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Galaxy S22 Ultra and beyond: What's next for phone cameras in 2022?

OnePlus 9 Pro vs. Galaxy S21 Ultra cameras
OnePlus 9 Pro vs. Galaxy S21 Ultra cameras (Image credit: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

We're a long way removed from the smartphone boom of the early 2010s, and handset sales have plateaued since the latter part of that decade. Phones in general are commoditized to the point where it's pretty hard to buy a bad one unless you're spending absolute bargain bin money. At the high end, you can throw a rock and hit an excellent handset.

But that doesn't mean phones are boring. In fact, there's one area of high-end smartphone tech that's never been more exciting: photography.

You can find a great smartphone camera anywhere

The gold standard for smartphone photography in 2021 is Samsung's Galaxy S21 Ultra. It's one of the best Android phones of the moment and has one of the best Android cameras, with a gigantic main image sensor that can pull light and color from areas that appear pitch black to the naked eye. Plus, the dual telephoto lenses at 3X and 10X can resolve more detail in faraway subjects than even the sharpest of human vision.

Compare that to the flagship phones of 2016, when you'd be lucky to get one camera capable of taking a half-decent photo in less than ideal lighting. We've come a long way.

Ever larger sensors have allowed phone cameras to capture more light, and the increasing number-crunching power in phones has empowered computational photography to turn those photons into better-looking photos. Meanwhile, the addition of ultrawide and telephoto lenses has made the camera that's always with you more versatile than ever.

But we're not done yet

Pixel 5 camera software in-hand

Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

But we haven't reached the technological limits of phone cameras just yet. This year, we're due to see the first 1-inch phone camera sensors, a sensor size previously limited to relatively expensive point-and-shoot cameras, surpassing even Samsung's impressive 108MP monster sensor.

Besides bragging rights, and the added convenience of taking great low-light shots without resorting to night mode, there are some benefits of ever larger image sensors in phones. A bigger sensor can capture more light in a shorter space of time, allowing for quicker shutter speeds, which in turn can let you capture moving objects with less blur. So while a 1-inch shooter might be overkill in a lot of situations, it also gets you extra versatility in low light.

Outside of brute-forcing better photos with superior optics, computational photography can also help small smartphone sensors produce phenomenal shots. The best example of this is Google's HDR+ feature, enabled by default on Pixel cameras. HDR+ intelligently exposes photos, and combines multiple frames into one great-looking image, then uses techniques like semantic segmentation to brighten faces and selectively sharpen certain areas.

Google has also managed to eke more resolution out of its 1X and 2X cameras with a computational technique called super-res zoom, using the motion of the camera's optical stabilization to pull more detail out of a digitally zoomed crop.

Huawei P30 Pro

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

Periscope telephotos have been one of the biggest developments in phone cameras in recent years.

At the bleeding edge of phone photo processing, you have features like the Pixel's Astrophotography mode, which uses computational photography to adjust for the natural rotation of the earth when taking photos of the night sky. Though the Pixel maker still leads the way with its computational secret sauce, rivals are starting to catch up with Google in this area. In the coming years, expect to see phone makers with the necessary R&D budget to flex new and more impressive computational features like Astrophotography.

I've previously written that periscope superzoom cameras are among my favorite new smartphone features of the past couple of years — cramming a 5X-10X zoom camera inside a device that still fits inside your pocket is a huge technological achievement. And the extra versatility it brings is a revelation.

But current superzoom cameras — in fact, all smartphone cameras generally — suffer from one basic weakness: They have a fixed focal length, and rely on digital crops when shooting at anything in between the native zoom level of each camera. This can become a problem when there's a big gap between your various zoom levels. For example, photos at 4-4.9X on the Huawei P30 Pro will result in blurry digital zoom pics from the main 1X camera. Bump up to 5X and things become a lot clearer, as the phone switches to its dedicated superzoom.

