We visited OnePlus’ Camera Lab to see how they’re improving their smartphones’ camera quality

We visited OnePlus’ Camera Lab to see how they’re improving their smartphones’ camera quality

One of the best products to come out from OnePlus is its very first smartphone, the OnePlus One. The OnePlus One was a no-name underdog competing against established giants, and compete it did. The device catapulted this new and rather unknown Chinese brand to a name that was being widely praised for its disruption to the flagship segment of Android smartphones within mere months of its launch. Fast forward several years, and the company that once made the flagship killer now focuses on making flagships that appeal to a wider audience and command higher prices. Others have now adopted the “Flagship Killer” moniker which OnePlus has long abandoned; meanwhile, OnePlus has trained its guns on the premium tier of flagships with the ambitious OnePlus 7 Pro. Featuring several firsts for the OnePlus lineup, the OnePlus 7 Pro is undoubtedly one of the best smartphones to be released this year. What stops it from being the best smartphone for this year on all fronts is ironically one of its headlining features — the camera.

A lot is said about the OnePlus 7 Pro and in particular, its camera. The OnePlus 7 Pro is a big leap for OnePlus in terms of camera hardware, as this is their first device to feature a triple rear camera setup with the 48MP Sony IMX586 as its primary sensor. This, coupled with the very high DxOMark score of 111, meant that user expectations from the camera were naturally sky high. So when reviewers and users mentioned that the flagship phone had a mediocre camera, the company was bound to take notice. Promises were made, and updates were rolled out. While the debate still continues on how good the OnePlus 7 Pro camera really is, OnePlus offered to provide us a deeper look at what goes on behind the scenes at their Image R&D Center and Camera Lab in Taiwan, and to give us the opportunity to directly interact with the people that make the camera happen on OnePlus devices.

Disclosure: OnePlus sponsored a tour of their Image R&D Center in Taiwan. Several media personnel from India, Europe, and China were flown to Taipei for the same tour. OnePlus is a sponsor of XDA-Developers, but this trip was not related to said sponsorship. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and are not influenced by either of these sponsorships.

OnePlus Timeline

Camera Lab Tour

OnePlus has a dedicated office set up in Nangang district, Taiwan, where employees from mainland China, Taiwan, and India work majorly on camera and imagery related-aspects of present and future devices. The Image Team follows its own mission statement: “to make people confident taking photos on OnePlus.” The company’s internal data unsurprisingly reveals that most of its users take images using the phone’s Auto mode, without fiddling around with any settings. This mission statement thus plays into the consumer’s usage pattern to serve as the guiding philosophy for OnePlus’s Image Team.

The tour of the camera lab began with a look at several of the equipment used by the team to test different parameters such as white balance, exposure, contrast, color accuracy, and clarity. Primary objective testing within the camera lab is done through the use of systematic charts. Certain processes utilize automated tests to minimize the variances that creep in through manual testing so that the only thing that changes between two results is the firmware that is being tested.

For instance, the setup above utilizes the carnival ride toy to assess focus tracking. The chart below the carnival ride has LEDs moving along at different speeds, which again is used to assess focus. You can also spot charts like the TE42, TE188, TE230, TE265, TE269 and so many more used at various places depending on what needs to be tested at that stage.

The Spectralight QC, pictured above on the left, is a light booth that emulates seven different types of light sources, including natural daylight, and is used to assess color accuracy under those lighting conditions. The LE7 from Image Engineering, pictured above on the right, is a uniform lightbox that comes with transparent test charts and iQ-LED V2 light sources. This machine again replicates various light sources in a test lab environment.

The team is most proud of the robotic arm equipment which lets the team completely automate several photography scenarios, thus removing the human variance in these tests. The arm has room to maneuver with precision and consistency every single time, so even the smallest of changes can be tested in the exact same scenarios. OnePlus also has mannequins and several other props to add in different sets of variations when needed.

It wasn’t surprising to find that OnePlus also has racks full of devices hooked up to continuously run through a task list of opening up the camera app and clicking a photo, to figure out whether the phone can live up to heavy and continuous use.

