The only camera on a phone that’s ever mattered has always been the one on the back. That’s how it’s been for years.
But increasingly, the camera on the back isn’t the one people care about the most, or the reason you might pick one phone over another.
No, the most important camera on your phone is now the selfie camera.
Whenever a company announces a new phone, it’s always how many more megapixels does Phone A have over Phone B? How much better are low-light photos on Phone A versus Phone B? Are the colors more lifelike or are they super saturated? And how is image noise?
Photography nerds like me will still pore over every little technical back camera spec on the iPhone X or Samsung Galaxy whatever, but most people probably feel any smartphone camera — any rear camera at least — is good enough.
And they’re more or less right: Any decent smartphone will take photos just fine. The differences in quality in the cameras on phones are incremental. Android phones, once inferior to iPhones, are now on par or nearly on par with Apple’s best.
The spec battle has moved elsewhere, and that’s towards selfies and the front-facing camera.
Put simply, selfies rule the f*cking goddamn world. If you’re not taking selfies and posting them, you might as well just throw your phone in the trash.
If you’re not taking selfies and posting them, you might as well just throw your phone in the trash.
OK, I’m obviously being dramatic, but the point remains: People really love taking selfies, and phone makers are now realizing they need to put more resources into making the selfie camera the camera.
As a result, don’t be surprised to see innovation slow for the back camera.
Take Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy S8. It’s impressive in all departments — display, design, software — except for the back camera.
For whatever reason, Samsung chose not to give the S8’s 12-megapixel camera any upgrade. It’s the same exact camera from the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge.
To be fair, the S7’s camera is still fantastic and it takes excellent photos in low-light situations, but like, what the freakin’ hell?
When competitors like Apple and Oppo are adding features like dual cameras and 5x lossless optical zoom, respectively, to their newest phones, Samsung’s seemingly resting on its laurels.
Instead, the only camera improvement Samsung made was to the front-facing selfie camera. It got an upgrade from 5 megapixels to 8 megapixels, plus it finally — finally — got autofocus. It also records video at a higher resolution (1440p).
But why are companies just now coming to their selfie senses? That answer’s hard to nail down.
It’s arguable that selfies have been popular for years, but it’s only within the last year that they’ve become entertaining, thanks to Snapchat and its augmented reality lenses. You’re no longer just taking selfies of your face or trying to squeeze as many people into a selfie anymore.
Now you can actually goof off, and it’s cool to do so. Need proof that Snapchat’s lenses have influenced selfies far and wide? Look no further than the S8’s built-in Snapchat-like lenses that use augmented reality to track your face:
It’s not just Samsung that’s starting to pay attention to the selfie camera. Apple made a big fuss of its 7-megapixel selfie camera and Retina flash on the iPhone 7, and Xiaomi’s made a lot of noise with its own augmented reality “age guesser” that’s designed to help you take younger-looking selfies depending on the angle of the selfie.
Last year I said it’s time for phone makers to stop making the selfie camera second-rate. It looks like they’re finally listening. I’m expecting more phone makers to prioritize the selfie camera this year, whether that’s with beefier optics or more interesting software.
Mark my words, the features people will get excited for won’t be dynamic range or realistic colors, but how smooth your face looks, and what kind of augmented reality lenses you can overlay on top of your face.
The future of phone cameras is here and it’s selfies, selfies, selfies.