The introduction of the smartphone will certainly be looked back
upon as perhaps the biggest shift in the way that we all use
technology, and not just due to the fact that we’re all walking around
with access to the entire web in our pockets. Photography has been an
equally key part of the smartphone’s success, resulting in today’s
hugely popular selfie, Instagram, and other related phenomena.
Smartphone photography has proven so hugely popular that flagship
handsets have all but killed the compact camera market too. So let’s
take a little tour through some of smartphone photography’s most notable
milestones to see just how far we’ve come.
In the beginning
I suppose it makes the most sense to go back and look at some of
the earlier smartphones so we can see just how much camera capabilities
have changed over the years.
The original iPhone and the HTC Dream (T-Mobile G1) were the
first smartphones, in the modern sense of the word, and both arrived
with cameras onboard. Mobile phones had long featured cameras before
then, so it’s of little surprise that the first generation iPhone
shipped with a tiny 2 megapixel rear camera, which was unable to record
video, while the HTC Dream arrived with a 3.15 megapixel sensor that
touted autofocus capabilities but again no video shooting options.
Despite both including camera capabilities, photography
expectations were much lower in those days, especially given that
compact cameras were still obviously more capable. The close call camera
shootouts and rigorous lab test conditions simply didn’t feature in
mobile phone reviews back then. In comparison with today’s smartphones,
we’ve come to take much more advanced features, such as optical image
stabilization, 4K video recording, and excellent low light performance
as requirements of a flagship smartphone.
The Oppo N1, released in late 2013, offered a swiveling camera to share quality between rear and front facing shots.
The rise of the selfie shooter
While 2003’s Sony Ericsson Z1010 may have been the first phone to
sport a front facing camera, it wasn’t until handsets like the Apple’s
iPhone 4 and the HTC Evo 4G in 2010 that selfie cameras reached the
smartphone market. Originally, these tiny sensors were not far from an
afterthought, boasting just 0.3 MP and 1.3 MP resolution respectively,
with no extra features bar some video recording capabilities. Even in
subsequent models, the front facing camera was notably poorer than the
rear camera equivalent, although this wasn’t such an issue in the early
In the early days, front facing cameras were popular for video calling rather than talking stylish selfies.
Before consumers were demanding top quality looking photos, front
facing cameras had become quite popular for video calls, and even these
small 2 or 3 megapixel sensors would allow for 720p and even 1080p
video. It wasn’t until the adoption of much faster data speeds that
media sharing really took off in the mobile space, so it was only three
or so smartphone generations ago that front facing cameras started to
see notable improvements.
Fast forward 6 to 7 years, and we now have smartphones boasting
selfie camera capabilities that rival typically superior rear camera
performance. Flagships from Samsung, HTC and others offer up front
facing camera resolutions from 8 to 16 megapixels, with aperture and
lens configurations that match rear camera setups, producing much better
results than in previous years. The selfie trend has seen major
improvements on the software side too, with almost all manufacturers and
camera apps offering “beautification” and filter options to make your
profile snaps look their best.
The road to better front facing cameras has been a long one, but
it’s a journey that has produced some intriguing handset designs along
the way. Today, the new Oppo F3
is the first smartphone to feature a dual front facing camera
configuration, one 16 and one 8 megapixel, designed to offer better
looking selfies and a wider range of shooting options. Oppo also picked
up on this trend even earlier with the introduction of its N1 phone (pictured above), which boasted a swivelling camera setup allowing to equal quality selfie and regular shots.
Boasting a 41MP 2/3-inch image sensor, Carl Zeiss optics, Xenon flash and OIS, the Lumia 1020 set a very high bar in 2013.
Once the smartphone market was well established and small form
factor camera technology improved, smartphone cameras began to take off
in a big way. With manufacturers attempting to outdo one another each
generation, which still continues to this day.
One way in which OEMs attempted to differentiate their products
was to ramp up the camera resolution, as numbers always stand out on a
spec sheet. We know that resolution isn’t everything these days, but at
the time the larger numbers were certainly grabbing headlines.
Smartphones quickly averaged out at around 13 megapixels for the rear camera after just 3 generations.
Apple’s iPhone, considered one of the best shooters at the time,
quickly moved on up from 5 to 8 and then 12 megapixels, where the
company has now sat for some time. Similarly, Samsung moved from 8 to 13
megapixels between the 2011 Galaxy S2 and 2013 S4, then 16 MP with
2014’s Galaxy S5.
