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Do we really need a depth detection camera?

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Most modern smartphones have multiple rear cameras designed for different purposes. You may be familiar with ultrawide cameras and macro lenses, but some phones also have a “depth camera” or “depth sensor.” But what exactly is a depth camera and does it really matter?

Depth-sensing cameras, also known as time-of-flight (ToF) cameras, are sensors designed to determine the difference in distance between the camera and the image, usually measured by a laser or LED. Time-of-flight technology is used in many different areas where object tracking is important, such as robots that assemble objects in automated factories or in Microsoft’s Kinect peripheral that was available for the Xbox 360 and Xbox One.

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Smartphone depth cameras are not like other cameras. You can’t shoot with a depth-sensing camera alone, unlike ultra-wide, macro or telephoto lenses, a depth-sensing camera simply helps other lenses to detect distances. It is usually used in combination with software algorithms to determine the outline of the subject (a person, animal, or other object) and apply a blur effect to the rest of the image.

Some iPhone models have a TrueDepth camera, which is mainly used for Face ID facial recognition. “Face ID provides visual and secure authentication, powered by the advanced TrueDepth camera system and advanced technologies to accurately map the geometry of your face,” Apple says in an article. The only time TrueDepth is used for photography is when using portrait mode on the front camera.

Should you be looking for a phone with a depth-sensing camera? There is a simple answer: no. Dedicated depth-sensing cameras on the back of the phone are not found on most flagship-class smartphones, including iPhones and Samsung Galaxy S devices, as portrait mode and other similar depth effects can be achieved with other hardware.

For example, the iPhone X and iPhone 7 Plus were Apple’s first phones with portrait mode and did not have dedicated depth cameras. This effect was made possible with data from the telephoto camera and the main camera, combined with a little software magic. Apple has since continued to use the same technology, with further improvements on models with more rear cameras. Samsung briefly included a dedicated depth-sensing camera on its flagship phones like the Galaxy S20+ and S20 Ultra, but we haven’t seen it on the S21 and newer phones. Like iPhones, most Samsung devices now use lenses and other software to create depth effects.

There is a significant advantage to using other lenses for the depth effect, other lenses that are more useful will be substituted. As mentioned above, a depth camera can’t actually take pictures (which is why some companies call it a “sensor” to avoid confusion), it just provides distance data to other cameras. However, a telephoto or ultra-wide camera can act as a depth sensor and capture photos of the target as well. A phone with a regular wide-angle lens and a depth-sensing camera can only take photos at a regular distance, with or without depth effects, but a phone with a wide-angle and telephoto can do the same with the addition of advanced zoom.

So why are depth cameras still popular if other (more useful) cameras can serve the same purpose as a depth camera? It goes back to psychology. The hardware competition for smartphone photography has led to dual, triple or quad cameras being marketed as premium features. Some phones try to include as many cameras as possible, even if they have limited or no real-world use, a particularly popular tactic on budget phones.

One example of this trend is the Galaxy A03s, an affordable phone from Samsung. The phone has three cameras, but only the main 50-megapixel sensor is useful. One of the other lenses is a 2-megapixel depth-sensing camera, and the other is a 2-megapixel macro lens that has a very low resolution. Replacing both of these lenses with ultra-wide or telephoto lenses would be more useful, but would also mean less camera (possibly hurting sales) or a higher price.

In the end, depth-sensing cameras can be useful, but you shouldn’t dismiss a phone just because it doesn’t have one. Many phones and tablets can create depth effects using lenses and other software, and mobile editors like Photoshop Express can create a similar (though not quite) look to standard photos.

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Adib

Adib Zahedi is the CEO and Founder of mazhd.com. He has nearly a decade of experience in IT, including two years spent working on a Youtube Chennal. He is also an author and writes articles for mazhd.com. Has articles include tutorials and covers everything from Windows PCs to smartphone's software.

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