Picture: 123RF/Serdar Basak
Picture: 123RF/Serdar Basak

Mighty stood the small, stocky, blue-and-white Sony Ericsson T68, the first colour-screen phone to gain mass popularity in the market.

It was revolutionary at a time when we were accustomed to playing snake across a green and black screen and messaging by hitting buttons repeatedly just to type the letter "t".

But it would be the phone’s ability to turn its 101x80 pixel screen, sporting 256 colours, into a camera — thanks to a nifty little attachment sold separately — that would spark a war that phone manufacturers are still waging.

A lot has changed since the Christmas of 2001, when the T68 came onto the scene. Where once cellphones produced photos you had to squint at to see, now there is a market where consumers bay for more: more megapixels, more lenses and as many cameras as you can shake a selfie-stick at.

This has spawned a race among cellphone manufacturers, as they chase the dream of creating a professional-level camera that is "point and click" amateur-proof, yet small enough to fit in your pocket.

Invariably when I am reviewing a new phone, the first thing someone asks me is what the camera is like. Just last week I witnessed tech journalists taking selfies with a new phone, fresh out of the box, to "do the important consumer-driven quality tests first".

It’s been a busy two weeks for the mobile business as two of its giants — one, Huawei, on a meteoric rise; the other, Nokia, trying to regain its former pre-eminence — both push the boundaries of digital photography.

"We want to make the smart phone beyond the human being’s vision," said Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei Technologies Consumer Business Group, waving the company’s new flagship P30 Pro device at its launch in Paris.

The Chinese manufacturer has long been pushing the boundaries of camera phones – it was the first to introduce two cameras to the back of a phone, with the P9 series in 2016.

The P30 Pro has four cameras, with one of its Leica lenses sporting a five-times telephoto Periscope lens with a 50-times digital zoom that can still produce clean, crisp photos.

That’s the equivalent of not just being able to spy on your neighbours down the road, but being able to read the label on their underwear.

Though this is a huge first for cellphone cameras, it’s the phone’s ISO that goes beyond what even professional cameras can do.

ISO originally referred to the sensitivity of film. Now, digitally, it indirectly refers to how much light is let in through the lens and is read by the image sensor.

The higher the ISO the faster your shutter can close to capture the light of a scene — important for low-light images.

The much-loved professional Canon 5D Mark IV has a maximum ISO of 102,400. The P30 Pro’s is 409,600, far outstripping what the human eye — and Huawei’s competitors — are capable of. The combination of the camera’s low-light capability and its zoom allows you to shoot the moon and make out every crater in the finished image.

A week after Yu claimed that Huawei’s phone could take photos of galaxies, which Samsung’s Galaxy range could not, HMD Global launched its new five-Zeiss-lensed camera phone in SA, stating: "The Nokia 9 PureView gives you a glimpse into the future of smartphone photography." In the same week, the company launched its new midrange X71 in Taiwan, with the world’s first 48 megapixel camera on a phone.

The 9 PureView’s five cameras — all with the same 12 megapixel sensor and f/1.8 lens — arc on the back of the phone like a wreath.

They take five photos at the same time, at different levels of exposure, and then aggregate the information to bring together what Nokia believes is the best photo possible, with an overall focus on detail and colour.

But is all of this enough to truly shake the professional camera world? There is still a gap in what a cellphone camera can do, even with "professional modes".

The phones may allow you to fine-tune everything from the ISO to the manual focus, but you just can’t set up your phone with the types of in-camera specifications that a professional camera has. Exterior lenses are also still a factor. Though AI chips can now switch up your apertures, and you can zoom in with a scroll of a button, even the P30 Pro can’t zoom in on 40MP mode — which a simple switch of a lens can counteract on a professional camera.

And yet, the Camera & Imaging Products Association still found that there was a 24% drop in camera sales in 2018 as a direct result of camera-phone advances.

Perhaps the question shouldn’t be whether a cellphone camera will surpass a professional one, but rather whether it needs to.

Erik Derycke, technology lead for the EISA photography expert group at the Huawei photography panel discussion in Paris, summed it all up.

"For the casual photographer, the smartphone camera has reached a point where it is the only camera they need," he said. "For those who want to create an image rather than capture it, the traditional camera is there. I often use the analogy of a bicycle and a car. Both get us to where we want to be, but there is still place in the world for both of them."

*The writer was a guest of Huawei in Paris