Announced in mid-January, Samsung’s ISOCELL HM3 108-megapixel sensor was both a “wow!” and a “wtf?” moment for smartphone cameras. It’s an insane resolution for a smartphone, based on the raw pixel count alone, but it offers a lot of potential advantages for computational photography.
It’s only been released in the Samsung Galaxy S21 ultra so far, and it’s not yet made it into any other brand’s smartphones (but there are likely a few on the way). But Samsung has released a video “introducing” the sensor (4 months after its release) going into detail about how the sensor actually works.
Samsung opens the video stating that the ISOCELL HM3 “upgrades your smartphone into a pro-grade camera”. I’m not quite sure I’d go that far, but the tech is certainly impressive. And many of the sample images posted on the web do look quite good – for a smartphone.
The video talks goes over a bunch of the tech in the sensor and how ISOCELL 2.0 separates the pixels to enhance colour fidelity and how the barrier that surrounds each of the ~108-million individual pixels to prevent colours bleeding from one to the next. This is important when you want to try to mix information from multiple pixels as accurately as possible, as this sensor does.
Unlike the more common Quad-Bayer image sensors found in smartphones the last few years, this is “Nonapixel” technology (which is why it needs to be so high resolution). Where Quad-Bayer combines four pixels into one, this combines nine pixels into one to help further improve performance in low light conditions. Smart-ISO also helps to improve image quality by shooting low and high ISO images simultaneously to produce a single image with 12-bit colour depth for a wider dynamic range than you typically see on smartphones.
Then, of course, you’ve got 8K video, 4K video at 120fps, 1080p HD at 240fps, faster autofocus, etc, etc. I still don’t think it’s “pro-grade”, but it’s nice to take a peek into the new tech that’s going into smartphone sensors. Hopefully, more smartphone sensor tech will start to scale up to “real cameras” soon.