The inexorable metamorphosis of phones into cameras.
In the early 2000s, researchers in South Korea and Japan marketed two phones equipped with photo sensors. The Samsung SCH-V200 and the Sharp J-SH04 were the first, but images were still far from perfect (0.1 and 0.3 megapixels). In 2002, the word photophone was introduced to refer to cell phones whose sensor allows them to take high-resolution digital pictures.
At the time, who would have thought that we would take more pictures with our phones than with our traditional cameras?
It wasn’t until 2008 that mobile photography reached the 8 megapixel bar and the subject became “serious.”
Today, about 67% of people in the world own a cell phone and use it to take pictures. According to 2020 figures, out of 1,400 billion photos taken in one year, nearly 1,200 billion were taken with smartphones.
The battle of manufacturers
Phone manufacturers have found that the ability to take photos instantly and to share them is a differentiating feature when buying a smartphone.
The war between manufacturers is being catalyzed by innovations in integrated cameras and the race for megapixels. Now they are devoting much of their expertise to enhancing the photo quality of their products. Some lenses offer a resolution as satisfactory as a digital camera. These innovations are all the more appreciated since images are now shared instantly thanks to the evolution of social networks. Instagram is widely used by amateurs and professional photographers alike (nearly 1 billion users per month).
2020 represents the culmination of this race, with the release of a 108 MP sensor for Samsung and the introduction of a brand new format for Apple. The Apple ProRaw in the iphone 12 greatly improves the quality of the pictures with algorithms (such as Deep Fusion and Smart HDR), taking advantage of the power of its mobile chips. They are not the only ones to dominate this market, where Google and Huawei (purchaser of Leica in 2016) are also battling it out, bringing their hardware and software innovations. Now, three lenses on high-end smartphones are almost a standard: an ultra-wide angle to see very wide, a wide angle to capture classic photos, and a zoom to see further.
The photophones adapt to each use and each user. The LiDAR sensor and the distance sensor are more present in our phones. LiDAR is used to speed up focusing in low light. The distance sensor allows us to analyze the 3D environment and to know the 3D placement of the subject. This facilitates the application of innovative treatments. For example, changing the depth of field after taking the picture, changing the lighting conditions and separating the background from the foreground – an essential operation to apply the blur of the portrait mode.
A new concept of objective has also appeared. Pixter has created lenses for phone cameras that can be added directly on the camera to improve its pictures. They are compatible with all types of phones.
The quality of cell phone photos is now much closer to that of reflex; however, they are still less sharp and less sensitive in low light, the size of sensors and optics being smaller…
This is where the embedded software in photophones intervenes with spectacular evolutions. Algorithms and artificial intelligence take over from optics, which remain limited by the small size of the phones. For example, Deep Fusion, a combination of images taken in bursts, improves the final image and increases sensitivity. HDR selects the best image from among three photos with different exposures and combines them to improve the contrast ratio.
Not only has the quality of cell phone photos improved immensely, software editors’ photo retouching softwares have also “entered the picture”; these integrate powerful and extremely easy to use features, often based on Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Let’s take the example of Luminar AI released in 2020. Just as embedded software in smartphones uses AI to “make” the best shot, Luminar AI analyzes the scene to suggest styles or retouching adapted to the subject and conditions. In addition, Luminar provides intelligent tools to facilitate tedious tasks that are often based on prior cropping. Replacing a sky or thinning a face becomes child’s play.
Over the last two years, the number of people retouching their photos has doubled and Lightroom, Luminar or Capture One are among the most used applications for this.
Photophones have certainly revolutionized the digital age and the way to take pictures or share them, but they will (always) be less powerful than a reflex or hybrid camera, which also evolves and integrates remarkable innovations every year.
Smatphones and Reflex put to the test
Photographer Josh Rossi made a daring comparison: he compared the images taken with a Fujifilm GFX 100 and those captured by the iPhone 11.
The result is simply impressive. The difference in pixels is also striking. After having taken the same portrait with the two different cameras, the difference between the pictures is really minimal: it is mainly in the background. Here the GFX100 is more powerful. Nevertheless, we can say that the iPhone 11 defends itself well.
You can see the comparison in detail on this video : https://youtu.be/7Crin7o0SAw
The best camera for you...
The comparison between the two types of devices is not necessarily relevant to the point, however. The goal of the new technologies embedded in photophones is to allow everyone to make the most beautiful pictures possible without being an experienced photographer.
In fact, a phone camera starts taking pictures even before you press the shutter release and chooses the best one. Not only is it always with us, but it also reacts faster than us! Users of photophones are therefore not necessarily looking for optimal photo quality, but something good enough to capture a moment, create and share memories.
Award-winning minimalist photographer Ash Camas’ approach is quite different. Ash offers us an interpretation rather than a simple translation of the spaces she chooses to capture with her camera.
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