Sony’s new 48MP camera sensor could solve Apple’s low-light iPhone shooting problems

2018 iPhone Photography Award winners

While Apple has been steadily improving low-light photography capabilities of the iPhone cameras, Samsung still beats it in terms of high-sensitivity shooting. This could change if Apple opts to use Sony’s new 48-megapixel camera sensor in future iPhone models.

Unveiled this morning, the new IMX586 sensor with stacked design and ultra-compact pixel size of 0.8 μm delivers 48 effective megapixels, the industry’s highest pixel count. The sensor packs all those pixels onto a 1/2-type (8.0 mm diagonal) unit.

It uses the Quad Bayer color filter array where adjacent 2×2 pixels come in the same color and make high-sensitivity shooting possible. During low light shooting, the signals from the four adjacent pixels are added. This basically raises the sensitivity to a level equivalent to that of 1.6 μm pixels, which works out to about 12 megapixels.

It’s got four times the dynamic range of the previous sensors, letting it capture scenes with both bright and dark areas with minimal highlight blowout or loss of detail in shadows.

TL;DR: the new sensor takes bright, low-noise photos and videos.

This isn’t the first time we saw a high-resolution smartphone sensor.

Huawei’s flagship P20 Pro smartphone, pictured above, uses a 20-megapixel f/1.6 monochrome lens, an 8-megapixel f/2.4 telephoto lens and a 40-megapixel f/1.8 RGB lens.

Even though this results in a combined 92 megapixels of image-processing might, Huawei’s phone actually produces detailed 10-megapixel images using what the company calls Pixel Fusion. It won’t shoot at maximum resolution unless you ask it to do so.

The IMX586 takes 48-megapixel images by default, with real-time phone preview. Sony’s comparison photo included below compares a conventional 12-megapixel image to a 48-megapixel photo produced by the new IMX586 sensor.

Keep in mind that more megapixels does not always yield clearer pictures.

The company explains:

Generally, miniaturization of pixels results in poor light collecting efficiency per pixel, accompanied by a drop in sensitivity and volume of saturation signal. This product was designed and manufactured with techniques that improve light collection efficiency and photoelectric conversion efficiency over conventional products, resulting in the world’s first 0.8 μm pixel size, with both high sensitivity and high saturation signal level.

This smaller pixel size lets it deliver 48 effective megapixels on a compact unit with 8.0 mm diagonal, which can be fitted on many smartphones. The increased pixel count enables high-definition imaging even on smartphones which use digital zoom.

What you need to take clean low-light photographs are there basic things: optical image stabilization, a highly sensitive sensor and bigger pixels that let more light in. Apple, which has always avoided participating in the megapixel race (unlike many other smartphone manufacturers), has been using Sony’s CMOS sensors in iPhones for years.

And if the Cupertino firm continues to do so, and we see no reason why they wouldn’t, it’s with a fairly high degree of accuracy that we can infer that the next iPhone or the one after it will use this sophisticated sensor from Sony for ultra-sensitive shooting.