Simon Baker
Simon Baker (Senior Research Director, Mobile Phones/Consumer Devices)

Chinese smartphone makers turned to European camera companies to improve their phones’ imaging capabilities, but now need them less and less for their technology.

Huawei turned to Germany’s Leica for the cameras on its top-end models when it started its big push upmarket in 2012. This was when the smartphone camera arms race really began to take off. Samsung, the leader in premium Android and at that point still a maker of conventional cameras itself, ramped up the camera capabilities of its premium models.

In a more recent move, in December last year, the major Chinese smartphone maker vivo, part of BBK, partnered German camera and lens maker Zeiss. Nokia had already partnered with Zeiss for many years, a collaboration that continues with HMD Nokia.

In March this year the upmarket OnePlus brand, also from the Chinese BBK stable, announced a tie-up with Swedish camera maker Hasselblad.

Not Just for Prestige

These up and coming Chinese brands may have needed storied European camera names for prestige, but many reports on the tie-ups say the access to camera technology has also been important, for still images if less for video.

The smartphone has already pretty much killed off the amateur point and shoot camera, with sales of digital cameras in general collapsing from 121 million in 2010 to 15.2 million in 2019, according to figures from camera industry body CIPA.

Rapid Technical Progress

The big leap forward in camera capabilities on smartphones is the culprit. Of course the pixel count has risen. The first iPhone had 2m pixels, while today’s top of the line models can have more than 100m.

As many as seven lenses are placed side by side in some premium models. Among the most sophisticated are periscope lenses, diverting the image sideways within the body of the phone, enabling a greater depth between lenses than if set flush into the camera body. Samsung has a periscope system on the S21 Ultra, which achieves 10x optical zoom.

Not much is written about the lenses used in smartphones, often plastic now, but they have improved to be able to keep in line with detail captured by such high pixel counts. An enormous amount has been achieved in software and in miniaturisation. Software techniques have sharpened picture quality through noise reduction and phase detection, focus systems have got faster, flash is better using two LED lights and stabilisation has improved.

Processing Power on the Phone

Smartphone photography is making use of the speed and power of the latest smartphone processors. Qualcomm’s latest top of the line Snapdragon 888 processors, for instance, are capable of extremely fast processing of still images, which allows multiple shots to be taken of a subject at different settings, with areas of flare on the principal image being filled out by in-software processing from other exposure. The processors also support simultaneous video recording from three cameras.

Still Reliant on Outside Sources for Sensors

There is still one major area where the phone makers remain reliant on outside suppliers — the sensor. This is also an area where the same components are used across phones and conventional cameras. Sony dominates the camera sensor market, with Samsung in second place and a company called OVT third. Here miniaturisation remains a challenge. The largest sensors put in smartphones so far are 1in., offering around 20 megapixels, which have a coverage area less than a seventh of that in a 35mm “full frame” digital camera.

Phone Makers Making Many Innovations In-House

But this is the exception that proves the rule. Apart from sensors, phone makers produce many of the components inside smartphone cameras in-house.

Processor power, coupled with multiple lenses, has moved photography on phones into new directions away from the conventional camera. So it’s no surprise that many of the new innovations in smartphone cameras are coming directly from the phone makers themselves.

Many do not see the need to partner with the camera industry. Apple makes a major marketing play on the quality of its cameras, and recently registered a patent for periscope technology. Google’s Pixel phones are also noted for their camera smarts. Neither player has worked with a major camera player.

Chinese Becoming More Confident in Their Capabilities

The Chinese brands are increasingly showing their own confidence in in-house technology.

Xiaomi has talked about a tie-up with a camera brand, but nothing has come of it to date. It is also planning to introduce a liquid lens that changes shape under pressure. A motor changes the shape of the lens from telephoto format to allow close-up macro shots.

OPPO in August held a Future Imaging Technology event, at which it announced a continuous zoom system for its periscope cameras. A motor moves lenses inside the periscope, giving zoom lengths of 85–200mm without digital zoom. OPPO also announced a five-axis optical image stabilisation system.

Rival vendor vivo has a more limited periscope system in testing.

Cost Advantage

Not only is smartphone camera technology developing fast, but its emphasis on software processing is making it relatively cost efficient.

Top-end multicamera smartphone modules cost the manufacturer no more than about $70; even though that translates into around two and a half times that in the retail price, it’s a small amount against the cost of a quality conventional camera.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em

Faced with an onslaught of new technology and cost advantages, why don’t the hard pressed makers of conventional cameras decide if you can’t beat them, join them, and start incorporating Android-based functionality and smartphone processors into larger camera formats with standard lenses?

So far most seem loathe to do that. In fact the biggest names in the business, the Japanese brands, have largely declined to work with the smartphone industry at all to date. Sony, through its sensors, is the only Japanese camera maker to have done well out of the smartphone camera boom. The others have just focused on upmarket camera models in a much smaller market.

Not Many Examples

From the phone side Nokia and Samsung have both tried to amalgamate the smartphone and bigger camera modules in the past, but have not followed through with updated products.

Among the European camera specialists, Zeiss brought out one such attempt, the ZX1, a couple of years ago, but it was way too expensive for the mass market.

The only company to really embrace this approach at more accessible price points is China’s Yongnuo. The company is hardly known outside China and there is no news of whether it will sell its new Android device, the YN455, which looks like a semi-compact camera, in export markets.

The First Camera Brand Smartphone

Leica has made the most imaginative move. In conjunction with mobile operator Softbank, it has launched a smartphone in Japan under its own name, the Leitz Phone 1. There is an imaging focus on the phone, as it is one of the first smartphones to have a 1in. sensor, but actually the phone is a modified Sharp Aquos R6.

Leica’s appeal to aficionados has been through such qualities as the sound of its shutter click and the super clean aesthetics of its camera bodies. The Leitz model plays on these qualities and has a user interface that is mainly monochrome.

A Different Experience

Lots of serious photographers don’t like smartphone cameras for practical reasons; they may believe the batteries will not last long enough, the slim body will slip out of their hand, they don’t like the touch interface or lack of a viewfinder. They may also judge the effects the clever processing produces as crass or inconsistent in impact.

Leica’s move with the Leitz 1 has recognised that, when their technology is less and less needed, camera makers still have something to contribute in their aesthetic handling of images, if they can reproduce the look of photos taken by their classic cameras, even if the experience of taking the photo is necessarily different.

Photography is after all an art form, not just an output of technology, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder.


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