These smartphone cameras totally changed mobile photography

Key Takeaways

  • The evolution of phone cameras over the past 20 years has been remarkable, with even the most basic smartphone cameras now surpassing older DSLRs.
  • Key milestones include the introduction of the first smartphone with a camera, the addition of front-facing cameras for selfies with the iPhone 4 in 2010, and advancements in low-light photography with the Google Pixel 3 in 2018.
  • The Huawei P30 Pro in 2019 changed the course of smartphone photography with its periscope lens, and the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra in 2021 pushed boundaries with its impressive telephoto lenses and 100x Space Zoom capability.

Once upon a time, taking photos of special moments meant lugging a camera around in your bag, visiting your local photography store to get your film developed, and waiting a few days to see your printed masterpieces. Skip forward to 2023, and we all have a camera in our pockets with instant results, snap a shot and immediately share it with everyone you know, and everyone you’ve ever met – that’s a statement that would have sounded totally ridiculous back in the ’90s, but it’s very quickly become the norm.

Over the last 20+ years, phone cameras have improved exponentially, so much so that now even the less advanced shooters are better than the bulky DSLRs from earlier in the century. They come loaded with all sorts of features that will help do the scene justice and all it takes is a simple point-and-shoot, without needing any professional knowledge in the field. You can take shots at night, you can blur the background, you can fix a blemish in your selfie, and you can even delete photo bombers post-capture.

It all began with the Sharp J-SH04 which was the first phone to feature a camera. Albeit more of a gimmick than anything particularly mind-blowing, it had a mere 0.11-megapixels. But it certainly set a precedent for what was to come. Going forward, the smartphone camera evolution will undoubtedly keep surprising us, but this is the story so far.

2007: The original Apple iPhone

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While there were a few camera phones before this, the Apple iPhone was the first widely available smartphone with a camera. The original iPhone camera wasn’t anything to write home about, largely because the handset focused more on the touchscreen and having full access to the internet. It featured a 2-megapixel snapper with geotagging to mark where each image was shot.

2010: Apple iPhone 4

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The dawn of the selfie camera! The iPhone 4 was the first smartphone to feature a front-facing camera. Granted it wasn’t the first phone with a camera on the front, but it was the first smartphone to take this step and make its mark. The new lens placement originally came about to power the then-brand-new video chat app, FaceTime. As well as the selfie camera, this phone had a 5MP main camera on the back which could record HD video, and for the first time, you could tap the iPhone’s screen to focus the camera’s view.

2013: HTC One M7

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HTC laid down the foundations of the modern smartphone camera with the HTC One M7 – it showed how megapixels aren’t everything at a time when everyone was racing to put a higher number in their camera specs. Its 4-megapixel sensor used the Ultrapixel method whereby three lots of data represented one pixel, and what that does is increase light sensitivity. Ultimately it was meant to create a crisper, sharper image with better colors than ever before. This innovation had a lot to learn, but it started the pixel-binning trend that is still used by the likes of Samsung, Google, and Xiaomi devices.

2013: Nokia Lumia 1020

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The Nokia Lumia 1020 came along in 2013 boasting a whopping 41-megapixel camera with a much bigger sensor than most handsets that year. As well as that, it featured a whiter, brighter, flash than elsewhere. Having 41 megapixels meant that you could zoom into the scene you were shooting and crop images down without losing too much quality, resulting in a much more detailed end result. At the time, the Lumia 1020 took some of the best smartphone pictures in the world, but it was prone to getting overly-hot while doing it.

2015: Sony Xperia Z5 Premium

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Impressive video recording came a little later than stellar photography. The first smartphone with 4K video recording and a 4K display to play the footage on was the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium. While the results weren’t perfect, it got the ball rolling for a new era of smartphone videography.

2016: Samsung Galaxy S7

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The Samsung Galaxy S7 was a huge success story partly thanks to its dual-pixel autofocus and optical image stabilisation. The sensor size was the same as previous models, but the number of pixels was reduced which made each one bigger, letting more light in and improving the quality of the shots overall, particularly in low light. Back in 2016, it was one of the most accomplished phone cameras for nighttime photography.

2018: Google Pixel 3

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Introducing Night Sight for the first time, the Google Pixel 3 was a top-performing camera in low light. As you snap a shot, the camera takes into account the level of light around you as well as how much movement is in the shot and adjusts the number of frames it would capture and how much exposure time each one gets. This was all boosted with a healthy dab of “computational photography”, which nowadays would be called AI. The result was photos that weren’t blurry or grainy, at all times of day and night.

2019: Huawei P30 Pro

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A handset that focused so heavily on the camera that it changed the course of smartphone photography, the Huawei P30 Pro featured a periscope lens that offered 5x optical zoom during a time when most cameras offered a maximum of 2x optical zoom. It meant you could take shots of objects closer up without having to move a muscle and without cropping the image – it paved the way for periscope lenses to be used in most of the top flagships a few years further down the line.

2020: Apple iPhone 12 Pro

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The iPhone 12 Pro had a triple-lens setup with Deep Fusion technology which captured nine different shots and one long exposure from each capture. Then it used machine learning to pick out the best pixels one by one, optimising them for detail and noise, massively improving the quality of the final image. On top of that the iPhone 12 Pro devices had Night Vision on both the rear and front cameras and a new LiDAR scanner to improve the camera’s perception of depth and distance. You were also able to shoot, edit, and share video in Dolby Vision HDR, the improved contrast and colours that come with Dolby Vision meant you can display the footage on a TV without it looking out of place.

2021: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

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Building on the blocks put down by Huawei, the Galaxy S21 Ultra was Samsung device to be loaded with two telephoto lenses delivering 10x optical zoom and up to 100x Space Zoom. The Space Zoom is still impressive in 2023, blowing up shots to show you a level of detail that isn’t possible to see with the naked eye. In many ways, the Galaxy S21 Ultra paved the way for the most recent batch of super camera phones.

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