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This image was clicked in Baja California, Mexico, by Delhi-based independent photographer Nishant Verma on an Apple iPhone 7 Plus.
This image was clicked in Baja California, Mexico, by Delhi-based independent photographer Nishant Verma on an Apple iPhone 7 Plus.

Smartphone cameras mean serious business

With smartphone cameras now better than ever before, even professional photographers are giving their DSLRs a rest

Photography is the story I fail to put into words," are the words of award-winning Australian photographer Destin Sparks. And photography has become a form of expression available to almost anyone who uses a smartphone.

Not surprising then that popular photography sharing and storage website Flickr’s round-up for 2017 suggests that the most popular photography devices are smartphones, accounting for as many as 50% of all images uploaded. DSLR cameras accounted for 33%, point-and-shoot cameras for 12%, and compact mirrorless cameras for 4%.

Even professional photographers are becoming increasingly reliant on smartphones. “A phone is lightweight, compact and easy to use anywhere. Specially travel photography has evolved with these new-age smartphone cameras. I have stopped carrying my DSLR every day, which I used to for street photography," says Delhi-based independent photographer Nishant Verma, who also uses an Apple iPhone 7 Plus. Though Verma still trusts a DSLR for professional shoots since he cannot compromise on the “faster processing of a DSLR and faster shutter speed", he does mention the advantages of using the iPhone—the size is compact, you don’t have to transfer photographs to another device for editing, and the image filters are easy to use.

Under the hood

Over the past few years, cameras in smartphones have improved significantly. While one would have expected the physical limitations of sensor size and the dimensions of the optics, dictated by the phone’s overall footprint, to play a role, they don’t. Conventional wisdom suggests that no matter which camera you’re using, the bigger the image sensor, the better the image. That is because a larger-sized sensor will be able to let in more light, and thus capture more detail, have wider dynamic range (the detailing in the dark areas of a photograph) and recreate better detailing even when the ambient lighting may be low.

You may then assume that smartphone cameras would struggle. However, the phones compensate with better image processing, smarter algorithms in the background, and even experiment with aperture size. “I do find myself increasingly using my phone to capture shots which can be instantly shared with my followers on social media sites. This is down to the ever-improving sensors, optical and processing capabilities of mobile phones," says British photographer Matthew Hampshire, who has a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge smartphone.

Compare this to using a DSLR camera, where you would have to spend hours trying to transfer photographs from the camera to a PC and then spend time on Photoshop trying to get the edits right. A phone with a great camera, coupled with equally powerful editing apps such as Adobe Photoshop Lightroom (Android and iOS), is an all-in-one package.

The Apple iPhone X is widely regarded as one of the best smartphone cameras at present. The dual camera set-up includes one 12-megapixel wide-angle camera with an f/1.8 aperture and a 12-megapixel telephoto lens, which now has a wider aperture of f/2.4, instead of the f/2.8 in the iPhone 7 Plus camera—the lower the aperture number, the wider the opening. But the difference is the new image signal processor, which works in the background to ensure that colours are picked out correctly, any disturbance or distortion is removed, and aspects such as contrast and detailing are ticked off.

A smartphone camera that gives the iPhone X competition is the Google Pixel 2 XL. The Pixel has a single 12.2-megapixel camera, with an f/1.8 aperture, and relies heavily on machine learning to bring out the vibrancy and details in your images. The camera has a feature called HDR+, which clicks 10 images of the subject when you capture a photograph, and then uses Artificial Intelligence to stitch them together into one photograph, to define the ideal exposure and get the best dynamic range.

Google trained these algorithms on more than a million photographs. “The Pixel 2 camera is powered by our computational photography and machine-learning (ML) capabilities, which make all these great features easy, fun and fast for you to use," says Mario Queiroz, vice-president and general manager, Pixel Team, Google. Another big factor is the Pixel Visual Core chip in the Pixel 2 XL, which makes HDR photograph processing better as well as faster, and is now available on third-party apps such as Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat.

Getting better

In its Galaxy S9+ camera, Samsung’s dual 12-megapixel sensors are backed by a unique dual-aperture system (f/1.5 and f/2.4), so the camera automatically detects the ambient light and switches between the two apertures. Samsung says it visualized the human eye when designing this feature. The Galaxy S9 also has multi-frame noise-reduction technology which captures 12 quick photographs and then combines them into one—Samsung suggests that this reduces distortion by 30%, compared with the Galaxy Note 8.

Is the genuine brilliance of smartphone cameras bad news for certain camera categories? According to a January report by the firm Research and Markets, the global digital camera market is expected to be valued at $5.4 billion (around Rs36,000 crore now) by 2022, a 4.8% decline from the $7.3 billion valuation in 2016. “The global digital camera market is negatively influenced by the availability of superior camera functions on smartphones. With the launch of every smartphone, the camera functions are consistently getting better, sidelining the need to own digital cameras," says the report.

Camera giants may now be looking towards the smartphone space too, but they are still in the wait-and-watch phase of the strategy. Hasselblad, for instance, has a camera accessory for certain Motorola phones. However, the company insists that it was a project to celebrate the iconic camera’s 75th birthday. “This is not a segment we entered to necessarily stay in," according to a Hasselblad spokesperson.

Certain camera categories, however, are under threat from smartphones. “Technology is ever-evolving. I somehow see some of the camera technologies going obsolete soon. For example, if a waterproof smart cameraphone comes into the market, brands like GoPro will find it hard to survive," says Verma.

Safe to say, your phone has a more capable camera than you perhaps ever imagined.

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