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  • Ritaban Mitra

Evolution of Smart Phone cameras

Updated: Apr 13, 2020

“The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words.”

Undeniably, cameras have become an essential tool in our lives - from taking wedding photographs, to starting a youtube channel, to taking that perfect selfie, the photographs we take on a daily basis are limited only limited by storage constraints and our creativity. Cameras are everywhere now and are also in the hands of a larger number of people than ever thanks to the smartphone manufacturers popularising the trend of smartphone photography.

Contrary to popular opinions, mobile cameras have been around for a lot longer than we realise, with some of the projects being released to the public as early as 2000 but it is fair to say that they were not a huge selling point till around 2010 when worldwide camera phones sales totalled more than a billion and a majority of phones released (even the cheap ones) had a camera. This astronomical growth in this sector of electronics is not too difficult to understand from the perspective of a customer - A smart phone with a camera seemed like an interesting, exciting and sensible investment because they were cellular phones which could take and make calls, send messages, connect to the internet and take photos and people could even edit them using an application. This meant that people would not need to additionally carry heavy and fragile DSLR cameras if they had a high-end smart phone with a good sensor and lens.


One of the pioneering companies who realised this market opportunity and acted early was fan favourite NOKIA. Here's just how influential Nokia used to be back in the early 2010's

  • In October 2010, Nokia released a short film "The Commuter" shot entirely on the Nokia N8 which was one of the first phones to feature a 12MP camera.

  • In 2012, Nokia announced the Nokia 808 Pure View. It featured a 41-megapixel 1/1.2-inch sensor and a high-resolution f/2.4 Zeiss all-aspherical one-group lens. It also featured Nokia's PureView Pro technology, a pixel oversampling technique that reduces an image taken at full resolution into a lower resolution picture, thus achieving higher definition and light sensitivity, and enables lossless zoom.

Some of the best photos that this photographers using this camera have taken:

Shot by Barney Britton

Photo by Barney Britton

Photo by Barney Britton

Photo by Barney Britton

Photo by Barney Britton

  • In 2013, Nokia came out with the legendary Lumia 1020 which featured Nokia's PureView technology and a 41 megapixel camera sensor.

As you can tell the Lumia 1020 was a pretty capable phone for its time, in fact even ahead of its time.

The camera of the Nokia Lumia 1020 featured a slightly small sensor (1/1.5″ 8.80 x 6.60 mm), but still a relatively large sensor in mobile phone camera terms and a wide range of complimentary technologies that helps the Lumia 1020 to prevail when it comes to image quality.

In order to understand any digital camera's performance we must understand is its sensor size. It’s all starts from there. In matter effect, what matters most is actually the pixel size, as bigger pixels can store more light photons. You look at it as the amount of data that is stored per pixel site — which will eventually represent an RGB value for the final image. However, the pixel size is not the only thing that counts though.

The Lumia 1020 uses some great technologies. The first one is choosing to go with a Back-illuminated sensor technology. In this BSI sensor technology, the the wires that transfers the data from the pixel out to the A/D converter are behind the light sensitive area, rather than at the front in front-illuminated sensors. This means that there is more room for the light to pass through. This lead to an improved light gathering performance that lead to a better high ISO performance and better image quality overall, including much less image noise. The 808 PureView uses a Front-illuminated sensor, rather than BSI.

Some of the best photos that this photographers using this camera have taken:

These photos were credited to an album on Flickr by David Pierce.

  • In Feb 2019, Nokia announced the Nokia 9 PureView which features 5 cameras.


Apple has been no slouch on the camera department either. iPhones are quite well known for their camera sensors and lenses. The cameras on some of the newer iPhones are comparable with some old DSLRs which just goes to show how far camera technology has advanced in such a short period of time.

In late 2017, Apple announced the iPhone 7 plus which was one of the first phones to ship with a dual camera setup. The dual camera setup continued for the next year and a half or so with various manufacturers experimenting with the cameras. Apple is known for its high resolution, consistent and natural color reproduction (which sometimes means undersaturated photographs) in its cameras.

Apple encourages its iPhone users to share their photography and have been hosting the iPhone photography awards since 2008 to choose the best photographs.Attached below are a series of 10 of the best photos we found that were shot on an iPhone:

Lone Bjørn the first place award in the flowers category in 2016.

Naian Feng managed to capture this stunning view of a frozen volcano in Iceland on an iPhone X.

