The smartphone camera is our window where we can show our friends and the outside world where we’ve been and what we have been up to. It can provide photos of pristine beauty, be used for making art that makes us think, and simply make us feel like our best selves. Photo content is still king on social media, and there is no shortage of creative uses for cameras yet to come.
Yet as our uses for smartphones and smartphone cameras grow, so do the cameras themselves. The first camera included in a phone doesn’t hold a candle to even the worst one released today. Today’s best smartphone cameras can accomplish what all but the absolute best-dedicated cameras can do. Unless you’re a professional or extensive hobbyist, a good smartphone is all most people need. And smartphones are still trying to march in on that territory.
Yet where are things going? What can we expect from smartphone cameras over the next few years? Here is what our research and current trends tell us:
It’s not only about what technology is in the phone and the base camera quality; it is just as much about how the software on the phone can utilize that hardware to its fullest potential. These are digital photos, after all, and we regularly need improvements on how those photos are stored, processed, managed, and even manipulated on your phone and off of it. And people often care more about the software than the hardware these days, if the polls are to be believed.
In some ways, the improvements will be relatively boring, if handy. The base file sizes might decrease relative to the amount of data contained in the photo (4K photos can quickly fill up space on your phone, after all). Photos might be easier to load, or the phone camera will be better able to recognize what you’re focusing on. You might get more clues on your screen as to what your phone is doing, or a better UI. These are all expected developments, small quality of life changes, and changes that are the natural result of more processing power, memory, etc. And it doesn’t even have to come with new phones. An update patch for the camera software is often all it takes. Everyone can enjoy some benefits of consistently improving smartphone technology.
Trying to track a great shot is difficult, especially if you are just holding your phone in your hand. Often you don’t have the time to set up steadying equipment or a tripod. Most of the time you don’t have a tripod in your back pocket. This leads to blurry shots or off-center shots that would have been amazing otherwise. From the beginning, experts have been trying to counteract these issues to the best of their ability, but there was little room to work with and there is often a trade-off with improvements.
So what is a phone camera to do to offset the quick movements? How about inserting components so that the lens stays closer to a relative area and can keep up with the action going on? What about other methods that track lens positioning? All of this falls until Optical Image Stabilization technology (OIS), and improvements are regularly being made, if not always implemented. How tough can it be to pull off and how specialized is the technology? Some technologies will have 5,000 adjustments per second to allow for the perfect photo.
There is another thing about lenses: their makeup. Most lenses made today are of either plastic or glass over a sensor. Yet if there is a way to further miniaturize or stabilize the lens in the phone, we may see improvements. Changing the optical components themselves instead of the electronics might produce an amazing effect in future smartphones. Some developers are choosing to try to suspend the lens in liquid to keep it more stable.
In any event, look forward to lenses and smartphone cameras that can keep moving as the world keeps moving around you.
Ask any photographer: lighting is vital, and could be everything in regards to the perfect shot. Just looking at photos that are the same except for the lighting will make all the difference in the world. And the lighting in a photograph is determined not only by the environment you’re taking the photo in but the amount of light the lens takes in. Mostly this is from exposure time, but other settings might have an effect.
There will be no full substitute for changing the conditions around you, using reflectors, and considering the angle. You cannot as of yet make the sunset at a different time of day. However, in the smartphones of the near future, we can expect better options for dealing with overexposure (still perhaps the biggest issue digital photographers have to deal with). There are still a fair number of photographers who use film for this reason, or for the unique effects that can only happen on film.
Yet for the average person? You will notice a difference, and you’ll have more control over how long you want the exposure time to be and how much the lighting affects your photo.
Megapixels is probably the word you hear thrown around the most when talking about or comparing smartphone cameras. And that’s reasonable. It isn’t the only thing, but it is a major thing and something that the average consumer can easily and reliably latch onto. All other things equal, 40MP is much better than 20MP, and so on. And each year with new phones coming out the standard for a great MP count goes up. If there was one guaranteed trend for the next few years, the increase in the MP count among smartphones would be it.
