It’s a question many photographers, including myself, have been asking for years. Why don’t mirrorless and DSLR cameras utilize smartphone technology and apps?

My friend Mary Wade, using a co-worker’s ring light, had photographed portraits of her fellow employees using both an older DSLR and her new Google Pixel smartphone. “The photos that I took with my phone looked a lot better,” she noted. 

After she found that much of that is due to how newer camera phone tech processes the images, she thought, “Sign me up for auto processing!” She’s busy, after all. She writes and does a billion other things at the office.

Could computational photography take a single exposure image such as this Milky Way, and apply keystoning corrections to straighten the building, add noise reduction without ruining the pinpoints of the stars, color correct, apply white balance, and more automatically and instantaneously? Would it allow you to "stack" photos and add in a low-ISO foreground to provide an absurdly clean image? And could it do this all while leveraging full-frame sensors and high-quality lens?
Could computational photography take a single exposure image such as this Milky Way, and applies keystoning corrections to straighten the building, add noise reduction without ruining the pinpoints of the stars, color correct, apply white balance and more automatically and instantaneously? Would it allow you to “stack” photos and add in a low ISO foreground to provide an absurdly clean image? And could it do this all while leveraging full-frame sensors and high-quality lens?

Four benefits we might get with smartphone processing technology applied to cameras

Cameras on smartphones can take some astonishingly great photos. Given that they use a considerably smaller sensor, just think what images we could take if this technology were applied to much larger, more detailed sensors found in mirrorless and DSLR cameras. Just think what it might look like if we applied that to all that amazing glass. Computational photography would no longer have to battle the physics of smaller sensors and tiny lenses.

1. Instant image processing similar to smartphones

Many of us, like Mary, often like the way modern smartphones automatically process photos. Smartphones, after all, automatically adjust white balance, adjust color, automatically sharpen, create high-dynamic photos and more, using computational photography. It can reduce noise or brighten certain aspects of an image automatically. And it can do it at lightning speed.

For real estate or sports photographers, this could also mean being able to send images to clients faster than ever. Photographers could also send their images to printers much more efficiently as well. 

Some photographers, including us night photographers, might not want the camera to process our photos automatically. Or perhaps we might want it to, but also leave the original copy intact so we can process it on our own and compare. Cameras could offer these choices.

iPhone SE 2020. This was a quick photo taken for selling the photos. One person wrote in simply to tell us that it was the most beautiful photo of a vehicle she had ever seen in the used ads. Applying this instant processing to cameras with much larger sensors could benefit us all.
iPhone SE 2020. This was a quick photo taken for selling the photos. One person wrote in simply to tell me that it was the most beautiful photo of a vehicle she had ever seen in the used ads. Applying this instant processing to cameras with much larger sensors could benefit us all.

2. Bokeh 

Portrait Mode in iPhone or Android, creating bokeh, might also be a great application. Being able to use machine learning to automatically focus on eyes (yes, I know many mirrorless cameras already do this) while creating a creamy bokeh might be good. 

iPhone SE 2020, not the highest end camera phone by a long shot. However, simply by selecting Portrait Mode and black and white, I was instantly able to create this selfie, which uses the more inferior of the two cameras on the phone, and send this to our families while we were at the beach. What could this technology do in a camera with a much better lens and larger sensor?
iPhone SE 2020 — not the highest end camera phone by a long shot. However, simply by selecting Portrait Mode and black and white, I was instantly able to create this selfie, which uses the more inferior of the two cameras on the phone, and send this to our families while we were at the beach. What could this technology do in a camera with a much better lens and larger sensor?

3. Top Shot

Mirrorless cameras could incorporate technology such as Google’s Top Shot. For instance, You might take a photo where one person blinks. Top Shot to the rescue. Top Shot will work to select the best shots through utilizing a three-second video and on-device machine learning, taking into account open eyes or other factors such as smiling or whether the subjects are looking at the camera, and create a photo for you.

4. Capturing life experiences in three dimensions

iPhone has already rolled out a LiDAR scanner and app. This allows you to take night mode portraits, video-based Portrait Mode, and low-light bokeh to new heights. But coupled with machine learning, it promises more, such as 3D photography, augmented reality, and of course, continually improving bokeh for day portraits.

The idea of capturing your child’s first birthday or your wedding using LiDAR to create a three-dimensional documentation is intriguing. Much of the issue with LiDAR so far has been lack of resolution. However, quality lenses and large sensors may offset this.

5. Combining elements

Perhaps machine learning might be applied toward combining qualities not physically possible in a lens. Could we have a weird 400mm fisheye? Or a 180-degree wide-angle that blurs like a Lensbaby? 

Using smartphone OS and apps on cameras

A rather fun if crude reimagining of a full-sensor camera with interchangeable lens coupled with a large smartphone screen and technology.
A rather fun if crude re-imagining of a full-sensor camera with interchangeable lens coupled with a large smartphone screen and technology.

I would love to see my cameras with larger screens and sporting operating systems such as the ones found in our smartphones. Wouldn’t it be particularly powerful if a camera had the ability to use apps such as Clear Outside, PhotoPills or apps that offered more specific controls over the camera, such as exposure ramping (gradually changing your camera’s settings) for time-lapses? The mount just reels at the amount of control, information and ease of operation you could have.

Going further, one could also have photo editing apps in-camera. One could use Photoshop Express, Lightroom, Snapseed or many others.

Two cameras that may bring us closer to smartphone-like technology

1. Alice Camera

Alice Camera, currently in development, shows promise. This device promises the experience of a smartphone coupled with the capability of a high-end mirrorless camera. Alice is an AI-accelerated computational camera with a high-resolution four-thirds sensor and interchangeable lens. You may instantly stream and post in 4K to Twitch, YouTube, TikTok, Instagram or Facebook easily.

