Aug 15 AT 1:09 PM Nick Sarafolean 26 Comments

Manufacturers need to step up their camera game


How many of you use your smartphone as your primary camera? Many people do. It’s fast, easy, and you almost always have it with you. Most of the time, the quality comes close to that of a point-and-shoot, with the exception of something like a Sony RX100. Yet, smartphone cameras have many serious limitations, some of which manufacturers could easily fix.

Lack of zoom

This is a huge one. You can’t really fit optical zoom into a smartphone without it ending up like the Samsung Galaxy Zoom, so there haven’t been any good remedies for this problem. Until recently, that is. Nokia proved that even without optical zoom, you can still achieve quality zoom on a smartphone. Nokia took advantage of the existing digital zoom technology (which is, for the most part, terrible) and figured out how to rework it. What Nokia did was bolt on a massive 41MP sensor along with Zeiss optics.

That combo allowed Nokia to take incredibly high-resolution photos that can then be “zoomed” (actually cropped) up to 3x. And no, that isn’t like most digital zooms where you lose much of the quality the farther in you zoom. Nokia’s Lumia 1020 allows you too keep the photos looking crisp. While I’m not suggesting that every manufacturer should throw a 41-megapixel sensor onto the back of their phone, I do think that higher-resolution sensors should be considered for this sole purpose.

Less gimmicky features, more of what matters

This point is definitely not directed at Samsung. Nope, not at all.

All joking aside, this is getting to be a very serious issue. Smartphone manufacturers have begun to get caught up in a game where, to win, you stuff as many features as you can into the camera. At first, it wasn’t so bad. A couple of the features were quite useful. But now, its gotten to the point where the only time you’ll ever use some of these features is when you’re showing off how many features your phone has. Do we really need a dedicated mode for every single situation under the sun (and the moon)? Chances are that you won’t even be in half the situations where you might need these features.

Rather, manufacturers should work on improving the camera UI and adding features that help consumers take normal pictures. Like Motorola, for example. I’m by no means proclaiming that Moto’s camera is perfect, but at least the company has taken steps toward camera improvement. Motorola has tried to make the camera UI as clutter-free and quick as possible. Simply flick your wrist twice, to enter the camera from anywhere in the phone. Once in the camera, you’re greeted with just two buttons: one to switch to the front-facing camera and one to switch to video. The entire screen is a shutter button, and to access the settings, you simply swipe in from the left. No crazy features or gimmicky things. Just a plain and simple, easy to use camera UI. That’s what other manufacturers need to start doing.

Lackluster low-light performance

Traditionally, smartphones have had exceptionally mediocre performance in low light. Pictures have either turned out dark and muddy or blown out and noisy. Not everyone has the steady hands of a brain surgeon, so smartphone camera shutters can’t be open long before the picture becomes a blurry mess. To compensate the ISO gets cranked up, which creates all sorts of digital noise. Either the manufacturer leaves the noise or uses all sorts of processing to try and remove it, which results in a soft, muddy picture.

So what’s the answer? In truth, there isn’t a perfect answer. Cameras are always going to have some struggles in low light. But a good first step would be to add optical image stabilization. Luckily for us, this is becoming more and more common in high-end smartphones, and it’s a massive boon to taking pictures in low-light. Another way to help in low-light is to use a system like HTC’s Ultrapixels. Of course, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. Different manufacturers will have to come up with different tactics to combat this problem.

These are just, in my opinion, the three biggest problems inherent with smartphone cameras. But what do you think? What would you most like to see resolved or improved upon? Do you have any suggestions for a fix? Share your thoughts in the comments!

A nerd at heart, Nick is an average person who has a passion for all things electronic. When not spending his time writing about the latest gadgets, Nick enjoys reading, dabbling in photography, and experimenting with anything and everything coffee. Should you wish to know more about him, you can follow him on Twitter @nsarafolean.

