A short guide to smartphone cameras

Plus list of recommendations

Big tech phone companies are definitely investing a lot of money in their cameras. When taking a look into the current new arrivals on the smartphone market, one thing is crystal clear: they all have stunning cameras.

Just the tip of the iceberg of what’s new:

  • Google released the Pixel 6 Pro - stunning quality, great lens and a generally great camera for outdoor textures.
  • iPhone released the 13 Pro Max - allegedly one of the best smartphone cameras the world has ever seen that also allows ‘cinematic mode’.
  • Xperia 1 III added different focal lengths and movable glass in their cameras - making it very apt in countless situations.
  • Samsung Galaxy s21 Ultra - has five different lenses which perform solid work.
  • Vivo X60 Pro Plus - has four integrated ZEISS lenses that work great for videography.
  • Huawei P50 Pro - also has four lenses, is superfast, and challenges all other camera phones.

And take for example the OnePlus phones. They have always been trailblazers when it comes to their cameras. Now, they’re gonna blow minds with their newest collaboration with Hasselblad (a leading Swedish camera and lens manufacturer). When mobile phones started making cameras, collaborations like that were not uncommon, but nowadays it’s definitely special.

And then there are phones such as Xiaomi’s Mi 11 Ultra, Oppo’s Find X3 Pro, the Nokia X20 and many more. How can you possibly choose?

A short history of smartphone cameras

Taking pictures and videos with your phone is probably the most taken for granted feature of our modern lives. You easily snap a high quality photo or video, send it to anyone or post it online and you don’t even think about the technology behind it. But it wasn’t always like this.

Before we dive in what’s new - let’s explore a short history of mobile phone cameras.

Different companies claim to be the very first one introducing a phone with a camera to the market. Many - small and big - companies competed in the race to create the first camera phone, but the (seemingly) first one was released in 1999 in Japan: the ‘Kyocera VP-210’ - featuring a 0.11MP camera [that means it wasn’t very good]. The phone and camera weren’t integrated, so you could take pictures, but you couldn't send them with your phone. You had to connect the phone to a computer.

Samsung claimed they were the first with their ‘SCH-V200’ phone, but so does the Sharp J-Phone. The biggest difference: the Sharp J-Phone did integrate the hardware of the phone with the camera - so the photos could be directly shared through the phone by sending an email instead of having to be plugged into a computer.

Whether it was Samsung, the Sharp J-Phone or the Kyocera VP-210 - it was the start of something new. It served as an inspiration for every other mobile phone manufacturer to start investing in their cameras.

Kyocera VP-210 →


Phone manufacturers suddenly had a united goal:

Replacing digital cameras.

In the early 2000s, brands started working together with established brands like Carl Zeiss, Cybershot and Schneider-Kreuznach. Phones kept increasing the megapixels in their cameras every year.

Nokia 7650 was the first camera phone in 2002 to integrate a VGA camera in a slider design and was also the first design with MMS capabilities. MMS was a method with which you could easily share your photos with people around the world. This set the wheels in motion and spurred an innovation race.

Nokia 7650 →


The golden age of camera innovation

2006 to 2009 was a good age for phone innovation.

Nokia did a great job when they released the Nokia N90 in 2006, a phone that focused on video and could transform into a camcorder. The video wasn’t really great, and Nokia was obviously more focused on photography, but still - it could record videos.

The next Nokia [N95] had an even more impressive camera - 5MP camera and Carl Zeiss optics.

Multiple phones released at that time were doing slightly better than the two Nokias, but the real step forward came with the introduction of the Samsung W880 in 2009. This was not only the first 12MP camera phone, but also the very first phone able to record video in 30 fps.

Nokia N90 | Nokia N95 | Samsung W880 →


After this, many convergent phone/cameras started to erupt. Like Nikon’s Coolpix s800C in 2012 and Panasonic’s Lumix CM1 in 2014. They even looked like digital cameras with a big display with the ability to call and text.

One important change in the mobile phone industry stalled the progress in the cameras for a short while: the birth of the smartphone. The iPhone started a race with other features in smartphones: slimmer and more attractive devices that could connect to the internet.

That changed again with the arrival of the Sony Xperia Z in 2013 featuring a 13MP camera and great video capabilities. The battle of making the best camera phone was ignited once again.

The introduction of the Galaxy s5 and the iPhone 6 in 2014 elevated camera phones to a new level of photography with the help of software. What makes a smartphone better than a digital camera? It has the potential to carry a lot more software.

These last two basically evolved into what we all use today; Android and iPhone. Incredibly fast, big screens, recording video or snapping a picture in a heartbeat, sharing culture, TikTok, Instagram, YouTube - you name it. The technology of the cameras and software will keep on improving until it matches professional cameras.

Why mobile filming?

So, what’s new?

Which phones have the best cameras right now? It’s always tricky to make that statement. Not only is it a personal preference which phone, design, interface one likes best, but the market also changes constantly.

That’s why Eddie offers a list of recommendations that updates regularly.

←Do you want a more in-depth look at why some smartphones are better than others? Check this video for more information!