Why is the flash on the mobile phone reduced to “chicken ribs”?

Do you remember the last time you turned on the flash to take a photo?

When I threw this question to my friends, the answer I got was this: "Isn't that a flashlight? Why is it called a flashlight?" And "If you don't tell me, I forgot, I can still use the flash when taking pictures."

Indeed, today's consumers no longer care about the flash of a mobile phone, whether it is bright or not, and the color temperature is not accurate. The most common usage scenario is to use it as a flashlight.

In the early years, xenon flashes, dual-color temperature flashes, and four-in-one flashes were once important selling points of mobile phones. Nowadays, we rarely hear of mobile phone manufacturers making a fuss about flash.

▲ Picture from: unsplash

A brief history of flash evolution

In May 1999, Kyocera launched its first consumer-oriented camera phone. The phone is equipped with a 110,000-pixel camera that can store about 20 photos. The price was about 40,000 yen at the time.

But this phone is not equipped with a flash, and the camera is basically in an unusable state when encountering dark scenes.

Three years later, Sanyo introduced SCP-5300, a camera phone. The special feature of this phone is that it is equipped with a flash to fill light when taking pictures. Time magazine once included mobile phones on the list of the most influential gadgets.

As you can see from the picture, the yellow cube on the right side of the camera is the flash. Due to its age, its photographic effect is no longer testable. But the addition of the flash at least enhances the usability of the mobile phone camera in low-light scenes.

After a period of time, this LED light source as a flash solution became the mainstream of camera phones. But at the same time, the weaknesses of LED flashes are gradually revealed: poor lighting effects, uneven brightness, affecting the white balance of photos, and so on.

▲ Nokia n90 uses LED flash. Picture from: wikipedia

In order to solve the problem of poor lighting effects, Sony Ericsson took the lead in transplanting the xenon flash on the camera to the mobile phone, and launched the K790 camera phone in 2006. This may be the first mobile phone with its own xenon flash.

▲Sony Ericsson K790. Picture from: GSMArena

The principle is to fill the quartz tube with high-pressure inert gas "Xenon" to replace the traditional filament. Then the high-voltage current stimulates the xenon gas to emit light, and a white arc is emitted between the two poles to achieve a good light supplement effect.

Compared with LED lamp beads, the lighting effect of xenon flash lamp is greatly enhanced. The brightness is high, the light is uniform, and the range of action is far. The color temperature of about 6000 can simulate the effect close to sunlight.

With these advantages, xenon flash has quickly become the standard configuration of high-end camera phones. For example, Nokia, Motorola, Samsung and other brands launched a number of camera phones with xenon flash before 2010.

▲The Xenon flash of Nokia N8 is very eye-catching

With the development of mobile phones in the direction of thinner and lighter, xenon flash lamps are gradually abandoned by mobile phone manufacturers due to their large size and need high-voltage capacitors to activate, and instead return to LED flash arrays.

Although the brightness of LED is not comparable to that of xenon flash, there is an obvious advantage. It does not need a high-voltage capacitor to store enough energy to light up, and it can emit light after power on, so it can stay on for a long time and turn the phone into a flashlight.

▲ The flash is turned into a night light. Picture from: mentalfloss

In order to solve the problem of poor LED flash lighting effects, mobile phone manufacturers have begun to increase the number of lamp beads and use better lenses to improve the uniformity of LED lighting.

In the evolution of LED flash, iPhone has led many trends. The dual-color temperature flash on iPhone 5s can effectively improve the accuracy of photo white balance. Especially when shooting people, the skin color is no longer "weird".

▲ Picture from: anandtech

This is because the color temperature of the two flashes is different. Generally, a high-brightness white LED lamp is matched with an amber LED lamp with a lower brightness to compensate for the color temperature. With software algorithms, iPhone 5s can determine the exposure density and flash combination according to the color temperature of the surrounding environment to achieve a natural color imaging effect.

▲ The imaging difference between single-color temperature and dual-color temperature flash. Picture from: Meizu

After that, dual-color temperature flashes quickly became popular in the smartphone camp. After the launch of the iPhone 7 series, the four-in-one LED flash mounted on it has improved its brightness. Three-in-one and four-in-one LED flashes have also become popular since then.

▲ The four-in-one flash used to be the selling point of the iPhone 7 series

The ever-evolving flash has improved visible to the naked eye in brightness, uniformity, and color reproduction accuracy, making it a powerful assistant for low-light shooting. It was not until the rise of computational photography that this status quo was terminated.

It’s not just computational photography that makes the flash diminish.

From about 2018, mobile photography has ushered in a sea-shaking innovation, due to the rise of computational photography.

A number of smart phones represented by Google Pixel 3 have begun to add a "Night Sight" option to the camera function. After being turned on, the phone captures a large number of dim and sharp images, performs synthesis calculations, and finally outputs a clear photo.

▲Night Sight effect proofs. Image from Google

Judging from the shooting effect, the photos in night mode are transparent and bright, which is not the height that a flash can achieve. And when the night mode is enabled, the flash will be forced to turn off. It seems to tell the user: "The flash is dead, and now it is the world of computing photography."

