How long will it be before your smartphone can compete with top level DSLR cameras? That day's closer than you think, according to HTC's camera guru...
The HTC One (M8) is here, and even though we’re only in April, it’s already a strong contender for phone of the year. Among a laundry list of impressive features, the pioneering Duo Camera with UltraPixel technology has been making headlines. But what’s coming next?
Earlier in the month we spoke to Symon Whitehorn, HTC’s camera expert, to find out what makes Duo Camera tick, but now it’s time to look further ahead: what does the future look like for smartphone camera technology?
The future for UltraPixel
First thing’s first: If you confidently keep the same kind of sensor in your new phone’s camera, ducking out of the megapixel race as HTC has, where do you go from there? “We could be 4K ready now,” Symon explains, talking about the next generation of HD that’s coming to TVs and cameras. “But we’re waiting until 4K can really fit into people’s lives, and to make sure that that decision makes sense.
“If you look at 4K quality, it really is only about 8-megapixels. That’s a pretty good level to hold at, because over and above that we’re not sure what benefit you’d be getting. That kind of ballpark is where we’ll be very happy to be in the future, as long as we can maintain the large pixel model.”
From that, then, it’s easy to assume that the next generation of HTC’s UltraPixel sensors will double the megapixel count, but keep the same large pixel size as is in the HTC One series.
Owning the #Selfie
That’s the back cameras, but what about the front? “HTC wants to own the selfie market,” Symon tells us. “You’ll see a lot more investment in that area. In some markets 90% of pictures taken are selfies.”
You would think that to do that, it’s just a case of putting the best possible camera on the front. But that’s not the case – while the HTC One (M8) does have a huge 5-Megapixel sensor on the front, it’s not an UltraPixel one. As Symon explains, each camera needs to be carefully considered:
“HTC wants to own the selfie market.”
“We’re not matching the rear camera on the front side, but the front camera is tuned to help you give the best selfies. It’s no longer the afterthought camera that it’s been for so long.
“I’d never want to just put the same camera on each side,” he tells us. “I’d rather optimise each camera for their roles, and treat them with an equal intellectual process. Selfies are a very different imaging environment. The nice thing there is that we always know what the range of someone’s arm is, so we can tune the camera for that setup by using things like an ultra-wide lens and digital correction.”
Time to throw away the DSLR?
That’s the shape of the current camera tech, but what about next year and beyond? Smartphones may be encroaching on the compact camera’s turf, but what about the big, bulky DSLRs? When will our smartphones take over? Sooner than you might think:
“There’s a boundary that everyone wants us to crack,” Symon explains. “As smartphones have become people’s primary camera, we expect more of them. That’s why we’ve put so much investment into the camera – because smartphone cameras take the majority of our images now. We already outperform a lot of compact point and shoot cameras, but we want to approach the performance of regular cameras. Every generation of our cameras seems to close that gap.
“What will happen is that we’ll take over more and more of those daily roles, and make it harder to justify taking out a big camera. That’s already happened with the compact camera market. I think we’re looking at about 18 months to two years until that lens barrier begins breaking down and it becomes much harder to justify buying a dedicated camera outside of specialist or nostalgia reasons.”
To really reach that level, smartphones will need to boast one big feature that fully-fledged cameras have as standard: optical zooming. Some manufacturers have toyed with implementing zooming lenses into a smartphone before, but the tech needs to be refined. And Symon asserts that it’s only a matter of time:
“Optical zooming in a smartphone is not too far off at all for HTC.”
“Optical zooming in a smartphone is not too far off at all for HTC. I can’t give too much away, but within 12-18 months we’ll see huge advances in phone optics. That’s why we don’t necessarily believe in doing a high-resolution, photo enlarging solution.
“Currently, if you want to make a really good job of taking a photo that you blow up wall-size, use a real camera.
“Everyone wants optical zooming, and that’s on the horizon. We’re trying to match the performance of dedicated cameras where one piece of glass inside it costs £3000 alone. We’re never going to match that in the short term but we are getting towards those effects.
“Two years ago I would have said that phones will never replace DSLRs. Now I’m not so sure. I think there’ll always be a role for a dedicated camera, like for sports etc., but I think you’ll see the gap closing. Those cameras will become more specialised out of necessity – they can’t match the brain power that we can put into a phone.”
“But I don’t think the camera industry needs to feel totally threatened,” Symon says in closing. “What we’ll see is these things working more harmoniously together. Camera companies will start to embrace the ecosystem we have in phones, and the two will start working in partnerships.”
The future looks sharp… Will smartphones ever completely usurp dedicated cameras? Let us know your thoughts below. You can find out more about the HTC One (M8)’s UltraPixel sensor and Duo Camera here, and order yours here.