Question Low light, high video ISO phones with night vision capability?

Jul 21, 2019
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Can somebody recommend which phones are best for not just low light photography but also to display bright view in viewfinder mode and allow to shoot videos at high ISO?
New smartphones became so advanced that they can compete in good lighting conditions even with more serious camera’s but truth is most phones still suck in low light conditions.
There are simple physics of what makes camera low light capable such large individual pixel size, efficiency of sensor and high aperture lens. But since phone camera’s are designed to be carried in pocket their size is limited mostly to overall thickness of phone what means that sensors do not get larger than 1/1.7", exceptions are such phones as Panasonic Lumix Smart Camera CM1 with 1” 20Mp which is more like point/shoot camera and Nokia 808 pure view with 38Mp 1/1.2” sensor which is outdated, might still use older generation front illuminated sensor which had to be larger.
Unfortunatelly these larger sensor camera phones come also with significantly larger megapixel count such as 40Mp and even ridiculous densities such as 48Mp or even higher. Amateurs who have shallow understand of photography think that good images quality is constituted by largest megapixel count but this myth must be ended because 16-12Mp totally enough for phone even when printing A4 size photos not to say making selfies and not quality demanding photos. I personally found actually Lumia 640 8Mp camera to be better than Samsung J500 13Mp or 16Mp shoot/point camera simply because it was way more sensitive, less noisy and was better at low light. Even for professional camera’s super high megapixel densities are gimmicky since valuable pixel area size is reduced. Sony A7S camera with full frame sensor for example has only 12Mp resolution but individual pixel is whooping 71.24µm2 what makes it unique camera capable of color night vision and can make pitch black night look like day in realtime! In contrast most phone camera’s have individual pixel size is not bigger than 1.4-1.55μm, only HTC dared to utilize 2μm pixel camera’s although they had too small sensors with just 4Mp resolution. High megapixel count of course has benefits of allowing a lot of room for cropping and digital zoom in some phones even up to x50 time but again detail is limited to amount of light available and lens sharpness. So from professional point of view LESS megapixels is actually better since phones already have very small room for camera sensor unlike professional camera’s which sensors can extend as medium frame format. Since phones can use multiple camera’s they could have one camera for specifically for low light imaging or even night vision. I read somewhere that it might be even possible with Android phones to connect with USB adapter external camera’s.
For low light capability it is also important to have wide aperture lens to pass as much as possible light into sensor but since they are limited to phone thickness apertures don’t get bigger than F/1.5, there is upcoming Honor 20 Pro phone which is claimed to have F/1.4 lens. Engineers also face problems on how to reduce optical distortions that do happen as lens aperture increases. Quality of lens also matters because cheaper lens have less correcting optical elements and poor AR coating, many phone lens today are actually made of plastic. It would be great to see interchangeable lens phones allowing more freedom customization. There is for example huge variety of M12 lens with apertures going even to F/1.0 and some F/0.95 which when detached could easily fit into pocket. As well such lens could use hood and filters which can also significantly impact image quality.
Lens can also be telescopically extended when photographing without compromising compact design. In future camera’s could use new type of lens called metalens which would be flat and can be made 600nm thick, as well they would be cheaper to manufacture, 30% sharper and aberration free.
Big jump in camera sensitivity happened around 2012-2013 when backlit CMOS image sensors were introduced what allowed to shrink their size, at same time 1080p video recording became also accepted. BSI CMOS sensors have advantage over older front illuminated sensors because they do not have in front electrodes blocking a lot of light and for that reason they may not even need microlens for each pixel. These sensors are still utilized in most camera’s now although some companies such as Samsung introduced ISOCELL technology which increases color fidelity and light sensitivity by reducing pixel “crosstalk”, Samsung Plus is even more more sensitive to light up to 15%. Sony keeps improving sensors and latest phones use Exmor RS technology.
There is also going research into using for camera’s electron multiplying and as well revolutionary material graphene in sensors which could give night capability, image intensifying EMCCD sensors are already used military grade night vision, surveilance and scientific camera’s.
Camera low light sensitivity also depends on color filter array type. For example Huawei started using RYYB over traditional RGB to improve low light capability. There also are other CFA configurations such as RGBW and some phones even use monochrome sensors in one camera which have much better low light sensitivity.
Now harder to measure method of increasing sensitivity of camera is using what is called computational photography or software processing of received signals. Could someone elaborate more on this?
Lastly it’s important that phones have as high as possible range of ISO settings to increase image brightness. High ISO comes at a price of visual noise but is a lot better than using long exposures requiring even phone stands. ISO noise can be reduced dramatically by improved sensor technology, better cooling and digital processing. Huawei phones are known for having in P30 series 204800 ISO and in P30 PRO whooping 409600 equivalent to Sony A7S full frame camera, BTW these phones also use german Leica lens which are considered best in the world. Although Huawei only brags on how great is photo mode ISO while keeps silent about video ISO what is actually more important since you want to see bright lit images in real time before shooting which might be even invisible to eye. Sony Xperia XZ Premium and Sony Xperia XZ2 Premium unlike Huawei openly state video ISO of 12800. Ability to shoot in RAW format also helps to give more photo editing flexibility.
Another way to judge how sensitive is camera is to see much data it can stream in given time. For example high framerate camera’s shooting 240-960FPS 1080p videos need to be incredibly sensitive because there little time for exposure and huge data stream. That’s why high FPS videos often look dark and need strong light source. There are some phones such as Apple iPhone XS Max which can record 4k 60FPS videos so can these parameter be good way to tell camera sensitivity?
Ultimately to make it simple and sum up diversity of these technological achievement it would be best see how phone camera’s perform in low light conditions.
 
