There was a time when photography was a domain of experts, some very wealthy experts. Digital cameras were not cheap back in the early days, however, with the evolution of the smartphone, camera prices have gone down, photography has become mainstream and we’re creating in excess of 14 trillion photos annually, and smartphone cameras have a huge role to play in that. However, this indispensable feature of your smartphone had a lot of growing up to do, and here are the five innovations that redefined smartphone photography for us
The Nokia N90
While camera phones existed before the N90, they normally came with horribly poor quality lenses, less than 1 megapixel sensor resolution and you could forget any kind of autofocus. The Nokia N90 changed that forever. The company created a phone which housed a 2MP sensor, autofocus, and get this, LED flash back in 2005. They also flexed some serious quality muscles by incorporating Zeiss optics. The phone was definitely a luxury item for its time, but it did alert manufacturers to the potential that lay in putting good cameras into their crappy phones.
While we don’t really see this flash system in smartphones today, it set the bar for the performance of whatever was used to light a photo. This is because a Xenon flash produces far more light than a few LEDs put together. This is the same stuff that’s found in many headlights of cars, so you know its powerful. Many camera phones used Xenon flash back in the day (Sony Ericcson K800i for example), but due to its bulky size and immense battery demands, manufacturers quickly switched over to LEDs, which were cheaper and more space conscious.
Optical Image Stabilization
While we credit the Nokia Lumia 920 for us the modern version of optical image stabilization, OIS can actually be traced back to the Sony Ericcson K800i. The phone featured a form of image stabilization that could only be used for video, but at least it was there. What the Nokia Lumia 920 did was prove that an effective, complex system could be miniaturized and packed into a compact form factor. The OIS became a major reason for the sales of the phone, quickly prompting many other manufacturers quickly adopt and improve the technology. Today, better low light shots are possible due to OIS, not to mention video that wouldn’t want to make you throw up from nausea.
Back-Side Illuminated Sensors
There was a time when noise plagued CMOS sensors even in the dusk light. They were slow and couldn’t resolve very high resolutions. Sony came to the rescue of the entire photography community, developing the world’s first commercially viable Back-Side Illuminated sensor. A BSI sensor puts all the light capturing layers of a sensor on top, with the wiring and circuits at the bottom. It is a little more complex than that, but we’ll leave the jargon out as much as possible. These sensors could not only incorporate higher resolutions without quality loss, but they were far superior to use in low light. Today, BSI sensors are standard across most imaging devices.
Balancing Size with Pixel Count
Regardless of using BSI sensors, one thing that put a cap on the performance of a sensir inside a phone was the physical size of the sensor. Manufacturers kept packing in more and more pixels, riding the “more megapixels are better” sham for as long as they could. As the world grew to believe that smartphones could neve match the quality or resolution ofa DSLR, Nokia once again came through with the Nokia 808 PureView and the Nokia Lumia 1020. The two phones had extra large sensors to allow for a whopping 41 megapixel resolution. The Lumia 1020 was also the first phone to get RAW output alongside the Lumia 1520. What this did was illuminate the world that smartphones could match DSLR resolution, but in order to do so, manufacturers needed to incorporate bigger sensors. Modern day smartphones like the iPhone and the Google Pixel and even the OnePlus 3T use larger sensors than the phones of yesteryears, but also maintain a sober 12 megapixel resolution so as to ensure best balance between quality and resolution.
A lot of what we enjoy today is the result of these five major milestones in cellphone photography. Even if any one of those were to not have occurred, our smartphones would be a little less capable of taking photos as good as they do today. Sony continues to innovate with their sensors, having recently just announced one which can shoot slow-mo video at 1000fps at full HD resolution. Lens makers such as Zeiss and Leica continue to improve and offer their technologies to smartphone companies. Practically everyone is trying to improve image stabilization systems, whether they be optical or electronic. We’ve also started seeing dual-lens cameras on smartphones which could very well be the next step in the evolution of smartphone photography, but only time will tell.