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How smartphone camera tech will evolve in 2012

A man takes a photograph using his iphone 4S at an Apple store in London in October.
A man takes a photograph using his iphone 4S at an Apple store in London in October.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Smartphones accounted for more than a quarter of all photos shot in 2011
  • New sensor will help shooting stills and video in scenarios where ambient light is lacking
  • 8 megapixels is the new standard for smartphone camera
  • Many handset manufacturers are adding personalized touches to their camera software

(WIRED) -- We love documenting our lives. If we didn't, well, there probably wouldn't be a hugely successful online behemoth called Facebook. And smartphone photography wouldn't be the thriving phenomenon that it is today.

Smartphones accounted for more than a quarter of all photos shot in 2011, according to research from NPD. The iPhone has even been called the "snapshot camera of today" by celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz.

Handset manufacturers identified image capture as a key application for mobile devices early on, and have been iterating the sub-webcam-quality cameras that graced the original cellphones ever since. Today, smartphone cameras are enjoying a true renaissance, with sensors, software features and lenses that rival the quality that was once only available in dedicated cameras.

For 2012 and beyond, smartphone cameras will only improve further. Here are four key areas of development to watch.

New sensor technology

Smartphones are often used to take shots in low-light situations, but low-light capture has always been a glaring weak spot. Luckily, Sony recently developed a new CMOS sensor that will take the pain out of shooting stills and video in scenarios where ambient light is lacking.

Sony's technology includes two features not normally present in cellphone camera sensors: RGBW Coding (which adds white pixels to the sensor to increase low-light sensitivity) and built-in HDR video (which shoots two different movies simultaneously, likely at varying ISO levels). The sensor will be available in 8-megapixel and 13-megapixel models toward the middle of this year.

The iPhone 4S currently features an 8-megapixel sensor made by Sony, so it's entirely possible that this new Sony sensor could be tapped for Apple's upcoming iPhone 5.

Sensor size is generally an important factor in final image quality, and we'll continue to see sensor technology improving so that smartphones can take better and better images.

Name-brand optics

Nokia is taking a name-brand approach to defining its smartphone cameras in 2012. Carl Zeiss lenses grace the company's high-end Lumia 800 smartphone (which is currently available across the pond), as well as its follow-up, the Lumia 900, which will debut in the coming months.

"In my experience using them, the clarity and definition is far superior to your standard glass," Jon Snyder, Wired's associate photo editor, says of Carl Zeiss professional lenses. Snyder also says Zeiss' lens construction is top-of-the-line. Snyder exclusively used Carl Zeiss lenses on a DSLR camera while shooting a documentary in Cairo in late 2011.

Now it's true, just because a company makes superlative pro lenses, there's no guarantee that it imbues the same quality in its mass-market smartphone glass. Nonetheless, simply by employing Zeiss lenses in its smartphones, Nokia sends a very clear message to consumers: Image quality matters to us. Your smartphone is a camera, plain and simple.

Carl Zeiss lenses were initially developed for microscopes in the mid 1800s, but soon found a home in photography and cinema as those industries rose to prominence.

"What we do is continuously enhance the optics, because the lens is at the beginning of the image chain," a Carl Zeiss representative wrote on the Nokia Connects blog. "At the same time we use our imaging expertise to optimize all the components within the entire imaging chain because the lens is only one part of the whole story."

Nokia believes this results in superior smartphone cameras on its devices, and from what I can tell from the models I've reviewed, the Zeiss-based cameras are at least on par with the best offerings from Samsung, HTC, and Motorola.

Packing in the pixels, pulling in the light

8 megapixels is the new standard for smartphone cameras. A number of smartphones that landed in late 2011 included 8-megapixel cameras, and we're increasingly seeing handsets go beyond that — regardless of whether we need greater image resolution numbers at the end of the day.

Sony packs 12 megapixels into its Xperia S, which made its debut at CES earlier this month. Not to be bested, the HTC Titan II packs a 16-megapixel camera onto the rear of its 4.7-inch frame.

Should you be impressed? Probably not. The larger pixel counts just allow you to print out larger and larger images from the files you pull off of your smartphone. That's right: Greater megapixel counts don't directly translate into improved image quality.

So you may not need all those pixels at the end of the day. But what you might want to focus on is the capture of light rays. There's a new camera technology that eschews the megapixel arms race in favor of capturing more points of light, and we could be seeing it make its way into smartphones in due time.

The Lytro is a plenoptic camera. It captures all the light (11 million rays of light, to be exact) in a single shot, and this allows you to play with the focus of a photo after it's been taken. It's a revolutionary step in the evolution of photography.

In an interview with PC World, Lytro executive chairman Charles Chi talked about how the Lytro camera's lightfield technology could potentially be implemented in a smartphone in the future.

"If we were to apply the technology in smartphones, that ecosystem is, of course, very complex, with some very large players there. It's an industry that's very different and driven based on operational excellence. For us to compete in there, we'd have to be a very different kind of company. So if we were to enter that space, it would definitely be through a partnership and a co-development of the technology, and ultimately some kind of licensing with the appropriate partner. "

With all the excitement surrounding Lytro's camera technology, it doesn't seem far-fetched to think that a partnership could eventually develop with smartphone manufacturers.

Improvements on the software side

To differentiate their camera offerings from one another, many handset manufacturers are adding personalized touches to their camera software.

For instance, the HTC Rezound has settings that let you adjust the ISO, white balance and exposure, as well as the type of scene you're shooting. You can also choose from 13 different Instagram-like filters. Features like this were once the sole province of dedicated cameras, and unavailable in phones. Many other smartphones are including different scene modes, and optimizing their cameras for night shots and action shots. They even offer panorama modes for capturing wide (or extra tall) compositions.

Apps, of course, provide an even higher degree of photograph customization and pro-quality photo editing abilities to smartphones.

Other features to look forward to in 2012?

"We'll also likely see more features that have appeared in higher-end digital cameras, such as more sophisticated high-dynamic range or motion-blur reduction," NPD analyst Ross Rubin told Wired. This will be done by combining multiple rapid-fire exposures into a single image.

On the video side of things, we could see video capture move to 1080p at a rate of 60 frames per second or higher. Once you enter 120fps territory, slow-motion video becomes a possibility as well.

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Copyright 2011 Wired.com.

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