In Depth: Flashback: the past, present and future of the camera phone

In Depth: Flashback: the past, present and future of the camera phone

Camera phones: the history

13 years ago, phones with cameras inside seemed pointless, heavy bricks that gave you grainy approximations of images. Fast forward to today, and we now have a phone with a 41MP camera sensor, one with 10x optical zoom and phone that’s adept at nabbing low light shots sitting sleekly in our collective pocket.

Today, with the iPhone 4, 4S and 5 as the most popular cameras used on photo sharing site Flickr, camera phones are clearly the new medium for taking and sharing photos, with the likes of Samsung and HTC also making the top ten.

And look at Instagram, an application dedicated to people taking photos on their mobile devices – predominantly mobile phones – now boasts over 150 million active users and sees 55 million photos posted from said devices every day.

Tell someone 15 years ago that phones would be the most popular cameras and they’d probably laugh. Today the two are synonymous. But how did this all happen so quickly?

The beginning

November 2000 saw the first camera phone hit the market, the Sharp J-SH04, but it failed to make much of an impact. In fact the J-SH04 never made it out of Japan – we could go as far as to say the first camera phone was actually a bit of a flop.

Read the specs of the Sharp J-SH04 and you’ll understand the reservations people had about camera phones back then.

A 0.11MP snapper adorning the rear and a 256 colour display is enough to make you weep, but at least it was lightweight at just 74g. You won’t find a camera phone weighing as little as that nowadays.

Maybe the world wasn’t ready for the technology, or perhaps no one cared. Either way the camera phone had arrived and a couple of years later the landscape changed completely.

Nokia 7650

Released in early 2002, the Nokia 7650 is arguably one of the most important phones ever. Promoted around the film Minority Report, it brought camera phones to the mainstream with the help of endorsement deals and heavy promotion.

Essentially, having a camera on your phone suddenly became rather desirable even if you couldn’t do much with the picture.

Camera Phones: A history

In terms of specs the 7650 stepped things up over Sharp’s original camera phone, with a 0.3MP camera, 2.1-inch display, 104MHz processor and a whopping 4MB (yes MB, not GB) of internal storage.

The Sony Ericsson T68i was the only other camera phone available at the time, although the camera was an entirely separate module. In the US, the T68i was available for $199 (around £120), the camera was another $130 (around £80).

This gave rise to the first MMS services in the UK, from Orange and T-Mobile.

By today’s standards, the Nokia 7650 is pretty poor as it has a maximum 4 hours talk time, and the 2.1-inch screen is smashed by the 5-inches we see today, but toting a VGA 640×480 camera inside put it ahead of its camera devoid rivals.

It wasn’t until November 2003 that the next big step was made, with introduction of autofocus in the Panasonic P505iS.

Sony Ericsson K750i

By 2005 things, things had improved greatly. The Sony Ericsson K750i was one of a select few phones to be rocking a 2MP camera, and it even had a blindingly bright dual-LED flash. This was next-gen stuff, seriously.

Alongside the Nokia 7650, the Sony Ericsson K750i was a handset that we clamoured for. We remember pulling it out of a pocket, only to find a friend had bought the same phone, but in a different colour.

Camera Phones: A history

The K750i also highlights just how far the rest of the mobile world had progressed, with 9 hours talk time and Bluetooth 2.0. It may have only had a 1.9-inch display, but the addition of a memory card slot meant a photo sharing revolution had begun.

A dedicated lens slider showed Sony was serious about camera phones, and this continued with the introduction of its Cyber-shot camera technology in the Sony Ericsson K800i.

Nokia N95

Nokia followed up its 2005 Nokia N90 (the first with a Carl Zeiss lens) and the 2006 Nokia N93 (with 3x optical zoom) with the technically gifted Nokia N95 in 2007.

The N95 had much to shout about; 3.5G internet technology, GPS and impressive multimedia capabilities. The camera was also no slouch, it too carried Carl Zeiss optics. The 5MP sensor was aided by an LED flash.

Camera Phones: A history

The 330MHz processor took 20 seconds between shots, something that was considered reasonable at the time. Compare that to today where smartphones are able to process many images per second, and 2007 seems an age ago.