Unlike previous smartphone attachments such as lenses, this is a full slim-lined camera where you slide the smartphone on so both are integrated. It feels more like the smartphone is attached to the camera, not the other way around. 

2. Yongnuo YN455

Yongnuo is perhaps best known in the United States for producing inexpensive flashes, lenses and other accessories. But they did begin manufacturing cameras incorporating a smartphone with traditional camera functions, running an older version of Android. 

Now, Yongnuo has submitted a patent for a modular mirrorless camera. And it’s also announced a new camera, the YN455. Like its predecessor, the not-fully-realized YN450, the YN455 incorporates an Android operating system. Yongnuo says that it will have a micro four-thirds sensor, cellular 4G and Wi-Fi. And yes, you guessed it, that means that like Alice Camera, you may also share straight to social media easily. 

There is no news on when this will be released or whether it will be available outside China. If it’s as good as it seems, you might want to begin making friends with someone in China now so you can get your mitts on this.

Security technology in cameras

 Fingerprint sensor photo by George Prentzas on Unsplash.
 Fingerprint sensor photo by George Prentzas on Unsplash.

Cameras could also incorporate smartphone technology in other ways. 

Canon has already patented a fingerprint sensor on not only the camera but also the lens. What security implications could this provide?

Beyond security, the sensor might also be able to instantly load custom presets for particular photographers. This obviously has some downsides, such as identity failure or slowing down someone from using the camera. But perhaps this sort of technology could be activated only during certain times.

Tracking your camera

If a camera were running iOS or Android, perhaps we could also track cameras. This could be valuable if the camera is lost, stolen, or left in the last Lyft car we took. 

I once came across a night photographer in Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley National Park. “Have you seen a camera anywhere?” He continued frantically searching.

Now, if you’ve been to Mesquite Dunes, you know that it’s quite possible for miles of sand dunes to look similar after a while. This would be exponentially compounded at night. But if you could use something similar to a Find Your Phone app, perhaps you could greatly narrow down the location. Perhaps you could make it emit a sound. After all, most cameras already have GPS devices on board. 

What’s the holdup?

Why haven’t the largest camera manufacturers, such as Sony, Nikon, Canon and others not fully embraced the sort of technology in smartphones that seem intuitive to just about everyone? Why is this left to smaller companies such as Alice Camera and Yongnuo?

Major camera manufacturers seem to mostly produce incrementally better cameras with each generation. But they seem reluctant to incorporate smartphone technology. Rarely if ever do we see operating systems with the ability to use apps. With sales of mirrorless and especially DSLRs dwindling, this makes their decision all the more puzzling.

What smartphone technology would you love to see on a camera?

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Intriguing article. I would not be surprised if the major camera companies are already working on integrated applications like these. In fact, I’d bet they are. Think back just a few years and you could hear the people decrying Canon for being so far behind Nikon and Sony. Oh, Canon will never catch up. Then…Boom, they are right up there again. They’d been working diligently behind the scenes. Tech companies remind me of Area 51 in the Nevada Test Site. We have no idea what they are up to until they want you to know. Alternately; I think that technology… Read more »

Joel Bello

This is a very timely article for me. The other day I was shooting with my a6400. I was taking a picture of my son, outside in the sun with a very dark background and he was all blown out color-wise. I snapped a pic of him with my iPhone 12 and it came out much better. And it made me think this very same thing. Hopefully someone is able to integrate these sort of smart features soon. I for one would be very interested in it.

Alexander Stevens

Samsung actually did this quite well when they were in the camera business with the Galaxy Camera and Galaxy NX (which had an APS-C sensor) which ran full Android. It’s too bad Samsung got out of the biz before smartphone imaging as quite as ubiquitous as it is today.

Alejandro Arellano

Samsung’s NX line were cameras with interchangeable lenses. I owned an nx500 a few years ago but they are no longer supported, they dropped out of the camera game.

VINICIO PENAZZI

I thought the same thing a few years ago looking at the perfect colors of my Samsung Note 4. It is a pity that Samsung has left the photo world.

Alejandro Arellano

You may find the Arsenal 2 intriguing, it brings that instant post-processing and app-like functionality to your existing camera: https://witharsenal.com/
It would be cool to see those smarts built into the body, but in the meantime, it’s a good.

They do seem intriguing. I like the idea of them. I just am hoping to customize functions more by being able to use various apps and do so similarly to a smartphone. But yes, Arsenal seems great.

What is your favorite aspects of Arsenal? What do you feel it does best? Do you find it intuitive?

Joel Bello

I’ve watched enough videos on the original arsenal to decide it was not for me. I am intrigued by its sequel but waiting so see some reviews on it as well before I decided weather or not to bite.

carlos Matamoros

the fuji system which allows in-camera editing of raw images into multiple copies is a start

Michael D.

There may be a licensing agreement between phone and camera manufacturers prohibiting camera makers from using certain features. That said I would love to see a serious camera with more phone like image processing and connectivity. I would love to just post my images to social media directly from my camera.

Aaron Hockley

Great questions to ask. My take is that so far they haven’t *had* to do it because the optical / physics advantages of the larger cameras has kept them able to stay ahead without having to use the computational photography that we see on our iPhone. But now that folks know what is possible, it’s only a matter of time until someone in the “big” camera market will make the leap. In my book on artificial intelligence and photography I surmised about various advantages we could see if we had more AI built into our DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. It’s… Read more »