That is a lot of specifics. While we can give you suggestions here, it would probably be wiser for you to visit some sites that have the ability to compare devices, so you can see their specs side by side. Then you can narrow down what ones might work for you and ask about those.

It will also depend on if you carrier is GSM or CDMA.

Some sites I use are...

http://www.gsmarena.com/

http://www.phonescoop.com/

http://www.phonearena.com/

But there are a lot of others out there.
 
Jul 21, 2019
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I already used first and third sites to search but none of these three had detailed camera feature filters such as sensor size or max video ISO, or even better low light ISO DXO rating. So I had to manually check each phone which might be low light capable.

It turns out that new phones can actually use pixel binning to combine say 4 pixels into one for better low light performance. This way low light performance is increase 4 times at 4 times resolution reduction. So 48Mp would turn into 12Mp.
 
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Jul 21, 2019
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Well I can't ask every manufacurer because there so many phone out there. That's why we need better filters to find faster needed phone.

Pixel binning might increase low light performance but how it compares to larger megapixel camera's without binning? A7S despite being released in 2013 is still low light king.
 
Jul 21, 2019
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Smartphones have advantages of size, weight, running apps and functionality. So traditional camera's at least at technological progress are out of question.
 
Jul 21, 2019
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Monochrome camera's seem to have a lot of advantages - great low light performance, better detail, sharper images and no demosaicing is required. Moreover monochrome camera's could be perfect for infrared/ultraviolet photography after IR-cut filter removal. Too bad only few premium phones use them but these phones are oriented toward professional photographers since they have other camera's with good specs also.
Only one Sony phone is using B/W camera is Xperia XZ2 - F1.6; Focal Length: 25 mm; Sensor size: 1/2.3"; Pixel size: 1.55μm so it has to be very good for low light probably best I'd say.
Huawei and Honor has wider selection of phones with B/W camera's but listed with details have only 1/2.7" sensors with Pixel size: 1 μm . One example is Huawei P20 Pro phone.
Now I can't see B/W camera details such as sensor size of pixel density in following phones and it would be great if someone could tell more about them:
Huawei P10
Huawei P10 Plus
Huawei Mate 10 Porsche Design
Honor 10
Honor 9
Honor Note 10
Honor View 10
Honor Magic 2
Honor Magic 2 3D
 
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