(15 minute read)

Do you remember your first camera phone? How good was it? How many megapixel did it have? Well, I need not describe what a smartphone camera is, since the definition is right there in the name. First, they don’t look like normal cameras and so one would essentially say that a camera phone is that part of a smartphone that many of us own and carry around in our pockets or bags.

The Advent of camera phones

The smartphone camera trend really started in the late 1990s as digital cameras were starting to become a thing in the consumer sense of it. Some companies started to try and put cellular radios in those cameras so that you could connect them to things. This was not successful at the time since none of the technology like the camera sensor technology was in existence. In the early 2000s, all of a sudden everybody started to own a cellphone and digital camera companies were racing to make the sensors smaller and cheaper to be able to make digital cameras a thing.

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Cellphone companies were able to take advantage of this on the extreme low-end and take the smallest and cheapest that weren’t really good but were good enough to prove the concept  of a camera on your phone. This eventually became a thing– putting cameras on people’s phones.

At the time, Nokia was probably the biggest phone maker, in the early 2000s they started putting cameras in every phone line-up. Every camera was an incredible leap from the one before it to a point that before the company was bought by Microsoft for $7.2 billion in 2013, they had phones with 41 Megapixel cameras on them. At this point I was like “Okay this seems like its past the limit of  what is necessary”

The iPhone Era

When we are talking about a smartphone camera and how much it has trended, it should be noted that back then, when you took a picture with your phone, there wasn’t a lot you could do with those photos. Before 2004, there was no Facebook, no WhatsApp, no Twitter, no Snapchat nor Instagram where you could post them to. May be the few people like bloggers and those who were using the first gen social-networking sites like  Myspace and Friendstar would take advantage of such photos, but the quality was very poor.

In 2007, came the iPhone, the gadget that single handily pushed the smartphone camera into the new generation and Nokia really doesn’t really get enough credit for this since it is now some weird bastardized brand that few people want worldwide. But, those two phone makers really got the idea of getting a camera in most people’s hands and also getting increasingly good cameras within just a couple of years  into everybody’s pockets.

DSLR Vs Camera phone

There are people who have never come into contact or seen a DSLR camera ( digital single-lens reflex camera)– mainly used by semi-professional and professionals, they undoubtedly also take great photos. DSLRs are old film cameras, and used by people who are more into photography. The advantages of DSLRs over camera phones include;

  • You can change lenses on it according to your desires. From super-wide angle lens, or one that zooms really crazy in that you can take the picture of the moon that fill up the frame.
  • Tonnes of manual controls on DSLR cameras as opposed to smartphone camera and you can dictate how the camera takes the picture. On a smartphone you can’t do as mush manual control– the focus is fixed. So if you are say a meter away from a subject, the things behind that subject will also be in focus which limits its usage as a professional camera.
  • In most DSLRs these days you have a digital image sensor that is slightly smaller than the actual of a 35 mm frame of film and also a lot of DSLRs have full-frame sensors, which is the exact same size of a 35mm piece of film, all that meaning you get a lot better resolution than the tiny image sensor that would be in a smartphone camera.

Smartphone cameras also typically have a fixed focal length, so you have what is a pretty wide angle view not super wide like a Go-Pro wide but wide enough to capture a scene. So phone companies have sort of settled on that as a standard for smartphone cameras.

Iphone6 and iphone6plus_camera 1
iPhone camera setup

Smartphone camera Popularity

Truth be told, any camera that you are carrying is better than a great camera that you are not carrying. Now days the iPhone and Samsung have dominated the smartphone camera phone space. At first these phones started with 2 Megapixels and 5 Megapixels (in the iPhone 4) cameras but as we have seen with time, Megapixels don’t determine everything  about a camera but the sensors were really small. But the iPhone and Galaxy phones were the things that made people really love to start buying smartphones because they have cameras on them an idea that we were already pretty comfortable with.

With these companies popularizing the idea of a smartphone camera, it was the clearest path to the school of thought that “What if you had a great camera on this powerful pocket computer”. Apple and Samsung were some of the few companies running with this idea and by the time we got to the iPhone 4 and Galaxy s3, they actually has incredible camera with all these things considered. And, this partly why these companies have dominated the smartphone industry.

