GONE are the days when smartphone manufacturers treated the camera like a juicy add-on. The new generation of built-in cameras—decked out with extra lenses, customizable settings, advanced algorithms and powerful sensors to capture a wider range of light—are the device’s most important function, especially for the Instagram-inclined. For the rest of us, these cameras save you from shelling out for a DSLR or rushing around Paris with some bulky “I’m a Tourist!” camera strapped around your neck.
In 2016, Apple made serious headway in closing the gap between smartphones and professional cameras with its Portrait mode—which uses dual cameras to create a DSLR-like depth-of-field effect that beautifully blurs the background and draws your focus to the subject. The evidence: Elle and Time magazine covers have been shot on iPhones, as was the Steven Soderbergh 2018 thriller “Unsane.” Last month, Apple released its XS and XR models complete with Smart HDR, which shoots extra frames at varying exposures and then combines the best colors, shadow and highlights for an optimized image. Its new Depth Control lets you blur the background after shooting.
The A.I.-photography symbiosis is trending across all smartphones, with the biggest advances coming in software.
“It’s opened a new market and new accessibility,” said Joe Thomas, a New York photographer who is shooting his latest project with the XS. “People don’t need to learn how to really operate a camera, where the settings can intimidating.”
Confirming that artificial intelligence is data-crunching its way into every facet of daily life, Apple claims the “Neural Engine” in its new iPhones can run 5 trillion operations per second. This A.I.-photography symbiosis is trending across all the major smartphone brands, with the biggest advancements being made in software and in data-driven technologies.
For example, Google’s brand-new Pixel 3 features the “Top Shot” function, which uses machine learning to sort through extra frames taken after your photo is snapped to help you discover the best image.
“If you’re taking a group photo or picture of your kids, you shouldn’t have to worry about getting the photo where their smiles are a little bit weird, or their eyes are half closed,” said Google product manager Isaac Reynolds. “Top Shot is going to get eyes open and kids smiling. It’s a machine-learning model that we’ve trained on a hundred million faces.” Top Shot also aims to correct color and lighting of an image before you even press a button.
Meanwhile, Samsung’s Note 9, released in August, features a Pro Mode that lets aspiring shutterbugs control ISO settings (how sensitive a camera’s sensor is to light), white balance and the actual aperture you’re using. On most other phone cameras, manually adjusting those settings is a pain. Other perks of the Note 9 include its Bluetooth-connected S Pen stylus, which can act like a wireless shutter button from up to 30 feet away, and Flaw Detection, which prompts you to retake a photo if someone blinks her eyes, or if you’re doing a shoddy job of positioning your frame. You can also program your phone to take photos via voice command, so you don’t have to cramp your hand while trying to get a selfie.
The top-end device in Samsung’s next smartphone line is rumored to include up to five cameras, including super-wide-angle lenses on both front and back, for a wealth of photo options.
These advances help do almost everything except press the shutter for you. But you can get even better shots with a few specific strategies, said Melissa Male, a New York content creator and brand influencer with 127,000 Instagram followers. She relies on her phone to take every image and advises anyone seeking better photos to avoid harsh sunlight, since even the best smartphone lenses can’t handle light flares as well as high-tech cameras can. “You’re at the mercy of the sun,” Ms. Male said. “If I’m in a coffee shop, I’ll pick a table near the window but not in direct sunlight.”
Drew Blackard, director of product marketing and portfolio strategy at Samsung, added that using a grid function while shooting, which you can toggle on or off in the settings of most smartphone cameras, can help elevate a photo. “If you read any Photography 101 handbook, they’ll talk about the rule of thirds or golden ratio. The grid gives you a guide in terms of establishing a horizon or placing the subject,” he said. Mr. Reynolds at Google advises people to reacquaint themselves with the zoom button. “Most people have accepted, after two decades of smartphone cameras, that you should never pinch zoom,” he said. But Google’s Pixel 3, like other advanced smartphones, has developed its camera’s zooming abilities, in many cases offering a much higher quality zoomed photo than one that’s cropped later.
Ms. Male has found that photos she posts on Instagram are often indistinguishable from those taken with professional DSLRs. “I probably get five messages a day asking me what camera I use. So why bother investing in a camera when my phone is so good?” she said.
NEW PHONE, OLD TRICKS / Four Apps That Add Fun, Nostalgic Flair to Smartphone Shots
Want to party like it’s 1999? This popular app mimics the effects of a dated disposable camera, prompting users to turn back the clock on their images. The app generates random (universally flattering) vintage filters and includes a date stamp for historical accuracy. Free, itunes.com
If HUJI sounds sadly phony, this app helps wistfully re-create the suspense of disposable cameras by taking 3 days to “process” your pics, which won’t begin until you’ve finished the “roll.” The photos have a fuzzier, less flattering, but more truly vintage look. $1, itunes.com
Used by the likes of Kylie Jenner, Pharrell Williams and Radiohead for editing, Glitché boasts an impressive selection of (frankly psychedelic) old school photo effects. The app also lets you apply a VHS camcorder static effect on photos or videos. Free, glitche.com
Pass on pricier Polaroid updates and get this free app. NOMO imitates instant cameras with a beautifully designed interface. After snapping a photo, its “development” takes up to 90 seconds—but you can shake your phone to speed up the process. Free, itunes.com