The future is bright: technology trends in mobile photography

Smartphones have long overtaken the trusted digital compact camera as the most popular imaging device among consumers. So it's no surprise that for some time now the mobile industry has been a major driving force of innovation in imaging. 2016 is slowly yet surely coming to an end, and has been a fruitful year in terms of innovation in mobile imaging. What better time to look back at the most important technology trends that have emerged over the past few months?

Multi-lens-cameras

Dual-cameras have been around for some time now, but this year we've seen the introduction of two new types of this camera category with real potential to have a lasting impact on mobile imaging. The dual-camera modules in the Huawei P9 and Honor 8 capture images on a color and a monochrome sensor at the same time. Thanks to the lack of a color array filter, the latter can record better detail, higher contrast and a wider dynamic range than its color counterpart. After capture, the image information from both sensors is combined, resulting in better overall image quality than on a conventional camera.

 The dual-cam in the Huawei P9 combines images from color and monochrome sensors.

Both the LG G5 and Apple's new iPhone 7 Plus use dual-cameras for optical zooming. However, there is an important difference. On the LG the standard wide-angle lens is accompanied by a super-wide-angle. The Apple’s secondary lens offers an equivalent of 56mm, double that of the 28mm standard lens.

 Apple's iPhone 7 Plus uses a dual-camera setup for digital zooming.

Lack of optical zoom is one of the key limitations of conventional smartphone cameras. The digital zoom functions implemented in most smartphones lead to a deterioration of image quality and can't really be considered an alternative. This is why the solutions from LG and Apple represent a real step forward that can help expand the creative potential of smartphone photography. The concept of dual-cameras is still in its infancy and it’s probably only a question of time before we’ll see smartphones with more than two camera/lens combinations – the very approach that the the Light L16 camera development team is taking.

Raw-capture on smartphone cameras

Raw-capture on smartphones is not a totally new topic either. It was first introduced to the high-end models in Nokia's Lumia line and came to Android devices with version 5.0 of the Google OS, which was introduced in 2014. Since then many high-end devices from Samsung, Huawei, LG and other manufacturers have supported the feature. However, with the introduction of the seventh iPhone generation and iOS 10, Raw capture is now finally available on the other major mobile platform, iOS, massively expanding its potential user base. 

 The Huawei P9's DNG files can be edited in Adobe Camera Raw or other Raw converters.

The advantages of the Raw file format are the same on a smartphone camera as they are on a DSLR or mirrorless system camera. Instead of leaving the conversion of the captured image data to the algorithms of the camera’s JPEG-engine, the photographer can adjust many image parameters after capture, without any loss of image quality, by processing manually in a Raw-converter such as Adobe Camera Raw, Lightroom or Capture One.

With the small image sensors in smartphone cameras digital exposure compensation can only be applied within narrow limits, but white balance, sharpness, contrast, noise reduction and many other parameters can all be modified. Especially in difficult lighting situations shooting Raw can be a lifesaver. However, it can also help achieve more natural image results when the camera’s default settings produce too vibrant images, as is often the case with smartphone cameras, or to create different versions of the same image – for example one for large-scale printing and one for viewing on the web.

There is no doubt that the conversion of Raw image files can improve the quality of an image, or at least adjust it for specific requirements. However, the crucial question is if this all makes sense on a smartphone. Here, opinions are mixed. On one hand it can be argued that photographers who are willing to put time and effort into Raw conversion would typically shoot with their DSLR or system camera to start with. On the other hand, you never know when you encounter a great photo opportunity. If the only camera you've got is the smartphone in your pocket, Raw conversion can make the difference between a good and a great image.

Modular solutions

For many users an elegant and thin smartphone body is an important buying criterion. Unfortunately those characteristics stand in direct contrast to camera performance. Larger sensors offer lower noise levels and better dynamic range. Bigger lenses provide for brighter apertures or offer zoom capability. A powerful xenon flash also requires space. One of the solutions to this dilemma is a modular approach: for general everyday day use you carry the slim smartphone in the pocket. When better image quality and camera features are required, for example while visiting an event or when traveling, an external camera module is attached to the smartphone.

Previous approaches, for example Sony’s QX-models or the Kodak Pixpro SL modules, which are compatible with most smartphones and connect to the device via Wi-Fi, were unfortunately cumbersome to operate. Connection to the smartphone was often slow and occasionally unstable, leading to laggy image transmission and operation.

However, this year Lenovo has revived the camera module concept by introducing the Hasselblad True Zoom. The TrueZoom is so far only compatible with the smartphones of Lenovo’s Moto Z series but, on the upside, attaching and operating the device work much more seamlessly than anything else we’ve seen before. The TrueZoom attaches to the smartphone magnetically and, with a 10x zoom lens and xenon flash, instantly transforms it into a connected travel zoom camera, without any rebooting or other configuration steps.

The Hasselblad True Zoom camera module attaches magnetically to smartphones of the Lenovo Moto Z series.

The fact that the True Zoom is only compatible with a handful of phones won’t contribute to a wide distribution of the device. However, it is showing what is currently technologically feasible in terms of smartphones and external modules working together. Things could get even more interesting if market leaders Apple or Samsung show an interest in camera modules and make them popular with the masses.

Algorithms trump hardware

As mentioned above, your standard smartphone doesn't provide enough space for large image sensors, zoom lenses or powerful flash units. However, mobile devices have one definite advantage over conventional cameras: computing power.

Thanks to powerful chipsets modern smartphone cameras can record and digitally merge several image frames in a split-second. This process, called image stacking, captures more image information than a single frame. The resulting JPEG files show better detail, lower noise levels and a wider dynamic range than standard exposures. In very dark scenes this method can also achieve a brighter exposure than conventional capture. In addition, camera shake and blur in low light are less of an issue, as the individual frames of the image stack can use faster shutter speeds than a single standard exposure.

 The HDR+ mode in the Google Camera app uses frame stacking for improved image results.

Apple offers such high dynamic range and night modes in its iPhone cameras and Google has implemented them into the HDR+ function of its Google Camera app, which is also used as the stock camera app on the new Pixel and Pixel XL phones. Again, development of such technologies is still in relatively early stages. Over the coming years more powerful processor hardware and better algorithms will likely further improve smartphone image quality, without a need for larger sensors or faster lenses.

Outlook

It’s probably fair to say that in the conventional digital camera sector the rate of innovation has noticeably slowed down over the last few years. In contrast, many of the new concepts that are currently being applied in mobile imaging are still in their infancy. It remains to be seen which ones will be here to stay and which ones will be forgotten in the nearer future. However, there's no doubt that mobile photographers have a lot to look forward to.