Smartphone cameras are about to hit a wall

Rafi Letzter
iPhone 6S camera and video

Steve Kovach/Tech Insider

The best smartphone cameras are really, really good right now.

Featuring wide-open apertures, excellent dynamic range, ultra-fast autofocus, and the brains to make excellent exposures every time, top smartphone cameras like the Galaxy S7 are as good as they've ever been.

In fact, unless phone makers are willing to make some major changes to the basic designs of smartphones, they may be as good as they're ever going to get.

Right now, the S7 rules the roost because of its excellence on all four of those key measures of quality. But other companies like HTC and Apple have come close and will likely catch up with Samsung soon. They may even make incremental improvements like better color in low-light situations.

But consider this: The S7's f/1.7 lens sits near the maximum aperture you can get before focus issues become a real concern; even DSLR lenses rarely move past f/1.4. Color and contrast look as good as in professional devices. The autofocus system is smarter, faster, and more responsive than the one Hasselblad installed in the $26,000 H6D-50c. Color and dynamic range are similarly near that of top-tier non-smartphone cameras.

So what will it take to prevent smartphone cameras from hitting a quality wall? There are a few options: substantially increasing sensor and lens size or introducing optical zoom (or both!) would both be great, but would likely result in much thicker, heavier, more expensive and more fragile devices. That seems unlikely.

HTC 10 vs Galaxy S7 8

Steve Kovach/Tech Insider

The other option is building lots of cameras and lenses at about current sizes into the backs of smartphones. Photographers know that owning a multitude of single-purpose lenses is more important than owning a great camera. And there are signs that this is the direction the industry will go.

We saw the first hints of that with LG's dual-camera G5 released earlier this year. The end result was a disappointment, but the South Korean electronics maker has the right idea here. (Rumor has it Apple is doing the same thing with the iPhone 7.) If smartphone cameras are going to improve, they're going to need designs that offer new functionality, not just better specs.

A company called Light.co is working on a next-generation multi-lens phone-sized device. Lytro has built sensors that offer more functionality, like after-the-fact focusing, not just better quality

So, what will the best smartphone camera in the world look like a decade from now? Expect multiple sensors and lenses for multiple focal lengths, sensors that let you tweak focus and shutter speed after the fact, and any one of countless other innovations.

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