It’s no secret that the smartphone is decimating stand-alone digital camera sales. Annual sales have dropped by half over the last two years, and only the compact mirrorless system camera segment has shown any growth potential.
Initially, the smartphone lure was the photo-sharing immediacy inherent in a mobile device’s wireless connectivity, with consumers rationalizing or not caring about the lack of image quality. When consumers wanted higher quality photos for special events, they retreated to their digital still camera (DSC).
But as smartphones have added resolution, processing power and HD video recording, along with heretofore DSC-exclusive features such as face recognition, burst mode and slow-motion video, consumers have fewer reasons to seek out a DSC.
What exactly are smartphone makers adding to their devices to bridge the DSC quality chasm?
Even though resolution has ceased to be an important quality metric, smartphone vendors continue to flaunt ever-higher pixel counts for one reason: digital zoom.
Leading the smartphone resolution charge is Nokia, thanks to its PureView technology. First unveiled in 2012 via the 41 megapixel PureView camera in its Lumia 808, Nokia lowered the resolution to 20MP on the Lumia 920 but boosted it back to 41MP on the Lumia 1020. Earlier this year, however, they lowered it again to 20MP with the 6-inch Lumia 1520 phablet and its smaller sibling, the Lumia 1320. Only the Sony Xperia Z2 offers as high as 20.7MP resolution in a standard smartphone. But Lumia records only a 5MP image on the phone; the full PureView resolution image is accessible only when the phone is connected to a PC.
Megapixels are important to smartphones because no model with standard pinhole optics offers optical zoom. A smartphone doesn’t really “zoom”; it merely carves out and blows up an area of the full resolution image—sort of like fancy cropping. Ergo, the more resolution a smartphone delivers overall, the higher resolution the zoom result will be.
Optical Zoom/Image Stabilization
One way a smartphone maker can add optical zoom is by welding on an actual DSC camera lens assembly. The problem is, an actual lens adds girth and mass to a device prized for slimness and lightness.
This month, Samsung announced its LTE Galaxy K zoom (“kleverly,” “K” is for “kamera”), an update of last year’s Galaxy S zoom smartphone. Equipped with Samsung’s hexa-core 1.3 GHz quad core/1.7 GHz quad core Exynos processor, the K improves on its predecessor by bumping the resolution up to 20.7 from 16MP. More importantly, it insets an even slimmer 24mm, 10x optical zoom lens assembly to be more flush with the rest of the Android KitKat-powered smartphone than its predecessor. The K also lets you pinch-to-zoom, just like on a normal smartphone camera.
But not even Samsung is confident of the K’s market acceptance. After all, it’s still a chubby 16.6mm thick and weighs 200 grams. By comparison, Samsung’s latest Galaxy S5 is 8.1mm thin and 145 grams. Plus, the K was quietly announced in Singapore and will start shipping to a limited number of mostly Asian markets this summer, and there is no word on when, or if, it will reach U.S. retailers.
Meanwhile, Chinese phone maker BBK is rumored to be attempting a slightly different smartphone/camera smashup on its next Vivo-branded phablet. It will place a top-mounted, rotating 20MP f/2.0 Nikon-made module with a 1/1.7-inch sensor and the camera maker’s Expeed E1-158 1051 200 M processor (a modified version of the chip used in its 2011 mirrorless cameras). Stories about this Vivo/Nikon combo appeared last fall, but no updates have emerged.
A small but growing number of smartphones, such as the Nokia Lumia 1520, the LG-made Google Nexus 5 and LG’s own G3 have managed to build in optical image stabilization, but these seem to be more exceptions than the rule.
Nearly every technology that smartphone makers add to their cameras is designed to further one goal: improve low-light results. These include Xenon flashes, backside illuminated (BSI) sensors, larger sensors and/or larger sensor pixels and wide aperture lenses.
In terms of flash, Apple, LG and Nokia have added a second flash to their latest wares to even out an image’s color temperature that’s over-influenced by available light or light from the first flash. Other smartphone dual flashes either assist autofocus or provide light for video. And, as anyone who’s dropped something in a dark movie theater knows, a smartphone video light doubles as a handy flashlight.
Another digital camera/smartphone gap beginning to close is sensor and sensor pixel size. Apple, for instance, sensibly chose not to increase the 8MP resolution of its iPhone 5s iSight camera but made its Sony-made 1/3-inch sensor 15% larger to increase light sensitivity by a third.
