The next smartphone camera revolution has begun: Killing the compact camera?

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The debate over “smartphone versus dedicated camera” has been going on for a while and there were a few good reasons for it. To begin with, sales of digital cameras from 2020 have fallen by 87% compared to 2010. This is a threatening statistic that cannot be overlooked.

  • March 30: Xiaomi unveils Mi Mix Fold with a “liquid lens”
  • April: 14: Sony introduces first phones with “variable telephoto lenses”
  • May 17: Sharp introduces the Sharp Aquos R6, the first modern smartphone with a 1-inch camera sensor

It’s no secret that camera hardware manufacturers have begun to shift their focus towards smartphone collaboration. The biggest and probably most successful is in between Huawei and the German giant Leica. Huawei flagships from the ‘P’ and ‘Mate’ series have proudly carried the Leica branding for over five years now (it debuted on P9).

Nokia and Zeiss are probably the most iconic partnership going back to the time when smartphones were not so smart, but Nokia’s cameras were exceptional. Recently, OnePlus went along with Hasselblad to OnePlus 9 series, mens Samsung is expected to commit to Olympus for the next Galaxy “S” flagship.

These partnerships are useful, but often a marketing tool more than anything else. Either way, smartphone cameras have been getting better every year! We have seen huge gains in video quality, zoom features and night photography to name a few.

Let’s first take a quick look at some of the biggest leaps in camera hardware and software to date. Afterwards, we shift our focus to what’s coming – we’ll check out the three best future smartphone camera innovations in three separate sections and then say how the technology used in them may affect your future flagship phone.

Movie video: Next level HDR and image stabilization

First, on the video side of things – Apple has delivered some excellent results, especially with iPhone 11 and 12 series of telephones. Smart HDR for video has really elevated the camera experience on the iPhone. Now Android manufacturers like Xiaomi and Samsung are trying to reach the bar that the company has set from Cupertino. In fact, it is S21 Ultra and Mi 11 Ultra comes very close iPhone 12s video performance while being even more versatile thanks to their periscope zoom cameras.

Incredible Zoom Camera (Periscope): Moonshot

Speaking of zoom cameras, Huawei was always an active player and responsible for a lot of the so-called camera revolution, which goes back to 2018 with the release of Huawei P20 Pro. This phone had a 3x optical zoom lens, while the rest of the flagships either had a 2x zoom setting or none at all.

Later, Huawei gave us The P30 Pro, which was undoubtedly the best and most versatile camera for photos for a while. It featured a unique 5x periscope zoom lens thanks to an unprecedented technology as well as the largest camera sensor on any phone, making it the Night Mode king.

Night mode: Goodbye, flash

Night Mode was another revolutionary trick that Huawei pioneered P20 series and perfected on P30 series. Unfortunately for all tech enthusiasts, we all know how Huawei’s driving force was cut off by the US trade ban. While the company continued to break records for large camera sensors (P40 Pro) and 10x zoom lenses (P40 Pro Plus & Mate 40 Pro Plus), the day has come for a new hero to emerge and lead.

In fact, there are a few heroes! We check them all in three separate sections and then say how the technology used in them may affect your future flagship phone. If dumbphone cameras were the start; and modern smartphone cameras are revolution 2.0 (and maybe 2.5 after portrait mode and night mode became a thing), then this is revolution 3.0 and we have three phones to illustrate that.

March 30: Xiaomi unveils Mi Mix Fold with a “liquid lens”

Right out of the gate, the easiest way to explain what a liquid lens is:

A device that contains a mixture of water and oil, trapped in a capsule (lens). As an electric current flows through it, the water (drops) changes shape so that the lens can adapt to different purposes. The human eye has small muscles (instead of electric ones) that pull to adjust our vision – this is more or less the way a liquid lens works.

The lens does not move. It automatically explores the different positions of liquids inside it and selects the focus point. It can also be adjusted for focal length by combining optical zoom and macro camera functions in a lens, as on Xiaomi Mi Mix Fold.

The lens on the fold is attached to 80 mm. However, the liquid makes it possible to focus on much closer distances than a traditional telephoto lens. If you’ve ever used a phone with a zoom lens, you know that they often lose focus if you physically move closer to a subject.

The potential benefits of a liquid lens:

  • They adjust electrically (not mechanically), making them much more durable in the long run
  • The minimum focusing distance is lower than that of traditional lenses
  • They can act as a stabilizer using a gyroscope that controls the fluid inside the lens, eliminating the need for other means of image stabilization.

