Why smartphones point to smarter cameras

It's time to stop emulating film in digital cameras. The next generation of smartphones are a pointer to the future of photography.
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor

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.

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