Tech and gadgets

The Rise of Smartphone Photography

The smartphone is replacing the camera as we know it. What does that mean for photographers?

It has become a cliché to say that we are image-obsessed. But it has also never been more true. In 2018, we took more than a trillion pictures, according to market research firm InfoTrends. We photograph everything, from our meals to our travels to our pets. Social media personalities document every moment of their lives in a battle to grow their audience; people book entire holidays based on a destination’s Instagrammability.

Our apparent hunger to produce pictures has only been made more insatiable by the ease of shooting them. Camera-equipped mobile phones have now been around for so long, young photographers won’t remember a time before them. There are as many as 3.3 billion smartphones in use worldwide, and most of them are equipped with cameras. Nowadays, devices boasting three or even four lenses are becoming commonplace.

It’s a far cry from 2001, when BBC correspondent Jon Wurtzel reported from Japan on the arrival of the Sharp J-SH04 – arguably the first camera phone. Reactions to the device, with its tiny 0.11-megapixel camera, were mixed. Some viewers were incredulous, claiming that manufacturers would simply use the technology to raise the price of products. Others marvelled at the prospect of being able to instantly share photos with friends and family around the world.

Illustration: Yau Hoong Tang

Fast-forward to 2017, and the unveiling of the Light L16 camera met the same mix of suspicion and wonder as the J-SH04. Possessing no fewer than 16 lenses, the black, rectangular device resembles an arachnid’s multiple eyes, or perhaps a bullet-riddled wall. But the advent of the multi-camera device is no gimmick, says Rajiv Laroia, chief technology officer and co-founder of California photography company Light, which designed the L16.

‘More camera modules are able to capture more light and a wider variety of light from the scene than a single camera can get in the same time,’ Laroia explains. ‘With multiple apertures, you can always get much better quality.’

The L16’s multiple cameras, with their different lens angles and focal lengths, are used in concert to produce huge, 52-megapixel images, revealing a huge amount of detail. Multi-camera photography, Laroia says, has the potential to enable a smartphone to capture an image as detailed and nuanced as a photo taken by a professional-level DSLR camera. To that end, Light teamed up with Nokia to produce the five-camera Nokia 9 Pureview. Meanwhile, the brand is also partnering with Sony’s semiconductor arm, as well as Chinese handset giant Xiaomi, to create a new generation of multi-camera smartphones.

But hardware alone does not make an image. To create a ‘true to life’ photograph, Laroia explains, you need powerful computational imaging algorithms that can make sense of the data. This technology, known as computational photography, is now being employed in numerous industries to achieve the previously impossible.

‘We see applications of our technology in AR, VR, automobiles, drones, robotics,’ Laroia says. ‘Industries are beginning to see the value in investing in technology that increases the quantity of available information.’

Adrian Stock, photography podcaster and co-host of The Future of Photography podcast, says it was almost inevitable that computational photography will outpace the conventional combination of a single lens and single sensor. ‘Computational photography takes us beyond the ability to create simply an enhanced or super-realistic photo or video,’ he says.

For several years now, computational photography has been used in smartphone cameras to create the effect of selective focus in images, where the subject is in focus and the rest of the photo appears blurred: mimicking the effect photographers call ‘bokeh’ created by lenses with a large aperture and shallow depth of field.

Illustration: Yau Hoong Tang

Another common application of computational photography has yielded the popular high dynamic range (HDR) mode offered by many smartphone cameras. In this case, two or more cameras are used simultaneously to capture images of the same scene at different exposures. These exposures are combined to reveal the detail that would otherwise be hidden in the shadows and highlights of a conventional photo.

Stock is particularly excited by advances in something called ‘computational zoom’. Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, along with US graphics corporation Nvidia, have developed a way to ‘remix’ focal lengths. An example of this is using the background from a wide-angle shot and combining it with the foreground from a photograph taken with a telephoto lens. This, Stock explains, allows users to refocus shots after they have been taken.

London-based photographer Jane Hau says the potential of computational photography will only be held back by advances in microprocessors. ‘Instead of upgrading your lens, you will simply be able to upgrade a piece of software like you would with an app on your phone,’ Hau says. ‘Our cameras will in essence become mini computers, like our smartphones are today.’

Hau, who, along with portrait photographer Alex Laberge founded training company London Photographic, says computational photography will open up new possibilities – such as the reconstruction of complete scenes in three dimensions to allow viewers to walk through the image. The technology was pioneered for use in law enforcement and forensics to recreate crime scenes, but Hau believes it won’t be long before it becomes more widely available.

‘The ways we consume visual imagery are changing,’ Hau says. ‘I would love to see my favourite films recreated as a hologram, all the way through. So I’m hoping that 3D and holographic images are the direction we’ll be going down.’

But not everyone is enthused by the potential of these advances. For some artists, the fact that everyone now carries a camera has led them to conclude that the end of photography is nigh. Filmmaker Wim Wenders last year told the BBC that ‘photography is more alive than ever, and at the same time it’s more dead than ever’.

It is true that fewer people are buying cameras. In 2010, 121 million digital cameras were produced globally. Last year, that figure was just 19 million – itself a 24 per cent drop from the previous year – and the downward trend shows no sign of stopping. For photographers of the old school, the trend has a spectral familiarity: the decline of the digital camera, though less acute, mirrors the collapse of the film camera, which went from peak sales of more than 35 million units in 1997 and 1998, to essentially zero by 2008 following the 1999 arrival of the digital camera.

Stock isn’t persuaded by those who believe photography is doomed. ‘I like to think we’re coming through the other side of viewing mobile phones as a novelty,’ he says, pointing to the work of movie directors such as Sean Baker, whose 2015 film Tangerine was shot entirely on the iPhone 5s, as well as commercial photographers who make a point of using smartphones. ‘I think the fact that so many people have mobile phones with built-in cameras is a fantastic thing. It doesn’t mean that there are automatically three billion more artists, but there are more people who have access to making art,’ says Stock.

Laberge believes that, far from being in decline, the future of photography has never looked brighter. ‘Throughout history, new generations have changed the way older generations have done just about everything,’ she says. ‘Above all, creativity will never die – and that is the bottom line in photography.’

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