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Smartphone camera technology ramps up in 2019


By Peter Griffin

Time for your close-up

Camera phone technology has advanced significantly with better lenses and camera sensors, night mode and artificial intelligence to automatically improve your photos. The physical limitations of the smartphone format have meant some features we love from the conventional film camera world have been slow to appear in phones.

In particular, genuine “lossless” optical zoom has been hard to achieve at high magnification. This allows you to zoom in on an object and take a snap with your smartphone, while retaining a high level of detail in the image.

Phone camera lenses typically have two times (2x) or 3x optical zoom. Moving the lens to magnify the image is difficult in a device that may be a centimetre thin at most. Often digital zoom will be employed to allow for magnification. This involves using image processing in the camera, zooming in on an area of the image and blowing it up.

The problem is that in enlarging the pixels in the image, resolution and quality are lost. Digital zoom therefore has remained the weak spot on even high-end cameras when it comes to photos and videos.

But at the Mobile World Congress, Chinese phone maker Oppo showed off camera technology that allows for 10x lossless optical zoom. Oppo used a periscope design to pack the lens into a triple camera smartphone module as well as specially cut lenses to save space. The unit is 6.76mm wide, a saving in space of 120 per cent on previous models, says Oppo.

The camera module looks set to be an industry first when it is incorporated into 5G handsets Oppo plans to release by the middle of the year.

“I’m not a technical guy, I’m not a camera person,” Oppo’s New Zealand managing director Kevin Cho told NOTED at the Mobile World Congress.

“I just want something I can snap with really quickly. Lossless zoom just gives us a point of differentiation. It’s the key innovation for our next set of products this year, however it will be combined with things that are already mature like your wide angle and telephoto lens.”

Shake-free shooting

The Oppo camera can zoom from 16mm ultra-wide camera mode to 160mm focal length – that’s a total of 10x zoom. It also features optical image stabilisation on the main 48-megapixel camera and the telephoto lens, to help eliminate camera shake when you are zoomed in for a shot.

How does it work? While Oppo didn’t release a new phone housing the cameras at the Mobile World Congress, it had prototypes available and constructed models of miniature town scenes to zoom in on.

The results in the short time I spent with the phone for still photography were impressive, better than the likes of the Huawei Mate 20 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S9, as well as Oppo’s flagship phone the Find X.

At full zoom, the quaint waterfront scene with its lighthouse, docks and boats sitting on a painted ocean came out crisp and clear in extreme close-up.

The video function wasn’t available on the prototype phone. It lossless zoom can be applied to video that will be instrumental to capturing better quality video at a distance.

It is hard to know to what extent lossless optical zoom will become a sought-after selling point. But as Cho says, it is a differentiator, another in Oppo’s arsenal as it takes on Samsung and Huawei who dominate the Android phone market in New Zealand.

The camera technology will likely make its way into the successors to the Find X ($1,499) and R17 Pro ($999).

Oppo has previously captured attention with novel technologies to separate itself from the competition, including the pop-up camera mechanism on the Find X, which allowed camera lenses to removed front and back of the camera, and its SuperVOOC fast-charging system, which allows the R17 Pro to reach 40 per cent battery charge in 10 minutes when using the supplied Oppo adapter.

Oppo showed off a 5X optical zoom system at the Mobile World Congress a couple of years ago that didn’t make it into production. But there’s obviously enough confidence in the 10x version to go into production, which will appeal to those looking to upgrade this year to a phone offering better results in close-ups and photos shot from afar.

Cameras have your back

While numerous phones have emerged in the last year boasting three rear-facing cameras to cover all the bases – wide-angle through to telephoto, colour and monochrome, Nokia has taken the multi-camera trend to the extreme with a five-camera set-up released at the show.

Each camera in the PureView has 12 mega-pixel resolution, but working in unison can produce images with incredible resolution: photos of 60-megapixels, panoramas of 240-megapixels according to Nokia.

The design of the rear camera array is certainly striking, but in other areas the phone is less impressive, compared to some of the other phones unveiled at the Mobile World Congress. But the PureView will be based on Google’s Android One, the stock version of Android without added software elements, which I prefer for its simplicity. That combined with what looks to be exceptional camera quality, could give Nokia owner HMD Global the cut-through it has so far been lacking since its revival has seen it go after the market for mid-priced phones.

The PureView will sell for US$699. Local pricing is yet to be announced. With Spark, Skinny and Harvey Norman offering it, expect it to retail here for around the $1,000 mark.