The goal of these exercises is to figure out the best set of optimizations in the software to produce the best set of photos. But as the saying goes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” — so is the case with the photos we click on our smartphones, making it crucial to follow up these objective tests with subjective testing. The subjective tests tasks engineers around several OnePlus office locations (and hence different latitudes) to test out hardware and software under a range of circumstances to emulate real-world user behavior.

While objective and subjective testing do form very important parameters for assessment, OnePlus also bases its firmware changes around user feedback and not merely employee outlook (which can often become too technical and lack emotion and connect). While everyone can claim to listen to the community, we see more proactive and persistent engagement from OnePlus through its Open Ears programs. These programs bring together vocal users and give them a platform to air their grievances and bring them directly to the attention of the people who will work on those changes. We had the chance to personally attend the Open Ears forum for the Developer Community in Goa prior to the OnePlus 7 Pro launch, and prima facie, it did allow several prominent developers direct access to the very people who can bring about results.

Discussion

Similarly, during this tour, journalists and technology bloggers had the opportunity to interact directly with the engineers from the camera team, allowing us to air our concerns and expectations while giving the engineers live feedback on their work. The team encouraged discussion and requested clarification wherever needed, showing an inclination to actually listen to feedback. It is too early to predict whether most of this feedback will get translated into actual improvements; however, the mere fact that they listened and even allowed actual engineers (and not PR machinery) to listen, sets OnePlus apart from several of its competitors.

Feature Parity

One of the biggest requests from our collective end was feature parity across the different rear cameras, as we envisaged scenarios where the user can use different lenses in different modes seamlessly. OnePlus commented that some differentiation would be inherently present between the different lenses because of the functions they serve, but the team does agree with the general sentiment and they do have feature parity as one of their end goals.

Zero Shutter Lag

We also brought up the issue of shutter lag (i.e. missing Zero Shutter Lag) on the OnePlus 7 Pro. Despite being one of the fastest Android smartphones available, there is still a very small but noticeable delay when a photo is clicked. Surprisingly, OnePlus Co-founder Mr. Carl Pei, who was sitting with us in the audience, clarified our expectations from such a feature to the engineering team on-stage. As a result, the engineering team had better clarity on what we as reviewers and power users expected out of the world’s fastest Android smartphone. Even though no promises were made towards several of these feature requests, what is reassuring is the fact that the people at OnePlus, right from the co-founder to the actual engineers, were receptive towards understanding the shortcomings of their product. They had already poured blood, sweat, and tears into what they believed was their perfect product, only to hear from us that what is perfect in their eyes still had flaws. And the discussion still continued to flow openly.

Day Zero Updates

Another hot topic during the discussion was the lack of quality Day Zero updates. With the OnePlus 7 Pro, users had significantly higher expectations right from the day of its availability but were majorly disappointed with what they got out of the box. Several weeks later, OxygenOS 9.5.7 was rolled out, promising much better camera quality, and the general consensus is that the update did improve the camera by a decent margin. The question that we put forth to the OnePlus team was why a significant update like this not made available right at the time of launch, as the availability of 9.5.7’s improvements right out of the box could have improved market perception towards the weakest point on an otherwise great product. What users ended up purchasing felt a lot like an incomplete product, with the experience being equated to hyped video games that are launched in a half-finished state and then made complete with later DLC’s — this “launch now, fix later” attitude is unacceptable and should not be the norm in any industry. The team on-stage clarified that there are significant testing procedures to be followed, which inevitably ends up taking a lot of time. The 9.5.7 update was also a direct consequence of the feedback that the team received from reviewers and early users, so the changes brought about by the update were direct requests from end users, something that isn’t possible to gauge before users can get to actually use the product. At this stage, Mr. Pei chimed in once again, but not to justify the team’s actions, but rather to accept that users do expect perfection at launch from such a premium product; if OnePlus already has these test labs and wide beta programs in place for testing and feedback, why isn’t the product in much better shape right from day zero? Mr. Pei stepped in to clarify our points and let the product team know what users actually wanted, and that this was coming straight from the users themselves (us in this situation), and not merely instructions that were flowing down the corporate hierarchy. Naturally, the team did not yet have an answer to a question like this, but they did walk away with a better understanding of the market’s expectations. Hopefully, this feedback gets incorporated into the next product.

