Sheldon PintoJul 29, 2019 14:31:10 IST
Many loved the OnePlus 7 Pro given its top-end hardware, quality and its price. But the OnePlus 7 Pro is still not at the very top of our recommendations list.
While OnePlus delivered when it came to performance, software and the display, its triple camera setup fell a bit too short of the competition.
One could cut them some slack given that this was OnePlus’ first go at building a high-end, premium smartphone, but the smartphone brand has not given up on its camera just yet.
The numerous camera-centric software updates that came out after the launch of the smartphone are a good indicator about how the Chinese smartphone brand is striving to get to the top when it comes to mobile imaging.
Another clear indicator is OnePlus’ revamped Camera Lab, where it conducts a majority of the objective testing using everything from a robotic arm, to Portrait testing using life-like heads (busts), and about 100 OnePlus 7 Pros all wired up to systems that get them the numbers and data needed to make a better performing camera.
Tech2 was invited to this Camera Lab in Taipei, Taiwan not just for a tour, but so OnePlus top brass could be subjected to a crazy round of questioning as well.
I spoke with Zake Zhang, Image Product Manager at OnePlus, and got a ton of answers, not just related to the 7 Pro’s camera performance, but also about its shortcomings, upcoming features and future plans.
What did the 9.5.7 update bring to the OnePlus 7 Pro?
Zhang: For the 9.5.7 update, we actually worked on the subjective look of the photo. The first-day camera software version of the OnePlus 7 Pro is the exact software that we had sent to DxO Mark. But we realised that when people started shooting with this camera, they were not satisfied with the results. Sometimes the numbers, the things that look good on paper, might not be ideal when you are really using it. So, we decided to get the user’s feedback from the community and implement that into our camera. And that’s how got the update version 9.5.7 right.
We actually need to run everything from the ground up, which means that after making the adjustments, we would take the camera back to the lab again, and run through every test, and then pack it up and send it to the users. First, we run our inner tests. After we finish our inner tests, we have inner group beta tests, so every employee is our beta tester. And after testing that for one or two weeks, we release it to the public.
Why did the 9.5.7 update arrive late?
Zhang: We mainly focussed on user feedback, mainly from the communities and our own testing. We gathered all the feedback, from day one (when the user got their smartphone) and started implementing it into our tuning process, went through the testing period, and eventually released it to the public. That takes about 3-4 weeks, and that is the fastest we can get from the very beginning till the release. There’s a lot of effort in testing.
Is there an audience or an age group that OnePlus looks at/or caters to, while creating these camera algorithms?
Zhang: From the very beginning, OnePlus has been focussed on the geek. The tech enthusiast. So, our goal kind of shifted from that smaller group to the general public.
Our image goal right now is that we want to create the best camera on any smartphone. So in order to do that, our target user is generally the majority of the users.
We don’t have a specific group age/range for our camera, but we mainly focus on how to create the best photo.
How differently are the OnePlus 7 and the OnePlus 7 Pro cameras tuned in terms of image quality? Are there separate teams working on both smartphones?
Zhang: Both the OnePlus 7 and OnePlus 7 Pro are tuned by the same team. The one you saw in the Taipei office, the software has exactly the same tuning in terms of image quality, however, the schedule for the software updates might be different, so you might see different updates or different versions of the tuning in both phones at any given time. And that might create a little bit of a difference in terms of imaging quality.
Why can’t we shoot video on the ultra-wide-angle lens? Is there a hardware limitation or a software solution that can be implemented at a later stage?
Zhang: Yes, this is something we can solve with a software update. The reason why we did not include video on the ultra-wide-angle lens is because we have a really, really small team and our resources are always limited.
We need to focus on the most important thing and the top priority, which for the OnePlus 7 Pro or the mission for the OnePlus 7 Pro is to get the best, the highest score of course, but also make people satisfied when they shoot with this device.
So, even after we launched, we got a lot of feedback from the community about this image quality, and so we decided that we need to fix this first, before we actually work on the video thing.
The good news is that our engineers have already finished working on the video feature for the three cameras, and are right now undergoing the testing process. Later this year, everybody will get this.
Does OnePlus prefer tuning its cameras to deliver more natural-looking colours or the more saturated ones?
Zhang: We actually had built our own philosophy for images, we had our whitepapers where we introduced our philosophy, which is more natural-looking photos with emotion, which means we are definitely heading to the natural look, natural style for the photo. We won’t do anything that seems like too much Photoshop
Will OnePlus introduce a 3D Beautify feature in the future?
Zhang: If we are heading for the natural look, you can be sure that we are not looking at face reshaping. This is not something we will be including in a future update.
Chinese OnePlus users have asked for the feature, but when it comes to taking a photo most users will still install a third-party app to do most of the settings on the beautification filter and shape their face using such apps.
According to the data you have gathered and consumer feedback, which colour tones do Indian customers prefer?
Zhang: Early this year, our camera team along with some test engineers went to Bangalore and conducted a user interview face to face. Each day, we would follow a user, from morning all the way to night to see how he or she takes a picture.
It might be the rear camera for sunrise, sunset, indoors, outdoors, and also selfies with many people. We actually got a lot of valuable information.
We used multiple phones, not just the prototype OnePlus 7 Pro, but also the 6T, Pixel, iPhone just to get an idea about which colours they like.
