Gizmos

Why Smartphone-Makers Keep Adding More Cameras

And why it’s a smart move.

The LG V30 in various colors.
The LG V30 (pictured) already has a dual rear-facing camera system, but the company’s next phone may have even more cameras.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by LG.

The camera is one of a smartphone’s most important features. In 2017, analysts with Keypoint Intelligence estimated that we’d collectively snap more than 1.2 trillion photos over the course of the year (and that stat doesn’t include the number of videos we’d record). Naturally, smartphone-makers are using this tendency to their advantage. One strategy they’re using: increasing the number of cameras on the device.

A report from a popular Android news site suggests the LG’s next smartphone, tentatively known as the V40, will feature not one, not two, but three cameras on the back. Including its front-facing camera module, the device will house a total of five cameras. On the front, at least one would be used for facial recognition and biometric authentication. On the back, you’d have a standard wide lens, an ultrawide lens, and a third lens with a purpose as yet unknown—perhaps a zoom lens or one dedicated to providing specific depth of field or bokeh effects. The report suggests most of the phone’s other features, such as its notched screen design, will remain unchanged or be incrementally updated from its predecessors, which means that its trifecta of rear-facing cameras may be one of its main selling points.

LG’s reported plan isn’t a new idea. The Huawei P20 Pro, which became available this spring, also includes three cameras on the back. It is positioned as a cheaper alternative for photographers than a high-end dedicated camera, and its camera system was co-engineered with Leica, the German lens and camera-maker. Huawei’s phone—and now reportedly LG’s upcoming phone—build on the dual-lens system popularized by Apple in 2016 with the iPhone 7 Plus, which featured a standard 28 mm wide-angle lens on back as well as a 56 mm equivalent portrait lens with built-in optical zoom capabilities up to 2X. This has quickly become the standard: There are now dozens of smartphones that have a dual rear-facing camera system, including the Samsung Galaxy 9 Plus, OnePlus 6, and LG V30. But multiple camera systems are still a premium offering and not entirely ubiquitous. Many phones, such as the iPhone 8, still have a single camera on back.

The trend of multiple rear-facing cameras is interesting, however, and not just for the more detailed imagery and broader photographic scope these systems enable. This type of advanced smartphone camera wasn’t feasible a few years ago, at least not with the ease that’s available today. Thanks to advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence, smartphone camera software can quickly and intelligently optimize photograph settings based on the conditions you’re shooting in, whether that be low light, a wide, distant scene, or an up-close portrait of a single person. The phone is able to utilize both cameras as needed, without requiring its owner to fiddle with different modes or intricate camera settings menus. That’s not to say that these phones don’t offer such settings: The iPhone’s portrait mode can be enabled for both selfies and portrait shots to highlight the subject’s face compared with her background surroundings, while the P20 Pro includes a night mode that lets you take photos with up to six seconds of exposure time without the need for a tripod.

While multilens smartphone cameras date as far back as 2011, it’s thanks to advances in A.I., shrinking camera module technology, and the increased size of the average smartphone that it’s become a full-on trend. And three cameras, which may sound excessive, is the natural progression as photo-taking increasingly becomes one of a phone’s most vital functions. A third lens can further optimize the detail, zoom capabilities, or scope of a photo, but it can also be used for special effects typically reserved for third-party lens accessories, giving users fun new ways to capture memories. At this point, it’s unclear whether three camera systems like the P20 Pro’s or LG’s reported upcoming handset will be more of a novelty for photography die-hards or evolve into the new standard. But if the adoption of dual-lens systems is any indication, it’s an idea we’ll definitely start seeing more often.