What does it mean for you? Pictures with more pixels for the most part. There will be of course be diminishing returns after a certain point – the human eye can only make out so much detail- but there will also be more that photographers can do with the photos after the shot as a result. There will be more room for fine-tuning, so to speak, and photos can be blown up to larger sizes when printed without any adverse effects. There are advantages across the board.
We would like to note, however, that Megapixels aren’t everything. Nearly every iPhone model doesn’t have as many megapixels to boast as its contemporaries. Apple seems to prefer working on the quality of its pixels than the number of them. And the results are strong from this approach, with many people swearing by Apple’s smartphone cameras.
One of the current top cameras for megapixels is the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, with 108MP on one camera. In the coming years, we’re willing to bet that there will be at least some models with 200MP on a camera.
What zooming options do you currently have on your phone? You probably have 1x, 5x, 10x, but what else? Not only how deep can the zoom go, but how fine can you select the level of zoom? There is a huge difference between each of these options, and if you’re at a distance perhaps none of the defaults fit perfectly for the picture you’re trying to take. People would like continuous zoom, and there is a clear reason for it. Yet how will it come to be?
We may start to see technologies such as a more fine-tuned motor or mechanism for optical zoom. Millimeters of difference and even more precision are required when setting it up properly, so it’s not as easy as it sounds. Instead of just picking 1x or 5x, more smartphone owners will be able to get a zoom of something like 2.5x zoom, for taking the perfect photo at the perfect balance of focus and framing.
Oppo has introduced a telephoto lens with this technology, and we recommend reading more about it when you have the chance. It could very well be part of the future of smartphone cameras.
While some smartphones might be able to provide an excellent foreground and focus on the subject of the photo, the cameras and photos suffer a little when it comes to perfecting the focus of the background and the visual quality. There must be a tradeoff, if not in the settings then in the software. Of course, one could simply turn all of these settings off in the camera software, but this might result in photos that are different than what people are used to.
Yet things can and will improve. With standards rising across the board, we will certainly be seeing smartphones and smartphone cameras better able to make use of backgrounds, add in more effects or fine-tune to the background, or even more interesting things. Smartphone cameras may be able to correct for background elements that normally make for a worse photo, such as too much sunlight or distortions from wide lenses. It’s a topic that is too broad to discuss simply in this article, but what your camera sees and what you see at the end of the day can be two entirely different things. Software developers are to thank for that.
And for those who don’t want those features? They’ll almost certainly be able to turn them off. They’ll just likely be the default on most smartphones.
Everyone wants sharp photos void of any blur, and by zooming in many people risk getting a blurrier shot. You can’t always run onto the soccer field to get a close view of your child getting the winning goal, so you have to make do. Future smartphones are here to help with that.
Between a variety of techniques and technologies, the smartphones of the future will be able to adjust for blur much better than their previous counterparts, leading to a better image and less frustration on your end. Partially from being able to take a higher resolution photo you won’t notice the difference from zooming in so much. Additionally, if phones can master optical zoom using some of the things mentioned above, then you won’t need to zoom in any more than you need to. Combine that with technologies that will stabilize the image as much as possible before taking the shot, and unintentionally blurry photos might be a thing of the past.
What’s the most you can do with a Snapchat filter? What can you do with the default camera options on Instagram or Facebook? Many hopeful social media influencers have asked these questions. And the answers are quite a bit if you’re creative with it. Every once in a while, we see a filter that takes the world by storm for a few weeks. And there is often a feature that gets added that is regularly used down the line. There seem to be cycles to this, and we don’t expect that to change in any way.
Yet where will we see the next best things come from? Will it be an established presence such as Instagram that has the resources behind it to develop and implement practically anything currently possible? Or will it be an innovative newcomer that spurs change to smartphone cameras? There are arguments for both sides, and we hope that the user is the one benefiting the most from the changes.
