Modern smartphones are essentially pocket-sized mini-computers, capable of dealing with many tasks that not very long ago would have been processed on desktop or laptop computers. The camera module is just one component of many, but more and more consumers are carefully considering camera performance in their buying decision.

Manufacturers have been well aware for quite some time and are investing heavily to make sure the cameras on their devices can compete with the best. The device division of mobile communication pioneer Motorola for example, which was taken over by Chinese PC makers Lenovo in 2014, first assembled a dedicated camera and imaging team in 2013 when it was still part of Google.

Since then the brand has launched a number of new devices in its Moto range with a clear focus on imaging performance and features. Most recently the Moto G Plus and the Moto Z and Moto Z Force were the first new models to be officially launched under the Lenovo name. In our first impressions review we were pleasantly surprised by the image output of the mid-range Moto G Plus. Both high-end models, the Moto Z and its sister model Moto Z Force, come with advanced smartphone camera features such as optical image stabilization, on-sensor phase detection autofocus and manual control.

Val Marchevsky and Kathy Mahoney in the Motorola image testing lab Peter Matsimanis

We had a chance to speak to some key members of the Motorola imaging team – Kathy Mahoney, Senior Director of Imaging Experiences at Motorola, Val Marchevsky, Senior Director of Engineering - Head of Camera Team, and Peter Matsimanis, Senior Development Manager Imaging – to find out more about the company's approach to imaging and camera development. Read on to find out what they had to tell us.

How would you describe Motorola's strengths and weaknesses in the area of smartphone imaging?

Peter, Val: One of our core strengths is our dedicated camera and imaging team. Motorola has rapidly enhanced our imaging expertise over the past few years thanks to our internal team which has grown to include software and hardware engineers with diverse backgrounds (color science, optics, computer vision and beyond), in addition to external camera/imaging veterans. This team has reimagined the company’s approach and attitude toward camera technologies, ultimately delivering some of Motorola’s best imaging solutions to date, including our very own intellectual property, like Temporal Frame Stacking and PDAF (phase detect autofocus), which continues to drive major improvements and stands out within the industry.

As for a weakness, I’d say not forming this non-traditional team sooner! Since building our team in 2013, we’ve re-emerged as an industry leader and key player. A lot has changed – for the better – and we look forward to continuing to create industry leading technology that delivers on consumers’ demands for more affordable, thinner smartphones and faster, higher quality cameras.

Is there any knowledge exchange happening between the imaging team at Lenovo/Motorola and the manufacturers of "traditional" cameras?

Peter, Val: In recent years, we’ve added top imaging talent to our team from traditional camera manufacturers like Kodak and HP. We also work closely with suppliers that have great knowledge of traditional cameras, as well as being ODMs for those traditional camera manufacturers. We have also been able to transfer a significant number of top engineering talent from within Motorola to our imaging team, in order to capitalize on their system integration expertise and to also provide cutting edge solutions to enhance the user experience.

Leveraging 80+ years of embedded systems development, we’ve designed cameras that are truly best-in-class. Our plan for the future is to create common imaging experiences across all our products that will universally delight consumers around the world.

What are consumers most looking for in terms of image quality and how is Motorola currently meeting these needs and/or innovating behind them for the future?

Kathy, Peter, Val: Consumers are looking for great image quality in all conditions - low light, bright light, landscapes, selfies, sporting events and more. At Motorola, we’re constantly evaluating imaging solutions to identify those that will deliver under all of these conditions and ultimately provide consumers with a higher quality experience that enhances the memories captured with their smartphone cameras. This includes improving image detail, color accuracy and white balance for all of our devices.

What camera and imaging features are most important to consumers? And how is Motorola working to improve these features in future devices?

Kathy: We feel what consumers are looking for and what’s important to them go hand-in-hand. Ultimately, what most people really want - and deserve - is a camera that automatically delivers amazing photos and videos that capture the full essence of their experience. We’re focused on continuing to develop enhanced hardware and intelligent algorithms that deliver unbelievable quality and simplicity, but also enable creative freedom.

In which areas can we expect smartphone cameras to make the biggest improvements in the short and long term?

Peter, Val: In the short term, we’ll see strides towards improved performance to deliver bright, detail-rich, noise-free photos and videos in low light environments. Many smartphones on the market take low light pictures that are bright, but lack detail due to over-cleaning. We know that to achieve high-quality low light performance, you need to capture more light with bigger pixels and faster apertures. We see this trend continuing. We also expect to see this capability across all price tiers, and we feel Moto G Plus is paving the way.

In the longer term, at Motorola, we continue to address areas of concern for hardware with lasers, better lenses and lower megapixels with large pixels to enhance low light image quality. We also continue to home in on smart camera experiences, utilizing computer vision and artificial intelligence to provide users the best image, as fast as possible.

