Your next iPhone could be more camera than phone

It's just before sunset and I'm cruising across San Francisco Bay on a ferry. As I pass Alcatraz Island, the sun is melting into the Pacific behind the Golden Gate Bridge, like a ball kicked through the uprights at a football ball game for an extra point. It's a jaw-dropping moment so I quickly grab my Samsung Galaxy Note 8, tap the optical zoom and take a picture.

Later when I look at the photo on my laptop, I'm blown away by how great it looks. Despite the challenging dusk lighting, the ferry's motion and being far away from the bridge, the Note 8 was able to capture the moment surprisingly well.

It wasn't always this way. The diminutive size of phones means they have a tiny camera sensor and lens, which in photography is a recipe for a low-quality image. It's a trade-off many people are willing to make -- embracing the convenience of using a phone as their main camera at the sacrifice of better-looking pictures. Phone manufacturers face a similar dilemma: How can they make cameras produce better images without making phones bigger?

One answer has been to add a second rear camera. But is this approach just some trendy flimflam or can two cameras actually create better images? And if the latter is true, will phone makers stop at just two?I rolled my eyes when I first heard about a phone with two rear cameras. It seemed like a gimmick in the way multiblade safety razors are: First, there was a dual-blade cartridge. Then, a triple-blade one, and then a quad. The company Dorco has a razor called the Pace 7 which has... yes, seven blades. But, really, what's the point? You can still shave with one razor.

Currently, there are three main setups for phones with two rear cameras. The first is what the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, Galaxy S9 Plus and the iPhone X have: a standard camera plus a telephoto camera that makes 2x optical zoom possible. The result is zoomed-in photos that look sharp and are noise-free, unlike pictures taken with a digital zoom. The Note 8 and the iPhone X also have portrait settings that combine images taken with both cameras to artistically blur the background to look like a DSLR photo taken with a shallow depth of field.

The second setup is what LG designed for its G6 and V30: one standard camera and one ultra-wide-angle camera that lets you optically "zoom out" for a wider view. It's great for getting more of your scene into a photo and gives your shots a widescreen cinematic look.

The final implementation is what Huawei puts on its phones: two cameras at the same focal length -- one with a regular color sensor and the other with a monochromatic one. Each camera acquires different aspects of a photo. The black-and-white camera captures the details while the regular camera fills in the color information. All this picture data is combined into a single photo with better overall detail and color range.