April: 14: Sony introduces first phones with “variable telephoto lenses”

Just two weeks after Mix Fold was released, Sony introduced two more smartphones with a unique camera lens – Xperia 1 III & Xperia 5 III. While in this case it has a similar purpose (3x zoom), it builds on what is already a good zoom lens.

An optical element moves physically inside the camera system and switches between two focal lengths – 70 mm and 105 mm or simply 3x – 4.4 x optical magnification. This eliminates the need for two telecom cameras and it can save a lot of space inside the already cramped gut of a smartphone.

The potential benefits of a variable lens:

  • It can smoothly transition from one zoom level to another without losing quality along the way (as with traditional multi-camera systems, where you get separate 3x and 10x lenses, for example, but the space is zoomed using digital cropping). Unfortunately, that’s not the case on the Xperia 1 III, but we’re looking forward to seeing if that might be possible in future phones.
  • It can serve several purposes if used as a main camera – meaning it can be attached to 24mm and go up to 60+ mm to eliminate the need for a dedicated telecamera. Now it’s not easy to pull, but we also did not think we will see 10x optical zoom technology in phones in 2020, so …
  • More stable focus lock thanks to the fact that we only have one lens and the phone does not have to choose between two, depending on the scenario (zoom)

May 17: Sharp introduces the Sharp Aquos R6, the first modern smartphone with a 1-inch camera sensor

Last but certainly not least – the long awaited 1-inch camera sensor! This one has been rumored, teased and talked about for years. Not that we did not have one – we had. Panasonic managed to pack a 1-inch camera sensor in Lumix CM1 back in 2014. However, this device was often marketed as a “compact camera with smartphone features”. It was not very heavy (especially by today’s standards), but it was quite voluminous – although it certainly had the cool “real camera” look.

The day has come and we have our first modern smartphone with a 1-inch camera sensor that is identical in size to those found in some regular compact cameras, such as. The popular Sony ZV-1. The phone rings Aquos R6 and it is made by Sharp.

In any case, this sensor was expected to operate on Huawei’s P50 series of phones. They were delayed several times due to the continuing chip shortage and potentially negotiations for a license to work with Google. That’s how the Japanese company Sharp first managed to grab the precious 20MP 1-inch sensor and beat not only Huawei but also companies like Samsung and Xiaomi.

It is believed (but not confirmed) that the sensor found in the Sharp Aquos R6 comes from another Japanese giant. It’s of course Sony with the rumored IMX 800 sensor. Sharp has also managed to “steal” another Huawei exclusive – Leica’s expertise. The Aquos R6 bears the Leica brand and was designed in partnership with the German company.

Check out 50 amazing photo samples taken with Sharp Aquos R6!

The benefits of a 1-inch camera sensor are significant:

  • It eliminates the need for software-based “portrait mode” at closer distances, as the sensor is large enough to get natural bokeh (blurred background). The veil looks accurate and realistic – because it is accurate and genuine.
  • No need for night mode in certain scenarios when needed before, thanks to the large sensor that lets in enough light
  • Higher resolution images. This depends on how smartphone manufacturers decide to proceed with their own implementations. Still, in general, a larger sensor eliminates the need for pixel binding, a trick used to make images brighter and with less noise, but brings resolution from 40 / 50MP down to 10 / 12MP).
  • Lower noise levels
  • Better sharpness in dimly lit environments
  • Faster focus speeds as a result of the large sensor’s ability to collect light
  • Cinematic (or at least more cinematic) videos thanks to all of the above factors

Verdict: The future of the smartphone camera is now

A floating lens can be insignificant if viewed in isolation, and it can also be a variable zoom lens. But if we combine the two with a 1-inch primary sensor, or better yet – make a sensor that combines all this technology, we have a compact camera-grade system on a smartphone.

Sure, this is easier said than done, but clearly – the “do” part has begun. The technology has arrived! Now we have to wait for the manufacturers to implement it; Make the right decisions the right compromises and eliminate the need to carry a compact camera to record vlogs or even special occasions. Another “camera” innovation that can help is a screen on the back of the device, which can be a camera viewfinder, as on the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra.

It all still depends on what strategy the manufacturer has followed when building the camera. For example, Huawei uses a RYYB color filter that lets in a lot more light than a traditional RGB filter (found on any other smartphone). This can also be combined with Night Mode, which is used to stack exposures and eliminate vibrations.

All this combined with the raw properties of a 1-inch sensor has the potential to create some amazing night images and even night portraits that we have never seen before. In 2021, premium compact cameras will cost as much as a flagship smartphone. Let’s see if we finally ditch the compact camera forever in favor of the ultimate camera phone.

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