Michael O'Neal shot a photograph of a fox in San Francisco and won first prize in the animal category.

Xia Zhenkai captured this image in China using an iPhone. The photo then went on to win the first place prize in the people category in 2016.

This photo was taken by Elizabeth Scarrott in Yosemite National Park and captured on an iPhone 8 Plus.

This stunning cinematic shot of a stallion on an empty road under overcast conditions won the first prize in the animals category in 2013.

LieAdi Darmawan captured this photo using an iPhone Xs during a trip in Colorado's San Juan National Forest.

Alex Jiang shot this photo on an Apple iPhone XS Max in Hong Kong and was selected as one of the winners of the shot on iPhone challenge.

This wonderfully composed photo of Jameh Mosque of Isfahan was shot on an iphone 7 and won second prize in the architecture category in 2018.

This photo was shot by Aaron Sandberg on the iPhone 6s, late June of 2016 while in Sigtuna, Sweden.

Over the years, Chinese smart phone manufacturers have entered the market and have been doing wonders in their markets by launching phones that may be categorised as Bang for the buck. China has for long had a tainted reputation globally to manufacture cheap, low quality products however, manufacturers such as Oppo, OnePlus, Huawei are changing that perception by releasing very high quality phones which are sturdily built. These Chinese smartphones are also priced very aggressively and hence have seen a large number of new users in developing markets.

Of the numerous smartphone manufacturers, few of them have made as great of an impact as great as OnePlus.


OnePlus was a new tech start-up in 2014. Their first product the OnePlus One took the entire tech world by storm. The company had big dreams and big promises. They offered specifications at nearly half the price of the other flagships at the time.

The OnePlus One had a 5.46-inch, 1920 x 1080 pixel screen, a 13MP rear camera, a Snapdragon 801 processor and 3GB of RAM and cost just $250.

As tech enthusiast brands go, no body believed that OnePlus would last this long. Five years on, they still surprise and excite their fans with new products, campaigns and their online presence.

They are well known for their #shotononeplus campaign which encourages its users to share their photographs on social media in exchange for a chance to be featured by the company.

Here are 10 of the best photos we found that are shot on OnePlus;

The following photos were shot on an OnePlus 6T by Alessandro Michelazi.

Some of my favourite photos that I've captured on my OnePlus 5

Image shot in the manual mode on 31 January 2018, the night of the blood moon.

Early morning photo shot on the OnePlus 5, warm tones slightly adjusted in SnapSeed.

Shot on the OnePlus 5 using manual mode.

Low-Light image shot on the OnePlus 5 at Clarke Quay in 2018.


LG launched the V30+ which was a seriously underrated phone with a very capable camera. The V30+ allowed users to shoot manual video which is quite incredible and to add to it, the second camera was a 120˚Wide, f/1.9 lens. Camera samples from the LG V30

A wide angle shot of a snow swept airport in Frankfurt.

Compare the photograph above with the one below and you can see how much of a difference the wide angle lens makes on the camera output.

A regular photograph on the v30 without the wide angle mode.

As you can see it has a decent color reproduction with natural tones in an outdoor setting.


Google has been around in the smartphone business longer than they get credit for with some of their earliest smartphones released under the nexus brand as early as 2010. Google would release the stock android software that no other manufacturer provided as they would all customise android to a their taste and release it. This meant that manufacturers would not be able to immediately update their devices when Google announced their next android version as they would have to customise it first and then release it for the supported devices which lead to massive delays. Google saw that there was a huge demand for software updates to be issued on time for a guaranteed duration (as most manufacturers would stop supporting a device within a year of its launch) and hence announced the google Nexus series. Google would work exclusively on the software and tie up with a manufacturer of its choice to build the hardware to support the smartphone. Every year a different manufacturer would build the nexus and companies such as HTC,LG,Samsung and Huawei.

Some of the best photographs from the nexus series of phones:

Shot on Nexus 4 by Engadget.

Shot on Nexus 5X

Shot on a nexus 6p

Soon after the launch of the 6P, Google announced that it would discontinue the nexus lineup and replace it with the now famed Pixel Series. The idea behind the Pixel series was to develop their own hardware and software so that that they could exercise complete control over the device just like Apple. The Pixel was a mediocre phone by its design and specifications, but there was one feature that blew everyone away - the Camera.