Intelligent software not only maximizes the capabilities of hardware, but also leverages the depth of information available from the device. By using device sensors to detect the environment (light, motion, location, etc.), the software is able to deliver better quality images and richer experiences. It turns your camera into an access point for instant information that can help quickly analyze and identify your surroundings.

The Moto 4G offers impressive camera specs for a mid-range device, including a 1/2.4" sensor and an AF system that uses both on-chip phase detection and a laser to measure subject distance.

The Moto G Plus is, in most respects, a mid-range device, but comes with a high-end camera specification. What was the decision process behind this design and specification?

Kathy: Consumers depend on great imaging performance each and every day for all of their communication needs, and it was a priority for us when designing Moto G Plus to offer excellent camera systems. Moto G Plus has a 16MP camera, fast apertures, laser and PDAF focus technologies and a wide-angle front camera lens, rivaling some of the best premium smartphone cameras on the market. Putting this technology in the hands of a diverse global consumer audience is a unique opportunity, and we find it particularly rewarding to help them capture life’s most important moments.

The Moto G Plus comes with three focus methods: contrast detect, phase detection and laser. How difficult is it to combine those and what are the benefits of this combination?

Peter, Val: Moto G Plus has an extremely responsive focus system that delivers crystal-clear photography under all conditions; low light to bright light, subjects close-by and distant landscapes. To do this effectively requires multiple focus technologies and the real-time intelligence to know which is best for current conditions. Picking just one or two is simply not good enough. Our philosophy is to maximize output from each focus system and use modern computational methods to calculate the ideal lens position.

Phase Detect Autofocus does a great job quickly finding focus in bright light settings and when the object of interest is farther away, like in landscapes and at sporting events. Laser focus, sometimes referred to as “time-of-flight,” picks up in low light environments and when subjects are close-by, like restaurants and nightclubs. Contrast focus augments each of these technologies to ensure precise focus across a range of light and subjects.

Getting all three to work synergistically is not an easy task, which is why most competitors pick either PDAF or laser (not both), and then augment with contrast. We believe every picture can and should be the best it can, which is why we’ve included all three technologies in Moto G Plus. We’ve also invested in a tremendous amount of simulation tools, deep learning and advanced statistic engines to ensure Moto G Plus covers the endless range of photos and videos consumers want to capture. We will continue to drive advancements in these multi-focus technologies to advance the speed and accuracy of Moto smartphone cameras going forward.

Are manual camera controls, like the Professional mode on Moto G Plus, a niche feature or something that more users will be expecting in a device in the future?

Kathy: Consumer needs are extremely diverse, especially on a global scale. Most people simply want a great camera - just point and shoot in any condition, but there are others who are more avid photographers and want more out of their mobile imaging experience. We’ve heard from this particular group of photographic aficionados through blogs, the Google Play store, and even directly, that they want features like the professional mode on Moto G Plus that provides greater control and options to create a specific look without a point-and-shoot or DSLR. We’re making great progress towards addressing even more of these needs, and are providing a wider variety of options for more amateur photographers as well to capture every moment exactly how they want to capture it.

The latest generation of Moto devices, including the Moto Z pictured above and the Moto G Plus, all feature manual control over essential shooting parameters, such as shutter speed, ISO and white balance.

Kathy, you have many years of experience at digital imaging pioneers Kodak. How have you leveraged your past experience in your current role at Motorola?

Kathy: I was fortunate enough to be a part of the start of digital imaging with Kodak, working alongside many talented and intelligent imaging engineers. That experience gave me a solid foundation of understanding around what it takes to deliver truly high-quality imaging systems.

Fundamentally, delivering great imaging is so much more than 'counting megapixels.' Cameras are complex and require many technologies to deliver great photography. For example, strong low-light performance demands systems that can capture more light, including big pixels and fast apertures, while attaining fast accurate focus requires multiple focus technologies and the smarts to know which one to use under the current conditions.

My past experiences also helped me realize how important photography really is to consumers’ daily lives, as well as the impact (and consequences) of poor quality. Imaging is how we communicate, relive and memorize our life experiences. I am passionate about ensuring Motorola’s camera technology continues to deliver amazing experiences that consumers can count on to be there when they need it.

What lessons have you learned throughout your career in imaging and photography? What words of wisdom would you give to someone just starting in the field?

Kathy: Throughout my career I have learned how important it is to follow your dreams and choose opportunities that you are passionate about. With passion, you’ll always achieve incredible results. Having worked on some of the first commercial digital cameras, the first photo kiosk, digital minilabs, thermal printers, retail printing systems and online photo services, I have spent my career helping people capture, share and relive their lives.