What Is Pixel Binning In Smartphone Cameras? Here Is What You Should Know
The year 2019 has seen many innovative features arrive on smartphones. One of the ubiquitous out of the many features this year has been a high-resolution primary camera on the devices. Starting with budget handsets, the trend has trickled up to most modern flagship smartphones, like the OnePlus 7 Pro, Asus 6Z, Nubia Red Magic 3 and the Redmi K20 Pro. All these devices feature the same 48MP Sony IMX586 sensor as their primary camera. What’s special about the sensor is not the megapixel count, but the technology behind it. It uses pixel binning to create sharp 12MP images and the technology is the reason why the sensor is present on many devices. But what exactly is pixel binning? Here is everything you need to know about it.
Understanding The Concept Of A Pixel
To understand what pixel binning means, we first have to understand what pixels are. While a pixel is generally defined as the smallest element in a picture represented on screen. However, in this context, pixels are the smallest physical elements on a digital camera sensor that capture light during photography. They are measured using microns, which is a unit of length a million times smaller than a meter. The bigger the pixel size in a camera, the more light it can capture. This will result in much sharper and brighter images, which is the goal of every camera manufacturer.
However, the bigger the pixel sensor size is, the bigger the camera unit will be which is a difficult feat to put inside a smartphone’s slender frame. This leads to the intrusive camera bumps that make the device wobble when kept flat. So basically smaller pixel size = bad low light performance, but a larger pixel = huge camera sensor. So, how to fix this issue? This is where the pixel binning technology arrives into the picture.
What Is Pixel Binning?
Pixel Binning is the process of combining four adjacent pixels into one. So a camera sensor which has a pixel size of 0.8 microns will combine these pixels into a 2×2 grid to form a larger 1.6-micron pixel image. The effective resolution is usually one-fourth of what the sensor is capable of. This means that a 48MP sensor effectively produces 12MP images, and a 64MP sensor will produce 16MP images. Combining the pixels will result in a brighter and sharper image, without the hassles of a huge camera sensor.
As mentioned above, the most popular sensor that supports pixel binning in smartphones is the 48MP Sony IMX586. There is also the Samsung ISOCELL GM1 with the same resolution, but it’s not very common and present on a handful of devices like the Redmi Note 7s and the Lenovo Z6 Pro. A few weeks ago, Samsung also announced the ISOCELL HMX, a sensor with a whopping 108MP resolution that uses the pixel binning technology to produce high-resolution 27MP images. This sensor is expected to debut in the upcoming Xiaomi Mi MIX 4 smartphone.
The Future Of Smartphone Cameras
While the idea behind the pixel binning technology sounds exciting and a good way to tackle a particular problem, it is not the only way. While the goal was to reduce the camera sensor size and fit it inside a smartphone, most of the devices with the sensors still have a huge camera bump. Additionally, none of the handsets with the famous pixel binned sensors are the best in their class. It is possible to produce better low light images by software, as Google has demonstrated with the Pixel’s Night Sight feature.
So while it may be cool to boast about the 48MP or 64MP camera that your smartphone has, the results they produce are nothing to write home about. Granted, the details they produce are at times extraordinary, but for most social media sharing, where the images are anyway compressed for any of the details to be visible, it frankly doesn’t matter. But, if combined with better software, these pixel binned sensors may be a good thing for future smartphones and definitely one of the better features to have come out recently.