Different people have different preferences. Some people have never posted a photo that has been photoshopped or edited using an app. And if it’s a woman, she has never done post-editing at all! She just wants the natural look. But… some men, even if they look darker, would preferred the one with the beautification filter turned on!
In the OnePlus camera app, as a user in India, do I see a differently tuned image for this market versus the European market?
Zhang: Currently, we do not have different image tuning for different regions. But we have already built our testing environment in different locations, Shenzhen, Taipei, India. And we are building one in Germany as well. So, based on different locations and different latitudes, the lighting conditions are different, the white balance is different, the warmness of the colour is different. So, we might have different settings for different areas in the future. That’s something we will be including in the coming updates.
Since different people have different requirements from the camera, (especially the Chinese people), we are trying to figure out if it’s possible to run two different versions of the camera app. One with the Chinese version, one with the European version, etc. This is something we are still considering and we haven’t made the final decision on this yet.
Where does the data that influences OnePlus’s camera algorithms come from?
Zhang: While the source of the data is a really, really big, the test process is really complicated and is run in different locations. These tests use over 1,000 scenes (DxO Mark, for example, has only 20-30 scenes for subjective tests). For different locations, different lighting conditions, there are a lot of things going on and it’s really hard to control just one factor. So, you need to have them separating into different settings, and we take the photo not using just a OnePlus, device, but Pixel, iPhone, Huawei and Samsung, and we compare them side by side.
Are pop-up cameras just a passing trend?
Zhang: We are right now at the transition process, people (manufacturers) are trying to achieve the full screen design, with an immersive experience, but also trying to think of what the front-facing camera should be. Should it be a notch? Or a hole-punch on the screen? Or a pop-up? There’s just a whole lot of solutions out there.
But when we designed the OnePlus 7 Pro, we compared all kinds of solutions but made a decision on the pop-up camera design because we saw that the image quality from the hole-punch camera design does not meet our standards, which is something we cannot accept at all.
Did the design team and camera team have different interests when it came to including a pop-up camera on the 7 Pro?
Zhang: There was definitely some kind of conflict. But we are a small team, the benefit of a small team is that the software team and hardware team can work together and make sure that every decision we make delivers maximum user benefits. So, when we sat down together, the software team pulled up their requirements and the hardware team also put out their suggestions for hardware selection. And then we tried to merge them together to see which hardware solution can match with the software’s requirements and what were the pros and cons for each solution. It’s only then that we made the final decision.
The final decision was directly made by Pete Lau.
Pete loves getting involved in camera testing and the overall design, and everything from the very beginning till the end.
Even now, we have a WeChat group where he will send images shot with Huawei phones, iPhones, and the OnePlus 7 Pro and he will point out the areas we need to improve upon.
We moved from one camera to dual camera to triple and now even quad and penta-camera smartphones. Will we actually see a OnePlus smartphone with five rear cameras?
Zhang: When we design our smartphones, the questions we always ask ourselves is whether such features would bring any benefit to our user?
What we would be focussed on, is how we can maximise the hardware. It’s not about having multiple cameras in a future device, but if we are adding another camera, what scenario should people use this camera in? And what value can people get from this camera.
Is this something we can achieve from the main lens, or maybe using the ultra-wide-angle lens? How about we use the three cameras we already have instead of adding another camera? So, we always trying to think of how we can solve the problem.
Adding another camera is not the solution, but the problem that you solve with it is more important.
Will the data from the Camera Lab make the OnePlus Camera “smarter”?
Zhang: The future software of smartphone mobile photography does incline towards artificial intelligence to automatically help you capture the best photo. But at OnePlus, the focus right now is to have a better focus on the objective tests, which is what we get from the Camera Lab (based on numbers). But that’s how an engineer thinks. It’s easy for engineers to get that number right. But once we hand over the device to the user’s hand, the user only cares about whether this photo he/she takes using the camera satisfies his/her needs. And whether it looks visually appealing? So, in order to solve this problem, we need better subjective testing as well.
And this is where the Camera Lab really comes into its own. Since the automated camera lab takes care of the objective tests, our engineers get more time to get into subjective tests, which basically means to go out and take a photo, analyse it and provide feedback based on subjective testing.
An interesting feature you see on a OnePlus smartphone in the near future?
Zhang: I think on the hardware side because the body (form factor) of the smartphone is fixed, you cannot do much about that. Maybe, in the near future, once we can change the body (form factor) of the smartphone, we can have better or interesting possibilities for the camera. But right now it’s fixed, so you cannot get too big with the sensor.
On the software side, there are a lot of interesting things going on. Mobile photography completely changed the industry with more and more people using their smartphone for shooting. What makes it interesting is that a smartphone has a powerful chipset, which has a lot of power and capability for computing an image. So, I believe that computational algorithms will play a huge role in future of mobile photography.
What about video?
Zhang: I think video is something that a lot of people (manufacturers) have not touched upon from the very beginning and there is a whole lot of space and plenty of possibilities for manufacturers to discover. Right now, it’s quite interesting since more and more people use third-party apps to shoot short videos and share it with friends. But the system camera, it’s a big question as to how much user benefit we can deliver in terms of new video features. Still, you will see some updates coming for the video part of the OnePlus camera in the near future.
Disclaimer: The journalist was invited by OnePlus to tour its camera research and development laboratory in Taipei, Taiwan. All expenses related to travel and accommodation were handled by OnePlus.
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