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A great single camera is always better than a mediocre dual camera

One of the biggest shifts in mobile photography over the last couple of years has been the move from one camera to two on most high-end smartphones. Flagships like the HTC U12+, LG G7 ThinQ, and Galaxy S9+ have all adopted this trend, with some phones like the Huawei P20 Pro going even further and adding a third lens.

Even budget phones have started shipping with two cameras; the $200 Honor 7X has a depth-sensing secondary sensor, as does the Moto Z3 Play. This is no longer a premium add-on feature, it's quickly becoming the standard. But how much do you actually benefit from that second camera?

That partially depends on exactly what your second camera does. That depth sensor implementation I just mentioned is more or less useless, if you ask me. Some phones use it to augment the photos taken with the primary sensor, but the majority just use it for their portrait mode shots, which end up looking just as artificial as on any other phone — in fact, some of the best portrait photos come from the Pixel 2, which just uses machine learning to create depth instead of a dedicated sensor. On a phone like the Moto Z3 Play, which doesn't have the best camera to begin with, I think Motorola would've been better off focusing on improving its primary sensor rather than adding a secondary one.

If you need proof that a single camera still does the job, just look at the Pixel 2 and Galaxy S9.

Meanwhile, zoom lenses sound convenient and great on paper, since zooming in with the main sensor just leads to image degradation, but unless you're using a Galaxy S9+, that zoom lens isn't optically stabilized, meaning whatever clarity you're preserving by not digitally zooming is still impacted by your shaky hands. On top of that, even with the Galaxy S9+, the telephoto lens takes lower quality shots than the main sensor, even in ideal conditions.

Wide-angle sensors like the ones LG includes in most of its lineup open up a lot of creative potential, and unlike zoom or depth sensors, they allow you to take photos you wouldn't be able to pull off otherwise. They still suffer from the same problems as telephoto lenses; they're lower quality sensors and rarely if ever have OIS. But at the very least, they add to your mobile photography experience in a way that other dual camera arrays simply can't match.

It's getting harder to find a flagship phone with only one camera these days, but my phone of choice remains one of them — the Galaxy S9. It doesn't have its larger sibling's zoom lens, but that doesn't impede it from taking some of the best low-light photos of any phone I've tested, along with great photos in just about every other condition, and even pretty decent portrait shots. Similarly, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL still beat out almost every other phone in photography, all with a single camera and Google's powerful post-processing — which I'd argue is far more important than most dual camera arrangements.

At the end of the day, though, if your main camera is already great, you might as well add to it. Huawei makes perhaps the best use of its multiple cameras with the P20 Pro, which features a secondary monochrome sensor that helps pull in additional fine details, along with a tertiary 3X telephoto camera — as opposed to the 2X zoom found pretty much everywhere else. I still would've preferred a wide-angle lens over a zoom, but combined with the powerful AI and post-processing in the P20 Pro, you still end up with an incredibly versatile photography experience that's hard to beat.

The problem isn't with flagships, but with mid-range phones that choose a mediocre dual-camera setup to appear more expensive than they are.

The problem isn't with flagships whose primary sensors are already great to begin with, though — it's with the mid-range and budget phones that take subpar photos, even with dual cameras. The Moto Z3 Play takes pretty good shots as it is, but the depth sensor feels largely unhelpful. I would've loved to have seen Motorola focus more on improving the primary sensor and its post-processing.

Are you a fan of dual cameras, or have you been proudly living the single lens life? Have you thought about switching sides, or does it even matter to you? Let us know in the comments below!

Hayato was a product reviewer and video editor for Android Central.