Google pixel devices are now famed for their cameras and it all began with the Pixel. Google was indeed responsible for much of the hype around their first device as they claimed it to have the best smartphone camera in the world. And boy were they right.

Some of the most amazing photographs shot on the Pixel that we found are attached below.

Shot by Dan Bracaglia

Shot by Dan Bracaglia.

Shot by Allison Johnson.

Shot by Rishi Sanyal.

Spectacular low-light shot by Allison Johnson.

We can clearly observe a huge difference in the camera performance when we compare the Pixel series to the Nexus series. So how was Google able to achieve such amazing results?

The answer to the question is AI.

Artificial Intelligence in Smartphone Cameras

Inorder to understand the effect of AI in camera technology, we must understand the concept of computational photography:

Computational photography is a technique used in digital image processing that replaces optical processes with the help of algorithms. This means that an average user can now achieve studio grade effects normally found on Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop at the click of a button. Implementations of computational photography:


Portrait mode. It’s a feature that ranges from budget smartphones to top smartphones and is the most essential feature of Smartphone cameras today. You can easily click on a portrait selfie, but if its talk of processing and technology, it was not possible with a single mobile camera. This was made possible by the google pixel

In the Portrait Mode on the Pixel 2, the camera captured two versions of a scene at slightly different angles. In these images, the foreground figure, a person in most portrait images, would appear to shift to a smaller degree than the background images (an effect known as parallax). This discrepancy was used as the basis for interpreting the depth of an image, and thus which areas to blur out.

The pixel 3 improved on this by considering the sharpness of a portion of the image as a depth indicator.They then repeatedly trained and tested the camera with sample images to achieve better results and a higher accuracy.

Sample photograph shot on Pixel 3 from Trusted reviews


One of the key selling points of the pixel 3 was its low light photography with a camera mode called night-sight which helped users to take better low light photos.

Light is one of the main factors in photography, without light there can be no images. In order to get a decent photograph at night or a poorly lit environment, it is essential to have a large camera sensor which can capture multiple photons per pixel allowing more light to pass through in turn taking better photos. It's hard enough as it is for DSLRs let alone a phone to achieve desirable results.

When the shutter button in the Google Camera app in a Pixel is pressed, it captures the most recent 9 or 15 frames to send to its HDR+. According to Google, “As soon as you open the camera app, it begins capturing image frames and storing them in a circular buffer that constantly erases old frames to make room for new ones.”

Google suggests that with this system, they provide “zero-shutter-lag.” With the Night Sight feature, you do not use the most recent frames, you only start to capture a scene when the shutter button is pressed. With Night Sight, you’re using what Google calls positive-shutter-lag (PSL).

Here’s what Night Sight does: 1. Captures 6 to 15 frames 1b. Captures 15 frames if device detects it’s handheld, 1/15 of a second (or less) each 1c. Captures 6 frames if sitting perfectly still, at 1 second each

“Or anything in between” Dependent on the detected situation.

2. Aligns multiple frames 3. Merges multiple frames Does both of these things with HDR+’s merging algorithm on Pixel 1 and 2 or using Super Res Zoom’s merging algorithm on the Pixel 3.* 4. Uses Fast Fourier Color Constancy algorithm to determine most accurate colors 5. Determine ideal light-to-dark tone mapping to make sure the photo doesn’t look like it was captured with full-on daytime lights 6. Present final photo with per-frame exposure time attached.

Attached below are some of the low light samples of the Pixel 3:

Auto mode

Night Sight on

Auto Mode

Night Sight On

Image by Raymond Wong (Mashable)

Shot by Raymond Wong of mashable


Super Res Zoom is for those who want a close-up picture but doesn’t want to compromise pixels. The Google Pixel 3 camera feature will help you keeping zoomed-in pictures much clearer. This also removes the need of using Google Pixel camera zoom.

In Super Res Zoom, Google Pixel 3 clicks a burst of pictures, each pictures taking note of your movement. Afterward, the device runs its algorithms and come up with a zoomed-in shot with minimum compromise on image pixels.

Shot on pixel 2(l) and Shot on pixel 3 with super res zoom (r).

We thus conclude our walk through of smartphone camera advancements in the past decade. We've come a long way from where we began and from the looks of it, this revolution in smartphone photography is not going to stop anytime soon. With more people than ever now owning a smartphone and with even more developers working in the AI research field than ever, it's an exciting time to be a photographer or just be interested in the art form that is,photography.

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