How does a Smartphone camera work?

Smartphones and cameras have really come far from where it all began. In November 2000 the first smartphone with the camera was invented “Sharp J-SH04 “. At that time it had a resolution of 0.11 MegaPixel. Today we have smartphones that are equipped with 108MegaPixel cameras and that number is absurd. It’s almost 1000 times improvement in the last two decades.

Now let’s talk about how photography works on a smartphone. Three elements complete this equation and they are Lens, Sensor, and Computational Imaging.

Lens and Sensor

A traditional model of a camera such as a DSLR contains an interchangeable Lens system basically this means that you can take a lens and change it with another lens of different focal lengths while using the same sensor. While on a smartphone there are no moving parts so smartphones with multiple camera systems have multiple lenses. for instance, Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra has four Rear Cameras and each one has a different focal length and independent sensor. So with a smartphone, we have a challenge that it has a tiny lens that restricts your depth of field and a small sensor does not give you an optimum low light performance. But how do phones produce a really good image? Well, the answer lies in the Third Component that is explained below.

Computational Imaging

This might sound like a really academic term but I assure you it is not as complicated as it seems. So, what is this? It basically means to utilize the computer part of your phone along with series of algorithms that will overcome the shortcomings that your smartphone camera and lens have. To further explain these Algorithms Lets take an example of low light photography. When we taking a picture in low light we are using a high ISO so what this means is that you are going to introduce more noise in the photo especially in shadow areas. So your smartphone has an algorithm that kicks in and removes the noise and smoothens the image. Furthermore, your smartphone may have another algorithm that sharpens the image. So this is how Computational Imaging works.

These were the basic ideas of how algorithms work but have come a long way since the last 5 years and the Champion in this field is none other than GOOGLE. They have an entire team that works on unique ideas on how to implement technology in their smartphones. Let’s take an example of a Google Smartphone “GOOGLE PIXEL 3“. This smartphone revolutionized smartphone photography with its “NIGHT SIGHT” mode and this is a perfect example of what you can with computational imaging. So what it basically does in its night sight mode is it measures how steady you are holding your phone. Then it calculates how many exposes can it make and after a couple of seconds it utilizes the Optical Image Stabilization in the lens. Then the magic happens it stitches the best part from each exposure and then forms it into a single image. It brings out some of the most accurate and mind-blowing colors that can be seen in Google Pixel Phones.

Currently, smartphones camera cannot replace Professional cameras but if the technology continues to progress at the same that might not be the same case in the next 5 years.

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