The Selfie factor and the sweet spot - Front-facing cameras on Windows Phone

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So far on All About Windows Phone 'imaging' has all been about the rear-facing cameras on our smartphones, i.e. taking a photo of something. But what about the other camera - the one that points back at you? Now that 'selfies' are officially a thing (though I draw the line at special 'sticks'!), I thought a comparison, in terms of specs at least, of the front-facing cameras on Windows Phone hardware was in order - though it quickly becomes apparent that there's a 'sweet spot', beyond which it really is a case of diminishing returns. There is precisely zero point in a 13MP front facing camera. Really.

I suppose I should mention that there are some budget models which don't have a Front Facing Camera (FFC) - short-sightedly of the manufacturer because of Skype, because of 'selfies', etc. The Lumia 520, 530 and 630 all fall into this camp, sadly.

Those apart though, let's look at the specifications of the main 2014/2015 Windows Phones.... in the UK and USA, at least - I recognise that there are plenty of 'others', usually at the budget end, in India and other Eastern markets. In an attempt to keep the table manageable, especially on phone browsers, I've arranged it vertically (for a change):

Model FFC stills FFC video Review links on AAWP
Lumia 435 0.3MP 480p   
Lumia 532 0.3MP 480p
Lumia 535 5MP 480p  Review 
Lumia 620 0.3MP 480p Review
Lumia 640  1MP 720p  
Lumia 640 XL 5MP 1080p  
Lumia 720 1.3MP 720p   
Lumia 735 5MP 1080p  Review
Lumia 830 0.9MP  720p  Review
Lumia 920 1.3MP 720p  Review
Lumia 925 1.3MP  720p   
Lumia 930 1.3MP  720p  Review
Lumia 1020 1.3MP 720p  Review 
Lumia 1320 0.3MP  480p  Review 
Lumia 1520 1.3MP 720p  Review
HTC One (Windows) 5MP 1080p   
HTC 8X 2MP 1080p  
Samsung ATIV S 2MP Not known? Review
Yezz Billy 4.7 2MP 480p Review

It's amazing really - I remember the very first 5MP main camera in a smartphone, back in 2007 with the Nokia N95 - that was jaw-dropping, and now we have 5MP shooters (albeit smaller) in front-facing cameras. Such is the advance of technology. 

Only in the newer 535, 640 XL and 735 though, plus the USA-only HTC One that was effectively borrowed from the Android world. Remember that a phone takes around 18 months to go from initial specification and design to a finished product in stores. So, with the current craze for FFC selfies having started about two years ago, it's about right that we're now seeing models released with much more serious cameras out front (with the 640 XL being announced only yesterday). In the Android world, I've been testing the HTC Desire EYE, with a 13MP FFC with dual LED flash! And who's to say that this won't come in a Windows Phone version at some point in 2015?

Front cam of Lumia 735/730

The FFC sweet spot

So, how much resolution do you need for a FFC? At one extreme, a 0.3MP camera is VGA resolution, i.e. 640 x 480, very low in terms of what we're used to, yet still matching the typical display resolution on social networks (e.g. Facebook). At the other extreme, we're used to 8MP (and above) images from rear cameras, but with the expectation that these might be needed to be cropped down, printed and with generally much more 'arty' subjects, so raw quality is the priority.

But with the best of intentions, a wide angle snap of your face set against some backdrop or other is unlikely to be needed for any lofty purposes. With this in mind, the 'standard' FFC resolution (at least, in the table above) of 1.3MP/2MP seems about right. There's enough there for plenty of detail, even allowing for some judicious cropping, and you still end up with something that fills a typical Facebook or Twitter timeline.

Yet the trend across the industry seems to be to aim a little higher. Part of this is down to bullet-point one-upmanship on the shop shelves (the usual numbers comparison battle), of course - but who needs a 13MP 'selfie'? For starters, your background is going to be partly out of focus anyway, assuming that your FFC has auto-focus and focussed properly, in which case the main detail is going to be in your own face, at such massive pixelage that every pimple and defect in your skin will be captured for posterity. If my face is going to be on camera then I think I'd rather have it captured at less gory detail, thank you very much. I already get enough grief from seeing my visage at 1080p on The Phones Show!

Typical selfie pose, detail, setting

Your archetypal arms-length selfie (taken in Paris last year, my wife blurred for privacy reasons!) - quite enough detail on my face as-is, and the background is just, well, background and isn't particularly focussed, nor does it need high resolution to represent its degree of imprecision. Just sayin'.... 2MP is more than enough for 'selfies'!

But 5MP represents a reasonable figure for the future, evidenced by the superb camera on the front of the 735, reviewed here. Although you can't always exactly match sensor size to megapixels, it's a guide and the 735's front optics certainly seem to gather as much light as many phone's rear cameras. Almost all the devices listed above are classed as 'wide angle, f/2.4', by the way, though of course this has to be scaled up by the size of the sensor being used.

If you're worried about all this detail proving unflattering then note that most platforms and devices now have software available to soften your face (for example, here) and to generally 'beautify' it. Making something of a mockery of capturing the detail in the first place.... mutter, mutter....

Do you agree with me - and with Nokia/Microsoft about 1.3MP/2MP being about the 'sweet spot' (or at least the point after which there are diminishing returns) for front facing cameras? Comments welcome!