Michael Jennings tells me more about mobile phone photography

Today Michael Jennings, the creator and still technical curator of this blog, who was in my area for the first time in quite a while, called round and we went out and had drinks. In a Pimlico pub. Indoors. Unmuzzled. With quite a few other people also present. This being the first time that either of us had done this with anyone for … quite a while:

I photoed him and his Lockdown hair, and he told me more about how photography on mobiles is developing. He has an iPhone, which you can just see bottom right of that picture. My mobile only has one camera two cameras (see comments 1 and 3), but Michael’s iPhone has three, thus making variable and quite impressive zoom possible.

Michael speculated that it may not be long before the whole of the back of his next iPhone but three with be covered in cameras, like: well over a dozen.

The limiting factor on this sort of multi-camera is not the cameras themselves. The problem is processing power. Making sense of the output of such a large camera array will take a lot of that, and also lots of ultra-clever software as yet still being contrived.

And there we have the ongoing story of digital photography, better explained than I have ever heard it before. All that processing power attached to an old-school camera would presumably triple its price. But mobiles already have all that processing power, or soon will, so it makes sense for your camera to be part of your personal pocket Kray computer, that you use for all your other mobile computerising.

Several years ago, the big Japanese enterprises who decide these things decided that they would spend no more money making regular dedicated cameras better, which is why these things haven’t changed in the last half decade. They decided to throw all their photography money at mobile phone cameras.

What I had not realised was how very, very good the mobile phone “camera” (quotes because it will really be cameras plural) is going to be, and how inexorably it will go on improving. 3D images? Oh yes, said Michael. The processing power applied to these camera arrays will make imagery possible of a sort that no single dedicated camera, no matter how complicated and costly, could possibly now contrive.

Which means: that old school cameras, even of the most sophisticated sort, will ever so slowly but ever so surely fade into the history books. And actually, do so really rather soon. In historical time, in the blink of … a camera.

Which further means that the best of all those photoer photos that I’ve been photoing for the last two decades will just keep getting better and better, like old wine. Plenty of other people have photoed such photos, but I know of nobody else apart from me who has made a point of doing this on such an industrial scale.

Here are thirty such photos I photoed in July 2006 and which I displayed here last January. There are plenty more where they came from.

This entertaining photoer habit, on the other hand, looks like it will be with us for a while.

7 thoughts on “Michael Jennings tells me more about mobile phone photography”

  1. Another interesting fact: the mobile phone business now consists pretty much entirely of the products of six companies: Apple (US), Samsung (South Korea), Huawei (China), Xiaomi (China), BBK (China), and Transsion (China). (BBK produce phones under names like “Oppo” and “Vivo”, and their high end brand is “OnePlus”, which is the only brand of theirs you will see over here – they mainly target middle income countries. Transsion target poor countries, and are the largest seller of phones to Africa). The Japanese and European brands that were dominant or at least large players 15 years ago are gone entirely. The Japanese camera makers are involved, but as suppliers of components – a fair chunk of the camera components in the iPhone are made by Sony. And read what you will of once proud Japanese brands being reduced to component manufacturers for American brands.

  2. But wont phone cameras be quite limited compared to old school because of the fixed lens (no physical zoom)? I mean, most times, I want to zoom in to maximize the number of pixels that are on target. Not that some clever person can’t, or already has, devise a very compact physical zoom mechanism (although physics does limit such things’ dimensions).

  3. Mobile phones with multiple cameras have multiple fixed focal length lenses with different focal lengths (or, more correctly, different 35mm equivalent focal lengths). The software in the phone then creates a composite image from the different lenses equivalent to an image from a zoom lens with a focal length in between that of the two lenses. It’s very clever.

    Brian: when you were getting your new phone, you actually followed my suggestion that you should spend a little extra money on the Galaxy A20 rather than the Galaxy A10. The main reason for this was that the A20 has a better camera system.

  4. Regarding physical zoom, “periscope” cameras are starting to appear on phones. The camera is turned sideways (requiring prisms or mirrors) to allow space for the lens and sensor to be further apart, allowing for physical optical zooming.

    Then again, it seems to me a lot of phone camera tech is experimental. Some of it catches on, a lot of it is tried ones and seen never again, like the 5 lenses of my Nokia 9.

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