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The Rise of Smartphone Photography

Take a look at any smartphone specification list on a review site, eCommerce store, or notice what people stress when they talk about smartphones, and you’ll notice some talk of “megapixels”, “zoom” or “color correction”. All of them are, of course, talking about the camera- or, to be more accurate, the several cameras on the modern smartphone. Smartphone cameras have multiple uses, from recording videos and facilitating video calls to enabling some really exciting new features like smartphone-based AR, but the most important function of smartphone cameras remains what it has always been- photography.


<The Kyocera VP-210 was the world’s first smartphone with a camera. It could take two pictures a second and store up to 20 images>

The first cameras on phones appeared in 1999, just two years after the term “Smartphone” was itself coined. At the time, the world of photography was transitioning from film-based to digital photography, but it wouldn’t be till 2003 that digital cameras would outsell film ones. It was a remarkable achievement, considering digital cameras had only become commercially available in 1991, some 12 years before they overtook sales of film cameras. It’s therefore doubly remarkable that smartphone-based cameras outsold digital cameras that same year, just four years after they were first introduced! By 2006 they’d outsold digital and film cameras combined, and by 2008, when sales of stand-alone digital cameras peaked, and by the time the iPhone was introduced the same year, the writing was on the wall. The future of casual photography belonged to the smartphone camera.

Growth and Usage
In 2020 over 1.2 Trillion photos were taken around the world- over 100 billion more than the previous year. With more than 4 Billion and rising number of people now using Social Media, the vast majority of these digital photos are pictures of everyday life, together constituting the entire visual history of the 21st century. Smartphone photos fall into four distinct categories:

  1. Casual Everyday- These are opportunistic photos that are all about everyday life events- hanging out, taking selfies, going to a concert, birthdays, and weddings, and generally creating the visual record that we all rely on these days to go down memory lane. As these have grown, so have new, creative ways of showing off these photos been invented. From filters and apps that help one edit photos and add effects to visual media-centric Social Media platforms (e.g., Instagram) to store and showcase the photos, the entire photography ecosystem has evolved to help smartphone photographers unleash their imagination to show the visions behind their photos.
  2. Visual History- Smartphones with cameras are everywhere. That means billions of cameras now at fingertips, ready to catch events- and they have. From the horrendous 9/11 attacks in the year 2001 to the Myanmar protests in 2021, the first captured images of world-changing events are increasingly smartphone-based. Ever-improving wireless internet connections, cloud storage, and social media mean that with just a few clicks, history is made all around the world, all the time. In the process, all of us have become potential eyewitnesses and journalists.

    The 2010 Arab Spring demonstrations were the first instance of citizen journalism on a large scale using cellphone-based cameras. With so many different sources capturing an event, the truth had a new way of coming to light.
  3. Specialized Usage- Modern smartphone camera hardware and software are incredibly powerful. From multiple lenses that allow an ultra-wide field of view to AI software engines that better interpret night photos, smartphone photos can now do things that were only possible with high-end digital cameras just a couple of years ago. Tripod mounted photos of eclipses, breathtaking sweeping views of canyons, crisp, vibrant shots of nature in motion – hobbyists from amateur astronomers to travel bloggers can now use just their smartphones to take photos that are as thought-provoking as they are aesthetically pleasing.

    Modern smartphones offer an “always ready” camera to capture life as it happens. Courtesy ClickinMoms

  4. Professional Photography- While smartphones have all but wiped-out pocket cameras, professional photography still remains the bastion of DSLRs and Full Frame cameras. However, a small group (around 10%) of photographers use smartphones extensively for supplemental tasks like website images or use smartphones as secondary cameras when they need the lightweight and mobility more than the high quality of the larger Pro cameras. This is a trend that is likely to keep growing, as smartphone cameras and their accessories like tripods, Snap-On lenses, and third-party specialized software keep narrowing the gap between professional and amateur equipment capability.

    Figure 2: Professional photographers can use smartphone capabilities to elevate even the most ordinary pictures, like this picture of a rusty typewriter taken on a Moto E5. Technology is just the enabler. The artist is still the human behind the camera. Picture Courtesy Edgar Cervantes via Android Authority

Post-Production for Smartphone Pictures

Most post-production work for smartphone photography is limited to automated color correction, filters, effects, and resizing to fit the constraints of social media platforms. However, for the more specialized tasks (e.g., Art photos, food photos, nature photos, etc.), post-production is still an important task to bring the best out of the pictures.

A lot of free and paid photo-editing apps are available to enable photo post-processing. They offer great functionalities but often require a decent level of knowledge about photography, color physics, digital noise cancellation, etc. That can be pretty intimidating to those vast number of people who want their photos to look really good but don’t have the time or inclination to acquire semi-pro level domain knowledge.

For such people, one of the best options is to use a professional photo-editing service. This may sound strange- after all, photo-editing is probably an expensive service really meant for huge volumes, right? Not quite. Many professional photo-editing services like Pikspire offer affordable options from just one or two to thousands of photos. Many even offer consulting services to help you choose the best pictures from a set for your project or to store for posterity.

Post-processed photo taken with a smartphone, “courtesy: Pikspire”

Smartphone photography is a phenomenon of the times. Gadgets may become smarter and more connected, but their true triumph is to help the person behind the lens achieve their vision. Smartphones offer easily accessible, affordable options to aspiring photographers, small businesses, and people everywhere to present their ideas in the best manner possible.


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