LG Viewty KU990

The other stand-out camera phone of 2007 was the LG Viewty KU990. It too packed a 5MP camera with lenses made Schneider Kreuznach.

Design-wise, the Viewty resembled a compact camera, coming complete with a movable wheel on the back that allowed for up to 16x digital zoom.

Camera Phones: A history

It also rolled up with a Xenon flash, an upgrade over the LED offerings, as well as a 3-inch touch screen to put images front and centre.

There was little to choose between the LG Viewty and the Nokia N95 for cameras, but the Viewty offered far greater image editing, slow motion video capture and the touch screen is something that we have now come to expect from smartphones.

Camera phones: rise of the smartphone

The smartphone revolution has since done as much for the camera phone as the initial idea to combine the two. Today’s photography is all about being social. We all want to take a photo and then be able to share it with our friends and family.

This is where smartphones excel, with upgrades in mobile web technologies and the rise of social media triggering a push to devices being as competent at sharing images as much as taking them.

iPhone 4

The launch of the initial iPhone may have harmed mobile camera tech development. There was a rush was to put touch screens on everything and cameras seemed to be less important all of a sudden when busting out a top-end spec list.

But Apple’s influence on the cameraphone market wasn’t all negative, athough it wasn’t until the launch of the iPhone 4 that Apple took imaging more seriously, popping an iSight camera on the rear.

Camera Phones: A history

But with Apple it’s not the hardware that made the difference; the real genius came with the ability to share images through the first proper app portal. With third party apps populating the App Store, it was easier for users to share their images with their friends.

Without that, we wouldn’t have a Facebook that looks the way it does, Instagram or SnapChat. It’s a world that doesn’t bear thinking about.

Nokia N8

2010 gave us the Nokia N8, a phone with an impressive array of camera tech packed inside, but the sharing revolution might have been to the detriment of the Nokia N8 and the Finnish firm’s handset felt rushed as it struggled to keep pace with the Apple revolution.

Symbian was lagging far behind the likes of Android and the iPhone, it was far easier to connect and share on a Google or Apple OS.

Camera Phones: A history

This didn’t stop the Nokia N8 winning the TechRadar 2010 ‘Best camera phone on the market’ title with its 12MP snapper that took stunning pics and offered a strong Xenon flash, although the iPhone 4S proved a close second.

Nokia 808 PureView

The same problem befell the Nokia 808 PureView as the N8. It pulled into view sporting a 41MP sensor and needless to say it turned a few heads.

The Nokia PureView 808 highlighted just what the Finnish brand could do, despite running the now almost extinct Symbian OS.

Camera Phones: A history

Nokia’s PureView sensor might have been able to cram in 41MP, but the 808 shot natively at 8MP, using "pixel oversampling", a technique that combined pixels to form larger pixels, thereby collecting light more effectively.

This aids significantly in the reduction of noise, as well as allowing for greater levels of digital zoom without the associated quality loss, but the PureView was always doomed thanks to its extinct OS – however this wasn’t the last we saw of the 41MP camera.


Packing in and combining pixels seemed a prime way of gaining a better image quality, until HTC came along in 2013 with the HTC One. This packed in brand new camera imaging tech known as UltraPixels.

UltraPixel technology was developed as HTC quickly decided that letting in as much light as possible would create better images, leading to greater low light imagery.

Camera Phones: A history

A new dedicated imaging chip took the strain to help manipulate raw image data, meaning less data loss before editing and better images.

This signifies a move away from the typical pixel race that we are increasingly seeing from manufacturers, highlighting an emphasis on the camera engine as well as just the sensor.

The increased pixel size has meant a reduction in pixel numbers, and HTC has found that people need to be educated on the advantages of UltraPixels. Sceptical consumers still see devices with higher MP sensors and assume that this is intrinsically linked to picture quality.

The power of HTC’s new imaging chip is also vital to allow the use of HTC Zoe software. This takes a 3 second clip, and takes 5 shots before you’ve even hit the shutter button.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom

It’s not just HTC pushing the camera phone boundaries in 2013, as we’ve also been treated to the rather ridiculous looking Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom

There has always been an issue with zoom on phones, with a digital offering usually the only one to hand as it doesn’t require fancy telescopic lenses – but picture quality suffers every time.