The Power of Software in Camera phones

Apple doesn’t make the image sensors in their phones, they buy from companies like Sony. Sony makes almost half of all the images sensors used in any digital cameras and they just sell them to those companies. Apple and Samsung are so good at using the processors they put in their phones and writing the right kind of software to make the best of that image sensor that they’ve bought and put in their phones. So that’s what has helped these two companies keep that lead. The companies do more with the image sensors and camera components than any body else has up until this year when Google  put out a phone that competes with the dual, producing images that are as good or probably better in some situations than the iPhone 7s and the Galaxy s7.

Google’s Pixel phone is a great example of the power of software in a camera phone. One wonders how important the hardware and software components in making use of all the data that the hardware is collecting. Well, they are super important.  The biggest iPhone competitors in the last couple of years have had like really comparable hardware that make up the cameras on their phones.

The reason why the iPhone and the latest Galaxy phones are held up as an example unlike HTC’s phones that lag behind when you compare the two cameras, is in really how they implement the whole thing together. The camera app should be fast and easy to understand, the base-level software like what they do with the processor on the phone to interpret that data from the image sensor is so its super important.

Google’s Pixel phones use full-time HDR (High Dynamic Range) trickery to bet its competition. The traditional way of using HDR is by taking multiple images while exposing different parts of the scene and later merge together the shots to create the final photograph. Google uses a different method with the Pixel, they do HDR by taking a bunch of images at once and they are all under-exposed. They thereafter use algorithms to take all the data from the under-exposed photos and bring out the shadows. The idea that a camera on a phone is doing that alone is mind-blowing compared to where the whole smartphone camera evolution started. While we know that smartphones are not as capable like a DSRL, there is some really crazy stuff that is happening on phones nowadays.

The Google Pixel Phone

It is terrifying that the big companies like Apple, Samsung and now Google are rich enough to throw money at any problem that could in theory buy out most of these traditional camera companies. Truth be told, they are now in direct competition with phone makers, these have taken over the camera mass market business and left the traditional camera makers with the niche market.

The Top camera smartphones

With the anticipation of the Galaxy s8 and iPhone 8 later this year, the current top smartphone cameras are no doubt the iPhone 7s and 7s Plus, the Galaxy s7 and s7 edge and the Google Pixel. According to most experts who have held and reviewed these phones extensively always praise Google’s Pixel phone’s image quality. But, they also note that the difference between them all is very slight and some are better in some situations than others that like its almost a draw.

The Dual camera craze

With the launch of the iPhone 7s plus, Apple unveiled its first phone with a dual lens camera lens (Note: It wasn’t the first phone to have a dual camera lens set up). Rumor has it that the competition with follow suit this year. One of the cameras is just a wide angle camera that is on the iPhone 7s or any other kind of phone and then next to it is a whole different group of material. Meaning it has another sensor with another lens set up. It’s a whole separate camera next to the main one. The difference is that the second camera is what Apple calls tele-photo, its not quiet what hardcore camera users would consider tele-photo since it doesn’t zoom like crazy but it zooms optically about two times (2x) what the standard lens does so you can get a little bit close to subjects without actually having to get closer to your subjects.

Digital zoom is something that most smartphones have, and its essentially enlarging the image you took in real-time. So its no different from putting it on your computer and just blowing it up. Whereas the second lens on the iPhone 7s plus is actually building a camera that can  see things a little bit closer. As I said before Apple is not the first to do this, as a couple of other phones have implemented dual-camera systems Nokia had one , HTC’s Evo 3D also had one. These implementations are still no where near a DSLR or point and shoot camera, but it’s heading down that path. If phone companies put more varied camera on the back of the phone if they can find space for it, then they will start to bridge that gap up to a “real camera” that is more versatile with 20x optical zoom and ability to change lens.

Should one buy a professional camera?

The obvious answer to the above question there is a resounding NO. But, should one buy if they can afford and they really into photography? Of course yes, especially if its within in your means. Even if smartphone cameras are good, they don’t tell the whole story when it comes to image quality. Frankly I would prefer to take photos of the important things in my life with a digital camera, but its too expensive to own.  Will I regret it in the future? Most probably I will. Since in 10 or 15 years down the road from today, they might not look the same as technology keeps changing at a fast pace including both the screen and camera technology which will be different in the future.

The image you shoot today with an HD (720p) camera will look different from on the screens that we shall be using 10 years from now say on a 12k (24 times HD) screen or even Virtual Reality. They will look like the photos you took with your olden first smartphone camera.

We take selfies at events, nights out with family and the like, but apart from sending them and sharing them on social media, what next? Its better to preserve the moments in a higher fidelity than what we use now.

How has you smartphone camera changed your life? You can leave a comment below to share your experience.