Regional Expectations

What also came up during the discussion is the difference in expectations of users in different regions. For instance, users in Europe prefer natural looks for selfies and portraits, while those in India, China, and other parts of Asia are generally inclined towards beauty mode filters and other artificial processing. For OnePlus as a global brand, the Image Team needs to strike the right balance to satisfy as many users as it can, and such a majoritarian approach will inevitably lead to situations where not everyone will be happy. A possible solution could be to present different setups to different regions to meet their specific expectations, and the team acknowledged this as a possible path for their future work.

Interview with Mr. Zake Zhang

In conversation with Zake Zhang, Image Product Manager

After the camera lab tour, I had the opportunity to sit for a brief conversation with Mr. Zake Zhang, the Image Product Manager at OnePlus, wherein we talked about the DxOMark controversy and managed to eke out ETAs for a few features.

Aamir: “Is there an explanation available for the DxOMark controversy? Statements made by Szymon do not align with statements made by OnePlus.”

[This is with reference to the OnePlus 7 Pro’s DxOMark score of 111. In their review of the camera, DxOMark noted that “the camera firmware used for the DxOMark tests is not yet currently available to consumers. OnePlus will make it available as an over-the-air update before the end of the month.” OnePlus insisted that the build available to DxOMark for their testing was, in fact, the same retail firmware available for customers. Later on, when OxygenOS 9.5.7 update was released, OnePlus India’s Product Manager Szymon Kopec tweeted “Just go and download that new software. That’s our 111 points DxO build.” This tweet contradicted previous claims.]

Zake: “The firmware sent for testing was the same as the retail firmware out of the box.”

Aamir: “The way that DxOMark scores camera, their methodology is different from what a user wants from his camera. That’s why the Pixel has a very low score even when it performs very well.”

Zake: “After the launch, we take in people’s feedback and start to implement their preferences into the camera, tuning and adjusting it. And people are quite happy with that. What Szymon said was taken very literally, it was in a different meaning. He meant more as a justification towards the high DxOMark score.”

Aamir: “Moving on, everything in the premium segment usually has a burst mode coupled with a smart selection method [intelligent burst mode/smart capture/best shot capture]. This takes the thinking out of the process [of selecting one good photo]. Is this something we can see implemented in a OnePlus device?”

Zake: “This is a feature that is already included in current software. You need to use our own Camera app to click the picture and Gallery app to view the picture set. The Gallery app will suggest the best.”

[We checked it out, and it indeed existed on our device, OxygenOS 9.5.9 for reference]

Aamir: “OnePlus often gets associated with OPPO in some way. OPPO has been working on some creative camera technologies lately like the in-display camera and optical zoom setups. Is OnePlus working on something similar, as people presume that you share resources between yourselves?”

Zake: “For each OnePlus project [with reference to the camera team], we actually work from the ground up. We do not share, it’s not like OPPO has already worked on something and we can take that directly from OPPO. Our companies are run separately, which means our camera team is also separate. We pick our own camera hardware, we work on our own camera software. We make our own choice for hardware. For OnePlus 7 Pro, we have 7P lens which is not something OPPO can do, you need to make a different order to the provider. It is separate.”

Aamir: Can you share a timeline for video recording through the wide angle lens?

Zake: “We are in internal testing phase, and we plan to roll out the feature later this year.”


Conclusion

This trip to the OnePlus Image R&D Center was an enlightening experience, for it allowed us an insight into what goes on behind the scenes when the changelog just mentions “Camera fixes and improvements.” While OnePlus’s Camera Lab is impressive in its own right, we wouldn’t be surprised to learn that giants like Samsung, Google, and Huawei have bigger teams and greater resources dedicated towards their imaging departments. What does surprise me continuously is OnePlus’s ability to listen to feedback from end users and trying to incorporate those lessons within their products. Hindsight is always 20:20, and it is very easy to point towards past failures and pick them apart. What matters then is what one takes away from mistakes and what is done to ensure they are not repeated. We hope OnePlus continues on improving themselves.

OnePlus 7 Pro (OxygenOS 9.5.9) - OnePlus Taiwan Trip

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Update: Statement

OnePlus has reached out with a statement:

As we make improvements and updates to our software, we constantly update the version our devices ship with from the factory – so currently all devices ship with the latest software version, which includes all of the features DxO used, as well as a number of other updates we’ve made since.

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