Sometimes when a photo is taken it can seem as though something is missing, or that there are some blurrier pixels when we zoom in on the photo (or it would be a problem should we print it out). In many of these situations, we would just delete the photo or relegate it to a subpar folder. Many a great photo has been lost in the past to a small flaw. Those flaws are more avoidable than ever due to the technologies otherwise mentioned in this post, but what if the smartphone camera software could fix those issues near-instantaneously after you take the shot?
We are confident that there will be more smartphone options to help smooth these areas over, fill in the gaps, or allow for the strangest and most wonderful edits we’ve seen from a smartphone. Opening up more options to artists is nearly always a good thing. We cannot wait to see how professionals and amateurs alike fill in the gaps in their work or fix up photos they’ve taken. Photo editing software already allows for so much. It will be exciting to see how AI tackles common challenges.
Whenever you take a photo using certain settings, such as the amount of exposure or the focus, there are compromises to be made. Some photos might appear washed out while others might appear to be too dark to make anything out. There is often a happy medium, but it can be at times impossible to get the best of everything. Perhaps until now. Some phone cameras and apps are implementing the tech to effectively “stitch” together multiple photos of the same topic with different settings. One can already do it with screenshots to create a larger image. Why not do it with images on top of each other, in a sense? The dynamic range of the photos is improved as a result, making both light and darker tones better for the perfect picture. Detail is improved, and photos pop out more as a result.
A low dynamic range is often a problem with smartphone cameras. This might be the fix that gets implemented in most systems in the coming years, on top of the more technical improvements.
How does a phone incorporate a standard hi-definition lens, a fisheye lens, an ultrawide lens, and perhaps other lenses all into one? Simple: it doesn’t. It uses an array of different lenses all hooked up to the same system instead. It’s something you’ll see more on newer and more expensive phones. It seems as though the implementation of the selfie cam on most phones nowadays has gotten rid of the rule that there can only be one camera per phone. There are plenty of reasons to have more than one beyond convenience, the chief one being specialized lenses.
For now, we mostly see about three or four main options possibly incorporated into phones, those listed above. But nothing is saying different or additional lenses can’t be incorporated into future models. Think about all the lenses that a high-end camera can use. Any of those can be used (perhaps in a less precise and premium way) and implemented. And once one becomes standardized, it will become cheaper to use and install on future phones. Once someone breaks the mold, the lenses will start pouring in.
Naturally, software needs to incorporate these options into the phone, but this is hardly an issue. Just tap the screen in most cases and you can switch to what you need. In rare cases, multiple lenses might be used to create something interesting and avant-garde, and we can’t wait to see what the most creative among us come up with in terms of photos.
A camera is only as good as what you can do with it. Taking pictures is great and all, but is that all you do with your smartphone camera? You probably use it for one of the following:
This is only a small sampling of what can be done, and the only limits so far are human imagination and the quality of the camera (which is becoming less and less of a limit as time goes on). You might find apps soon that can provide detailed information about what is going on in front of you just by taking a video. A picture might provide automatic links to websites or advertisements. These features might be apps of their own, or they might come bundled in with an app we already know. Facebook (Meta) is already trying new things with the Metaverse, though we might not see them for years. The smartphone camera could very well be the link between the real world and the virtual one. In some ways, we can be sure of it.
Smartphone peripherals aren’t as simple as they used to be. The simple smartphone case now can have features to make it effectively immune to standard damage and allow it to stand on all sorts of angles (great for photos). The selfie stick has gotten more complex if you want it to, though one sees them out of vogue now. Additional lenses and attachments have increasingly specialized uses as the default options on a smartphone can handle more and more demands. For peripherals to stay relevant, they have to have a use case. And they ideally need to last a long time in both durability and usefulness. Would you quickly spend $100 on something that will become obsolete in a year?
