Smartphone cameras have evolved significantly in the last few years. It has come to a point where smartphones compete with point-and-shoot cameras and even entry-level DSLRs. Every bit of camera technology we use on our phones stands on the shoulders of prior insights and discoveries. Allow us to take you back to the game-changing moments in smartphone photography.
Nowadays, even a top-budget Android phone carries a never-ending list of camera specifications like a high-megapixel lens, OIS, portrait mode, night mode, cinematic mode, 8K recording, and variable aperture. But have you wondered which smartphones started these trends? Let’s discuss the evolution of the smartphone camera and check the landmark moments in mobile photography.
Nokia 808 PureView
A high-megapixel main sensor is common these days on smartphone cameras. Whether you have a Google Pixel 7 Pro, iPhone 14 Pro, or a top Galaxy phone, they all come with a 48-megapixel to 200-megapixel primary shooter. These companies use pixel binning to combine multiple adjacent pixels into a subpixel. You can read our dedicated guide on pixel binning to learn more.
Nokia initially executed the same on the 808 PureView a decade ago. The camera-focused smartphone was launched at the Mobile World Congress on February 27, 2012. It was a successor to the iconic Nokia N8.
Running on the company’s Symbian OS, the 808 PureView featured a 41MP 1/1.2-inch sensor and used the pixel oversampling tech to combine several sensor pixels into one picture pixel and deliver 8MP images. Nokia did that long before it became common in the smartphone industry. 808 PureView also offered class-leading zoom capabilities by cropping the main part of the sensor.
Nokia Lumia 920
Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) is another crucial factor in a smartphone camera. An OIS-equipped camera uses the phone’s gyroscope and tiny motors to move the camera lens. Most Android phones pack a four-axis OIS to move the lens in four directions. Read our post to understand the differences between OIS and EIS.
While LG introduced software-based image stabilization on LG Viewty in 2007, the first phone to offer true optical image stabilization was the Nokia Lumia 920 in 2012. The Lumia 920 packed an 8.7MP PureView camera with OIS to deliver class-leading low-light and video recording performance in 2012. Although Nokia adopted Windows Phone OS instead of Android, their Lumia lineup remained the top pick for camera enthusiasts in the past. It was only a matter of time for rivals to catch up with Nokia to offer an OIS. HTC announced the same M7 in 2013.
Samsung introduced a dual-camera flip phone for the Korean market in 2007. The goal was to capture 3D photos and videos with a dual camera. Later, HTC toyed with the dual camera setup on EVO 3D, M8, and M9. But LG got a breakthrough with their dual-camera implementation on the LG G5. Along with a standard 16MP sensor, users could capture more details with an 8MP wide-angle lens. It was an instant hit among the early adopters, and later, Samsung, Apple, and Huawei joined LG’s lead to offer the same on their flagship smartphones.
So far, we’ve talked about camera hardware that significantly improved smartphone photography. Let’s check several software tricks that took your tiny camera to the next level.
Google completely changed smartphone photography with the Pixel lineup in 2016. Instead of relying on powerful hardware, Google used software tweaks and HDR+ to deliver stunning images. Pixel shoots several images in quick sequence, analyzes the data, applies tone-mapping, and saves a single optimized image on the phone.
HDR+ reduces noise, enhances colors, increases dynamic range, and prevents highlights and motion blur. The trick is now a part of most smartphone presentations.
iPhone 7 Plus
Apple introduced portrait mode with iPhone 7 Plus in 2016. While other companies had tried portrait mode, Apple’s implementation with a 2x optical zoom camera was spot on. It delivered DSLR-like results, and the competitors wasted no time packing the same.
iPhone 7 Plus was also the first iPhone to pack a dual-camera setup. It used a 12-megapixel wide-angle lens and a 12-megapixel telephoto lens to distinguish between the main subject and background and delivered a bokeh effect with a blurry background.
Huawei P20 Pro
Until the introduction of the Huawei P20 Pro, other smartphone cameras suffered from capturing images in low light. They looked blurry, lacked details, and faced trouble focusing on the main subject in difficult lighting situations. With the Huawei P20 Pro, the company introduced a dedicated Night Mode to produce some of the best night shots.
The P20 Pro keeps the camera shutter open for up to five seconds and uses AIS (Artificial Intelligence Stabilization) to stack photos with long exposures. Later, Google introduced the same with Night Sight on Pixel 3. Now a flagship phone is incomplete without a Night mode.
iPhone 13 Pro
Although iPhone 13 Pro was an incremental upgrade over the iPhone 12 Pro, Cinematic mode was one feature that caught everyone’s attention. It adds a cool portrait mode effect to your videos in real time. You can let the iPhone 13 Pro detect a subject or select a person or object to change focus. It’s an effect, not a real thing, and doesn’t aim to replace a dedicated video camera. But it’s a solid start from Apple, and its Android rivals have started implementing portrait mode for videos.
Samsung has offered portrait videos since the Galaxy S10 series, but Apple’s implementation is more flexible as it lets you switch between the main subjects during the recording. You can also adjust the depth of field and the focus points of a video in the default Photos app.
Galaxy S23 Ultra
There is a lot to like about Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra’s camera. It’s versatile, feature-packed, offers class-leading zoom, and lets you shoot photos in 200MP mode. Samsung wants to take your video recording experience to the next level with 8K support in Galaxy 23 Ultra. The South Korean giant offered an 8K recording in S22 Ultra. But it was locked at 24fps, and the final output was barely usable.
With Snapdragon 8 Gen 2, better thermals, and 8K@30fps support, the 8K video recording is about to become popular among users. Don’t be surprised if Apple or Google introduce the same with iPhone 15 or Pixel 8 series.
Looking into the future
Innovation in smartphone photography isn’t slowing down anytime soon. Xiaomi and Oppo are experimenting with the 1-inch sensor on their flagship smartphones. Huawei introduced a ten-speed variable aperture with automatic switching. We can’t wait to see how smartphone photography progresses in the next five years.
If you want to level up your photography, check our dedicated guide to take better photos with your Android phone.