How New Tech Could Improve Smartphone Cameras

Smaller cameras, crisper pictures

Key Takeaways

  • A variety of new technologies could improve the quality of smartphone cameras. 
  • Scope Photonics is working on lenses that could make photos sharp, no matter how much you zoom in.
  • Metalenz is trying to make camera phones slimmer and sharpen images.
Someone taking a sunset picture of a lake with mountains in the bacground on a smartphone.

Anton Petrus / Getty Images

Smartphone cameras are now so good that professional photographers sometimes use them, but experts say they could soon get even better. 

A new lens technology could mean brighter photos and better zooming, all while taking up less space. Scope Photonics is working on lossless zoom that it says could make images sharp no matter how much you zoom in. It’s one of a growing number of tweaks to digital cameras. 

"I would like to see advancements made in digital cameras and photography to either better implement manual control that works well with digital film production or to program better tools for things like focus," Rex Freiberger, the CEO of Gadget Review, in an email interview. 

"I think apps have spent so long creating filters as a novelty item, and I would love to see high-end software focus on professional photography techniques," he added. 

Innovative Tech

Scope Photonics is trying to improve lenses for smartphone cameras by using a technique to make liquid crystals spin and reorganize based on how light moves through them. The system mimics a standard lens system, but it can zoom in and out with a single lens. 

"Our lenses can finally bring true lossless zoom to smartphones, miniaturizing several cameras into a single module while improving the quality and capabilities of smartphone photography," the company writes on its website

Another company is trying to make camera phones slimmer and sharpen images. Metalenz is working on a design that uses a single lens built on a tiny glass wafer. Most smartphones currently use plastic and glass lens elements mounted over an image sensor. 

Metalenz says the structure of its lens allows for brighter and sharper images, compared to standard lenses. 

"Over the past 20 years, most of the advances in camera and sensing technology in consumer electronics has been to electronics and algorithms, but the optics themselves have remained relatively unchanged," Rob Devlin, CEO of Metalenz, said in a news release

Why Film Still Beats Digital

Digital cameras have come a long way, but they still don’t replicate the feeling of using an analog camera, some observers say. Professional photographer Sarah Sloboda originally learned to shoot on film and says digital falls short. 

"Even the slightest overexposure can reduce or eliminate details in the highlights of the shot," she said in an email interview.

"There are new photo-editing features that help dial this back somewhat, but they can’t compensate for details that weren’t originally recorded by the camera," Sloboda added. "I’d love to see new cameras come out that capture more details in the highlights."

...Most of the advances in camera and sensing technology in consumer electronics [have] been to electronics and algorithms, but the optics themselves have remained relatively unchanged.

Celebrity photographer Bjoern Kommerell said in an email interview that he’s reluctant to join the trend towards mirrorless digital cameras that typically lack the viewfinders found on all SLR cameras.

"I have not found a camera yet which compares to that same feeling you have when looking through a viewfinder," he added. 

Better Dynamic Range

The biggest current problem with digital cameras is low dynamic range, Matic Broz, the founder of the photography site Photutorial said in an email interview. 

Dynamic range is how well a camera captures both light tones and dark tones at the same time. The more extensive the dynamic range, the more extremes the sensor in the camera can pick up without losing detail.

A loss of detail looks like a spot that is the same color, without texture, because everything in that area was too bright or too dark for the sensor to capture.

Someone taking a photo of a rainbow against dark clouds on a smartphone.

Anton Petrus / Getty Images

"Currently, we use HDR (high dynamic range) technique as a workaround," Broz said.

"The way this works is that you take three (or more) photos, each exposed differently. For example, one that will capture the dark tones just right, another that captures the bright tones, and the final one in the middle. Finally, you stitch the images together in a post-production program such as Lightroom or Aurora HDR."

New technologies could eliminate issues with dynamic range. An innovative sensor that is currently still in development will reset itself every time it reaches its maximum brightness. 

"This way, you cannot 'blow' the highlights anymore," Broz noted.

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