Sony and Nokia’s Lumia range took the crown much quicker though,
with the Xperia Z1 boasting 21 megapixels back in 2013, only to be
eclipsed by the Lumia 1020’s huge 41 MP sensor that same year. In fact,
2013’s Lumia 1020 (pictured above) is still considered by some to still
be one of the best smartphone camera phones ever produced.
Not only were these cameras quickly boosting the resolution
available in smartphone cameras, but were also introducing a number of
new features that have become staples of the industry. 1080p and now 4K
video recording was trotted out over the years, and optical image
stabilization appeared in the majority of 2014’s flagship
smartphones. Last year’s HTC 10 was the first phone to use OIS in both
front and rear cameras.
Compact Camera Experiments
The huge demand for better smartphone cameras eventually led to
some more interesting experiments, as some companies attempted to meld
smartphones with traditional compact cameras. The results were Samsung’s
Galaxy Camera range and Panasonic’s DMC-CM1.
Samsung’s first Galaxy Camera appeared in 2012, boasting a 16.3
megapixel setup with 21 optical zoom, OIS, and Xenon flash, as well as
Android Jelly Bean onboard, complete with LTE data capabilities. Samsung
followed this up with the Galaxy Camera 2 in early 2014, which arrived
with very similar specifications but sans any cellular connectivity.
The Panasonic DMC-CM1 (pictured above) appeared in late 2014,
offering up some more powerful smartphone specifications that rivaled
flagships at the time. On the camera side, the 20.1 megapixel
1-inch sensor with Leica optics and variable aperture certainly
commanded the high price tag. However, these products were really a
solution to a question that no-one was pondering and clearly never took
early Ultrapixel technology may have underperformed, but the idea of
using larger sensor pixels is now widely utilized by the best smartphone
Bigger, better pixels
Inevitably, smartphone camera pixel counts hit the wall, due to
the limitations with sensor sizes and the processing bandwidth available
in mobile form factors. In a bid to continue to improve picture
quality, and gain the upper hand on its competitors, OEMs began turning
to new camera sensors with bigger and better pixels.
HTC was actually well ahead of the curve in this regard, opting
to market its Ultrapixel technology, which boasted a large 2um pixel
size, with its One M7 handset instead of simply increasingly the
resolution of its sensors. While the early 4 megapixel versions were a
little disappointing, the HTC U11’s Ultrapixel 3 revision seems to have finally come into its own.
How smartphone cameras work – Gary explains
May 8, 2017
More recently, this is a design decision that other OEMs have
come to appreciate too. Many of the most recent top performing
smartphone cameras have boasted larger pixel sizes than previous
generations. The Google Pixel uses a 1.55um pixel size, while the
Samsung Galaxy S7 and S8 clock in at 1.4um.
As well as trying to capture more light with the sensors, new
pixel embedded technologies have appeared in recent years too. Phase
Detection Autofocus is now a staple of many high-end sensors, and a
number of manufacturers have opted for more advanced implementations
that use an increased number of pixels for even faster focusing speeds.
Samsung was the first to use dual pixel focusing technology inside the
Dual camera technology isn’t reserved for high-end products anymore, mid-tier phones are receiving a big boost to image quality.
Dual cameras and the future
With top-tier flagships now producing some truly impressive
camera results, companies have turned to dual camera technologies to
differentiate their products with new features and to continue to
improve image quality, even when using more cost effective sensors.
The LG G5’s wide angle lens solution was one of the first notable
models, a trend that the company has continued with its G6 and V
series. Huawei’s partnership with Leica has brought monochrome + RGB
setups for improved HDR and low noise to a number of its flagship
phones, and this technology has also made its way to its budget Honor
line-up too. Even Apple’s latest iPhone makes use of a secondary
Dual camera’s aren’t entirely a new technology though. The HTC
One M8 tired out this combo with mixed results in 2014, and even some
older models like the LG Optimus 3D and HTC Evo 3D experimented with
stereoscopic cameras as far back as 2011. Looking forward, increases in
mobile memory bandwidth and more efficient image processing will bring
the top-tier features down to the mid-range, support higher resolution
multi-camera configurations, and enable even more powerful post