Despite sports-brand lenses and optics, smartphones still need the X-factor for mobile photography


It’s no secret that smartphones can take such great photos that dedicated cameras are now being pushed aside. As they get better, can the best handhelds do the job of a much bulkier shooter, even a DSLR?

If you asked Terushi Shimizu, he would say yes. In a report on Nikkei Japanthe general manager of Sony Semiconductor Solution is confident enough to say that still images taken on smartphones will exceed the image quality you get on SLR cameras in the next few years.

He surely knows a thing or two about digital photography, since his company manufactures the imaging sensors used in both cameras and smartphones. Customers include Nikon, Panasonic, Samsung, Xiaomi and Huawei.

Smartphone photography has certainly come a long way in over two decades. Today, it’s inconceivable that a cell phone can’t also take great pictures.

Things were a little different in May 1999, when Kyocera introduced the first commercially available phone with a camera. The Japanese company’s image quality was nothing to sneeze at, but its new gadget was a significant development for mobile imaging.

Yet no one could have imagined then that smartphones would have become everyone’s go-to imaging tool, replacing more capable compact cameras and bulkier mirrorless and DSLR models.

Another milestone in mobile photography came when Chinese smartphone maker Huawei teamed up with German high-end camera maker Leica. Their first major product was the P9 smartphone, launched in November 2016.

The smartphone came with the first mobile camera system that has a color sensor and a monochrome sensor. This improved the image quality of the smartphone camera by improving detail using the monochrome sensor.

The P9’s processor used computer imaging to merge data from these two camera sensors to create image files. These files have been further enhanced by applying post-processing and color correction techniques used by professional photographers.

Although successful, the partnership between Huawei and Leica also showed that smartphone manufacturers lacked the know-how required to improve the images of their devices. This involves using the correct camera settings applied on the hardware and adjusting the color balance to achieve aesthetically pleasing images, which is the domain of camera manufacturers.

Just look at images taken with smartphone cameras of the past, which are typically unsharp, blurry in low-light situations, and more often than not, having oversaturated colors with poor skin tones. Some budget phones today still offer this kind of image quality.

The Huawei P9 certainly raised expectations just a few years ago. For the first time, images that camera systems with large sensors cannot capture are now possible with a smartphone pocket camera. Imagine photographing the night sky and the Milky Way with a tripod and the phone in your pocket.

The Leica partnership gave Huawei that crucial competitive edge, garnering positive reviews for its P-series and Mate series phones until it couldn’t offer Google services due to US government restrictions. .

Huawei’s collaboration showed other smartphone makers that they could leverage camera makers’ imaging expertise to make their smartphones competitive.

Smartphones with three or more cameras are now more common, including the recently launched Vivo X80 Pro. What catches the eye is the logo of the famous Swiss lens manufacturer Zeiss affixed to the phone’s camera bump.

Even Xiaomi is joining the fray as it entered a new seven-year period partnership with Leicahoping to achieve the same success that Huawei had with its previous flagship phones.

However, simply ditching famous brands is also not a surefire way to success. Zeiss’ involvement in Sony Xperia smartphones, for example, hasn’t lifted the Japanese company in the same way.

Even pairing a great lens design with a smartphone isn’t always enough. A successful partnership depends on how companies work together to use computer imaging techniques to improve image quality.

Applying good color science to images and videos is also another vital factor needed to gain wider consumer acceptance and market share.

The ability to capture accurate skin tones, night scenes, and challenging indoor shots illuminated by artificial lighting becomes critical as competition intensifies in the smartphone market.

Sometimes branding matters too. Xiaomi needs to look at how its flagship smartphones are perceived in the mainstream market, for example.

It can be strong in budget and mid-range smartphones, but flagship phones require a level of ruggedness that Xiaomi is not famous for. The smartphone, after all, is not just a camera.

Will Xiaomi succeed where Huawei did before? The previous successful collaboration certainly got users excited for the first Xiaomi-Leica phone in July. It would be a surprise if it didn’t push the envelope further, closing the gap even further with standalone cameras.


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