The ascent of the camera-phone has been a long one.
From the beginning back in the early 2000s, when the mere concept of a digital camera contained within a candy-bar phone was verging on the ridiculous, we now have relatively powerful snappers, easily the equal of any cheap point and shoot.
Yet, in 2015, have we now reached something of an imaging plateau?
It is unfortunate to say, but the evidence points to this being the case. As the drive to make phones slimmer continues indefinitely, larger sensors are now effectively out of the question. Yet for some, defeat is out of the question.
Mostly thanks to the stellar work of the former engineers of Nokia in this field, almost from its inception Windows Phone has gained a reputation for imaging excellence.
From the introduction of Windows Phone 8, it was required that every new device came with a physical camera button. Optical Image Stabilization (OIS), which allows for longer exposures, first debuted with the Nokia Lumia 920, and is now a calling card of almost every flagship smartphone. The Lumia Camera app (previously Nokia Pro Camera) was among the first to give mobile shutterbugs access to full manual controls.
And, of course, there was the Nokia Lumia 1020, the 41MP behemoth that has proudly stood as the most powerful ‘popular’ smartphone camera for almost two years now. Windows Phone is known as a solid choice for those looking for more in their smartphone cameras; yet with this imaging plateau, what now can be done?
It is no secret to anyone who has been watching the scene closely, but Windows Phone has become something of a side project for Microsoft. Mostly bereft of any exciting releases for months, platform die-hards have had to maintain themselves on a meager diet of budget releases.
If current developments are anything to go by however, things may be not quite as dire as they at first appear.
Recently, Microsoft Research released an app that had been in gestation for quite some time, Hyperlapse. Seemingly rather simple, the concept behind the project is devilishly clever. Using a series of algorithms, the app can either take or analyze existing video footage recorded through the phone camera.
The video is then processed thoroughly, and any camera shake observed throughout recording is either smoothed significantly or removed altogether. It’s a neat trick, and one that works well. Moreover, following its wider availability, this allows for budget devices that do not have any form of image-stabilization to compensate accordingly, tying into the direction that many feel Windows Phone may be permanently heading, towards the budget end of the market.
Hyperlapse is a nice idea, executed well, but contained within is an interesting insight into where Microsoft may be heading in the future.
Over the years, what Microsoft has established itself as a leader in, is software, pure and simple. Through various versions of Windows, Office software, cloud services and enterprise offerings the Redmond firm has grown to be a giant. Though some dalliances with hardware have been successful, they have often been costly and have taken time to get right.
Nokia, in contrast, at least what was Nokia, took rather a different approach. Nokia was a firm of engineers, one that was able to take advantage of a time in which the expectations of phone software were exceedingly low to craft some beautiful products. The Nokia answer to building the perfect camera phone was to cram in as many high-end optics as possible, even going as far as to develop bespoke hardware.
What Nokia’s ‘Pureview’ project ultimately signified was the admittance that mobile imaging was approaching something of an end-game, it was a mad last-ditch attempt to break the mold and achieve the impossible. And remarkably enough it was quite successful.
Though this approach won the Finnish firm many fans, it cannot be expected that Microsoft will follow suit with its incoming pack of high-end Windows Phone releases, in particular the rumored ‘Cityman’ and ‘Talkman’ models.
Instead, the future of photography in mobile phones, from 2015 onwards, lies not in improved hardware, but in software. The evidence for this can be seen everywhere, not only in Microsoft’s efforts.
High Dynamic Range (HDR) mode has become a calling card for many manufacturers, eager to force in even exposures, especially Samsung and Apple. Apple has pioneered slow-motion capture, Asus and Acer have both worked separately to boost the light in dark images with their ‘Pixel-Master’ and ‘Bright Magic’ technologies.
The writing is on the wall, even if others do not see it. The dream of cell-phones replacing DSLRs is dead, with even the best examples only comparing to a fixed-focal length prime lens of middling quality. Despite the boastful claims of bombastic PR departments, the war against larger lenses was lost before it had even begun.
What instead has been very successful is the ethos behind smartphone photography: that of portability and convenience, getting the best shot on auto and with the first try. It is in this sphere that mobile phone photography is far ahead, and in which Microsoft may be at the top of the game.
‘Good enough’ is where we are at, and yet ‘good enough’ will never satisfy the buying public, nor the hungry reviewer. Despite its best intentions, and its boldest claims, Microsoft knows that given the legacy it has created with the Windows Phone brand, imaging is now more important than ever.
While Continuum and other features may be attractive and genuinely useful for many, nothing can compare to the sheer utility of the smartphone snapper. From selfies to belfies, more photos are being taken now than at any other point in recorded history, and the majority of those are being taken on smartphones.
Especially with the expertise of the former Nokia engineering team behind it, Microsoft has an opportunity in the coming months to do something completely unexpected. If Windows 10 Mobile is to succeed with consumers in the way that Redmond wants it to, then it needs to offer something concrete that its rivals cannot.
The likes of adjustable flash, rich tone and Hyperlapse ought to be only the beginning of mobile photography being taken to strange new places using the processing power available, though only time will tell if this will be the case.
With the new iPhone reportedly set for some serious camera improvements, it will soon be now or never for Microsoft to prove its commitment to leading the future of smartphone photography.
Do you agree? Is software the future of smartphone camera development? Let us know what you think in the comments below.