Will camera phones ever replace the standalone camera?

by Administrator | Apr 30, 2010

One of the most ubiquitous features in modern mobile phones is the camera. The vast majority of modern mobile phones include a camera and it is hard to think of any phones, excluding low-end budget mobile phones that do not currently include one. The Executive Vice President of Nokia has now gone on record to say that 'camera phones'; mobile phones with built-in cameras are going to become even more important in the future. According to the Nokia Vice President Anssi Vanjoki, camera phones will very soon make standalone digital SLR cameras obsolete, and is quoted as saying 'there will be no need to carry around those heavy lenses.'

Before moving on to the debate about how accurate this statement is, it is worth taking a look at the history of the camera phone and seeing how they have reached such a prominent position where such a sweeping statement can be made.

Camera phones first became widely available in the UK market in 2003 with early examples being the Sony Ericsson T610 and P800, and the Nokia 7650. Compared to modern camera phones these handsets did not feature particularly powerful cameras, with each one featuring only a VGA camera (equivalent to roughly 0.3 megapixels). Customers still bought them in droves, and their success proved to mobile phone manufacturers that users wanted mobile phones they could also take pictures with. It seems obvious in hindsight that from these early beginnings, more powerful camera phones would emerge.

One of the key developments in the history of camera phones was Sony Ericsson's decision to use technology sourced from Sony's Cyber-Shot range of standalone cameras in their handsets. These additions included features such as image stabilisers and face detection. Nokia went down a slightly different route, choosing to focus on improving the lenses found in their camera phones with their high-end camera phones featuring optics made by lens manufacturer Carl Zeiss. In both cases there was one constant thing that continued to be improved upon: the resolution of the image sensors used in camera phones.

Hence, VGA cameras gave way to one megapixel cameras, which gave way to two, three, five and eight megapixel cameras. The current highest resolution camera on a mobile phone is twelve megapixels, and the best example of a twelve megapixel camera phone is the Symbian-powered Sony Ericsson Satio.

This leads back to Anssi Vanjoki's statement that camera phones will make standalone cameras obsolete. How feasible is this claim?

There can be little doubting that the image sensors found in modern camera phones are light years ahead of anything that could have been predicted in 2003. The image quality produced by the Satio is impressive, but camera phones have two distinct disadvantages compared to dedicated digital cameras. Firstly, they use what are called CMOS sensors (the same sensors used in webcams) to record the image the lens 'sees'. CMOS sensors make sense in mobile phones, as they draw less power from the battery and are cheaper to manufacture. However, in terms of image quality, they are beaten by the type of sensor that standalone digital cameras use, the CCD. In addition, a lot of high-end digital SLR cameras use multiple CCDs to produce a much higher image quality.

The second factor is something unrelated to the type of sensor used, but which is seen by most photographers as the most important part of any camera: the lens. It is this part of the equation which makes Vanjoki's statement seems unfeasible. High-end cameras use very high-end lenses. The much smaller lenses found in camera phones simply cannot produce the same quality of image as a high-end lens.

Unless future camera phones include much higher-end (but much more fragile and delicate, and more expensive) lenses, it is hard to envisage a future where they will usurp the dedicated camera as the choice for serious photographers.

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