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

To go up against Nokia, it tied up with German optics giant Schneider Kreuznach to help add some much-needed finesse to the lenses. The Viewty included a strobe flash, a video light, and even a focus-assist beam for better low light focusing.

Things got a lot crazier at the top with a slider switch to toggle between camera modes, a dedicated shutter button, and a quick toggle switch for stabilization. I’ve got to say, a volume rocker makes a poor replacement for a shutter key and I definitely miss the tactile feel of a proper two-stage shutter key on a phone.

Being a full touch-enabled phone, it even afforded slightly less cumbersome image editing. And unlike the competing hardware, video could be shot at all the way up to VGA resolution. Incredible.

With anemic processors and the ensuing lack of computational photography capabilities, manufacturers had to resort to innovative and, to be fair, more traditional solutions for common problems.

For example, you might take HDR photo capture for granted, but back in the mid-2000s, smartphone processing power simply wasn’t enough for real-time high dynamic range imaging. Motorola was the first to come up with an innovative approach to tackling high-brightness scenarios.

The Motorola Zine ZN5 introduced a variable aperture mechanism that could switch between f/2.8 for low-light settings and go all the way to f/5.6 for a tack sharp day-light shot. It even tossed in a xenon flash with the 5MP sensor for a complete imaging package.

Nokia N86 Camera Sample

Credit: Dhruv Bhutani / Android Authority

Nokia attempted a similar approach with the N86. The company’s first phone with an 8MP sensor, it packed variable apertures and a mechanical shutter, all of which worked in tandem to deliver better images in challenging conditions. We saw this later on the Samsung Galaxy S9.

It is easy to see the commonalities and differences between the three major players of the time. Clearly, the resolution had to go up, but where Nokia decided to build a high-quality camera within a smartphone, Sony Ericsson and LG tried to toss a phone into a camera.

While it is cool to look at the unique and almost out-there hardware options, it was Nokia’s discrete yet functional approach paired up with the capabilities afforded by the Symbian operating system that won the popular vote.

Related: Want a phone with a great camera? Here’s what to look for

The megapixel wars begin

With 5-megapixels established as the de facto standard, we saw the beginnings of the megapixel wars in the smartphone space. It was an obvious continuation of what had already happened in the consumer camera market. More had to be better, yes?

Samsung introduced the first 8MP mobile camera on the i8510 and started a fierce competition in the industry. Next year, in 2009, the company topped it with another first.

The megapixel wars had begun, and resolutions shot up every year.

The Samsung W880 wasn’t just the world’s first 12MP camera phone, but it also introduced 30FPS video recording for the first time. Admittedly, this was still limited to 720p resolutions, but it was yet another step in pushing forward video capabilities on a phone.

Samsung W880

Samsung W880

Credit: Samsung

Additionally, it packed a treasure trove of features including a variable aperture, xenon flash, and even a dedicated mode selection ring. The design harkened back to the days of point and shoot cameras. Unfortunately, the lack of any smart capabilities made the W880 dead on arrival for all but the biggest mobile photography fans.

Nokia’s phone first approach, however, was about to pay big dividends. 2010 saw the release of the Nokia N8, a phone that placed importance on sensor size over cramming in more pixels. A bigger sensor, by its very nature, acquires more light and the light-capturing capability of a sensor photosite is directly proportional to image quality.

Arguably one of the most important imaging smartphones ever made, the Nokia N8 stuffed a massive 1/1.83-inch sensor into an aluminum shell that was almost sleek by 2010 standards.

As a young 20-year old backpacking across Europe, the N8 was the only camera I needed and my pocket camera saw little to no use. Pictured above is a shot captured late in the evening in Barcelona. A shot that few phones at the time could have nailed.

The Nokia N8 was capable of capturing incredible images, and you could count on the phone to capture the moment no matter the lighting.

That massive sensor didn’t just enable high-quality imaging during the day but also allowed enough light-gathering capacity for low-light imaging. Add to that a xenon flash, and you had the makings of a killer photography-focused device.

But that wasn’t it, Nokia even threw in a neutral density filter into the mix to allow for photography in particularly bright conditions.

Read more: 6 tips for improving low light smartphone photography

Oversampling, the PureView way

Nokia 808 PureView

Nokia 808 PureVIew

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.

Read more: 108MP sensor vs computational photography: Which one wins?

Phone camera history was amazing before Android and iPhone

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra vs Apple iPhone Pro Max 3

Credit: Eric Zeman / Android Authority

The rapid advancement of mobile camera technology and ever-shortening smartphone cycles make it easy to forget older hardware. However, it is that same hardware that has enabled or at-least put pressure on the industry to improve imaging in tangible ways for users.

It might be a gross simplification, but in many ways, a lot of the smartphone technology debuting today is simply a significantly improved and overhauled version of concepts that have already been attempted. And I, for one, cannot wait to see what the next decade brings to the world of smartphone imaging.

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