Confused by the array of cameras on the back of your smartphone? Don’t worry, we’re here to help you understand the differences between a single, dual, triple (and more) lens setup.

The race to cram as many megapixels as possible into a single camera module seems to have slowed. Instead, smartphone manufacturers are now looking at new tech, designs, techniques, and using multiple cameras to capture the world in wondrous ways.

But what does having more than one camera on the back of your phone actually enable? And how many lenses is too many? Join us for a tour through the multiple camera landscape…

Single camera

All this isn’t to say that a single camera setup isn’t capable of capturing amazing photos – far from it. The new iPhone XR, for example, has a single 12-megapixel camera with f/1.8 wide-angle lens. The 1.8 ‘f-stop’ value here relates to the opening of the lens; the lower the value, the larger the opening and the more light is let in, which produces better images when the surrounding light isn’t ideal.

The iPhone XR also has some clever artificial intelligence to recognise people, map subjects, and add bokeh (background blurring) effects – perfect for portraits! The Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL do the same, with Portrait Mode shots made possible through software, rather than multiple lenses.

But when it comes to more than one camera, there’s an obvious opportunity for manufacturers to throw in some extra features that can be hard to achieve with a single lens.

Dual camera

When we’re looking at the multiple camera setups on modern flagship phones, chances are it’ll be a dual lens configuration. But what this double set-up does varies from device to device.

If you’ve ever tried to take a photograph and zoom in on a smartphone with a single-lens camera, you’ll know there’s only so far you can push the camera before the image becomes distorted and blurry. This is down to the limitations of digital zoom, where you’re essentially blowing up the same small image, leading to a grainy photo.

With a two-lens setup, though, each lens can be focused at a slightly different distance, allowing for optical zoom – not digital. Optical zooms are typically shown as ‘2x’. Of course, this has limitations too, but it’s definitely a more robust system.

One device that takes this approach is the new iPhone XS Max. It has two 12-megapixel cameras on the back: one f/1.8 wide angle lens, and another f/2.4 telephoto lens with 2x optical zoom.

But in this instance, the f/2.4 telephoto lens has two jobs. Not only is it zoomed in further, its higher f-stop value (f/2.4) means it also takes in less light. So while that zoomed-in lens is capable of capturing images from further away, it also produces images that are slightly darker.

The phone’s image processing then combines photos from both, to produce snaps with balanced dark and light profiles, on top of better zoom controls.

Another typical dual-cam arrangement is for a colour camera (RGB) and a monochrome one. Here, as with some handsets from LG, the RGB camera captures the world in colour, while the other monochromatic camera captures it in pure black and white, and then either gives you the choice of which to use, or combines the two using on-board image processors.

This approach to capturing a subject means that you’ve got the vibrant colours of the RGB camera, and the deep contrasting darks and lights that only black and white cameras can get, for the purpose of creating a more detailed and vivid image.

So, that’s a two-camera configuration. Wonder what comes next…

Triple camera

Once again, what a phone’s triple camera layout provides depends on the device. For example, the Huawei P20 Pro has three cameras in a row, whereas the Huawei Mate 20 Pro has them grouped together in a square formation (including the flash).

And, while two of the cameras are (mostly) the same – a telephoto module and a wide module – the third camera is completely different in each.

On the P20 Pro, the third camera is a monochrome number that works to improve the dynamic range of your images – covering the lightest lights and darkest darks, creating an image using a full range of colours. But with the Mate 20 Pro, that’s been swapped out with an ultra-wide camera built for squeezing more into every shot. That’s three colour cameras: 40-megapixel (wide), 20-megapixel (ultra-wide), and 8-megapixel (telephoto). That’s because in the Mate 20 Pro, Huawei believes that its camera’s artificial intelligence – they call it Master AI 2.0 – can recreate the monochrome effect without a dedicated lens.

The really cool thing is that the phone is also able to look at different sections of an image and make adjustments to each segment individually, rather than heavy-handedly tweaking the whole shebang.

Four and more…

So where do we go from here? Exactly how many camera lenses will our future phones have?

Well, for one thing, Samsung recently announced the world’s first quad camera smartphone – the Galaxy A9. All lined up in a row, the A9’s camera mount comprises a 24-megapixel f/1.7 main camera (for standard field of view), an 8-megapixel ultra-wide f/2.4 lens (that gives 120-degree field of view), a 10-megapixel f/2.4 telephoto cam with 2x optical zoom, and a 5-megapixel f/2.2 depth camera, which works with the main camera to manually adjust the ‘depth of field’ in your images for blurred backgrounds. Pretty cool stuff!

If, or how, the other players in the field will use a quad arrangement remains to be seen, but no doubt the Samsung A9 won’t be the only phone we’ll see using four modules in new and interesting ways.

And beyond four? We need to turn to the rumour mill. Take this with a hefty pinch of salt, but according to one source (OnLeaks), HMD is working on a Nokia phone with five lenses – or a penta-lens setup, as it’s been dubbed.

Exactly what these five lenses might deliver in terms of photography prowess is a bit of a mystery, but if nothing else, it proves we haven’t hit the ‘multiple camera’ ceiling just yet. Watch this space.

Looking for a new flagship phone from Vodafone? Check out our latest list of must-have high-end phones.