The Evolution of Smartphone Photography in India

I still remember my jaw dropping to the ground seeing the first phone with a camera which was a Nokia Supernova. It was a time when phone makers were siled into the Android and iOS camp. Today, cameras are an integral part of the smartphone world and are at the heart of digital convergence, especially in India, the world’s second largest smartphone market. If you look back, it took around 12 years for cameras to become a highlight of the conventional smartphone, ultimately putting you, the user, in the spotlight. However, the roots of the ‘camera phone’ concept can be traced back almost 23 years and even earlier, to prototypes and unreleased products in the underground research divisions of some of the world’s leading tech companies at the time. .

Apple’s videophone prototype in 1995

Coming of Age for Camera Phones

The first photo ever taken from a camera phone is credited to Philippe Kahn, who combined the power of a Casio QV-10 camera with a Motorola StarTAC flip phone (two other iconic products of the 90s) to document the birth of her daughter and instantly share it with your friends and family.

Photo by Philippe Kahn

In the years leading up to 2010, more and more smartphone brands got to grips with the idea of ​​the camera being a major area of ​​focus, but it wasn’t until 2010 that the camera inside a smartphone has been advanced and matured enough to even be considered an alternative. to compact compact cameras. This led to a slump in compact digital camera sales as phones became increasingly smarter and more efficient at taking high quality photos. Between 2010 and 2018, sales of point-and-shoot and point-and-shoot digital cameras fell by more than 84%, giving rise to mobile phone photography. It also helped you to use the same device to make calls, send texts, listen to music and much more.

All these years later, capturing a photo or video from a smartphone has almost become second nature to most of the 750 million smartphone users in India and it is also shared instantly on their social media. Of course, this has given many phone users a boost of confidence in front of the cameras and a taste of going viral, with so much video and content being produced and shared on social media apps like Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat, among others. . But the majority of this has been made possible by the evolution of technology which has given everyone a digital camera in the palm of their hand and has given rise to photography with a camera phone or photography with a smartphone. as a distinct genre within mainstream photography.

Breakthroughs in Modern Smartphone Photography

Not too long ago, 2010 was the year we saw a lot of camera innovation, but one phone in particular stood out, the Nokia N8! It was a phone ahead of its time as it had a 12 megapixel camera, a large 1/1.83 inch sensor, HD video recording and was developed in partnership with Carl Zeiss optics. These features alone rivaled the best point-and-shoot camera available at the time, but it arrived after a long wait and at a shaky point for Nokia. Nonetheless, it set a benchmark for the largest sensor size in a phone that was only broken 11 years later by Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra with its 1/1.12-inch sensor.

Although the size of the sensors alone does not determine the quality of a camera phone, it remains an essential part of the experience. A larger sensor will be able to capture more light and pick up details that would otherwise be lost due to a smaller sensor. However, this has been a conundrum for most smartphone makers as large sensors often result in thicker phones and this is something neither brands nor users want.

In 2012 Nokia launched the Nokia PureView 808 with a 41 megapixel camera which used an even larger 1/1.2 inch sensor with PureView Pro technology which was our first look at pixel oversampling or what the commonly referred to today as Pixel Binning. The large image sensor combines information from multiple pixels into a single image pixel which is sent to the built-in image processor which produces high quality images, reduces noise and also improves camera performance by low light. However, one of the main disadvantages of pixel binning is that the final processed image we get is 1/4 the resolution of the sensor and therefore the image sensor had to be large enough for the camera to produce an image detailed with good levels of exposure.

At the time, the smartphone industry was also in a state of flux, and established brands like Nokia were struggling to catch up with the Android and iOS smartphone bandwagon. But it also gave birth to smartphone photography, as more and more brands put their efforts into camera development and found computational photography to be the next big area of ​​focus.

Over the next few years, smartphones continued to reign supreme when it comes to image quality, but overall progress in camera phone development slowed, even as smartphones grew more powerful every year. That’s when computational photography became mainstream, as smartphones would take multiple shots of a frame and an algorithm stitched it together into a final image that had less noise and this technique dramatically improved the quality of the image.

