This past weekend I witnessed half a dozen hot air balloons launch into the sky, and I learned two things. One, hot air balloons are every bit as terrifying as I imagined and two, I really wish smartphone cameras had 50mm lenses.
I recently moved to a small town that, for nearly 40 years, has held a hot air balloon festival every June. Until Saturday, I had never seen one up close and figured I should discover what all the fuss is about. While I learned definitively that I will never take a ride in one (for my taste, hot air balloons are too much at the whim of nature and don’t offer the kind of control I’d like in my air travel) (also, it was overcast and at several points throughout the evening balloons seemingly disappeared from the Earth as they sailed into the clouds) (finally, let’s be real, it’s a wicker basket attached to a giant balloon that is controlled by flamethrowers, how does any of that add up to a good idea?), I was also awed by the beauty and charm on display. Luckily, I happen to be testing Samsung’s excellent new flagship, the Galaxy S8, and had it along to capture the moment.
That dark smudge you see directly above the yellow balloon is another balloon hidden amongst the clouds. No thanks.
Samsung missed a huge opportunity to cement itself as the camera leader among Android smartphones this year, opting to carry over the (admittedly excellent) system from the S7. Not only does that leave the door open for other manufacturers to take the crown, but Samsung is also losing ground on the trend of dual-cameras. Now that Apple has pushed the idea to the mainstream and, by doing so, helped educate the masses on dual-cameras, manufacturers are poised to push the idea even harder than in recent years and Samsung is missing an opportunity to be on the frontline of that push. But, even if Samsung had introduced a dual-camera system with the S8, there’s no telling how it would have worked.
A huge issue with dual-cameras, making them difficult to explain to the average consumer, is they’re all different. Some combine two focal lengths, others monochrome and color sensors, some can use both lenses independently, others can’t. Apple has received a lot of flak of late, and rightfully so; many of the company’s decisions in the last year have been confounding at best and downright user hostile at worst. But one decision it got right was opting for a dual-camera system on the iPhone 7 Plus that combined a wide-angle lens and a standard-angle lens, though Apple claims one is actually telephoto (it’s not).
Most smartphone cameras are wide-angle, offering a focal length in the 25mm range. That’s great when you want to photograph a landscape, or a big group picture, but so often I’ll be at an event or even just come upon a moment in my day that I want to capture, only to pull out my phone and have the image look nothing like the what I see with my eyes. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but this happens to me all the time, and I’m always left frustrated and dejected. I’ll often even decide not to take a picture once I see how different it looks through the viewfinder than my eyes. I want to be able to preserve moments the way I remember seeing them, not a close facsimile. A focal length of 50mm, or something in the standard-angle bracket, is much closer to what the human eye sees, and would allow users to capture their life closer to the way it’s actually happening.
That’s the approach Apple took with the 7 Plus camera, and it’s one more OEMs should implement. Dual-camera systems that use both lenses to offer better quality in some way, whether it’s enhanced color or more detail, are great but a phone that offers two distinct options of image gives users the most value. Being able to swap between a wide-angle camera for those times you want to capture a great swath of scenery and a standard-angle to give a more realistic view of how you see the world is the perfect combination.
Let’s go back to the hot air balloons. The S8 did a valiant job given the tough, grey conditions. The photos I came away with this weekend don’t have quite the vibrancy I would like, but that was down more to the skies than the performance of the S8. They are sharp, with good dynamic range and excellent detail. What they don’t have however, is an adequate representation of what being there, with those balloons coming to life on the field and then taking off into the sky, was really like from my vantage point. Everything is pushed farther back than it was in reality due to the shorter focal length of the S8’s camera.
The odds of smartphone manufacturers swapping out the wide-angle lens for standard-angle is unlikely. Users have grown accustomed to the shorter focal length and being able to capture a wide view, whether they’re aware of it or not. With the advent of dual-camera systems, however, a switch doesn’t need to be made. Manufacturers can give consumers choice in a single product by following Apple’s lead and implementing a dual-lens system that offers both wide and standard angles.
And then the world can accurately capture the remarkable, and terrifying, moment that is a hot air balloon inflating, launching and disappearing into the clouds.