Xiaomi Mi Mix Fold

Source: Xiaomi (Image credit: Source: Xiaomi)

We're just now starting to see one possible solution to this problem, in the form of a liquid lens. First seen in Xiaomi's Mi Mix Fold, this seeks to replicate the true intermediate zoom you might get from a point-and-shoot camera or DSLR. Instead of a glass lens, phones like the Xiaomi Mi Mix Fold use optical grade liquid, applying an electrical current to the liquid lens to adjust the focus and focal length.

In the Mi Mix Fold it's used to switch between macro and telephoto mode, however it's easy to see how this tech could be developed further to allow for higher-quality telephoto or ultrawide shots with fewer physical sensors. Samsung applied for patents around liquid lenses in 2010, and the tech could be used in the Galaxy S22's rumored continous zoom lens.

Then there's the humble selfie camera. Front-facing shooters have been somewhat neglected of late since manufacturers are instead pushing towards ever smaller camera holes in pursuit of higher screen-to-body ratios. The push towards under-display selfie cameras, and the hit in photo quality that seems to involve, might seem like a reason to be pessimistic about any huge jump in selfie quality anytime soon.

Source: Apoorva Bhardwaj / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Apoorva Bhardwaj / Android Central)

But one manufacturer has been showcasing a creative solution to this problem for the past couple of years. ASUS's flip cameras, like the Zenfone 8 Flip place their camera array — including all three lenses — on a rotating module, which can be positioned facing the front, back or anywhere in between. Not only does that mean you're shooting selfies with a high-quality main camera, but it also lets you use the ultrawide (or even telephoto) to capture a unique perspective with more scenery or friends.

We're sure to see creative replacements to the hole-punch camera in years ahead.

Granted, few other manufacturers have stuck it out with mechanical cameras in phones, but as he competition pushes towards borderless, hole-punch-less designs, the technology may reemerge as a way to maintain selfie quality without expensive under-display cameras.

The other solution is something we've already seen from some Chinese manufacturers. If you can't put a camera on the front, just put a screen on the back and use that as your viewfinder. Back in 2018, ZTE's Nubia brand released the Z18s which did exactly this. Although the idea hasn't exactly caught on, Xiaomi's top-end Mi 11 Ultra does feature a rear-facing display, and it's not impossible to imagine some future iteration of this being large enough to comfortably use as a viewfinder — especially as the hole-punch selfie camera starts to be seen as dated.

In mid-2021, most phones may be basically good enough for the vast majority of people's needs. But that doesn't mean there's not plenty to look forward to in the coming generations of phone cameras, especially at the high end. We all remember the crummy, blurry, grainy camera in our first smartphone, and before we know it we could be looking back on the flagships of today through the same potato-tinted lenses.

Alex was with Android Central for over a decade, producing written and video content for the site, and served as global Executive Editor from 2016 to 2022.