There’s also the matter that the line between a computer peripheral and a smartphone peripheral has blurred. Take, for example, the USB keyboard. If there’s an adaptor and the right software, you can type on your phone using the keyboard. What you might be able to attach to another device now becomes universal.
Naturally, there are plenty of camera-related attachments that are to come. Perhaps we might see portable or semi-portable printers. We might see more advanced lenses and lights that attach to your device. Wireless devices will be especially important, given the intense growth of the Internet of Things. We would quickly date ourselves if we gave specific examples of peripherals coming out but just look at any online retailer that specializes in smartphones and smartphone accessories. The premium products can be astounding in their utility. Be on the lookout for what is available.
For a while, most people thought it was never going to get better than 4K, but we’re certain people thought the same of HD and SD before that. 8K video already exists and can be readily found. You’ll need to do a little searching of course, and somehow find a screen that will play it properly, but it is there and it is a treat. People often think they won’t be more impressed by the image quality, but now it is as though the videos and photos of today are “realer than real.”
There are already phone cameras that can take 4K and even 8K videos. Perhaps not the best available option compared to dedicated equipment, but 8K video nonetheless. In some short time, we may see phones that can accomplish recording 8K video as the standard, as impractical in the present time it might be. Someone has to keep pushing the boundaries of what phones can do, and soon, those boundaries won’t be boundaries anymore. And as more monitors and TV screens can support an 8K resolution, we will see increased use cases for these phones.
And naturally, if a phone can take an 8K video, it can take an 8K resolution picture. We will have some beautiful sights to see in the near future if that is any indication.
Moving onto something even more cutting edge by many metrics, there are plans to move into 3D scanning. There are multiple definitions that we could apply to this, but effectively it’s just creating a digital imprint of a full object from all sides, as opposed to a still image where we only get one angle. There are plenty of semantics to get into, but we’ll avoid them for now.
We already have 3D scanning technology in many other forms, some if not most of them available to the average consumer. It’s not necessarily cheap if you want it done right, and it’s a detailed and lengthy process most of the time, but it exists. You might see it in software, elements of video game design, and product reviews. It doesn’t always look perfect, but it does add an extra dimension if you want more immersion in whatever you’re doing.
Now we aren’t going to be getting full holograms anytime soon, with a room-spanning image of a place we visited with our phones, but we might take the first steps in the next generation or two. Much like how panorama shots operate on current phones, a combination of multiple photos (or a video, more likely), intelligent software, and careful picture taking can allow us to get a reasonably decent 3D image of an object or room.
Our phones and camera apps are getting smarter, quite literally. Much of what we do on our phones is assisted in one way or another. How often do you use the autocomplete options when sending a text message? Even a word document can have options to automatically complete words such as “automatically.”
It is a leap from just a few years ago, and there is a similar trend that is happening and can progress further when it comes to photos. Are some pixels relatively blurry in a photo? An app can automatically tell which colors should go there from the surrounding area and general information. What should be focused on? Auto-focus features are already common and commonly used. What is the best lighting? Depending on what you are looking for, a camera might adjust settings to your preference, based on previous photos or stated goals. There’s a lot to unpack, and developers are still determining what people want from both their AI assistants and their smartphone cameras. We’re still figuring out how much integration between apps we want, after all.
And while AI can be something of a scary topic, where we wonder if computers are going to take all of our jobs or make decisions for us we don’t like, we are still fully in control. The AI is not self-aware, and it just exists to take better photos. It may “learn”, but all of that is a result of pre-determined algorithms created by a software engineer. There is a lot of progress left to be made, but on smartphone cameras, we will start to see the computer help us out more, bit by bit.
We understand that all the above is a lot to take in. Yet there is so much to talk about that we couldn’t help but include it. Don’t feel the need to memorize it all. Just consider what the future might hold and be on the lookout for interesting developments. In fact, just look at the pictures you regularly see on social media over time and notice the differences. The world is looking like a nicer place, and it will only continue to look nicer, one photo at a time.