When Tim Cook launched the iPhone 11 series, a lot of importance was given to the cameras on the phone. The iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max have a triple camera setup. And the camera is basically the only notable improvement from last year’s iPhone and that is how big of a deal Apple made it out to be. While the design of the cameras gave birth to a lot of memes, it did point out how smartphone cameras have evolved over the years.
For any smartphone enthusiast, when you think of disruption in smartphone cameras, the Nokia 808 PureView comes in mind. Launched 7 years ago in 2012, the Nokia 808 featured a big 41MP sensor that was hailed as a game-changer in the smartphone camera market because it found a way to move from the unusable “digital zoom” to a “lossless digital zoom” which soon became what we now know as “hybrid zoom” technology. The Nokia 808, followed by the Nokia Lumia 1020 were termed as devices with a “monster camera” because 41MP sensors were unheard of during those times.
From one camera to two
Despite having a huge sensor, the phones failed to move the general public and manufacturers had to find a way to improve the camera tech. During the next few years, a few interesting changes were witnessed. As the importance of smartphone cameras rose in the usage patterns of consumers, manufacturers started taking note. We soon witnessed the emergence of dual-camera modules.
The HTC One (M8) was one of the first devices to bring a dual camera module to the mainstream market. HTC launched the M8 in 2014 and introduced the Duo Camera and UltraPixel monikers which touted improved low-light performance and the ability to modify bokeh, as the dual-camera sensor acted as a 3D depth sensor on the back of the device.
Following this, dual camera modules became a common sight on the backs of smartphones and there was a flurry of devices like the iPhone 7 Plus, the OnePlus 5, LG G5, Huawei P9, Samsung Galaxy Note 8, and many more. Dual camera modules eclipsed the functionality of the M8 and offered features like wide-angle sensors, portrait modes, improved depth sensors.
Another thing that found its way into the dual camera module was a telephoto sensor. This was introduced by Apple with the iPhone 7 Plus in 2016. The telephoto lens was appreciated a lot by users as it allowed them to zoom into the photos without compromising on the quality. This can be done because the telephoto lens has a higher focal length which lets you digitally zoom in 2-2.3x of the frame.
Three is the magic number
The tech world moves fast and innovations come and go. In 2018, Huawei became the world’s first phone to introduce a triple-camera setup. The Huawei P20 Pro sported a normal RGB sensor, a monochrome sensor, and a wide-angle sensor. It also gave birth to an impressive Night Mode; the benefits of which Huawei is still reaping in 2019.
Triple camera modules quickly replaced dual cameras on phone’s backs and dominated the smartphone camera scene in 2019. Phones like the Samsung Galaxy S10 and S10+, OnePlus 7 Pro, Redmi K20 Pro, Oppo Reno 10x, Vivo V15 Pro are few of the best ones available on the market with a triple camera. The common triple-camera setups included a normal sensor, a wide-angle sensor and a telephoto lens which was used to click portrait shots.
As smartphone cameras evolved, another important factor that started weighing in was low-light photography. Dedicated night modes became ubiquitous as Samsung, Google, Huawei all introduced their own iterations of it on their respective devices.
Some devices like the Huawei P30 Pro also introduced time of flight (ToF) sensors. A ToF sensor allows the camera to separate different objects by throwing rays of light and calculate the time it takes for the light to come back. It then creates a 3D map. Another good way to think about time-of-flight cameras is as depth sensors.
Four and Five cameras?
There have been iterations of smartphones which featured four and even five cameras. The Samsung Galaxy A9 hit the markets running as the world’s first phone with a quad-camera setup. This included a depth, wide-angle, zoom – and a normal camera.
The Nokia 9 PureView was introduced at the Mobile World Congress in 2019 with an insane five-camera setup. The setup includes 2 RGB sensors and 3 monochrome sensors. The five cameras work together and fuse 5 photos into 1 perfect shot (in theory).