Tech Tonic | Your phone camera is at a crossroads - Hindustan Times

Tech Tonic | Your phone camera is at a crossroads, and it's going to change your life

Feb 24, 2024 06:07 PM IST

Phones may be replacing cameras, but not camera makers. Would you trust their expertise, or hand over control to AI?

There are often moments etched in history that set humanity and technology on a path to the future. Before 1914, cameras were a polar opposite of how we see them today. Big, bulky, heavy and a logistical nightmare to carry and install at the location ofthe shot. Contemplate this. Large format cameras needed longer than 9 minutes to process a portrait photo exposure. Imagine sitting that long for a camera to do its work. Unthinkable?

A UR-Leica from 1914 (left) is the world's first compact 35mm film camera, the learnings from which have been a foundation of digital cameras and now smartphone cameras(Image: Vishal Mathur / HT Photo) PREMIUM
A UR-Leica from 1914 (left) is the world's first compact 35mm film camera, the learnings from which have been a foundation of digital cameras and now smartphone cameras(Image: Vishal Mathur / HT Photo)

You may not have realised, and neither had I for most of my life, but two people are pivotal to not just inventing cameras as we know them, but to an era of photography. Ernst Leitz II, who founded Leica Camera AG, now a German legacy camera-maker, was ultimately successful in attempts to hire engineer and photographer Oskar Barnack to come work for his company in Wetzlar, Germany.

In 1914, Barnack handed Leitz something he called a ‘Liliput-Kamera” (it later came to be known as the UR-Leica, or series 0), as he embarked on a sea voyage to the United States. The first-of-its-kind compact camera could be kept in a coat or trouser pocket, for discreet photography. The ‘Ernest Leitz II New York, 1914’ is a series of iconic photos that made photography history.

Over the decades, irrespective of type (full frame, mirrorless, digital, DSLRs, what have you), so many camera models have been built on this new-found ease of a pocketable camera that Barnack gave the world. The eventual switch from glass plates and 35mm negative reels tomemory cards freed the photographer in you from a quantity limitation. Each negative reel usually could capture just 36 photos; you wouldn’t want to waste them.

The ultimate destination for most of us is the smartphone as a camera. Not to discount a discerning audience that is still spending big money on full-frame cameras too, but that’s a niche now. Yet, as we’ve simplified by compressing high performance optics in a form factor that’s physically much thinner than even the most compact cameras, physics poses the least of a conundrum.

An era of holistic approach

Smartphones may be replacing cameras, but not the camera makers. A state of equilibrium was reached with smartphones. Performance, software, screens (resolution and display tech) and battery stamina, all improved at a steady cadence. With little to differentiate their products on specs, phone makers had to get creative. It had been this way for a while now. Something had to give. The search was on for an exceptional element, one that perhaps needed a delicate touch. An X factor.

And one that would do well with a dash of expertise. I am least surprised that phone makers are reaching out to legacy camera companies, increasingly dependent on their expertise of photography, to provide that edge. In fact, camera makers are equally excited about the prospect. Compared with flagship phones from a generation or two prior, smartphone photography has taken a massive step forward, despite a smartphone form that hasn’t changed. . Perhaps we’ll have some progress in 2024, but even if not, the changing direction of evolution is clear.

Xiaomi with German photography brand Leica, OnePlus with Swedish camera makers Hasselblad and Vivo with Zeiss, also a German optoelectronics maker are three dominant examples of the changing direction course of smartphone camera evolution, till date. The extent of these partnerships differs. For instance, Hasselblad’s inputs to OnePlus’ flagship phone cameras are more inclined towards the software, be it filters or colour processing. Zeiss doesn’'t make cameras themselves anymore, but a range of cinema lenses and compatible lenses for other manufacturers’ cameras. Leica gives Xiaomi a holistic vision, which includes not just image processing, but also extensive shooting modes and add-ons for tweaking photos. The results speak for themselves.

By the time you read this, the Xiaomi 14 Ultra flagship would have been announced. It is an example of the equal weightage to algorithms and hardware. At the heart are Leica’s Summilux optical lens and a 1-inch sensor. In my old-school book, that’s the reliable, old-school way of extracting the maximum detailing and realism from photos as close as possible to the actual scene. Nothing really surpasses good hardware as the foundation.

I’ve been hearing that the Japanese camera-maker Canon too is actively looking at a smartphone partnership.

The next chapter is being written, but it is far from the final chapter.

Photos as AI creations

There is another path, a school of thought deviating slightly from the hard work of optimising a combination of sensors, lenses, and image processing in what is finally the camera module. It is called artificial intelligence (AI), and that does beg the question – are the photos made with AI even real photos? Make no mistake, every phone has some level of AI involved in photograph taking and correction. Some just lean on it more. Samsung, for example, isn’t holding back on claims they make about their AI phone, the Galaxy S24 Ultra. After all, it has the processing power to do this in quick time, as you shoot photo after photo. Yet, it is difficult to ignore that photos that emerge from those phone’s camera have a distinctly higher level of AI processing to boost detailing, colours, and even its own take on optimising a ‘scene’ as it sees fit.

You can turn some of it’s AI capabilities off (which I did, yet my observation), but not the rest. Not everyone may like the level of processing that’s at play. Arguable, but I believe it would be justified if I hold to the observation that some photos as a result lose the realism that the human eyes saw at a scene. A sense of time, place or moment gets lost if a fading evening light in the sky is brightened to make it look like late afternoon. Or if the reds on your child’s dress pop more than every other colour in the frame.

By listing these perils, I wanted to arrive at this – AI’s influence in defining photos may not be a bad thing in the long term. But smartphone makers who choose to go down this path must show a level of restraint and hold a grip on the sense of realism. Our memories are not generative AI creations. Let’s not make them look like that.

Vishal Mathur is technology editor for Hindustan Times. Tech Tonic is a weekly column that looks at the impact of personal technology in the way we live, and vice-versa. The views expressed are personal.

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    Vishal Mathur is Technology Editor for Hindustan Times. When not making sense of technology, he often searches for an elusive analog space in a digital world.

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