The term, Pixel Binning, is a new terminology for a photography process that has been around since the Nokia 808 PureView, which used its 41-megapixel camera to combine several sensor pixels into 5-megapixel photos. That was the first implementation of pixel binning in a mobile phone camera. The Nokia 808 was released in 2012. The technique was called pixel oversampling back then. It is also called image binning.
The Nokia 808 PureView went on to become a legend among cameraphones, leaving every competitor in the dust, and continued to be the best cameraphone for years after its release.
Today in 2021, pixel binning has gone mainstream and is being implemented in smartphones on all sides. Every time you see a smartphone camera with a huge megapixel figure, e.g. 64 megapixels, 108 megapixels, 200 megapixels, you are likely looking at a camera using image or pixel binning. Most of them produce photos of no more than 12 to 27 megapixels in size. That happens by combining three or four pixels together.
To reiterate, pixel binning (or pixel oversampling) technology takes a higher resolution sensor and combines multiple pixels to produce fewer super pixels, for better photo quality. As already mentioned, the Nokia 808 PureView was the forerunner of the current crop of Android smartphones using the technology. I owned one. But I have also owned and reviewed a few other modern smartphones that use the technique. My Xiaomi Mi Note 10 Pro, itself a sterling camera phone, uses pixel binning. It has a 108-megapixel camera that produces 27 MP photos. TECNO Camon 18 Premier has a 64-megapixel camera that produces 16-megapixel photos by default.
Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra’s 108-megapixel camera produces 12-megapixel photos, also thanks to pixel oversampling. The technique is quite widely used now.
How Does Pixel Binning Or OverSampling Make Photography Better?
By combining multiple small pixels into artificially larger pixels, a phone camera can collect more light from the scene. Light is the life and soul of photography. Every photographer knows this. The more light a camera – any camera – can squeeze out of a scene, the better the photos it will produce, all other things being equal.
For this reason, pixel or image binning makes for better, less noisy, photography, especially low-light photography. Most phones that have pixel oversampling can take photos in full resolution. That means, you can take 108-megapixel photos with the Galaxy S22 Ultra. However, you will get overall better photo quality when you use the camera in its default oversampling mode and shoot 12 MP images.
There are scores of phones, mostly premium flagships and upper mid-range models, that use image binning in their cameras. You are not likely to see it used in entry-level and budget phones.
We will see more and more cameraphones with large megapixel counts. It isn’t about the megapixels; it is about what those cameras are doing with them, and image oversampling is a key part of that equation. Just so there is no mixup, there are other factors that determine photo quality. The megapixel count and image binding are not the only factors. But they do count.
Apple’s iPhone 13, for example, has a 12-megapixel camera; there is no pixel boning technology involved. But while the lens has fewer pixels, each pixel is large, allowing for the lens to collect large amounts of light. In other words, Apple has achieved the same results without using image oversampling. And if what we have seen from reviews is anything to go by, the iPhone 13 camera does a better job than the Galaxy S22 Ultra‘s. I shared this bit to illustrate the point about pixel binning not being the holy grail, as great as it is.
There are those who argue that Apple needs to use the technology in iPhone 14, though, and perhaps it will make the iPhone camera even more fantastic than it already is.
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Way back from the days of EPOC, Symbian, Palm, PocketPC/Windows Mobile, BlackBerry/BB10, webOS, Windows Phone, Firefox, Ubuntu Touch, to Android, iOS, and KaiOS operating systems, founder of MobilityArena, Mister Mobility, has owned a few hundred smartphones and tablets, and counting.