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What will smartphones cameras of the future look like?

If smartphone manufacturers could just add some longer optics, accessory makers wouldn't have to keep coming up with solutions like the iPad Telephoto Lens.

Longer lens

The other component that desperately needs to be updated is the glass itself. Smartphones are currently stuck with fixed lenses, and relegated to digital zoom if you want to blow up the magnification at all. While smart cameras straddle the line, packing both zoom and data connections, we still have yet to see optical zoom on smartphones in any meaningful way.

But if you think about the current trend for larger smartphones (or even slightly bizarre phablets), you can imagine an opportunity to sneak a small zoom lens in there. Think about the size of Sony’s line of TX cameras (and the now defunct T line), both of which feature a very small lens, tucked away in the corner of the body of a camera, but still able to use an optical zoom. Why wouldn’t that work on a smartphone? There are also rumors that Huawei and LG are both working on optical zooms for upcoming handsets, so you can easily imagine them adopting a small zoom lens like that.

Sony and Samsung should both be prime candidates for pushing the boundaries when it comes to smartphone cameras, as both companies are successful manufacturers of both types of device. We have heard a rumor that Sony will be bringing the Cyber-shotdesignation to a smartphone, which implies a greater attention to photography within the mobile space.

Nokia recently announced it was helping fund Pelican Imaging’s 16-lens plenoptic camera system, which should hit smartphones in 2014. This would have each lens only attuned to one color, which is meant to reduce noise levels. It should also record depth information, and allow for focusing after you’ve already snapped the shot (like a Lytro). If the images actually turn out any good remains to be seen.

Taiwanese tech company Polytron Technologies showed off a transparent smartphone concept device earlier this year, but future timing of this technology is not as clear.

Better build

Of course, there’s nothing to say that a future smartphone will even be comprised of the same materials as the one you’re used to. We’ve been hearing a lot of talk about the possibilities of a wraparound display, but it seems like that’s a long way off. Likewise, there’s talk that the next generation of smartphone displays might be comprised of Sapphire rather than Gorilla Glass and its ilk, making for an even stronger scratchproof screen. In general ruggedness appears to be a unique selling point that has been identified by manufacturers for future models. The Sony Xperia Z is the first water- and dustproof high-end cellphone (that doesn't look like a device you'd use in a war zone) and there are rumors about a new line of durable Google/Motorola phones.

Displays are advancing in some rather wonderful and bizarre ways, which might totally change the way we look at, and use a smartphone. While some might already have projectors built in, and mediocre 3D displays, there are hints of a new 3D projected system. Able to be projected onto a millimeter thick piece of glass, it would be a radically different type of display.

While these sort of LCDs might not yet be widespread, one company is already pitching a transparent smartphone — which could potentially make composing your next shot even easier by employing a larger viewfinder. Even more crazy is the fact that basic contact lens displays are due to land next year. It’s not quite up to the point of replacing a smartphone screen, but give it 5-10 years and it might.

Future scenario #4: A different kind of device

Who’s to say that we’ll be using a smartphone as we know it in the future? While the first round of smartwatches haven’t been particularly impressive, they hint at a future where your phone is controlled — and may one day migrate to — your wrist. You can already use them to trigger your camera from a distance, and it’s not hard to imagine a time when they can do a lot more. There are also rumors that Samsung, Microsoft and Apple are working on their own watches, and who knows what photography tools those will come packed with.

Google Glass: Maybe the future is already here.

Perhaps the most radical change on the horizon is one that’s coming at us in the surprisingly near future. Namely, Google Glass. It’s bewildering to imagine, but a select group of beta-testers, so-called "Glass Explorers" are already sporting the high-tech headpieces and are using them to record both stills and video. It might take a while for a set of Google Glass to be seen as less obnoxious than a Bluetooth headset, but in five years? Or 10? Maybe smartphone photography will be a thing of the past, replaced by constantly worn devices.

There’s no avoiding the fact that smartphones have significantly changed the landscape of photography. You can’t go a week without hearing about an Instagram on the front page of a newspaper, or someone shooting a wedding with an iPhone. Tragic events and newsworthy happenings can now be disseminated at speeds faster than traditional media outlets can keep up with, as we all saw in the rush of images that came through Twitter and Instagram after the Boston Marathon bombings.

But will smartphones maintain their position as the affordable, low-end camera of choice for many people? Could a different seismic change in the world of photography emerge in few years? The fact that we still mock people for wearing Bluetooth headsets makes me think that the wearable camera revolution might be a long time coming, despite the wishes of people like Memoto. What’s far more likely is that we’re at a point similar to when digital point-and-shoot cameras first started becoming mainstream in the mid-00s — where solid, incremental updates will come along with some regularity, and slowly but surely increase the image quality of your smartphone.

At the same time, smartphone users in general are itching for new and exciting things. New sizes and form factors are constantly being played with, and for manufacturers, the camera isn’t always at the top of the priority list. Have you ever seen someone shooting a tourist spot with their iPad? It’s not a pretty sight. With users demanding larger screens and thinner bodies, making sufficient room for a big sensor and a high quality lens could be seen as a low priority.

