For a number of years, it felt as though smartphone camera design had plateaued.
Pixel numbers were increasing, but the benefits to consumers were becoming increasingly marginal.
In the last couple of years, there’s been more tangible change in the calibre of photography achievable using a smartphone.
Sony’s latest Xperia 1 II has an array of cameras whose specifications could fill this article.
Highlights include a 70mm telephoto lens for distance shots, a 3D depth sensor and an ultrawide 16mm lens capable of panoramic views of compact or internal spaces.
However, one of the most visually dramatic photographic developments (pardon the pun) is the emergence – or rather the non-emergence – of punch hole cameras.
Huawei was first to market with a punch hole camera phone, but Samsung gave the concept mainstream appeal with its S10 range. The S10+ even had two of them.
Pleased as punch
Historically, smartphone screens have been surrounded by a strip of plastic or metal, known as the bezel and forming a continuation of the main phone body.
As well as securing the screen in place, this has become a default location for earphones and microphones, manufacturer logos and those all-important front-facing selfie cameras.
Even though primary photography duties have traditionally been handled by one or more rear-facing cameras, the selfie camera has become much loved by the Instagram generation.
However, a bezel reduces the amount of on-screen real estate a phone can display. And there’s no question that larger screens with smaller bezels look more attractive.
As a result, manufacturers began experimenting with ways to incorporate a camera lens into the screen, rather than being positioned above it.
The result is a small circular hole at one corner of the screen, with the lens discreetly tucked underneath.
Although the lens is still visible, it’s far more discreet as a small black circle inside the screen than it would be located in a chunky bezel.
The lens can be small because front-facing cameras are almost exclusively used for selfies, where the foreground is more important than the background.
That said, modern selfie cams incorporate bokeh effects and other post-production tricks which add depth and character to pictures.
Apart from occasionally obscuring the location where ‘click to close’ boxes might appear, punch holes are very discreet, especially when dark colours are being displayed on-screen.
For a while, it looked as if punch hole cameras represented the future of smartphone design, effectively eliminating the bezel.
Yet manufacturers including Oppo and Xiaomi have already demonstrated concept phones whose front-facing cameras are completely hidden from view underneath a layer of pixels.
These turn transparent when the camera is activated, while at other times, they display content just like any other screen portion.
This combines an uninterrupted display with minimal bezel requirements.
Although there’s a risk of oil and dirt from fingers ending up across the lens, manufacturers are working hard to ensure this doesn’t significantly impact on photo quality.
Plus, we’re already seeing under-screen technology being deployed for fingerprint readers, which are also designed to operate through a fine layer of detritus.
The forthcoming Samsung Galaxy S30 is rumoured to incorporate the first under-display camera.
At a stroke, this could render punch hole cameras obsolete before they’ve had time to achieve mainstream acceptance.
It seems the pace of smartphone camera evolution is accelerating once again.