Mobile photography has seen major growth in the past decade, and smartphone camera sensors and lenses have to operate in a very tight space, but they continue to close the gap on full-size digital cameras year after year.
Sony's new IMX586 sensor boasts a 48-megapixel resolution, the highest yet for a mobile sensor, and should be coming to a phone near you soon. The increased resolution shrinks the pixel size down to 0.8 microns, which would usually lead to lower sensitivity and poor light collection. Thanks to some smart technology called a Quad Bayer array – where neighbouring pixels are intelligently combined – Sony says the effective pixel size is 1.6 microns.
Basically, the bigger the pixel size, the better the light capture and low-light performance. In comparison, the Google Pixel 2, which is one of the best photo-taking smartphones on the market right now, has a camera with a 1.4-micron pixel size.
On paper, it means that Sony has managed to produce a sensor that combines a huge amount of detail with excellent light capture and low noise levels as well. We will have to wait until the sensor is actually on the market to know for sure, but the signs are good at least.
"Original Sony exposure control technology and signal processing functionality are built into the image sensor, enabling real-time output and a superior dynamic range four times greater than conventional units," says Sony. "Even scenes with both bright and dark areas can be captured with minimal highlight blowout or loss of detail in shadows."
The stacked CMOS image sensor measures 8mm diagonally, so it should be able to fit inside even the most compact smartphone designs. Many manufacturers make use of Sony sensors in their phones, including Samsung and Huawei, though Sony usually keeps it newest sensors back for their own handsets, to begin with.
The sensor is also capable of recording 4K movies at 90 frames-per-second, so you should be covered for both photos and movies if your next smartphone comes with a Sony IMX586 packed inside it. Samples are being shipped from September so will probably start hitting phones next year.
One area where proper DSLR cameras still have the edge is with optical zoom: there just isn't the space inside a smartphone for the necessary optics. Dual-sensor cameras are starting to get around the problem, but it's going to take much longer for smartphones to catch up in this department.