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No, the OnePlus 8 Pro doesn't have an 'x-ray' camera — here's what's actually happening

OnePlus 8 Pro
OnePlus 8 Pro (Image credit: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

Update: OnePlus has released a statement on the color filter camera, saying it's planning to release a software update that changes the "photochrom" mode's functionality in order to address new-found privacy concerns.

You may have heard that people have discovered the OnePlus 8 Pro's dedicated "color filter" camera has a bonus feature: it can see through (some) plastic. The capability, generally now being dubbed as an "x-ray camera," has picked up steam and of course immediately switched gears to privacy concerns after some discovered it can partially reveal what's behind thin clothing as well.

Let's set things straight: the OnePlus 8 Pro's color filter camera is not an "x-ray" camera, nor is it actually designed to let you see through objects. This would be pretty cool, from a technical perspective, particularly if OnePlus actually knew this beforehand (it didn't) — but sadly, there's a much more mundane explanation.

The color filter camera only lets you see through objects that were actually already transparent — you just didn't know it, because your eyes can't see the same kind of light that the camera can. Let me explain.

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

The color filter camera on the OnePlus 8 Pro is a 5MP sensor with a special coated lens that's separate from the main, ultra-wide and telephoto cameras. This lens is designed to let different types of light into the sensor than other lenses, so that when combined with filter software on the phone, it can provide more dramatic colors and effects to the user. Nowhere is this more exaggerated than the "photochrom" filter option, which provides dystopian-looking inverted or x-ray-like colors — and this is where we get to the discovery.

The color filter camera lens, apparently, doesn't block infrared (IR) light. Most camera lenses try to filter out infrared light, because it can cause annoying visual abberations that make photos look bad, and most importantly look different than what our eyes see. You can sometimes catch beams of infrared light in smaller cameras at the right angles in some circumstances, but for the most part, you won't see it. And most importantly for this phenomenon, your eyes can't see it: infrared light is outside of the visual spectrum. That's one of the main reasons why IR has been used in TV remotes for decades, and more recently deployed in every single smartphone for proximity sensors and illuminators for face unlock on the front, and for auto focus on the back.

So the general rule of thumb here is that if infrared light can pass through a surface, then the OnePlus 8 Pro's color filter camera can "see" through it. For example you can look at the end of a TV remote, which uses IR signals to control the TV — the end cap on the remote looks black to your eyes, but the plastic allows IR through. The same goes for the bezels on your smartphone, where behind the black glass you'll see various sensors and cameras — that hardware can see through the tinted glass, but your eyes can't. I also pointed the OnePlus 8 Pro at the charging dock for my robot vacuum — it's almost entirely IR-permeable plastic.

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android CentralA TCL Roku TV remote shows where it sends its IR signals.

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android CentralA Pixel 4 XL's top bezel reveals sensors and cameras used for proximity sensing and face unlock.

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android CentralYou can see all of the electronics inside this robot vacuum charging pad.

So yes, the OnePlus 8 Pro's color filter can "see through" objects, but it can't see through them any easier than another camera that doesn't block IR light. And most importantly, it's not seeing through anything that doesn't, by design, let IR light through. Unlike other advanced imaging, the color filter camera can only see through IR-permeable surfaces. That's it.

Yes, the color filter camera can see anywhere IR light passes through — no, that's not a privacy concern.

As for the whole "it can see through clothing" thing ... well, yeah, it makes sense. Fabrics are woven materials, they let light through gaps between the fibers — and in the case of something that's very thin or sheer, it can let a lot of light through. Our eyes just don't necessarily perceive all of this light coming through, because we're also seeing the shadows and other effects of the light reflecting off of the fabric. If a camera is trained to enhance its vision of infrared light, it can better "see" that light passing through the fabric.

Thankfully for anyone who's worried about the privacy implications of the OnePlus 8 Pro's "x-ray" camera, the color filter camera is very bad compared to what we're used to in smartphones. It's a small, low resolution sensor and takes very poor photos — and things only get worse when you apply the photochrom filter. This is not a high-end imaging device.

Even after learning of this unforeseen "feature" of the OnePlus 8 Pro's color filter camera, I still come to the conclusion that there's no need for this camera to exist and it's effectively useless. The fact is, it's a very weak camera sensor behind a lower-quality lens that takes worse photos than simply using the main sensor with a software-only filter applied after capture. Once you know it can see through some plastics it's fun to play with for a few minutes and learn about infrared light (yay, science!), but after that you'll go back to using the OnePlus 8 Pro's other cameras, and be better off for it.

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.

9 Comments
  • Andrew, it has been proven that it can see through clothing. not just plastics.
  • A lot of clothing is made of plastics.
  • I know. "As for the whole "it can see through clothing" thing ... well, yeah, it makes sense. Fabrics are woven materials, they let light through gaps between the fibers — and in the case of something that's very thin or sheer, it can let a lot of light through." It's still not the "see-through" technology people initially think it is, it's much more rudimentary than that. And there really isn't a privacy concern here.
  • This isn't really anything new... Most cameras on phones from a decade or so ago weren't filtered for IR, and most modern security cameras and doorbells not only detect IR, but actually saturate dark areas with IR light.
  • Seeing through is definitely not the right word. Perception of light is an important part of seeing, and this camera does not give any ability to color that object while it detects infrared lights passing through. More over, there is a wide range of applications for infrared cameras today, including temperature cameras airports and businesses are rushing to buy, that almost no one would consider them as a privacy invasions. Infrared cameras are not some kind of restricted technology. For example, the BV phones aimed at industrial applications include thermal cameras as a selling feature.
  • Nothing new. Sony recalled a bunch of camcorders in the late 90s due to their IR camera, and people using it to see through thinner clothing.
  • I had one of the Sony video cameras that was released after that, and I remember mods being posted to remove the IR filter, lol.
  • Actually been an X-ray camera is closer to the truth than been an IR camera.
    This is o hoax.
    This camera is a UV camera not an IR camera. Obviously.
    How do i know that?
    1) Physics tells us that IR light is less transparent than normal light. Actually IR light has a hard time passing thought a glass window.
    2) There are a lot of IR cameras out there. From expensive IR cameras that are been used to map temperatures on electronics to your own surveillance IR camera. Why don't you check if your IR camera can see thought your game pad? But I'd like to hear your proof that this is an IR camera and not an UV.
  • It's an important distinction to make that ONLY the Photochrom mode uses the 'color filter' lens. The other color filters are just using the main camera with normal post processing. Test it yourself by covering the specific lens with your finger. If you cover the 5mp sensor, only the Photochrom mode is affected. So, to people who are speculating a "software" fix for that mode removal, that would disable the 4th camera entirely which likely wouldn't work out well since the phone would be shipping with dead hardware in it and people who already bought it would have hardware disabled after purchase. I've tried a ton of different fabrics and I wasn't able to find any that showed more than you could normally pull out with photoshop from a normal camera. Maybe if you absolutely flooded the area with IR light you could get more, but the phone doesn't have an IR emitter to enable that. The 5mp sensor has crap for dynamic range though so the utility there is very limited regardless. Also, you can use the face unlock on the Pixel 4 and the iPhone (when jailbroken) to get the same thing. Also, yeah, until recently digital cameras didn't even have IR filters at all and could have this issue pop up. I remember taking a picture (with flash) on my Canon Elph S410 about 16 years ago that ended up showing a lot more through a black shirt that you would have expected and I really doubt that was the only camera that would behave that way. Then there's all the security cameras and such that operate that way all the time.