The Renaissance master painters could be a model for smartphone makers. While HDR and computational photography can be great, manufacturers need to also consider what is proven over centuries to create great images.

Although smartphone cameras have advanced technology in recent years, their primary focus has been on getting as much detail as possible. This can lead to unnatural-looking photos.

Manufacturers need to take a step back and refocus to find better ways to treat transitions of light/shadow, which is the foundation of outstanding imagery over the past several hundred years. Some are already doing it.

David Imel, a writer and researcher, has highlighted some similarities between styles in painting and smartphone camera capabilities.

Caravaggio painting

Imel explains that “chiaroscuro” is the art of using contrast between light, dark, and objects to create three-dimensional images. This technique was used by Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, and other famous Italian painters. Chiaroscuro, in contrast to two-dimensional art pieces, gives the painting a sense of depth.

Smartphone HDR technology

Since the dawn of photography, this ability to control light’s properties has been a major part of art. Imel says that black and white photography is a good example of this. The variation in light and shadow adds depth to the image.

Iphone 13 sample image

Smartphones are not able to reproduce the same effects as larger sensors in terms of lighting and color, even with HDR technology that allows for more detail from shadows to highlights. Smartphones are unable to capture the subtlest shifts in color and tone that large format cameras can capture, which is something smartphones simply cannot do.

Imel claims that many smartphones use techniques such as HDR and computational photography to create unnatural photos. This is because the granular tone between the highlights, shadows, and highlights is lost. Users end up with flat images that have been overtly sharpened and smoothed out. This is a common feature in computational imaging.

For photographers, the tendency to make the thinnest smartphone is slowly reversing. Now, there are bulkier phones that have larger camera bumps and can house larger sensors. Smartphone images can contain more information than ever before, which makes them more natural to display.

Imel also mentions that the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 mini have larger sensors and new Photographic Styles. This feature allows users the ability to adjust the settings for image capture. It also applies adjustments intelligently, rather than using a filter. Users can create photos that look more natural than what chiaroscuro is.

Smartphone manufacturers must focus on what makes a great photograph. This will require extra effort.