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  • Arthur

    The biggest issue with smartphones and cameras is? You guessed it, the form factor limitations presented by trying to fit something in a slim body and have it take pictures that are acceptable or exceed expectations in all lighting conditions.

    This challenge falls on both those who make camera sensors (Sony, primarily as of late in most flagship smartphones) and if camera makers want to stay in business, mostly Canon and Nikon, they need to figure out how to get their technology in a smartphone. All the years of experience that Canon and Nikon have in the photography sector should give them plenty of understanding of how they can stuff a point and shoot camera in a svelte smartphone chassis. So far, neither has really displayed any hint of a partnership with any smartphone OEMs which is a bit puzzling consider both of their point and shoot camera business’s has suffered year over year for many years now.

    • Monk

      Well, Sony had for many years cameras with optical zoom folded inside the body with optical stabilization. I wonder why they never put something like that on one of their smartphones:

      • apai

        the moment nokia makes an android phone, I’d bet, everyone else would start making phones with a good camera. right now, everyone is smug with the slim form factor, and no one is pushing the envelope of cameras on cellphones. there simply is no incentive to do so!

    • http://no stokis

      Canon and Nikon will not develop the phone cameras, because they are interested to sell their point-and-shoot cameras.. Canon and Nikon hopes that phone cameras will develop as slow as possible!

      • kretz

        uhhh, essentially they’d be selling point-and-shoot cameras to oem’s. why do you think point-and-shoot cameras are nearly extinct as is, smartphones.

      • Cod3rror

        Cheap P&S camera market is pretty much dead. Smartphones have killed it.

        That’s why there is a trend starting with manufacturers putting big sensors(RX1, Canon EOS M) into P&S cameras. It’s to make P&S cameras somehow appealing again because they know that normal P&S cameras are dead.

        Canon and Nikon should definitely consider making camera modules for smartphones.

  • pekosROB

    Amen. I have a DSLR but my phone is with me all the time. Agreed, but my biggest annoyance is low light performance. Then the inability to zoom without the picture getting worse.

  • Steve

    Motorola may have a simple, non-gimmicky camera UI, but their camera performance is and always has been miles behind the competition. They need to step up their camera game most of all. The whole Clear Pixel situation sounded promising, but from all the reviews I have seen so far, it just doesn’t measure up over a range of situations. Camera performance isn’t my #1 requirement in a smartphone, but it matters. It matters enough to me that I won’t be getting a Motorola phone anytime soon.

    What I’m looking for is good low light performance, vibrant colors, and decent detail without having to take the same picture 5 times to get it right.

  • alexanderharri3

    Low light performance really can’t go anywhere until a new type of lens is created that somehow magnifies light, or a larger image sensor is put into the device (a la PureView, somewhat HTC’s UltraPixel). This has always been why DSLRs and professional cameras perform better than point and shoots and worlds better than cell phone cameras. Each “pixel” on the sensor is huge compared to their smaller counterparts. More sensor – more light. Expecting good low light performance from a small sensor is like trying to fit a square peg through a micron sized round hole. Nokia is the closest to breaking things open to a new camera paradigm without some monster that is the S4 Zoom.

  • Bob

    One gimmick I wish would come back already is the 3D camera.

  • hp420

    They need better flashes, too. LEDs are probably one of the best inventions on the planet, and are a superior form of all-around lighting…..except for a camera flash. They just don’t spread the light far enough. Unless you’re standing 3 feet from what you’re shooting you won’t get good enough coverage. Some manufacturers like HTC have gone as far as adding two LEDs. Well that’s great, but more bulbs doesn’t solve the distance issue, only makes closer targets slightly better lit. Phones should have a real flash on them. One that lights up the whole room when it goes off! It wouldn’t even cost a great deal more to add that, and it would be a huge improvement for low-light situations.

  • redraider133

    I think we may soon have huge camera lenses on the back ala Nokia lumia to try and help with love light. That is one area most phones struggle. That and moto seems to have not figured out the camera situation yet.