25 Comments
  • Proudly living the single lens life, I found it more aesthetically pleasing.
    But I have to thank Google's AI magic for that (2 XL).
    Best camera on a phone I've ever had, it keeps blowing me away after months of use!
  • Same here. My OG Pixel and 2 XL take awesome photos.
  • But a dual camera or more probably gets you a better dxomark score so guess which way most companies will go.
  • Yes. That's why we should move on from arbitrary scores like dxomark - that means nothing. And no, the fact that there are scores and methodologies doesn't make it any less arbitrary.
    We're in the place where every flagship makes perfect pictures. It's a given. If one doesn't, suffices to say in a review that, well, it doesn't. The most useful way of comparing photo prowess that I saw somewhere was a picture divided with a slider, so that you can compare immediately the same picture from two phones. That way, we replace an arbitrary and over-science'y score with a subjective 'I like this one better', which is much more valuable.
  • I love a great single camera too (currently on the U11), but you are missing the secondary depth information that helps change focus after the shot is taken.
    By the way, HTC didn't adopt anything. They were making phones with portrait mode and 3D imaging before Apple and Samsung got involved, and Apple's Live Photos were licensed from HTC under their ten year cross licensing agreement.
  • Funny thing is, Live Photos was something Windows Phone implemented long before iPhone. However, iPhone made it seem brand new. Lol
  • Yup used it on my nokia windows phones
  • Truthfully having the ability to shoot in wide angle with my LGV30+ is something that I'm not sure I could give up. Not having to shoot even the smallest "pano" shots to capture something just wider than the standard lens is priceless to be honest. Now I'm not sure exactly "how", but guessing one day we can have the tech of all three Standard, Wide and Telephoto in a one lens set up. It's wild to think about how far mobile camera tech has really come along the past 5 years.
  • That wide angle shooter has been awesome so far. I see far greater potential than a fixed zoom lens. Like you said there are times when the area is too tight so you're trying to do a small panoramic to capture something because you can't get far enough back to grab the whole shot. I love using that wide angle camera all over European cities to get beautiful shots without panoing. I'll be interested to see what the V40 does with a five lens setup. Hopefully though like the author said, quality over quantity is definitely appreciated!
  • Agreed.
  • My GF has the LG G5 with the Wide-Angle Lens and it has come in so handy for outdoor shots. I would love to see LG implement a Tri-Lens setup with standard, wide-angle,and portrait cameras.
  • Have they removed OIS from the second lens because both lenses had OIS on the note 8?
  • Pixel user here so no need for two cameras for me. Unless Google starts doing some project tango stuff again.
  • Proudly living with single lens system
  • While the pics on my S8+ are really good, I'm satisfied with the single lens phone camera. Indeed, I think the one on my old Moto Droid Turbo (OG version) is still better than my S8+. When it come to intensive photography, I have a DSLR with myriad lenses, which outperforms a phone camera, especially at Yellowstone when my zoom lens let me get up close to bison without me having to wave my phone at the massive animal from less than 20 feet. Phone was fine for big sweeping landscape shots of bison herd, then my camera let me get individuals safely from a few hundred yards / metres back.
  • "The problem isn't with flagships, but with mid-range phones that choose a mediocre dual-camera setup to appear more expensive than they are." I get that. But if you want to speak about mediocre things, the Pixel line has a mediocre display and for what it seems, it's very likely that the Pixel 3 will have a huge chin and a notch. A display is something more, much more important than a camera that I'm going to use only sometimes. But ok, I get what you're saying, using mediocre parts on flagships is an annoying thing.
  • The Pixel line certainly isn't mediocre and the display issues on the Pixel 2 XL has been sorted so try again troll, and I like the the Pixel line isn't flashy so it concentrates on the important things like a great camera and fantastic software that's the best of any Android phone, typical shallow minded tw*t, this is like the old Sega Vs Nintendo arguments where the SNES was supposedly more powerful the Mega Drive (Genesis), you're just salty because your precious Samsung got humiliated by the single lens Pixel camera , duel lens cameras are nothing more than gimmicks.
  • Beno, you can adjust focus on pictures you took weeks ago on the Pixel, right?
  • SNES forever! Genesis was for the ghetto kids.
  • F the SNES, it was a kiddie console The Genesis (Mega Drive) was for the cool people and had Blast Processing, suck it Nintendard. Genesis (Mega Drive) forever!
  • The problem with your take on cameras is that others use them quite often
  • Since the Note 8, I'm no longer reluctant to zoom in on some of my shots (to exactly 2x, of course).
  • so you saying a flagship camera is better than mid ranger? well I tot that was the trade off right, I was going to add that isn't the S9 plus a good dual lens phone or the P20 pro? I would say that the Pixel 2 would be better if it had a dual lens, or triple if they can afford it, make one an ultra wide, one wide and one short telephoto, maybe a 20mm equivalent, 28mm, and 70mm. That would be amazing. I don't use any of these new phones, but I would like an ultra wide, I love my Panasonic GF7 with a 9-18mm, mainly for the 9mm, 25mm and 45mm prime for real blur while still being deceptively small. And when portrait mode gets good enough, then I would get a new phone.
  • « they allow you to take photos you wouldn't be able to pull off otherwise » You can take a panorama to pull off something more or less simikar. The Galaxy s9 have great pictures but the s9+ have the same sensor + the second one! You loose nothing. The pixel phone doesn’t have zoomed photos as good as sole dual lebses phone... Machine learning can’t do everything ! And its advance is overrated commared to lther great phones
  • The thing is, if you ever had an optical zoom, you'll never want to go back. It's that important.