With the original One and the new HTC One (M8), HTC has proudly bowed out of the megapixel race and focussed on a new smartphone camera technology: UltraPixels. With this, a massively powerful new front-facing camera and the HTC One (M8)’s Duo camera, smartphone photography is clearly an area that HTC is thinking differently about. And we wanted to find out why.
We’ve managed to get some time with HTC’s camera guru Symon Whitehorn to find out why UltraPixels are the future, how to get the most out of the HTC One (M8)’s camera, and how we’re entering a new age of photography…
The big picture on big pixels
“Whenever we talk about our cameras,” Symon says, “the first question that comes up is about our UltraPixel technology. We acknowledge that there’s a difficult message when you say that there’s only 4 megapixels in the sensor. The irony, though, is that it helps that the rest of the market is going higher on the megapixel count, because that should make people wonder why we’ve stayed with the same setup.
“The simple answer is: we’re not wedded to a megapixel number, but we focus on large pixels with a low signal noise ratio. That’s what we’re passionate about.
“There are one or two things driving our decisions. We don’t want to choke our ‘image pipe’ with high resolution files that few people are really going to use, just for a spec-sheet number of megapixels. The image pipe is how you move the data from the sensor to the processor and back again. What you’ll see from very high-resolution megapixel sensors on phones is that they’re very slow and have a long shutter lag, and that’s because the image pipe is choking. Besides which, around 90% of pictures taken on a phone reside in the phone or within social networks that shrink the image size anyway. So for a lot of people, I think it’s more important to get the picture in a difficult condition.
“Essentially, it’s very easy for us to go and buy a 20-megapixel sensor off of a part manufacturer’s shelf. It’s easier to do that than it is to have an UltraPixel sensor specially made.”
“A smart camera in a smart phone”
The standout new feature on the HTC One (M8) is the Duo Camera – a separate, rear-facing lens that sits atop the main UltraPixel one. We asked Symon why it’s there, and why it’s the future of smartphone photography.
“What the Duo Camera represents for us is extra data.”
“What the Duo Camera represents for us is extra data,” he explains. “Think of it as a smart camera in a smart phone, finally. Up to this point cameras have been relatively dumb. It’s our first foray into ‘information imaging’.
“We had the chemical age, then the digital age, and now we’re entering the information age of photography – the cameras are becoming smart enough to understand the world they see. That’s the exciting part of what we’re investing in.
“Our camera setup is actually now akin to your own eyes. The second lens adds data to all those pixels in the main one, and that means that in one exposure we can identify that an object’s pixels are X amount of distance from the sensor, and the one next to it is nearer or further away. That enables direct photographic effects, but this technology can go a lot further.”
You can see an example of the HTC One (M8)’s clever refocusing effect in practice here:
That’s impressive stuff, but what’s the future for Duo Camera? That’s in the hands of the developers:
“We’re not sure where it’ll end up,” Symon tells us. “Right now, all we’re using from the data is the coordinates of the pixels in relationship to the sensor. That way, we understand that the pixels that represent the foreground are closer than the wall behind it, and a host of other things. We can even see speed of motion.
“We’re not revealing all of the data these sensors collect just yet, but it’s a big range. Likewise, we haven’t opened this up to developers yet, but we are going to release an SDK (Software Development Kit). We know that the developer community will do much more with this information imaging than we ever imagined. Also, now that we’ve got it in photographers’ hands, we can get their feedback and make it better.”
And speaking of feedback…
UltraPixel criticism: “At HTC, we err on over-exposure…”
There are always two sides to every story, which is why we decided to ask Symon to comment on some of the less favourable comments that have surfaced in the media regarding the HTC One (M8) camera. As it turns out, he has some simple advice on how to get the best out of your HTC One (M8)’s camera…
“At HTC, we err on overexposure,” he reveals. “Everyone has a personal preference for photography, different exposure and sharpness levels etc. We at HTC have tuned the camera for 90% of the use cases for mobile photography. Personally though, I’d rather underexpose because then things can look slightly sharper. We saw a comparative review that was in favour of the iPhone 5’s camera, but you know what? If you drop the settings down one EV [Exposure Value], the results would be exactly the same if not better.
“The thinking is that most people want to see more from their shots (especially at night), so we’ve gone for a slightly overexposed setting out of the box. Changing the settings will have different effects.”
Indeed, unlike some smartphone cameras, the HTC One (M8) gives photography enthusiasts access to every setting they need to take shots that suit them:
“We put these imaging controls immediately to hand. If you want to put your photos up on your TV or get them printed off, for instance, I would highly recommend adjusting the sharpening settings’ ICR (Infrared Cutfilter Removal), and put the sharpening level down. Having really sharp images looks great on an HD phone screen, but it’s not as ideal for other uses. We know that 90% of people will only ever look at photos on the phone screen, so it’s about getting a good photo for that purpose.
“We’re constantly refining this,” Symon tells us in closing.
There’s plenty more to come. Stay tuned for more from our talk with Symon, in which he reveals the future of smartphone cameras, and what’s coming soon from HTC. What do you think of the UltraPixel approach? Let us know below. If you’re sold on its pioneering camera tech and stunning design, you can order your HTC One (M8) from Vodafone here.