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What’s next for smartphone camera technology?

May 24, 2012

We’ve all come to take for granted how easy it is to take a photo or video at any time, thanks to our smartphones having cameras. While it’s amazing that we have this ability, one thing that has been sacrificed for the most part is the actual photo and video quality. In most cases, manufacturers have settled to pumping up the sensor size, neglecting other aspects, such as better lenses, low-lighting functioning, or improved shutter speeds.

Fortunately, things begin to change. Smartphone camera tech continues to develop and there are some pretty cool improvements and features in the pipeline. Here are some of the most exciting developments in the field of smartphone cameras.

Why more megapixels don’t always make a better camera

First of all, let’s lay a foundation and explain what makes a good camera. Most people think that more megapixels means better photo quality. That’s not necessarily the case. For example, some 8 megapixel Android phone cameras took inferior photos compared to the 5 megapixel iPhone camera.

Basically, the more megapixels, the larger you can make the photo without losing resolution. In most situations, however, you don’t need many megapixels unless you need to print large photos. Even a 1MP camera is enough if you only view photos on your computer.

The key thing to understand here is that not all pixels are created equal. More megapixels don’t necessarily make a photo LOOK better, it just allows you to have a LARGER photo without losing quality when the photo is enlarged. Actual image quality comes down to many things, such as the quality of optics used.

Nokia raises the stakes in the  megapixel wars

I just said that having higher megapixels isn’t the end-all-be-all of photo quality, but everything else being equal, it is better to have more. With that in mind, we can’t discuss the future of smartphone technology without mentioning Nokia’s upcoming Pureview  808 phone and its 41 megapixel camera. Yes, you read that correctly, 41 megapixels; and here you were, thinking that 8 megapixels was a lot for a smartphone.

Considering what we just discussed regarding megapixels, you may think this is all marketing hype. But that’s not completely true with Nokia’s new offering. Nokia’s goal isn’t just to be able to create a huge image, but to downsize it into a very high quality 5 megapixel image. That said, while we’re excited to see how photos will look with Nokia’s new camera, don’t expect it to come close to a good DSLR camera with larger sensors. If you don’t know what phone sensors are, read on.

Nokia_808_PureView sample 1
Nokia Pureview 808 sample

Better sensors and flashlights

Okay, enough about megapixels; it’s time to talk about camera optics.

One of the main detriments to smartphone cameras is sensor size and quality. Basically, the larger the sensor, the more light it detects. The problem is that it’s hard to fit good sensors into such thin devices. Hence, check out that unsightly “hump” on the back of the Pureview 808.

Slowly but surely, though, the sensors are improving. Sony, for example, has made an exciting development with a new “stacked” smartphone sensor that will improve the quality of photos taken in low light. This is great news considering how terrible low light photos are when taken by smartphone cameras.

Snapping shots with a smartphone in low light conditions can be extremely frustrating, because a flash will make the picture too bright, while not using the flash will cause the picture to be dark and grainy. Some manufacturers have developed smarter flashes, that adapt to the lightning conditions in a scene. For instance, the HTC One X’ flash identifies the subjects that are closer to the camera and illuminates them, instead of the whole room. Such advancements will finally allow for decent picture-taking in low light, bad light, or no light at all conditions.

Faster shutters

Another major frustration when taking photos is the shutter lag. I’m sure we’ve all experienced this issue: you try to take a quick snapshot and by the time the photo is taken you see a blurry mess, or not what you wanted to capture at all. This is another aspect of smartphone camera tech that has slowly improved, and zero shutter lag cameras are finally upon us.

Recent and upcoming devices that boast “no lag” shutters include the HTC One X and the Samsung Galaxy S3. Both of these devices  let you snap several images in a second, basically offering an always-on burst mode, ideal for catching quick action scenes.

Sample Image (Source: HTC)

Moreover, Samsung and LG have implemented software that will automatically pick the best shot from a burst, so you won’t have to. We haven’t tried this feature yet, but we’ll update you as soon as the Galaxy S3 is out and we take it for a photo spin.

Here’s a video from PhoneDog, showing the Galaxy S3 burst mode in action:

Video improvements

Smartphones have been able to record HD video for a couple years now, but everyone knows the video quality is inferior to dedicated video recorders. The issue here is also due in large part to low sensor quality, just as it is with snapping photos. Smartphone video shooting is also plagued by low frame rates which create a choppy appearance.

In the close future, improved sensors are going to help, and we’ll also be seeing 1080p video shooting becoming more standard in smartphones. Unfortunately, we’re still a way off from video recording capabilities that rivals a good dedicated video recorder. Meanwhile, HTC has innovated in this area by enabling you to shoot pictures, at the same time you are shooting HD video. That’s something I’d certainly like to see on more smartphones.

Here’s a video of the snap while you shoot feature in action, from Youtube user Adrianisen.

Today’s high-end features will be tomorrow’s standard

Of course, the features, functions, and improvements that I presented you are now found on top of the line hero devices, like the HTC One X or the Galaxy S3. Needless, they cost quite a bit, and no one can afford them. So, for now, don’t ditch that point-and-shoot camera just yet.

Nevertheless, the furious pace of technology development ensures that two years from now, you’ll get that zero-lag shutter or that high-quality sensor on cheaper phones, the kind you wouldn’t feel horrible for dropping on the floor. Here’s to hoping that future will come sooner, rather than later.

I hope you’ve enjoyed our look into the near future of smartphone camera tech. Now it’s your turn to sound off. What upcoming camera tech are you most looking forward to? Is there anything in particular you’d like to see improved with smartphone cameras?