And if that does lead to a stagnation in image quality for the smartphone, maybe something completely different could sweep in and pick up bored users -- doing to smartphone photography what it did to point-and-shoot cameras. But who knows what form it’ll take?

Tim Barribeau is a freelance science and technology writer based in San Francisco. He's been taking photographs since he got an Olympus OM-10 in High School. You can follow him on Twitter (@tbarribeau) or through Google+, and occasionally see him lugging a Mamiya RB67 through Golden Gate Park."


Total comments: 20

Square sensor please. I hate shooting phones in landscape orientation.


small and smart phone camera

Felix E Klee

Scifi: The whole back one big sensor, with micro-lenses on top, plus voodoo signal processing. ;-)

Lars Rehm

the voodoo will be essential here :-)


I think that there are some points everybody here is ignoring. Battery. Its been a real fight to keep smartphones up for more than a day with the constant and growing use of them. More complex lenses, sensors, processing, etc, might kill the battery fastly and I do not need to say the implication of that. Digicams, in the other hand, are not so constant and massively used, being able to last long enough despite all the complexity. Thats the major barrier, I guess.

M Lammerse

Good point, my new smart phone is within 1 to 2 days empty, and i'm not a heavy user.

But fuel cell technology and new and smarter much faster recharging seems to be around the corner.

Edited 40 seconds after posting
1 upvote

There needs to be a Bluetooth Device Profile for cameras so that Cell phones/tablets/etc. can pull photos from Cameras to post on social media, without having to do the whole transfer data first.

I should be able to take a shot on my camera, as a separate device, and process/post photos from that camera using my cell phone.

Right now, there is no instant way to use the images in the camera from your cell phone.

A Bluetooth device profile for a camera would help in that. The phone should be able to receive the catalog of images from the camera, the thumbnails, and on the phone, we should be able to sort/select/process, and then the files should only be transferred from the Camera to the Phone as needed. (maybe via a separate WiFi band from Bluetooth..)

And really, there is no reason high-end DSLRs like the D4 shouldn't be connected as well. Pros actually need the highest-speed connectivity the most, with custom apps, too.


And we don't need a fancy in-phone cameras if we can get the phones to interact with the cameras as easily as they can their internal cameras...

Lars Rehm

there are quite a few cameras that offer this functionality available, and accessories for those that don't. Most Samsung compacts are 'connected' these days for example. CameraMator is a device that goes into your hot-shoe and does the same thing. You transfer images to the phone via WiFi and can then edit and/or post to the web and social networks. Bluetooth is way too slow for that sort of stuff.


As they are inexpensive, several cameras (i.e. lens + sensor combinations) in the same device : why not?

1 upvote

BTW, my tablet already includes 2 cameras (forward and backward) ...

Lars Rehm

So how many more do you want? And what for? :-)


I would be interested at shooting 3 images (wide-angle, normal, tele) at the same time and decide which one(s) I really want afterwards!

This could look like a strange idea or (who know?) an easier way to follow than Nokia hudge sensor or a not yet seen diffraction-free mini-zoom...

1 upvote
By (unknown member) (May 8, 2013)

Yet to see a phone with manual mode for photography

Lars Rehm

There is not much point in offering a manual mode as phones only have one aperture. But there apps that offer some control over shutter speed, check out Camera FV-5 for example.

Doug Pardee

For most kinds of photography, there's no need. The aperture needs to be wide-open to collect enough light; there usually isn't even an adjustable aperture. You can set the ISO and the Exposure Compensation, and the camera sets the shutter speed. On Android, at least, Camera FV-5 lets you select specific slow shutter speeds for long exposures.

Fancy manual-mode photos aren't what today's mobile phone cameras are about. They're mainly about taking snapshots of life moments.

I suspect that variable focal length is much higher on most peoples' priority lists than manual controls are.

1 upvote

"4MP is probably a bit too low for many people"??? Why, because all the other phone makers tell you that you need 13-41?

I would say that for a picture taken with a cellphone, 1MP is low, 2MP is about right and 4MP is too much. Most of these shots will be viewed on a screen (so 1920x1080=2MP is enough), or will be printed 6x4 or 7x5 (and with 2MP you get 270dpi and 216dpi respectively).

I really wonder what use calls for more than 4MP on a cellphone.

Edited 22 seconds after posting

Reply to anthonyGR - you are forgetting that each pixel of 1920x1080 includes the 3 primary colours so it is more like 6MP.


It looks like most people aren't interested in the differences between pixels, screen subpixels, sensor photosites and Bayer filter pattern...

Believing in the numbers (the larger the better) is easier and as far as I know no phone camera test is showing the difference between 'full size' results and images resulting from a reduction using an adequate interpolation.

Another way to ask the same question is: are phone camera lenses good enough for a 12 millions pixels sensor?

Edited 4 minutes after posting

I'm assuming that the specs are in resulting pixels, not in photosites, so when they say 4MP, you get 4MP of full color, no matter how many actual photosites the phone needed to create that.

I couldn't agree more with you. I think there is a simple test. Take a picture of something with lines and start downscaling the picture using a Lanczos, or Catrom interpolation filter until you can count less lines than in the original picture. The smallest picture where you can count the max number of lines tells your what your real resolution is.

Total comments: 20
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