I was curious about how resolution (megapixels), aperture sizes, and sensor sizes have improved on smartphones over time. With the advent of phones with two back cameras with different focal lengths, like the iPhone 7, LG G6 and ASUS ZenFone 3 Zoom, I also wanted to look at how the number of camera modules on a device has increased.
So, I graphed the flagship smartphones from Apple, Samsung, Sony, and LG since 2007, and here’s what it looks like. The first dot on the left is the first iPhone, in 2007, and then we go forward in time from there.
Megapixels are going up, of course. The 20+ megapixel phones are the Sony Xperia series. Because of the added light-gathering of larger pixels, there are still flagship phones made today with lower resolution, such as the 12.3 megapixel Google Pixel. Consequently, the dispersion of megapixel counts is fairly high, with some companies betting on high resolution, and some companies going for larger pixels.
Apertures are getting brighter, and f/1.4 camera modules are rumored to be in the works today. Even at f/1.4, the depth of field is still very large, at about an f/8 to f/16 35mm-equivalent (depending on the phone’s sensor size). So, I expect apertures to continue to get brighter over time, probably settling around f/1.4, but possibly as bright as f/1.2 or f/1.0 if the engineers can pull it off.
Sensors are getting larger, although I expect this will taper off soon (larger sensors require a longer focal length for the same field of view, and the focal length of the lens is limited by the thickness of the phone).
Early phones had one rear camera, then a front-facing camera was added for video calls. Now, a second rear camera has being added to some phones, with a different focal length. In the future, we may see more phones with three cameras, and I expect we will also see improved specs on the secondary cameras, with brighter apertures and features like image stabilization, which are standard on the main camera modules but not as frequently found on the other camera modules.
Will smartphones ever be a panacea for all types of photography? No, mainly due to the limitation from the thickness of the phone’s case on sensor sizes and focal lengths. Are they getting better? Absolutely.
Is there room for further improvement? Definitely – for example, with current technology, we could build a phone with three rear cameras (ultra-wide, wide, modest telephoto) with bright f/1.x apertures and image stabilization on each module.
About the author: Sven Skafisk does research into the photography and smartphone camera industries. He previously created a viral chart showing the history of camera sales with the inclusion of smartphones, as well as an updated chart that shows the near-death of the dedicated compact camera.