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4 Ways Smartphone Cameras Have Improved

Chances are, you can't afford the latest and greatest thousand-dollar smartphone, and you'll have to make some compromises when it comes to the smartphone camera and features. Learn from my mistakes. Here are four modern features smartphone cameras have.

Smartphone photography is now in the hands of almost everyone, and even if you don't own a dedicated camera, I bet you've got thousands of photos stored in your gallery. With so many different brands and models out there, it's hard to keep track of who's doing what when it comes to the best smartphone camera experience. So, when my old Google Pixel 2 broke earlier this year, I had to make a sideways trade to a poorer smartphone, the Huawei Mate 20 Lite, and with it, I lost some of my favorite features in a smartphone camera. So, don't make the same mistake I did. Heed my warning and ensure your next smartphone has the features listed below.

Telephoto Lens

Despite having two cameras (20 megapixels and 2 megapixels), my Huawei <ate 20 Lite is restricted to 27mm focal length (35mm equivalent), which hinders my ability to compress perspective.

One of the major downsides of shooting with a smartphone camera is that they inherently have wide angle lenses. A wide angle lens has specific characteristics associated with it due to the physical way light moves through space. The first issue is that wide angle lenses provide a larger depth of field than those of longer focal lengths, and that makes it difficult to isolate subjects against backdrops successfully. However, mnany smartphones now have depth of field software that intelligently scans a scene and cuts out a subject before blurring the background artificially.

Many of the more expensive and more recent models do this quite successfully, but it never works as accurately as the results from a real shallow depth of field. That's why a telephoto lens would be so useful, as the longer the focal length permits the shallower depth of field naturally. Some smartphones out there, like the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and the Huawei P40 Pro Plus, do actually have physical telephoto lenses, and that's great, because they allow you to isolate subjects and also flatten facial features to more complementary parameters. But these have yet to make it to many smartphone cameras across the market, and it's hard to find more budget-friendly options.

Ultra-Wide Angle Lens

I took this photo of an old oak tree for my partner, who wanted to document the fire damage within and record its branch span. Unfortunately, I couldn't get any farther back, though I would've liked more space on either side of the tree, as some leaves were cut off.

My smartphone, the Huawei Mate 20 Lite, has a 27mm equivalent lens. It's fine for a few snaps every now and then, but quite often, I find myself having to take several steps back to fit everything that I want. Unfortunately, it's a wide angle lens but isn't quite wide enough to be useful.

The iPhone 11 Pro has a 13mm (equivalent) ultra-wide angle lens to fit more of the scene in. If I had something wider, even something such as an 18mm equivalent lens, then I'd be able to crop in on my subject if it was too wide but also have the fallback of being able to compose wide scenes more easily. 27mm is a bit of an in-between focal length for me, not long enough to be useful but also not quite wide enough to truly capture expansive landscapes. I realize we can get third-party lenses forsmartphones, but I've never found one that I like (they either take too long to put on or don't line up properly with the lens).

Fast Boot-up Time

Although my smartphone takes 1.8 seconds to boot the camera, in reality, it takes a while longer because the camera pauses before shooting and is still unusable when it comes to taking sequential photos.

A fast camera boot-up time is essential to capturing moments as they unfold. Since I always have my smartphone in my pocket, it's usually the only camera I have on me when going about my daily life, so it's more likely to be the one I use when I happen upon something interesting, a fleeting moment never to be repeated. Because of this, I get increasingly frustrated when I open the camera and have to wait 4-5 seconds before the screen appears and I can take a photo. My old Google Pixel 2 was much better in this regard, so bear that in mind when searching for a smartphone that doubles as a camera, especially if you want to capture street photography or wildlife, where subjects can appear and disappear in an instant.

Accurate Autofocus

Sadly, the Huawei Mate 20 Lite has poor autofocusing, even when subjects are up close and filling the frame, although one must be aware of the minimum focusing distance.

The other thing that bugs me beyond belief is the slow and inaccurate autofocusing. Sometimes, I'll have to physically pinpoint the autofocus point on the screen to get focus on my subject. Even when I have quite an obvious frame-filling subject in front of me, the smartphone refuses to focus on it, to the point where I have to place my entire hand in the frame at the exact distance the subject is away from the camera and then quickly pull my hand out before taking the photo. It's a workaround that kinda works, but then, I have other issues such as exposure problems, wrong white balance, and the risk that the phone will just refocus as soon as I take my hand away.

Bonus: Separate Zoom Controller

The user interface on my smartphone makes it tricky to get a zoom amount I'm happy with, as I have to slide in and out in a camcorder-like animation. I'd much prefer a physical controller to do this.

By this, I mean a physical controller that controls the ability to zoom in and out. Often, when I'm pressing the zoom function on my current smartphone, I need to slide it up and down to get the right zoom level, but due to the user interface, I often overdo it and have to spend a while fine-tuning it. Alternatively, I could crop afterward, but it's good to get the display on the screen nice and large, as it helps with the composition by making it easier to see. With a separate controller for the zoom (or even a rocker switch on the smartphone), I'd be able to pull zoom quicker and more accurately. Providing that the controller is well made, it would make it smoother when shooting video as well.

Summary

Another way of reading the gripes I have with my smartphone here is actually a "what to look for in a smartphone camera" list. These features would be absolutely invaluable to photographers who want to take more shots on their smartphones and especially for those who haven't upgraded their phones in many years or perhaps ever, especially if you want to work on a tight budget and aren't willing to drop $1,000 on the latest iPhone or something similar.

There are smartphones out there with great cameras and photographic features at an affordable price, such as the Google Pixel 4a (just be sure to get the 4G version or you'll end up paying more). The above features I've found to be irreplaceable, though, so you should make sure you check out reviews and video footage of the smartphone cameras in use unless you have the opportunity to try them out in person.

Of all the features I've listed above, I'd say that a zoom remote control is probably the least important, because a smartphone that engages the camera quickly and focuses accurately will make the difference between a passing moment and a captured one. Telephoto lenses would also benefit those who like to take portraits or even close-ups of bugs and other wildlife, as they'll reach farther and provide a flattering compressed perspective.

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4 Comments

Chad L's picture

Excellent article. I rarely use my phone's camera, exclusively using it to take pictures of stuff I want to remember later (price of something in a store, menus, etc).

I will say one thing; For almost 10 years I repaired cell phones for Verizon Wireless (back in the day when they actually opened up and repaired phones in-store). My current phone, an Huawei Honor 6x, is the most durable/reliable phone I've come across. This thing would give the old Nokia 3310 a run for it's money. I bring this up because after owning 50+ cell phones in my life, I no longer care about gimmicks or flashy new features. I want my phone to not break if dropped from a height of 3 feet. Or if I knock it off a table.

Tangentially related to the author's article: Has anyone done an article about what flagship smartphone cameras CAN'T do when compared to a full frame DSLR? (or perhaps I should say "can't do well?")

Benoit Pigeon's picture

I use my phone the same way. Price tags and other junk. In fact all the good photos on my phone really come from my cameras.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Same here. I use my phone to take pix to get the GPS of where I was at, usually while on a roadtrip. It doesn't even matter if it's just the dashboard. Then, later plot on the map.

Les Sucettes's picture

Actually a real innovation would be to bring the dumb phone into the 21st century. It's not that you want it to be really dumb anymore there are some basic "smart" features (such as maps) that are actually useful. And yes there are some dumb phones that sort of address it. But nothing really all that satisfactory.

I'd like to see a range of dumb phones. Like the dumb phone for construction workers, the dumb phone for photographers, the dumb phone for a corporate executive.

The feature would be that it only contains the features that are actually important for the job.