Android co-founder Andy Rubin’s Essential is poised to ship its flagship smartphone sometime in August, after a somewhat nebulous few weeks in which eager consumers and media organizations alike pestered the company about the unexplained shipping delay. Now, following Rubin’s confirmation last week that the Essential Phone is indeed coming soon, the company has penned a blog post detailing some of the more technical aspects of the phone’s dual-camera photography system.
The post, from Essential’s imaging expert Yazhu Ling, is titled, “Getting everything in tune for the perfect picture.” It explains how the team under Ling, who’s worked on the phone’s imaging capabilities nonstop since last October, uses a mix of standard RGB color data and information from a monochromatic version of the same photo to cut down on noise while keeping resolution high.
“When taking a still picture, Essential Phone activates both cameras at once. The monochrome and color images are then fused to create a final photograph with rich, deep clarity,” Ling writes. “We were not willing to sacrifice image-quality in low light which is a common point of frustration for many people who rely on their phone’s camera. In a nifty bit of engineering we were able to accomplish both those goals.”
This technique isn’t a new one. Huawei’s dual-camera system on last year’s Honor 8 achieves nice photos using a similar technique, and the soon-to-be-released Moto Z2 Force does the same. Nonetheless, Essential does appear to be getting some crisp, colorful photos even in low-light situations. They’re also looking a lot better than the questionable ones Essential President Niccolo de Masi captured and shared to Twitter in June, instilling some concern in prospective buyers who felt the images looked wildly dated and low-quality.
In her post, Ling also hints at what might have taken Essential so long to perfect what it considers one of the best mobile cameras on the market. She describes a multi-month process know as subjective tuning, in which you have to take a phone’s Image Signal Processing software and train it to take the “right picture in millions of different scenarios.”
This is only done after training the ISP through “objective” tuning, to ensure imaging modules can all perform at a standardized baseline of quality. From there, the “painstaking, iterative” subjective tuning process involves capturing thousands of real-world photos and letting the system fail over and over again to improve it in areas like focus, exposure, and white-balance.
“Our subjective tuning process began in January 2017, and during that time, we have gone through 15 major tuning iterations, along with countless smaller tuning patches and bug fixes,” Ling writes. “We have captured and reviewed more than 20,000 pictures and videos, and are adding more of them to our database every day.”
Of course, we won’t know for sure if any of this talk of the camera’s superior quality will hold up when the Essential Phone goes face-to-face with Apple’s iPhone 7 or Samsung’s Galaxy S8, both of which sport cameras that have been masterfully fine-tuned over the course of years using teams of hundreds to thousands of employees and experts.
The Verge will hopefully be getting its hands on a unit of our own to test and review sometime soon. Deciding how the device fares then will be a more definitive test of quality. But the Ling’s post is a neat behind-the-scenes look at the engineering involved in a modern-day smartphone camera, as well as a refreshing dose of transparency from a company that’s been shrouded in secrecy since its product first debuted back in May.