One way to measure the progress of smartphone technology is by looking at the evolution of smartphone cameras. Those from the early Noughties were very basic - phones released in 2000 was capable of shooting images at a resolution of a mere 0.35-megapixels. They also had bare-bones image processing, so the overall picture quality, although considered good then, was still pretty poor.
But with rapid developments in technologies, cameras in smartphones today have become nothing short of technological marvels – allowing us to take pictures that have DSLR quality.
Here’s what’s changed in your smartphone camera.
Though space and technology initially limited the megapixel count in smartphone cameras, manufacturers found ways to cram in as many megapixels in a sensor that could be put on a phone - the Nokia 808 Pureview had a 41-megapixel camera. Although, theoretically, a camera with more megapixels should produce better quality pictures, it isn’t always the case. A lot of other hardware (and software) factors come into play. Upon realising this, OEMs shifted focus from increasing megapixel count to increasing the size of these pixels (like in the HTC One M8) for better low-light performance and a greater dynamic range.
The most primitive camera phones were incapable of taking videos too. But with the emergence of more capable processors and dedicated camera chips, shooting 4K on a phone has become a breeze now. In fact, the quality of videos shot using phone cameras have improved so much that even Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh has shot movies on his iPhone and plans on continuing to do so. The LG V30 is a prime example of the evolution in video shooting on phones. The phone has a video manual mode that enables you to choose frame rate, bit rate, shutter speed, ISO, white balance and more. The introduction of Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) in phone cameras has also helped in improving video output by smoothing out footage and reducing jerks.
Low-light photography has always been the Achilles heels of phone cameras. While one can manipulate the aperture in a regular camera to optimize for lightning conditions, desired depth of field etc., smartphone cameras are optimized for having the widest aperture possible. As the quality of lenses went up, it became possible to include camera sensors with lower apertures to get in more light. The Samsung S9 that came out earlier this year has a variable aperture that can switch between f/2.4 and f/1.5 depending on the lighting conditions. The inclusion of a variable aperture enables shooting of great images in varying lighting conditions, something that was not possible in phones earlier.
Ever wondered why it was more difficult to get clear focused pictures with old camera phones? Most phones before 2014 employed focusing that was solely based on the contrast detected in a scene. Today new technologies like Phase Detection Auto Focus (PDAF), Laser Focus and Pixel Focus have been introduced to quickly focus on the object of the picture in diverse light conditions. This has allowed the use of phone cameras to snap moving objects or sport scenes without worrying about getting blurry images.
Although smartphone camera optics have improved over the last few decades, it is software processing that has truly improved photo quality. With the help of additional processing power and algorithms, software processing has made cameras overcome their physical limitations. Phones like the Google Pixel 2 now support Live HDR, a feature that could only be dreamt of a couple of years ago. Post-processing has also improved to make night shots look better by the way of noise reduction. Portrait Mode is another feature that has been enabled and perfected by the help of solid image-processing. With most phones having dual-cameras now that capture additional depth and lighting info, phones have gotten even better in taking DSLR-like Bokeh shots.
5 Best Camera Phones
1) iPhone X
Apple’s latest and greatest happens to be one of the best phones camera out there. The dual-camera setup on the back takes truly beautiful images with vivid colours and an excellent dynamic range. It is capable of taking 4K videos at an insanely smooth 60fps. The Portrait Lighting feature is capable of taking some studio-level selfies. All in all, you just can’t go wrong with the iPhone X.
2) Sony Xperia XZ Premium
Sony is a global leader in camera optics and there is no doubt that their flagship phone has some excellent optic abilities. The XZ Premium is capable of taking slo-mo videos at a mind-boggling 960fps. Apart from impressive video taking capabilities, the XZ Premium also takes excellent detailed images thanks to its 19-megapixel sensor.
3) Samsung Galaxy S9+
Samsung has owned the title of best smartphone camera for three consecutive years. The Galaxy S9 features a variable aperture providing ideal conditions for both day and night photography. The phone is also capable of shooting drool-worthy 4K and 960fps slo-mo videos.
4) Vivo V9
What is the point of living in 2018 if you can’t buy a budget phone with a great camera? The Vivo V9 has a dual-camera setup that is capable of taking some really good portrait shots. The front 24-megapixel snapper that supports AR stickers is also capable of taking some cool portrait shots.
5) Honor 9i
Honor 9i is one of the only budget phones to have two dual-camera setups, one on the front and one on the back. The dual cameras take some really good shots in varying light conditions. If you’re an amateur photographer you’ll be happy to know that it supports taking pictures in RAW mode. Thanks to its diffused front flash, you can also be assured of getting some good low-light selfies with this phone.