The camera has become a crucial battleground for smartphone makers. This is mainly due to people’s craze for taking photos of everything happening around them and sharing them on social media and instant messaging platforms. However, low light and zoom have been two areas where most smartphones have disappointed users. Suppose a mother wants to take a photo of her sleeping baby without switching on the light and waking her up. Suppose somebody wants to take photos of a bird a few kilometres away. In most cases, the results in such scenarios are either dark or blurred images.
Smartphone makers, as they confess, have always faced three issues when it comes to cameras — low light capturing, fixing the focal lines and mounting the camera on the smartphone without affecting the device’s design. Google Pixel 3, iPhone XS Max, Galaxy S10 and some other cameras have addressed this issue more or less satisfactorily.
However, smartphone makers’ attempts to “rewrite the rules of photography” have reached an interesting point after Huawei released its P30 series which deploys a SuperZoom lens, a SuperSpectrum sensor, a new Time of Flight (ToF) camera and better optical image stabilisation (OIS) and artificial image stabilisation (AIS) technologies. SuperZoom supports high fidelity magnification up to 5X optical zoom, 10X hybrid zoom and 50X digital zoom, which it achieves through a periscope design.
Phones in the series are equipped with a new Leica Quad Camera System, which includes a 40 megapixel (MP) main camera with the SuperSpectrum Sensor, a 20MP ultra-wide angle camera, an 8MP telephoto camera and the ToF camera besides a 32MP front camera for taking selfies.
Huawei has tucked the periscope camera sideways inside the phone’s body without affecting the design. A prism element in the telephoto camera bounces light at a 90-degree angle to maximise focal length. The prism bounces light into the interior of the phone through a longer optical pathway that ends in a sensor. The RYYB SuperSpectrum sensor in the phone is different from the traditional RGGB Bayer filter as it has yellow pixels — instead of green pixels — yielding a high maximum ISO rating of 409,600 on the P30 Pro. This fundamental shift in sensor technology, combined with AIS, OIS and P30 Pro’s f/1.6 wide aperture, delivers high quality photos and videos in different lighting conditions—including extreme low light.
Photos taken with these smartphones have given good results, and it’s time for other companies to rise up to the competition. Ben Wood, a mobile and wireless industry analyst with CCS Insight, said the camera plays a key role as smartphone makers try to differentiate their similar looking phones. “Huawei has certainly raised the bar, particularly with its 5X optical zoom which is a strong differentiator. Cameras will be an area where smartphone makers will work hard to gain a competitive advantage,” Wood told TOI.
It is too early to say how other smartphone manufacturers are going to face the challenge raised by Huawei. But some upcoming phones like Google Pixel 4 and Samsung Galaxy Note 10 are expected to come up with even better solutions about photography and videography.
Does it mean that smartphone cameras will soon make digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) or standalone cameras obsolete? Shipment of digital cameras by the members of the Camera and Imaging Products Association peaked in 2010 at 121.5 million units. Since then, CIPA has been reporting a drop in sales as the use of smartphone cameras and the quality of the photos and videos taken with them increased. In 2018, the association members shipped only 19.4 million units of digital cameras.
Wood doesn’t think DSLRs will be obsolete. “There will continue to be a role for smartphones and DSLR cameras. Professional photographers will continue to want very high quality pictures which require dedicated camera equipment. However, for mass market consumers, there is increasingly little reason to still have a DSLR camera if you own a high-end smartphone,” he added.