Samsung reckons it’s solved this by bolting a camera onto the back of a phone and while the S4 Zoom can boast a 16MP camera with a handy 10x optical zoom and Xenon flash, it’s large size makes it tricky to stick in your pocket, and you do look a bit silly when taking a call.

Nokia Lumia 1020

We told you that 41MP snapper would be back, with the Finnish firm ditching the doomed 808 PureView platform in favour of Windows Phone 8 to create the Nokia Lumia 1020, arguably one of the best pure camera phones to date.

Nokia Lumia 1020

Of course there will be people who sing the praises of the iPhone 5S, Sony Xperia Z1 and HTC One – but for a pure camera experience the Lumia 1020 is hard to beat.

The Nokia Pro Cam app gives a huge range of options for camera aficionados to fine tune the settings for the perfect shot and while there’s a slight bulge on the rear for the camera, it’s no where near as pronounced as the 808 Pureview, let alone the S4 Zoom.

Camera phones: the future

In the present day, it is clear that there has been a lot of technical advancement from the first VGA cameras to mega and Ultrapixels. Where does the future of mobile cameras lie? Where will the next innovation come from?

With the launch of the lower-megapixel cameras, some believe that the ‘megapixel wars’ are well and truly over, with users now hitting the top level that they would need for a picture.

However, that seems unlikely. We’ve seen plenty of smaller, faster and better cameras with an ever-increasing pixel count, and we’re undoubtedly going to have at least five phones on the market in 2014 with 20MP+ sensors on.

HTC is unlikely to fall back in its pursuit of low-light excellence, so we expect the HTC One 2 to give a big upsurge in interest in this lower megapixel area.

During a a thought leadership discussion, set up by Samsung to discuss the future of the cameraphone, TechRadar spoke to a number of other parties with different views on where the smartphone was going.

The state of the cameraphone

Credit: Copyright Scriberia Ltd [2013] Unauthorised use strictly prohibited.

What was clear was that people now take photos with sharing in mind, meaning that high resolutions aren’t going to be clamoured for when they will take longer to upload.

This was backed up byHenri Moissinac, EMEA Director for Facebook Mobile who confirmed that the "majority of posts to Facebook are now digital, opposed to the text of old".

What we will see is a lot of post processing at work, with the native files not making their way to the eyes of consumers before being run through stringent algorithms first.

This means that processor speed is also going to play a larger part in the future, meaning if you want to use a truly powerful cameraphone you’ll need to have at least a decent brand of quad-core CPU, and 64-bit chips will help with this move too in three to four years’ time.

It also became clear during the discussion that there was a move towards video sharing as well as image sharing. There are a lot more issues concerned with the production of video, including sound quality and editing, mimicking the worry that quality is being sacrificed in the rush to be most popular through one’s online persona.

What an increase in video means for the future will be seen, but as sharing pictures and images becomes more and more important, expect greater emphasis to be placed on both camera hardware and software.

Moissinac also stated at the event that Facebook saw video becoming the next big thing to share – in the same way that HTC was putting an emphasis on being able to create video highlights, other will want to create a moving representation of their experience.

This will have a knock on effect to storage capacity, especially since 4K video capture is becoming more prevalent on the likes of the Galaxy Note 3.

"People have thousands of photos of their kids," added Moissinac. "They are trying to find on their hard drives moments of audio. I think the next battle will be about being able to track down those 15 seconds of useful audio in all the hours of audio on the hard drive."

So it seems that the future of the cameraphone isn’t actually a lot to do with the sensor itself – it’s providing the richer way to capture sound, keep memories and store it easily, either online or locally, as well as being able to pick out the special moments from the ever-increasing reams of content.

Lytro sensors, with the ability to refocus the image after taking, will becoming more prevalent too, as the notion of a flat, shiny image becomes something that’s interactive and manipulable, using technology to open up vast corridors of picture ingenuity.

The notion of having a 100MP camera may come to fruition, but not in a linear scale – sharing will always be the front and centre, but technology involving image interpolation will lead to some clever ideas bringing sharper and better images to the larger and clearer displays we’ll inevitably be carrying around in three to five years time.