

As an image quality engineer, all of this is a lead up to the main thrust of my work. To convert imaging information from the sensor data into a final image, the camera must employ a complex Image Signal Processing (ISP) pipeline. Getting this right requires months of tuning, and it has been the focus of my work since October of last year.

The blog post itself is well worth a read if you're interested in how you go from photons hitting a sensor to JPEGs in your Gallery app. Ling also offers an interesting comparison of the same image captured throughout the different stages of camera tuning — from March through until present.

The Essential Phone is due for release in the next few weeks, having missed its original target window of July 2017.

Alex Dobie
Alex Dobie

Alex was with Android Central for over a decade, producing written and video content for the site, and served as global Executive Editor from 2016 to 2022.

32 Comments
  • Come to think of it, why exactly did de Masi share those pictures earlier on in the year? Those frankly looked laughably terrible. The ones in the blog post look a lot better and more in line with what I'm expecting.
  • Mate 9 already doing this...
  • This isn’t totally new technology, but it’s always nice to read on how it works and what goes into making the system work well.
  • Indeed this is definitely not new in photography. Phone cameras are adopting with varying degrees of success many of the proven (and still in development) methods of capturing and interpreting images for our much thinner devices.
    I am very interested in this development I am really looking forward to playing with this especially the raw file minus the JPEG compression.
    What I would really love to see in a phone like a flagship Samsung and apple phone or one of Google's pixel phones, the ability to edit the JPEG compression settings for final output of standard images on the phone perhaps in a semi pro mode because in the end of the day this is what makes the difference between images that we are playing with when shooting from our phones and complaining about the differences of output between cameras. The final processing of the image makes all the difference in the world not to mention the speed in which the images are saved within the phone and the file size.
  • There is a difference even with identical specs. Automatic post-processing is a big factor in output quality when one doesn't shoot in RAW. Furthermore, people probably should understand more on the work of the signal processor. That little wonder is how autofocus, white balance, automatic ISO and shutter speed plus others like HDR+ and monochrome sensors all work together to make a camera system, not to mention it's responsible for processing. There is a difference between identical sensors with different signal processors.
  • Of course, not my point though. Beyond the built in end process of compression, if I am given a pro mode, I would like output control of my jpgs as well. This has been available in my digital cameras since i switched from my old film cameras to my digital slrs.
  • Absolutely. Though I would prefer having fine options for JPG processing as a percentage, not just "FINE" and "STD". Frankly, those are pretty vague.
  • Exactly!
  • Not to mention, haven't all Essential execs "essentially" quit as this point? Vaporware methinks.
  • Er, no. That'd be inaccurate.
  • Nope. And the two execs mentioned left at the same time. The news of the UX exec leaving is old but new to public consumption. Start up companies have folks coming and going regularly. This isn't a "sky is falling" announcement.
  • I never said sky was falling. And sure, execs come and go at startups. But for the moment, we have no phones. And it's August. And phones were promised end of June. So, for the moment, vaporware.
  • You said in a punny sort of way that all the execs had quit. I said nope and that 2 quit at once and the UX guys leaving was newly announced but old. And frankly with all the speculative renders from the big players vs. them ACTUALLY showing the product ... I'd rather see a physically working rough draft then a CAD render. So having some issues with software and getting it certed on more than a single network caused it to be delayed ... doesn't make it vaporware. It makes it late. w00pdiefriggindo. heh.
  • :)
  • The sad part about this phone is they announced it way to soon. Once this phone is actually certified by the carriers so you can actually use it everyone will have already moved on to the next thing.
  • Not everyone.
  • Give it a a chance. This phone will be in the top 3 for 2017.
  • How could you or anyone even possibly know?
  • Might be, and if it is I'll consider the second gen (hopefully better named) model. But I'm not gonna give this a chance... I don't believe in the company, or owe them anything...
  • I will let the reviewers give it a chance. They haven't even sold me on being upfront and honest with customers. They let their shipment date pass without a word or apology.
  • Yes that is very curious.
  • Top 3 for what? "Worst most overpriced phone of 2017"? If so then yes. It will be.
  • How did you know ow the Cavaliers would play in the Championship game. Look it's a guess but with all of the positives going on with this phone it is hard not to seeing it as a top phone for 2017.
  • Saying it'll be a top 3? Like the enthusiasm, but you are way ahead of yourself. Just because Rubin is behind it doesn't mean it will automatically be awesome... there are a TON of good phones out/coming out this year, claiming a first gen phone from a brand new OEM will crack the top 3 is one hell of a reach.
  • lol yep. Remember the Nextbit Robin? I thought that was going to be the new big thing. Instead, just onto the next.
  • I guess we will see... 😁
  • The top 3 is hard for anyone. Rubin's gonna need one hell of a smartphone to play ball.
  • True
  • Take that, Saygus!
  • Essentially essential cams 🤳🏻whatever can't wait to see you Mr.ideal
  • it doesn't matter if the phone isn't out yet so why!
  • I find it comical how nobody at Android Central is willing to call the phone by its model name, PH-1, visible on the preorder page. Instead, they all call it The Essential Phone, as if the company will only produce one phone in its lifetime.