Software-based image processing and smartphone camera sensor sizes have drastically improved recently, from 1/1.33″ in 2020 to 1″ in 2022. 1-inch sensors have amazing Bokeh, much sharper images, better texture and detail retention, and exceptional low-light performance.
Sensor size is measured confusingly. To simplify, the earliest cameras were vacuum tube cameras. Instead of digital sensors, they had actual physical tubes. At the time, the size of the tube was referred to as the diameter of that physical tube, approximately, meaning that a 1in diameter = 13*8mm.
Even now, companies refer to sensor size as the hypothetical size of the diameter of the tube, and they don’t refer to the original sensor. A 1″ tube can fit 0.63in diagonally, so all sensor sizes by companies are not actual sensor measurements. Regardless, including a 1″ sensor into a smartphone is still incredible innovation.
Sensor size is a much better measure of a camera system’s strength when compared to the Megapixel count. A tiny 108MP sensor will perform much worse than a relatively large 12MP sensor. It enables exceptional natural roll-off/ depth of field with really low luminance noise. It also gives you incredible shutter speeds in low light and minimal shutter lag.
About the Sony IMX989 Sensor
The IMX989 is a 1″ type sensor that Xiaomi and Sony developed in collaboration, costing 15M Dollars approx to build. It’s a 23mm equivalent ~50.3 MP sensor that has already been used in many smartphones and revolutionises photography on Android phones.
The Sharp Aquos R6 and R7, the Leitz Phone 1, Vivo X90 Pro Plus, the Xiaomi 12S Ultra and more recently, the Xiaomi 13 Pro have used the IMX989 or a variant of it. It brings smartphones several steps closer to DSLR-level photography.
To a comparable 23mm real camera, the IMX989 sensor holds up decently well. In this post, we’ll attempt to depict the advantages of the IMX989.
Vivo X90 Pro+: Camera Configuration
The X90 Pro Plus uses the 1″ IMX989 (23mm equivalent), with an aperture of 1.8, paired with the Zeiss T Star Coating that reduces lens flare. It also has a 64MP 3.5X periscope camera, a 2X zoom lens, and a 14mm Ultra Wide. This post will focus on images from the primary sensor.
Vivo dropped Gimbal stabilisation on this due to the sheer size of the sensor. It comes with Dual Pixel PD Autofocus and Laser Autofocus, with a 1.6µm effective Pixel Suze and regular OIS.
In the above photos from Ice Universe on Twitter, the X90 Pro Plus stuns. The images have incredible detail, great colours, and an excellent dynamic range in daylight. It’s even more impressive in low light. The enormous sensor lets in a lot more light, so the shots don’t look noisy or have crushed details, yet they retain the feeling that they were taken at night.
These photos are so well done that the IMX989 sensor has been referred to as the pinnacle of smartphone photography. However, not all credit goes to the sensor; Vivo has excellent software-based HDR algorithms and fantastic image processing in low light.
Two modes let you choose between a saturated and boosted look that some prefer, and there’s also a natural mode that attempts to reproduce colours exactly as you see them in real life. Vivo also has a dedicated ISP to take away the load from the SOC, and this gives them granular control over what they want their photos to look like.
Xiaomi 13 Pro Camera Configurations
The Xiaomi 13 Pro was unveiled for the Chinese market on 11th December, yet another phone with excellent image hardware, paired with Leica tuning for software-based processing.
There are two options, Leica Authentic and Leica Vibrant, thanks to Xiaomi’s partnership with Leica. The Vibrant mode generally boosts colours and increases vibrance and saturation to give you a more eye-pleasing and social media-ready look, while the Authentic mode tones everything down a notch.
The Xiaomi 13 Pro uses the 50.3 MP 1″ type IMX989 sensor with a 1.9 Aperture. It also has a 50MP ultrawide and a 50MP 3.2X Telephoto camera capable of macro shots.
To keen eyes, it’s hard to confuse photos between Xiaomi’s 13 Pro and Vivo’s X90 Pro Plus since they are unmistakably unique in how they process their photos.
Leica has a high contrast processing style with dark shadows and an overall cinematic look, while Vivo always boosts shades and has uncanny HDR performance. High contrast helps in night shots and neon signs. Contrast level and processing style are purely personal preferences regarding imaging.
The rich contrast makes it especially good with sunrises, sunsets, and silhouette-style images. Blues appear eye-pleasing, and skin tones, judging from the limited samples, look fine too.
Xiaomi 12S Ultra, Leitz Phone 1, Sharp Aquos R6 & R7 also use IMX989
The 12S Ultra was Xiaomi’s first shot at a 1″ sensor. The Mi 11 Ultra had a 1/1.2″ sensor size. With the 12S Ultra, they moved to the IMX989 and collaborated with Leica for some part of the processing for the first time.
Leica Authentic and Leica Vibrant were introduced. The only major complaint with this camera system was the limited dynamic range in challenging scenarios and crushed details in high-contrast areas. The capabilities of this system, though, were far superior to the iPhone at the time and traded blows with the S22 Ultra.
Listening to feedback from reviewers, Xiaomi massively improved the camera performance for the Xiaomi 13 Pro. It has faster focusing speeds, better video recording, and better contrast management. There’s also visible improved highlight control compared to the Xiaomi 12S Ultra.
— Chetan Nayak (@chet_code) August 20, 2022
A famous camera company from Germany, Lecia, has also made a smartphone with the IMX989 sensor called the Leitz Phone 1. It’s a rebrand of the Sharp Aquos R6 but has a revamped rear design. It brings a Leica widget on the home screen and runs an unknown Android skin made by Sharp.
Camera samples from XDA Developers show impressive Bokeh and depth of field, and it had a natural look to photos, with not much processing going on. It still crops into the main sensor and does not fully use the sensor size.
The Sharp Aquos R7 is another phone with a 1″ sensor. However, it still crops into some part of the primary sensor. It does not fully utilise the sheer size. This is why Xiaomi’s 12S Ultra is renowned for using the 1″ sensor properly, with dedicated lenses.
According to a review from XDA Developers, it had creamy Bokeh but suffered from poor software processing, slow shutter speeds, and limited dynamic range.
The IMX989 is just the beginning of 1″ sensors, and it’s revolutionary. Three main advantages can easily be spotted from large sensors, namely better light gathering capabilities, especially in low light that results in little luminance noise, crisp details and incredible textures, and excellent depth of field.
In 2023, several other phones will ship with a 1″ type sensor, and paired with excellent image processing (as we saw with Vivo and Xiaomi), it is sure to pose a real threat to Apple, Samsung and Google.
Those three companies do not fight the hardware battle but try to win it through enhanced and optimised software algorithms. But as the rest of the companies catch up with tremendous processing and great hardware to go with it, it’s time for Pixels, iPhones and Samsung flagships to battle harder.