Samsung’s Galaxy S5’s image sensor got a bit bigger—1/2.6 inch—than its predecessor, while Nokia’s Lumia 1520 sports an even larger 1/2.5-inch sensor, matching the chip on some low-end point & shoot DSCs. The Sony Xperia Z2 (and Z1) and Samsung Galaxy K zoom get even larger with 1/2.3-inch sensors.
A more expansive sensor enables other capabilities. The Lumia 1520, for example, is the first smartphone—but likely not the last—to capture RAW images (Adobe’s DNG format, to be specific).
In the past few years, and despite tiny pinhole lenses, smartphone makers have widened the aperture beyond f/2.0 on their top-line models. Apple’s iPhone 5s, arguably the best overall pinhole smartphone camera, now sports an f/2.2 aperture as part of its new five-element lens to further enhance its low-light performance.
Nokia’s Lumia 1520 offers the widest smartphone aperture, f/2.4, sans a real lens assembly. But the Lumia also incorporates a larger lens assembly than most pinhole smartphones.
DSC makers who also make smartphones, such as Samsung and Sony, as well as smartphone-only vendors like Apple and HTC, are increasingly programming their powerful processors to improve image quality. For instance, the image signal processor (ISP) inside Apple’s own A7 CPU can perform multi-zone metering and local tonal mapping to improve lighting and contrast in different segments of a captured scene.
But these advanced processors, when combined with the mobile operating systems, give smartphones a huge leg up on DSCs—apps.
Nokia includes several preloaded “lens” apps with its Lumia Camera app suite, such as Pro Camera, which lets the user fine-tune settings as on a DSLR, and Cinemagraph, which lets them animate one aspect of a photo.
In HTC’s One series of smartphones, the Zoe mode can capture three-second video clips that can be edited together in-phone with a music soundtrack to create a highlight reel.
Then there are the hundreds of third-party photo apps available to consumers for iOS, Android and Windows Phone that perform a variety of artistic and playful editing and sharing tricks impossible on most DSCs.
The camera on a smartphone is severely handicapped by it pinhole optics, which severely limits creative depth-of-field bokeh effects. HTC, Samsung and Nokia compensate for this lack of depth of field by introducing their own Lytro-like post-snapshot focusing and background blurring.
HTC’s One M8 accomplishes its post-photo hocus-pocus focus via “duo camera,” a second imager on the rear of the smartphone that adds several layers of focus depth. HTC’s UFocus then lets users decide what areas of a photo to keep in focus and which to blur.
Samsung’s Galaxy S5 and Nokia’s Lumia 1520 both perform similar Lytro-like post-photo focus futzing. The Galaxy S5 uses its selective focus feature, which gives users three focusing choices (near focus, far focus and pan focus); the Lumia 1520 employs its Refocus “lens” app, which lets a viewer click on a photo to cycle through foreground focus, background focus or all focus, even when the photo is posted online.
From a pure focusing POV, the new LG G3 adds laser focusing, a first for smartphones and a function often available only on DSLRs. Laser autofocus lets the G3 fire off a shot in an eyeblink-like .276 second.
Oxford named “selfie” the word of the year for 2013, and Merriam-Webster added the word to its dictionary earlier this month. While lexicographers have acknowledged this pervasive photographic phenomena, most DSC makers have not.
A handful of DSCs—such as the Canon PowerShot N100 and Samsung NX mini—fulfill a user’s desire for self-portraiture, but selfies remain the province of smartphones. Most top-flight smartphones now offer 2MP+ front cameras, while HTC lets snappers insert a PIP selfie into photos shot with the main camera.
Despite the smartphone’s obvious instant-share appeal, shockingly, only 13% of digital cameras include Wi-Fi capabilities, according to research company GfK. True, that number is rising constantly, and we estimate more than half of current point & shoots from the major vendors now include Wi-Fi. But putting Wi-Fi on a DSC has been problematical.
One issue has been creating an intuitive interface. Both Samsung, with its updated Galaxy Camera 2, and Nikon, with its Coolpix S800c and the updated S810c, have produced DSCs running the Android operating system, which helps consumers connect. But most DSC makers lack interface expertise.
However, while Samsung and other camera makers continue to improve the connectivity experience for their DSC users, with awkward interfaces it becomes difficult for consumers to locate available networks. And inputting passwords on small alphanumeric keyboards on relatively small displays, even touch screens, is also challenging. The DSC’s Wi-Fi problems could be solved by the new Passpoint Wi-Fi standard, which will create automatic and secure Wi-Fi connections. But full Passpoint rollout isn’t expected until the end of 2015, hardly soon enough to slow the continued decimation of lower end DSC sales.