How mobile photography technology has evolved over two decades of phone cameras

Picture this: The sun is sinking below the horizon, and you know from the start that it’s going to be a stunner of a sunset — one for the books (or at the very least, for Facebook). You scramble for your phone to capture the vivid hues of the cotton-candy-coloured skies, but the image simply doesn’t translate on your screen as beautifully as it appears IRL.

In the nascent days of mobile phone photography, this was a common scenario. But today’s smartphone cameras are capable of capturing pro-grade images in any number of difficult lighting conditions — even, in some cases, underwater. The best part is that this impressive camera fits right in your pocket, enabling you to preserve precious memories in remarkable detail. 

Over the course of the past few years, mobile camera technology has progressed perhaps more drastically than any other single feature of our beloved devices. Below is a re-cap of the evolution of this type of technology, and a few tips for creating quality photographs using the technologies built into many modern smartphones.

A brief history of phone camera technology: Then vs. now

Those old enough to remember mall kiosks stocked with interchangeable, plastic phone covers know just how far mobile camera technology has come over the course of the past two decades. Whereas phones of the early aughts delivered barely discernible images — and forget about capturing anything at all in low-light scenarios — some of today’s smartphone cameras can shoot in 4K.

Functionalities once reserved strictly for bulky, expensive DSLRs are today available in the palm of your hand. 

To put this evolution in perspective: The first camera phones released in the year 2000 had only enough memory to store around 20 photos, and each image was capable of resolution of anywhere from 0.11 to 0.35 megapixels. In the earliest models of phone cameras, users had to physically connect their phone to a computer in order to view snapshots. 

A few years later, mobile photography tech had progressed to include basic flash features, self-timers, primitive zoom functionality, and the first iterations of “filters” (e.g. black and white, sepia, etc.) that would come to dominate social image-sharing platforms like Instagram. These devices were still limited to around 1.3 megapixels — but at least they were capable of wirelessly sending images, and in some cases, even printing them.

By 2010, we were beginning to see glimpses of the technologies that have largely shaped modern mobile camera technology — video capabilities, touchscreen, panoramic photos, and the emergence of built-in software features for image editing, filtering, and retouching. 

Image: samsung

Today, we’ve come leaps and bounds from those early, grainy photos snapped on flip phones. The most advanced smartphone cameras of 2018 boast dual-camera setups, the ability to shoot in formats like wide-angle or telephoto, and 12-megapixels (though it is important to note that, despite common perception, megapixels are not always the most telling metric of a camera’s quality).

Today’s mobile device cameras also include features like low-light functionality, OLED screen technology, and the ability to mimic Photoshop retouching. Portrait modes blur the background of a scene, and manual exposure modes allow the photographer to manipulate everything from shutter speed to white balance, focus, and ISO.

These functionalities were once reserved strictly for bulky, expensive DSLRs — but today, they’re available in the palm of your hand. The next question is: Do you know how to make the most of them?

Taking your smartphone photography to the next level

Below are five tips for taking pro-quality shots using features common on today’s mobile device cameras. 

  1. Invest time in learning the full range of your smartphone camera’s features and functionality. A surprising number of amateur smartphone photographers never fully explore all the features their device has to offer, such as depth-effect portrait mode, or manually adjusting the ISO of a shot. Taking five minutes to watch a YouTube tutorial or read through your device manufacturer’s user manual can help you discover features you never knew existed.

  2. Opt for a device with OIS technology to take crystal clear pictures of fast-paced scenes. Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS) is a technology that helps keep the subject you’re shooting clean and crisp, even in low-light situations or, say, in a moving vehicle. Several devices on the market today feature this technology and, if you plan to shoot moving subjects frequently, may be worth investigating.

  3. Play around with shot composition. We’re far beyond the days when a phone’s camera storage only held 20 images. Most devices today are capable of storing hundreds or even thousands of photos — so try your hand at capturing multiple angles of the same scene (hint: getting down to the same level as your subject often provides an interesting point of view). Your mobile device’s built-in grid can also help you master common photography guidelines such as the rule of thirds, and can help you create interesting compositions typical of a trained professional eye.

  4. Keep your smartphone camera lens clean. Using a microfiber cloth or specific lens cleaning kit, periodically (and carefully) clean your mobile device’s camera. This lets your phone or tablet’s lens work with 100% clarity, unimpeded by unsightly fingerprint smudges.

  5. Experiment with translucent and transparent surfaces. Reflections, refractions, windows, mirrors, and even shooting underwater (made possible with an external, waterproof casing) provide new takes on common snapshot subjects like portraits or pet photos. Get creative with your phone’s features for adjusting lighting, and play around with some of these cool new perspectives.

Today’s incredible and quickly evolving smartphone camera technology makes it possible to capture practically any scene — from selfies to sunsets — with the simple swipe of a finger.

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