Which Smartphone Cameras allow Aperture Control?

By now, you probably know that Shutterspeed, ISO, and Aperture are the three variables that determine the exposure of an image. But is it possible to change all three of them while using a smartphone camera? 

Very few smartphones have a camera with variable aperture control. It is a new technology that needs further development before most smartphone manufacturers can apply it. For example, Samsung used it in the Galaxy S9 and S10 but scraped this key camera feature of its newest Android flagships.

Variable aperture can be one of the unique selling points in any new smartphone. Although many saw Samsung’s dual aperture experiment as a gimmick, it might see the light of day again in the future. Manufacturers are looking for ways to create smartphone cameras that can compete with DSLR cameras. 

Samsung Galaxy S10 Time of Flight Sensor

These Smartphones have some sort of Aperture Control

  • Motorola Motozine ZN5
  • Nokia N86 8MP from 2009 
  • Samsung Galaxy S9 from 2018
  • Samsung Galaxy S9+
  • Samsung Galaxy Note 9
  • Samsung Galaxy S10 from 2019 with f/1.5 or f/2.4
  • Samsung Galaxy S10+ with f/1.5 or f/2.4 
  • Samsung Galaxy Note 10 with f/1.5, f/1.8, and f/2.4
  • Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ with f/1.5, f/1.8, and f/2.4

Why did Samsung stop producing cameras with aperture control?

It was kind of a bright idea, introducing aperture control to Samsung’s flagship smartphones. They enabled smartphone photographers to switch between a low aperture of f/1.5 for portraits and macro shots with a blurry background and a higher aperture of f/2.4 for more depth and detailed images. 

Samsung continued to develop this new technology and used it again in the Galaxy S10 and Note 10 models. But it proved to be challenging to use a real aperture ring in a cellphone. It is simply too big for a phone to get the desired results. Moreover, it would impact the thickness of camera phones significantly. Samsung decided to bet on their new Time of Flight technology to recreate a shallow depth of field.

My phone has aperture control, but the lens opening does not change

Many smartphone cameras can mimic the result of aperture control with software. For example, time of Flight (ToF), Depth Vision, and other depth cameras can emulate what a lens is doing without changing aperture. So your cellphone may show an aperture option, like my Honor 10 in the picture below, but the result is created with software instead of hardware.

Honor 10 Aperture Control by Smartphone Photography

What is ToF or Time of Flight sensor?

A Time of Flight or ToF sensor is a depth sensor that collects 3D data to create a blurred background or bokeh effect. Smartphone developers use this technique in high-end camera phones to determine the distance and depth to particular objects in the scene. 

Some smartphones use the ToF sensor for augmented and virtual reality applications. But how does it work? Let’s dive in for a bit more detailed information about this tiny yet convenient sensor. 

  • Time of Flight has different names, like ToF sensor, 3D sensor, depth sensor, or ToF 3D camera. 
  • A similar result with a different technique is created with Apple’s LiDAR scanner.
  • The ToF sensor cannot take pictures; it is a lens that measures depth in a scene to help other lenses to create photographs. 
  • It is a low-resolution lens ranging between 0.3MP and around 5MP.
  • The Time of Flight lens measures the distance between the lens and the subjects in a scene. It uses the amount of time an infrared light beam needs to travel between the lens, the subject and back.
  • A ToF sensor in a smartphone can do 3D mapping for photography and videography, facial recognition, blurring backgrounds, and creating augmented reality. But it also works to enhance gesture control. 
Apple iPhone LiDAR scanner

Which smartphones have a ToF or Time of Flight sensor?

Many high-end smartphones have a ToF or Time of Flight sensor these days. For example, all new Apple iPhones will allegedly have a LiDAR scanner (somewhat similar to ToF) in 2021. They use a Time of Flight sensor at the phone’s back and a TrueDepth camera on the front. Sony makes these sensors, and they have an exclusive deal with Apple.

Here are a few smartphone cameras with a (3D/ToF) depth sensor.

  • All Apple iPhones from 2021 (iPhone 13 or iPhone 12S)
  • Apple iPhone 12 series (available from Amazon)
  • Samsung Galaxy S20 series (available from Amazon as refurbished)
  • Samsung Galaxy S10 series (available from Amazon as refurbished)
  • Huawei Mate 40 Pro and P40 Pro
  • One Plus 9 Pro, One Plus Nord (available from Amazon)

Apple’s LiDAR scanner works better than the Samsung ToF sensor. This is because it works with a direct ToF sensor with a 6-meter range. In comparison, Samsung uses an indirect ToF sensor with a 3-meter range.

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