  • TruFactz

    The funny thing is, Samsung used to have the phone camera thing mastered, remember the memoir? The 8MP shooter with xenon flash? T-Mobile? Man I still know people who would love to have that phone. Samsung needs to go back to that.

  • Raptor

    I already said here few times that low light noise is mostly fixable ON SLOWLY MOVING SCENES when smartphones processing speed and memory size will increase by an order of magnitude. Siny is alreadt doing that in its NEX. This is the way how HDR is done. Yes meantime OIS will help but it’s old way solution.

  • ihatefanboys

    My HTC ONE has digital zoom. The camera is just fine, if it gets better, its a bonus.

  • donger


  • mess

    The biggest problems with phones is the camera? bollocks!!!!! It’s a phone… If you want a camera buy one. Just about every cheap point and shoot camera on the market today will do a better job of taking photos. The camera on a phone is best taking a shot to remember something. I want better battery life! Who gives a crap if the device thst wasnt designed to be a camera doesn’t take dslr market leading pictures….. l

    • Cod3rror

      Camera is not on you all the time. A phone is.

      Besides, this topic is about improving cameras, there is not even a debate about how important a camera on a phone is(here’s a hint, VERY!).

      You went completely off topic. It’s akin to discussing cars and how much baggage you can fit into their boots car and someone showing and saying “just get a truck with a trailer!”.

  • Oflife

    Like long lasting compact batteries, miniature optics is the holy grail, and yet to be delivered, despite promises. A few years ago, I read about fluid based lenses that more closely mimicked the human eyeball. They were compact and unlike our eyes, could offer optical zoom.

    Thing is, not sure where that technology went? I think it was Philips who were developing it, but not sure.

  • Hector

    OK, people have their smartphones with them all the time. I get that. But a smartphone is not , and NEVER WILL BE, a real camera. I’ve been taking and processing photos for longer than I care to admit; my 1st camera was a Kodak Brownie and I’ve had darkroom chemical smell on me since the age of 9. You cannot get a well-composed photo from a smartphone camera. It’s fine for the moronic point & shoot Facebook junk but please — learn how to use a real camera .

  • http://no stokis

    main things camera phones don’t have:
    1) a shallow depth of field (and it will be not implemented in at least next 5 years, because it requires much larger sensor)
    2) noisy low light
    3) no optical zoom

  • BobbyPhoenix

    Meh… I use my camera about twice a month. Usually is for something I want to remember like a phone number on a sign or something, and I don’t want to type anything. As long as I can see and read the picture I’m happy.

  • Rik Crosby

    If I could do one thing to improve the camera it would be a f*** lens cap.Make the lens slightly resesed and have a sliding lens cap over it. You could even work it so when you open the lens cap, it opens the camera app.

  • Matt H.

    I think that the best partnership for a sensor would be the first company to convince Jim Janard and RED to get into the phone sensor business. Agreed this is probably just like trying to get Canon and Nokia on board, but, they have insane sensors in their equipment. The only other technology that I see being a benefit or game changer in this area is incorporating Lytro tech. If they can find a way to increase their clarity on zoomed in pictures just a tad more….and allow for all the processing of their type images to occur on the phone and not require it to be done on their site…they win imho

  • Ando

    It’s not a phone it’s a smartphone so don’t say you’re satisfied with being able to call people with it. A camera is and should be highly valued part of a smartphone. But like with the early cameras the producers usually just try to have the most gimmicks and the most megapixles on paper instead of picture quality.
    The author is 100% right, couldn’t agree more. Optical zoom is something for actual cameras I think but OIS and a good sensor chip combined with a good flash, always with you in your pocket… awesome! Miss my Nokia N82 camera.

  • Cod3rror

    Phone cameras keep improving, very slowly but they do.

    However as the saying goes “there is no replacement for displacement”, a camera sensor size matters and until a completely new technology gets invented, the only way to improve quality is going to be to try a cram a bigger into a phone, use oversampling technology like Nokia’s to eliminate noise, etc… but no real revolutions.