In less than a week, the Redmi Note 10 (possibly the Pro variant) and the Realme 8 (again, the Pro version probably) will bring the 108-megapixel camera sensor to the masses. Having a 108-megapixel camera on a sub-Rs 20,000 phone is a big deal – it was restricted to Rs 50,000 and above flagship phones just last year. It is obvious to automatically expect such flagship levels of camera performance from these phones, right? Well, don’t get your hopes high.

Back in January 2021, Xiaomi launched the Mi 10i in India with a 108-megapixel main camera. Most consumers as well as fans had high hope from the camera, since the Mi 10T Pro flagship technically had the same camera sensor. However, some of my media friends were disappointed to find notable differences in the output of the Mi 10i and Mi 10T Pro cameras. Some of them even compared it to the Samsung S21 Ultra’s cameras.

Since a lot of people threw similar questions on the difference between the camera output, here’s a brief explainer on why a flagship-level camera sensor doesn’t justify high-end performance.

Camera sensor isn’t the only important bit

Both Xiaomi and Realme won’t be wrong in claiming to use a flagship-grade camera sensor on their mass-market phones. However, none of them will shed light on the other crucial bits.

Mi 10T and Mi 10T Pro 5G

Mi 10T Pro 5G

A phone’s camera output depends on numerous parameters:

Image sensor

The image sensor is one of the most crucial aspects of the phone’s camera. The larger the pixels and the sensor, the more your smartphone camera can see, thereby gathering more data. The Mi 10i has a 1/1.52-inch sensor while the Mi 10T Pro has a 1/1.69-inch sensor. Both of these are large sensors and rely on pixel binning to improve their low-light performance.

Pixel binning involves merging more than one pixel to create a larger pixel in order to capture more light, which is more data for the ISP. The Mi 10i’s camera sensor is the only one using the 9-in-1 pixel binning system, which on paper is superior.

The 108-megapixel output, however, is done without any sort of pixel binning. In this mode, the camera maxes its output resolution but at the cost of lesser light data. Since the resolution is high, you can have highly detailed photos but not necessarily superior details when compared to other camera sensors.

Do note that large sensors often have trouble with the focal plane. As a result, you will see the edge fringing on your subject.

Post processing (AI stuff)

The image sensor is important but so does the post-processing. All the “AI stuff” that a phone brand boasts of tries to process (read correct) the best version of a photo. It is the algorithms that decide the amount of exposure based on ambient lighting as well as the amount of softening to suppress noise. Even the colour saturation, as well as detail levels, are all decided by the software.

Apple iPhone 12

Apple iPhone 12

An intelligent set of algorithms can give you good photos with an older image sensor (take the Google Pixel 4a as an example). Similarly, a phone like the Mi 10i relies on its camera algorithms to process the images in the way it is trained to do so. It all depends on what the algorithms are asked to do.

ISP on the chipset

Photo quality depends a lot on the ISP, i.e. the Image Signal Processor. This is the part of the chip that is responsible for processing all the data from a camera sensor into a useable photo. Having a better ISP is similar to having a better chipset — the more, the merrier. For example, the iPhone SE, despite relying 80 percent on the iPhone 8’s hardware, takes better photo than the latter thanks to the A13 Bionic’s better ISP. Phones such as the Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 4 even came with dedicated chips for running Google’s complex imaging algorithms faster.

Product positioning

Above all, it depends on a company as to how it wants to position its product. Xiaomi offers a 108-megapixel camera on both the Mi 10T Pro and Mi 10i. While the 108-megapixel sensor is technically quite similar, it is Xiaomi’s decision to ensure the Mi 10T Pro remains superior. Even though Xiaomi offers a high-end camera sensor on the cheaper Mi 10i, it still wants you to buy the more expensive Mi 10T Pro.

OnePlus 8T

OnePlus 8T

There are multiple ways a brand can do so. One can restrict the algorithms to process it inferiorly. One can use an affordable chip with a lesser ISP to restrict the image quality. It all depends upon the manufacturer’s decision to limit a camera’s performance.

Redmi Note 10, Realme 8 series won’t be the best

By now, it should be clear that a camera sensor alone can’t change the photo quality. Hence, the upcoming Redmi Note 10 Pro and Realme 8 Pro with their 108-megapixel cameras won’t necessarily be as good as the flagship phones with 108-megapixel cameras. A Mi 10T Pro, Mi 10, Motorola Edge S, and Galaxy S21 Ultra will continue to take better photos over these phones any given day (Unless Xiaomi and Realme decide to pull off a surprise on their respective launch dates).

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