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Dual lens camera phones explained: What are the benefits vs single lens cameras and which are best?

Why do smartphones like Apple’s iPhone 8 Plus and the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 use a dual lens camera, and what benefits do two lenses offer compared with just one? Here’s our full explainer for dual lens mobile cameras, including which phones use them and which of these double-vision snappers are the best for everyday photography.

In the past couple of years we’ve seen a surge in dual lens smartphone cameras, which are rapidly replacing single lens shooters as the norm. The likes of LG and Huawei were among the first mobile manufacturers to jump onto this imaging tech, while Apple and Samsung have now committed themselves to doubling down on camera lenses for their premium handsets.

We’ve even seen some affordable phones from Honor and Motorola launch with twin snappers, here in 2017. Which shows that single lens phone cameras are likely to dwindle further in 2018.

Of course, just to confuse matters, few dual lens cameras are the same; in fact, they offer very different results and benefits from one another. So the iPhone 8 Plus and Galaxy Note 8 will produce very different photos from the LG G6 and Huawei P10, even though they all offer two lenses instead of one.

Here’s our complete guide to dual lens phone cameras, including a comparison of the different types and which one might be best for your particular needs.

Check out our guide to the best smartphone cameras and best budget smartphone cameras for our favourite mobile shooters right now.

What was the first dual lens phone camera and when did they become popular?

The first dual lens mobile camera that we personally tested was the HTC Evo 3D, launched way back in 2011. However, this was a very different beast to the typical double shooters that we see today.

Check out our history of dual lens camera tech for a brief overview of how mobiles came to sport two lenses instead of one, including a run-down of some of our favourites of the past two years.

What are the different types of dual lens smartphone cameras, and what are their benefits/drawbacks?

Quite a lot of dual lens smartphone cameras sport a pair of lenses which work independently of one another. In other words, you can swap between them on the fly, to get different kinds of results depending on what you’re trying to snap. Meanwhile, other phones serve up twin lenses that actually work together, to enhance the final photo results.

That said, pretty much every dual lens camera does deliver a ‘portrait’ mode of some description. This uses both lenses to judge the distance to your subject and then produce a photo with a blurred-out background, so you get some serious depth-of-field. This helps your subject to stand out, although the results aren’t always perfect.

Here’s our breakdown of the different kinds of dual lens mobile camera tech, including which mobile handsets use them and the advantages of each.

The 3D photography dual lens camera

One of the first uses for dual lens smartphone cameras was to create 3D photos. These three-dimensional photographs were created by combining the separate images from the left and right lenses, to offer a true depth-of-field - in the same way that your brain uses the images from your left and right eyeballs to allow you to judge distances.

What are the benefits?

These 3D photos are of course a total gimmick, although there’s no denying that they’re quite impressive at times. If you know what you’re doing you can capture some quite stunning scenic results, which really help your images to stand out.

What are the drawbacks?

Of course, to actually see the results as intended, you’ll need to browse your photographs on a 3D display. Which means that they’re a massive inconvenience and pretty much impossible to share, at least in 3D form. Frankly, it’s all a bit pointless.

Which phones use this kind of dual lens camera?

Thankfully very few mobile phones from history offered this kind of dual lens tech. The HTC Evo 3D was pretty much the first and last smartphone to serve up a 3D dual lens camera and we’re not expecting to see another one anytime soon.

The optical zoom dual lens camera

Alongside a standard camera lens, some smartphones offer a second ‘optical zoom’ lens which can get a closer view of a far-away subject, without impacting the quality of your photos.

Pretty much every smartphone camera has a digital zoom feature, usually activated with a pinch of your fingers on the screen. However, a digital zoom simply crops the edges of your photo and increases the pixel size, to simulate an optical zoom. In comparison, an optical zoom actually adjusts the camera lens itself, to increase the distance between the glass and the sensor. In other words, it’s a proper hardware solution instead of simply software manipulation.

Dual lens cameras with an optical zoom often switch between the two lenses automatically, when you try and zoom in.

What are the benefits?

When you use a digital zoom, those pixels are increased in size to magnify the photo. This unfortunately means that your images will be more grainy, with individual pixels likely visible to the naked eye.

With optical zoom, there’s no need to artificially increase the pixel size. That means no loss in detail levels, while still giving a closer view of your subject. Handy if you snap a lot of interesting architecture on holiday.

Some of these dual lens cameras also offer a wide-angle view with their standard lenses, which is a best-of-both-worlds situation: you can decide if you want to fit a lot into your photo, or concentrate on a very specific area.

What are the drawbacks?

Of course, unlike expensive DSLRs, the optical zoom on these smartphones is often quite limited. You’ll find that most dual lens cameras max out at 2x optical zoom, including the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and the Apple iPhone 8 Plus.

Which phones use this kind of dual lens camera?

Here’s a list of the mobiles we’ve tested that use a dual lens camera boasting built-in optical zoom. Clicking the link takes you to our in-depth camera review.

Apple iPhone 7 Plus

Samsung Galaxy Note 8

OnePlus 5

Apple iPhone 8 Plus (soon to be reviewed)

Apple iPhone X (soon to be reviewed)

The wide-angle dual lens camera

Alternatively, some dual lens cameras offer a secondary wide-angle snapper. Like the optical zoom cameras, this bonus lens gives a different viewpoint - in this case, capturing more scenery in a single shot, rather than bringing you closer to your subject.

Unlike the optical zoom cameras, you’ll have to manually switch between these two lenses to achieve the results you need.

What are the benefits?

Wide-angle lenses are the ideal way to shoot a stunning landscape, or a large monument that wouldn’t otherwise fit into a standard mobile photo. The likes of the Asus Zenfone 4 offer a 120-degree view, so you can see almost as much in your photos as you could in real life.

What are the drawbacks?

Not much, to be honest. Although you don’t tend to get an optical zoom option with these dual lens cameras, whereas some optical zoom dual lens cameras also offer a wide-angle option.

Which phones use this kind of dual lens camera?

LG is a stout believer in wide-angle dual lens cameras, sticking with the hardware for its premium blowers since the LG G5 in 2016. However, Asus recently launched its own version, in the Zenfone 4.

LG G5

LG G6

LG V30

Asus Zenfone 4

The collaborative dual lens camera

Some dual lens cameras actually have two lenses which work together, rather than separately. These come in a few different forms. For instance, Huawei/Honor packs a monochrome as well as an RGB colour lens onto most of its smartphones, which is supposed to produce photos with sharper detail compared with single lens cameras.

What are the benefits?

The main benefit of these dual lens cameras is the ability to take proper depth-of-field photos. This uses both lenses to keep your subject sharp and add a bokeh-style blur effect to the background. In this way, your subject will really stand out, when compared with shots taken on a single lens camera.

This is usually called a ‘portrait mode’ and most dual lens cameras offer some version of it.

What are the drawbacks?

Unlike optical zoom or wide-angle dual lens cameras, there’s no way to alter your view by switching between the two snappers. The benefits are therefore limited.

Which phones use this kind of dual lens camera?

Quite a few phones now sport this kind of dual lens camera, as you’ll see in our list below. Huawei and Honor were the first to popularise it, while Nokia and Motorola are now jumping on the bandwagon.

Motorola Moto G5s Plus

Nokia 8

Huawei P10

Huawei P10 Plus

Huawei Mate 9

Honor 9

Honor 8 Pro

Honor 6X

Check back soon for our in-depth comparison of the best dual lens camera phones!

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