Throwback: Mobile camera tech was amazing even before iPhone and Android

It's not just me that fondly remembers the dawn of smartphone photography as mainly a Nokia affair. Ask the average phone user these days and they'd guess that the iPhone was first to have a camera, but the likes of the Nokia N93 and N95 were hitting the imaging ball out of the park long before an iPhone even existed. Then the N8 and then 808 (and 1020) moved imaging forward to a point that phones only overcame in the last few years. So it's good to read a 2020 article on an Android fan site that acknowledges this Nokia (and Symbian) legacy.

From Dhruv Bhutani's article:

There are few things we take more for granted than snapping a quick photograph with our phones.

The rise of computational photography paired with multiple-lenses and the inherent convenience factor have made smartphones the default choice for most users. While it has been years since smartphones completely destroyed the point and shoot market, even high-end SLRs have been facing the heat.

However, the camera phone heavy-hitters of today stand on the shoulders of giants. Sure, it might seem that we’re seeing a rapid increase in the pace of photography-related innovations but you’d be surprised to know just how many of these have been attempted before, sometimes well over a decade ago.

In fact, in many ways, we’ve come a full circle. Let’s look at some of the defining moments in phone camera history and how they shaped modern camera phones.

He then takes a decade-long stroll through camera phone innovations, with Nokia at its centre, and rightly so. Picking the 808, for example:

Today, we’re amazed by high-resolution cameras going all the way up to 108MP for oversampled high-quality shots. Did you know that the technology originally debuted on the Nokia 808 way back in 2012? The Nokia 808 trounced the N8’s sensor with a massive 1/1.2-inch 41MP sensor, a record that remained unbeaten all the way till 2019 when the Honor View 20 shipped with a 48MP sensor.

Nokia reused the 808’s sensor in the Windows Phone running Lumia 1020, but the results weren’t quite as good due to the limitations imposed by the operating system.

The real magic was in how the phone introduced the concept of computational photography to the smartphone space. The default output from the 41MP sensor was set to 5MP for 7-into-1 pixel binning. This not just reduced noise, but also increased the sensitivity of the sensor for better low-light imaging.

The Nokia 808 took things one step further still. The oversampling was completely dynamic in nature and allowed for lossless zoom. As you moved through the focal-range, the Nokia 808 dynamically adjusted the amount of oversampling to ensure optimum image quality. While it still wouldn’t hold up against a true telephoto lens, the results were astonishing by 2012 standards.

Finally, oversampling further improved low-light imaging that combined with the large sensor and xenon flash allowed you to capture noise-free shots even in poorly lit conditions. The Nokia 808 PureView would prove to be the swan song for the Finnish company’s imaging and Symbian efforts.

Good stuff. And nice that the 2000s are remembered by someone else other than me! I'd disagree about the 1020's results, mind you, since the BSI sensor and OIS made shots possible on the 1020 that even the 808 couldn't attempt. But still....!

Published by Steve Litchfield at 9:01 UTC, June 29th

Section: Flow
Categories: Link of Interest, Hardware
Platforms: Series 60, General, S60 3rd Edition, Symbian^3, General, Windows Phone 8