Smartphone dual camera showdown: Two cameras, different focus

The laws of physics -- coupled with the desire for phones less than 8mm thick -- limit improvements in camera optics. The current trend is toward using more than one camera lens on the rear to provide interesting results.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

We've about reached parity when it comes to Android and iPhone flagship smartphone cameras, so manufacturers are looking to dual camera lenses to offer unique photo experiences. I've spent more than a month with the Apple iPhone 7 Plus, LG V20, Honor 8, and Huawei Mate 9. Each brings something different to the table, and there is probably at least one that meets your desires.

Five years ago, HTC launched the dual lens HTC EVO 3D, a smartphone that provided a glasses-free 3D viewing experience that never caught on. In 2014, HTC introduced the One M8, which had a second lens designed to capture depth of field data for interesting bokeh effects.

Today's dual-camera smartphones use the second lens for bokeh effects, enhanced data, optical zoom, and wide angle capture. The lenses may work together or act as separate cameras providing different results. There is even more differentiation in the smartphones when you look at the camera software, with Apple providing the basics, while LG and Huawei provide a massive amount of settings and controls, including manual mode.

Dual-camera smartphone specifications

Specifications don't provide the complete picture regarding the capabilities of a smartphone camera, but they are useful for comparison purposes and to provide you with an indication on what each manufacturer is focusing on with the dual-camera setup.

While there is a representative focus shot from each of the four candidates in my embedded image gallery, make sure to visit my Flickr album for full resolution images comparing these four phones and the dual-camera setup.

Feature Apple iPhone 7 Plus LG V20 Huawei Mate 9 Honor 8
Rear camera 1 resolution 12 megapixel 16 megapixel 20 megapixel monochrome 12 megapixel monochrome
Rear camera 1 focal length 28mm, wide angle 29mm 27mm 35mm
Rear camera 1 aperture f/1.8 f/1.8 f/2.2 f/2.2
Rear camera 2 resolution 12 megapixel 8 megapixel 12 megapixel RGB 12 megapixel RGB
Rear camera 2 focal length 56mm, telephoto 12mm, 135 degree wide angle 27mm 35mm
Rear camera 2 aperture f/1.8 f/2.4 f/2.2 f/2.2
OIS Yes Yes Yes No
Optical zoom Yes, 2X No No No
Monochrome lens No No Yes, with monochrome photos Yes

Apple iPhone 7 Plus

Apple provides its users with a very basic camera interface, similar to what Google provides with its Nexus and Pixel lines. The software satisfies the masses who live in auto mode, with a few buttons and a few different capture options, including different video and still capture modes, some filters, a timer, and Live Photos button.

Apple's approach to the dual-camera setup was to provide a second telephoto lens that provides 2x optical zoom. This can be handy when you are trying to capture subjects that you are unable to approach. With the 2x optical zoom, you can also use digital zoom to get to 10x.

This lens also works with the primary camera in portrait mode to provide a bokeh, depth-of-field experience. The camera software works with the lenses to attempt to provide bokeh effects you may be used to on a DSLR.

While photos look great much of the time, the software can mess up the blur affect at times when colors blend in or there is not much separation between the focal subject and background items. Overall, the iPhone 7 Plus camera is dead simple to use and produces great results.

LG V20

LG doesn't get the respect it deserves, such as when it led the Android camera revolution with the LG G4 in early 2015. Since then, it has released the LG G5, LG V10, and LG V20. The LG V20 has the same dual rear-camera setup as the LG G5, with standard and wide-angle lenses.

LG's focus with the dual-camera setup was to provide you with the ability to capture more of your subject in a single photo. As you can see in my Flickr album, LG's second lens is good for capturing landscapes or large groups of people. You simply tap icons on the viewfinder to switch between the two rear camera lenses. These lenses do not work with each other but function separately.

Smartphone dual camera showdown: in pictures

LG provides advanced software on the LG V20, including modes that make some content more pronounced and support additional views in one image. Filters are provided, in addition to full manual support. LG's camera software is quite advanced, but its auto mode is also quick and easy to use.

Huawei Mate 9

The Huawei P9 was the first dual-camera setup from Huawei with the Leica partnership. The Huawei Mate 9 functions much like the P9, with the addition of OIS support for both rear cameras.

The Mate 9 cameras work together the majority of the time, with the second monochrome lens providing contrast and detail to make your color photos even sharper.

This second lens also works with the primary lens in wide aperture mode to provide you with variable depth-of-field photos. After a photo is captured with the wide aperture button enabled, you can selectively choose your focal point and even create photos with different focal points since all the data has been captured by both cameras.

Thanks to the P9, and now the Mate 9, I've really been enjoying the creation of monochrome photos using just the 20-megapixel monochrome lens. While other phones have mono filters, nothing I have seen beats the monochrome lens performance on a Huawei Mate 9.

The Huawei camera software is also the most powerful I have ever experienced, with a plethora of shooting modes, including light painting, monochrome, watermark, document scan, and more. You can also choose to shoot in standard, vivid colors, or smooth color enhanced mode to be a bit more creative. I'm a major fan of shooting in vivid color mode. The raw settings are also easier to use than with any other software -- since you simply swipe up from the bottom to enable manual/pro mode and then select your particular settings.

Honor 8

The Honor 8 is also produced by Huawei and offers a very similar experience to the Mate 9 and P9. While it also has one of the rear cameras as a monochrome camera, there is no ability to shoot just with this lens, and there is no Leica partnership on the Honor 8. When you consider that you can purchase an Honor 8 in the US for just $300 to $350, you cannot complain about the lack of monochrome output.

The Honor 8 also uses the same amazing camera software as the Huawei Mate 9, so power users will enjoy this camera experience.

Other dual camera smartphones

While I compared and tested four of the most current smartphones with two rear cameras, there are other modern candidates available. The LG G5 was the dual camera predecessor to the LG V20 and offers about the same experience and results. The Huawei P9 launched last year with the same dual camera Leica-branded cameras that we find today on the Huawei Mate 9.

Other smartphones with dual cameras include the HTC One M9+, ZTE Axon, LG V10 (dual front-facing shooters), CAT S60 (one camera is a FLIR camera), Huawei P9 Plus, Lenovo Phab 2 Pro, and Xiaomi Redmi Pro. It's likely we will continue to see dual rear cameras in smartphones as the technology continues to improve.

Zoom, wide-angle, bokeh, or mono?

The zoom on the iPhone 7 Plus is handy at times, but that camera also does not have OIS, so your results may not be as good at 2x optical zoom. The portrait mode is still in beta, and as you capture bokeh photos, you will experience some errant results.

The LG V20 secondary camera is limiting compared to the others and really only makes sense for some situations. The wide-angle camera also tends to give your photos a bit of fish-eye around the edges, and I honestly haven't found that many situations where I preferred to use the wide-angle mode.

Huawei's dual-camera setup seems to provide the best for all around use with depth of field, monochrome, and more detail. There is no optical zoom, but the extremely powerful software more than makes up for this, in my opinion.

Which approach do you prefer, and what dual camera phone do you like?

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