Why smartphones point to smarter cameras

Why smartphones point to smarter cameras

Summary: It's time to stop emulating film in digital cameras. The next generation of smartphones are a pointer to the future of photography.

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There was one very interesting number discussed at Nokia's New York launch of its next-generation Lumia devices. According to analyst firm IDC, 2012 will be the year the smartphone overtakes the digital camera, with over 1.4 billion images coming from the phones in our pockets — and over 600 million of those images will be shared on social-media networks.

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Apple's iPhone is already the most popular camera on photo-sharing site Flickr. Image: Flickr

The way we take and use photographs is changing. Smartphone operating systems and new silicon and lens technologies are making it easier to take photographs, and image processing software is increasingly popular.

We click, tap, or swipe to take a photograph. We tweak them, adding effects and processing images, before sending them to Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr. We share them with friends, with family, with colleagues. They're stored in cloud photo galleries, synchronised across PCs, tablets and phones. They're printed in books, turned into mugs, used as screen backdrops, even as passwords.

Apple added swipe gestures for photography to iOS's start screen. Facebook bought Instagram for what at the time was well over $1bn. So it's not surprising that Microsoft and Nokia spent much of the Lumia launch talking about the cameras built into the new devices and the new Windows Phone 8 photography features.

Lumia 920
OIS-stabilisation is a key feature of the Lumia 920. Photo: Nokia

With smartphones, no matter what OS they use, converging on a set of features and capabilities, manufacturers need to find something to differentiate their devices from each other.

From Nokia's launch event it's clear it has chosen photography as its point of differentiation — adding a new optically-stabilised camera assembly to its high-end Lumia 920 device, as well as employing the PureView branding originally used with its Symbian-based 41-megapixel 808 PureView.

Setting aside the controversy over Nokia's advertising video — which was unnecessary, given the quality of the videos produced by the phone's engineering team — the work Nokia has done to deliver optical stabilisation to the Lumia 920 is really rather smart.

In DSLRs and other cameras, OIS uses accelerometers and springs to support the optical elements of a lens. That's not possible in a phone, where the optical elements are so small. Mounting it on springs would be virtually impossible.

So Nokia's engineers thought outside the box, or rather, outside the camera. Instead of using OIS on a lens, they mounted the entire camera in its own OIS system. After all, if the lens is too small, perhaps the camera is small enough.

Hardware isn't the only way to make a smartphone camera different, and Nokia is also adding its own software to the mix. Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 platform has a set of extensibility features that let third-party applications integrate directly with its camera platform. Called Lenses, these tools drop straight into the viewfinder user interface — so you can click the camera button and launch a panorama tool, or a 360-degree capture, or a set of filters, or, well, whatever someone writes.

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A 360-degree image captured using Microsoft's PhotoSynth application. Image: Simon Bisson/ZDNet

We've reached a point in the evolution of the digital camera where we can finally stop emulating film. That's not to denigrate the DSLR or traditional photographic techniques, but the CCD sensors in today's digital cameras — and in today's smartphones — are capable complex devices that in conjunction with software can do amazing things.

Apple added in-device HDR to its iPhone 4, and Casio's high-speed sensors have brought high-speed photography to the masses. But both those technologies are just scratching the surface of what can be done with the camera and software.

Some of those things are toys — tools that mix video and still photography, like the Lens app Nokia demoed, which lets you use a finger to scrub out sections of a still to let the underlying video leak through. So you can have a picture of a castle with the flags fluttering in the wind.

Others are more practical, helping you eliminate moving objects from a picture — such as errant tourists in the middle of a landscape. It's easy to imagine just what can be done with image processing in the camera application — and what art and what journalism can do with those technologies.

As smartphone processing power gets higher, the capabilities of these tools will only get better. Instead of Photoshop on a PC, you'll be processing images on a large touchscreen right there in the field — as you click the shutter.

Topics: Mobile OS, Apps, Microsoft

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

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4 comments
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  • Phone cameras can't even compare to P&S digital cameras yet

    >> the CCD sensors in today's digital cameras — and in today's
    >> smartphones — are capable complex devices

    While smartphones have great processors and possibly in a year or two, could do some complex image manipulation in a background core, there are still limitations (battery being one). But the biggest limitation are the CCDs. Reviews are still obsessing about MP when the manufacturers should be concentrating on image quality and processing. My 12 year old 4 MP Canon G2 P&S takes better photos than my 2012 8 MP Galaxy S3. The phone cameras are great for casual photography, geotagging and sharing. But for image quality and real Post Processing, you still need DSLRs and PCs.

    Don't get me wrong. I think Nokia 920 may well have a fantastic camera and kudos to them, but there is only so much you can do before physics start kicking in. No doubt it will get even better with coming years, but may well be good enough for many people certainly those that are not into photography. But for real photographers, it's not really there yet - and may never be.
    os2baba
    • Camera phones are still far behind

      I agree completely with os2baba.
      The camera phone on my galaxy s3 is fantastic, but it still lags behind my Panasonic Lumix. I for one will never substitute a real P&S for a camera phone. Camera phones can only overtake real cameras if the makers of dedicated cameras stop improving their products.
      A lot of casual users do not know, do not care and do not see the difference between difference, but for those who knows the difference the two are still wide apart.
      coatech
    • Smartphone cams are now comparable to cameras from 2004

      I had a photo camera Olympus Camedia Z220 in early 2004. It was amazing, it took me precious moments and I still love the photos made with it. Colors are great, focus is ok. All the photos made are of size 1024×768. It is less than what smartphone cameras give us today but, well, millions of megapixels don't give same quality so photos taken with my iPhone 4S all without exception need to be resized to ~1200×900 to look good. If the progress keeps pacing with the same speed as in 2004 (which is, I suppose, wrong) we will get, what I would call, honest megapixels—and tons of them. Other hand is that DSLRs won't stay still and will improve, too, so it is kind of infinite race. But even though, it is possible to say now that smartphone cameras are now as good as DSLR. Pretty old DSLR, however, but only if we say so doesn't mean we are not cheating, does it?
      Rishat Muhametshin
  • Phone cameras can't even compare to P&S digital cameras yet

    >> the CCD sensors in today's digital cameras — and in today's
    >> smartphones — are capable complex devices

    While smartphones have great processors and possibly in a year or two, could do some complex image manipulation in a background core, there are still limitations (battery being one). But the biggest limitation are the CCDs. Reviews are still obsessing about MP when the manufacturers should be concentrating on image quality and processing. My 12 year old 4 MP Canon G2 P&S takes better photos than my 2012 8 MP Galaxy S3. The phone cameras are great for casual photography, geotagging and sharing. But for image quality and real Post Processing, you still need DSLRs and PCs.

    Don't get me wrong. I think Nokia 920 may well have a fantastic camera and kudos to them, but there is only so much you can do before physics start kicking in. No doubt it will get even better with coming years, but may well be good enough for many people certainly those that are not into photography. But for real photographers, it's not really there yet - and may never be.
    os2baba