24 Comments
  • Nothing will make phones exciting again, they're an intrusion. Anything that can take a selfie should be banned.
  • Only in your opinion.
  • I have never taken a selfie, in fact I have only used the front camera on a phone 3-4 times and that is only with Skype and Discord. I normally use the computer for that sort of thing.
    Every time I see a selfie it is as if the person took a photo while they were looking in a mirror it is reversed, I do not see the point. As for cameras in phones, they are fine for quick photos, but they will never be as good as a decent or even semi decent dedicated camera.
  • Again only in your opinion, smartphone cameras have gotten so good that I don't see the need for a DSLR camera when my smartphone is a great replacement. You're in a minority as the average user is the ones that smartphones are targeted at.
  • Beno, I have to agree with you. I just came back from an oceanside vacation, and my Nikon sat in the camera bag. And although I don't take selfies of myself, I do take them with other people, use the selfie camera for video conferencing, and have even filmed a published documentary with it.
  • Not sure why you think photography would make a phone exciting again.
    Its not something new and outside of the "tech reviewer" bubble it is not nearly as big of a deal as you would like to think.
    Can people point and shoot? Does the picture look fine at quick glace?
    Yes? That covers about 90% of actual real users and owners of smart phones. New form factors with folding screens at a decent price will make phones exciting again.
  • Exactly. Decent camera phones are now run of the mill. They're everywhere.
  • Spot on. Nobody outside of techies and photography aficionados can tell the difference in modern phones as proven by the guy who does a bracket challenge camera face off. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=kbeEkwlTeqQ
    Truly great photos are in the eye of the beholder.
  • MKBHD's camera video is a test of which images have the most appeal on Instagram and Twitter.
    Eye candy for amateurs is not was photographers are looking for.
  • So you think that photography will make phones exciting again? I don't think photography ever made phones exciting at all! All it has done is make them expensive! I would rather they ALL had better cell reception, VOLTE, and NO PUNCH HOLES. Put the headphone jack Back IN ALL OF THEM. Bring back the RGB notification LED that we ALL want! And for the love of GOD stop...just stop with the useless, fragile, stupid CURVED screens already!!!
  • Exciting photography means a full frame DSLR with some decent glass lenses, pro consumer better, professional the best. Camera phone are good for taking selfies of your pimples and some informational photos such as sending someone a photo of your new car, house, etc.
    But actual GOOD photographs....NOT!
  • My camera has a Micro Four Thirds sensor and takes some great photos and videos, but it does take a bit of work with depth of field
  • Don't listen to these other guys. I agree 100% that photography on phones is exciting and gets more exciting each year. Its one of the only reasons I upgrade my phone anymore.
  • That's a maybe but it's not the main reason most people upgrade theirs.
  • I tend to skip the camera section of reviews because I find it boring but with that being said most people want a phone that has a great camera but without the hassle of manual modes, this definitely describes me as a smartphone user as I prefer point and shoot cameras and Google and Apple have the best point and shoot cameras, particular Google.
  • Me too. It's always the longest part too. It takes good photos great I can now skip 5 minutes of a 10 minute review. It's the least interesting part of reviews. It's never a thing I hear people complaining about.
  • Yep I have to agree with both of you. I love watching phone reviews but all I need is a quick yay or nay of the camera as compared to the previous or the closest competitor. Barely noticeable differences are pointless. I like the reviews that just shut up and show samples.
  • It's online reviews that are guilty of focusing too much on the camera, we know the camera is gonna be good, we're at a point that most smartphone cameras are good now, even phones that cost half as much as a flagship have decent cameras now.
  • There's no reason you can't have a great point and shoot camera, and have a full pro mode. The manual mode is only there if you need it, and you can do some amazing things if you know what you are doing. No pro capabilities are one of the reasons I look elsewhere.
  • The thing is that I don't need a pro mode, I'm not a pro photographer so I prefer to point and shoot and don't need or want any manual controls on my smartphone cameras, I prefer to let the software do the rest after I take a photo and Apple and particularly Google are the best at point and shoot.
  • Hmm I only see tech reviewers obsessed with photography. Plenty of people use and are happy with their old iPhones on Instagram. It won't be photography that makes smartphones fun again. Software is number 1, everyone loves Fast Charging when they're given it. But it's not photography. Since 2019 phone cameras got good and most now happy with photos their phones take.
  • Exactly, software is the first thing I consider when choosing a new phone along with how quickly and how long a phone will be supported with updates and then the camera all in that order.
  • To be honest, I'm never as impressed with smartphone camera's in everyday practice, as tech reviewers tell me I'm supposed to be. They do come in handy when you're out at a theme park or to update social media. But when I upgrade I look for a device that offers top notch performance and battery life and conveniences that my current device lacks.
  • When we hold a real camera, 99.99% of the time it is horizontal landscape mode. Question, why do folks hold their cellphone vertical portrait mode? TV screen, computer/monitor screen, movie theater screen, and the like are horizontal format, same with movie cameras. Cellphone camera captured images in portrait mode, especially video, then viewing them on the aforementioned screens it is as though we are looking through a keyhole or we are wearing horse blinders; both the left and right of the image are cut off. Imagine you are in a movie theater, the movie is dead center on the screen tall and skinny, not wide, it would be uncomfortable watching, a unpleasant experience. Our eyes see and our brain recognizes our environment considerably more wide than vertical, thus when we move our eyes up/down we continue viewing much more horizontal. There is a reason they are named landscape and portrait.