With the advent of BSI (Back-Side Illuminated) sensors, it has become possible for smartphones to use larger sensors without increasing thickness. This was a major breakthrough in smartphone photography compared to FSI (Front-Side Illuminated) sensors where the sensor received limited light as it had to pass through filters and other layers, thereby losing signal information . On the other hand, BSI sensors allowed the flexibility of industrial design, as they made room for the lenses to be placed closer to the sensors, all without making the phone thicker.

At the same time, we started to see more than one camera in smartphones, but for very different use cases than how we use multiple cameras today. Primarily, the first phones with dual cameras were designed to capture 3D content, as 3D was perpetuated as the next big thing by consumer electronics brands. However, it failed to take off into something substantial and functional, but since 2014 brands like HTC have toyed with the idea of ​​having a second camera as a depth sensor to capture depth information. in a frame thus allowing images to have a shallow depth of field effect that is now known as Portrait mode in smartphone photography.

Soon, Apple jumped on the multi-camera bandwagon with the iPhone 7 Plus which had a 12-megapixel main camera along with a 12-megapixel telephoto camera that enabled 2x optical zoom and brought portrait mode. Samsung followed suit with the Galaxy Note 8, its first flagship smartphone to feature dual cameras – a 12-megapixel telephoto lens with 3x optical zoom, similar to Apple’s implementation.

In 2018, Huawei offered the P20 Pro which is the first phone with three cameras co-developed by Leica, the iconic German imaging company. It had a 40-megapixel main camera with a 1/1.7-inch sensor, an 8-megapixel telephoto lens with 3x optical zoom, and a 20-megapixel monochrome sensor.

In late 2018, Samsung introduced the Galaxy A9, the world’s first quad-camera phone with a 24-megapixel main camera, an 8-megapixel ultra-wide camera, and a 10-megapixel telephoto camera with optical zoom. 2x and a 5-megapixel depth sensor. It was undoubtedly a capable and versatile camera setup that allowed users to switch between different focal lengths at the push of a button.

It didn’t stop there. Nokia, backed by HMD Global, has once again tried to push its luck with its flagship phone, the Nokia 9 PureView which debuted in 2019 and has five rear cameras.

Yet, two or more cameras were considered a kind of flagship feature unlike today where you can easily get multiple cameras in phones priced around Rs 10,000. This is a result of the trickle down effect of technology where more high-end features are now found on affordable phones due to rapid development.

The brands also started refining the camera software, which allowed them to offer features like portrait mode, night mode, astrophotography mode, long exposure, filters, and more.

Slowly, development shifted from multiple cameras to higher resolution 64-megapixel and 108-megapixel sensors in smartphones. But at the same time, brands began to focus on immersive full-size displays, which meant they had to find ways to hide the front camera, giving rise to concepts like pop-up camera modules and placing implementing different types of notch cutouts which are quite common these days.

What awaits us?

Today, it would be an understatement to say that cameras have become a very important aspect of life, something no one could have foreseen in hindsight. We’ve gotten to a point where most smartphones in different price ranges are capable of producing great photos. And with the recent surge in video consumption, smartphone brands have shifted their focus to developing camera systems that can also create better videos.

Selfie cameras have gotten better at replicating near-natural skin tones, but with so many features at their disposal, they can also be used to morph facial features to make them look better but unnatural. It’s a choice that’s part of the wider societal impact camera-related social media filters are currently having, allowing people to express themselves however they want.

Another area the brands have been making strides in is partnering with older camera brands to bring a bit of nostalgia-induced features like X-Pan mode to the OnePlus 9/10 series in conjunction with Hasselblad or the Zeiss anamorphic lens effect that is power. cinematic mode in the latest Vivo X80 series.

Although the modern smartphone camera is not yet a DSLR replacement, it has narrowly bridged the gap between amateur and professional photographers by providing ease of preserving stellar photographic memories from a device that fits right in your pocket.

The next big thing in smartphone cameras are under-display cameras which will eliminate any type of notch or mechanical system to make the selfie camera invisible to the eye, but the camera will be able to see past the pixels on the screen !

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