▲ After the night scene mode is turned on on the left, it is obviously clearer than the photo with the flash on the right. Picture from: 251tom

On the other hand, the size of the cell phone camera sensor is getting larger and larger, and now it has even entered the one-inch era. The outsole greatly increases the amount of light entering. In dark scenes, you can get a bright and detailed photo without turning on the night scene mode, which further weakens the presence of the flash.

In fact, the reason for the flash diminished is not only the improvement of the camera's low-light shooting ability, but also the very important reason is the improvement of the user's aesthetics.

When the term mobile photography has been repeatedly emphasized by mobile phone manufacturers, and when there are more and more mobile photography tutorials on short video platforms such as Douyin and Kuaishou, consumers have a greater knowledge of image aesthetics and photography than a few years ago. progress.

▲Picture from: shotstash

Many users now know how to reprocess photos. For example, after taking the photo, use the photo album's built-in filter or other apps to color tones to make the photo look more beautiful. Use cropping tools for secondary composition and so on.

As consumers’ aesthetics improve, they will naturally have higher requirements for the quality of mobile phone images. At this time, the weakness of the mobile phone flash is further revealed: the unidirectional front light source makes the subject look stiff and flat.

For example, when shooting directly at a human face, the harsh light will weaken the three-dimensional sense of the face, and it will look "glossy". This is a taboo in the "age of beauty".

▲ Portrait shots rarely only light on the front. Image from: bencherryphotos

In addition, mobile phone flashes often cause the problems of high contrast and messy shadows, which in most cases will damage the beauty of the photos.

Perhaps mobile phone manufacturers are also aware of this. In most systems, the flash is turned off in the camera's default settings. When encountering dark scenes, it will automatically extend the exposure time to brighten the picture.

▲ iPhone night mode

As a result, the flash has been gradually forgotten in the corner of the camera page from the friend of mobile photography.

Flash, and these "opening methods"

Even if the functionality of the mobile phone flash is degrading step by step, the manufacturer does not seem to give up on it at the moment. This is completely different from the fate of the abandoned 3.5mm audio interface, physical keyboard and other designs.

In the final analysis, it is because of its role as a flashlight, which plays an important role in people's lives. After all, the demand for lighting occurs almost every day, such as walking at night, looking for objects in the dark, and so on.

▲ Picture from: Android Authority

Manufacturers are aware of this. Whether it is Android or iOS, you can turn on the flash for lighting on the lock screen page by tapping or gestures, which is extremely convenient. This is also the most common way the flash is turned on.

In fact, there are still many ways to discover how to play flash.

iOS has long provided the LED flashing reminder function, which can be turned on in "Accessibility". When there is an incoming call or message, the flash will flash as a reminder.

Apps such as QQ Music and Kugou Music also provide the "Hi Song" function. When turned on, the mobile phone's flash can flash in accordance with the rhythm of the music. It seems to be a bit "earthly", but when you open it when you are dancing or having a party, it also has a sense of atmosphere.

How else can the flash be used? You can find many apps for heart rate measurement in the app store. You only need to place your finger on the lens module and cover the flash and lens, and the software can calculate the heart rate through algorithms. However, there are many variable factors in this calculation method, which does not seem rigorous and can only be used as a reference.

Looking back at the original intention of the mobile phone equipped with a flash, it is to enhance the shooting ability of low-light scenes. Although from this point of view, the flash deviates from the original intention, if it is used well, it can still add points to the photo.

For example, using the "calendering" effect of the flash to shoot close objects with prominent themes. Since the brightness of the flash shining on a close object is often brighter than natural light, under the automatic exposure algorithm, the object will be prioritized as the metering target to form an image with a bright subject and a darker background.

▲Picture from: OnePoint OnePoint

As shown in the picture below, the flower shot with the flash on the right is more prominent than the subject that is not on the left. Limited by the brightness of the mobile phone flash, the effect will be more obvious when it is cloudy or when the ambient light is slightly dark.

▲Picture from: OnePoint OnePoint

Or use flash to create minimalist silhouettes. Turn on the flash of the phone, hold it with your arm, and stand on your side in front of the wall. After turning off the indoor lights, lower the exposure value of the phone to take a beautiful silhouette.

▲Picture from: Douyin/Zepai APP

For another example, when shooting a portrait at night, turn on the flash to fill in the light, enhance facial details, and make the photo look more textured. But there are two points to note. It is not suitable for friends with oily face; the background should not be too dark.

▲ Picture from: Douyin/littledry

In some web celebrities' shooting tutorials, they are used to taking selfies in the mirror with the flash on. From the perspective of the film effect, it is really cool, but before shooting, make sure that the mirror is clean enough, whether the face is oily, and the background brightness is appropriate.

▲ Picture from: Douyin/Lang let let a bit

In addition to the above-mentioned functions, some uniquely designed flashes can even be used as the decoration of the back shell to give the finishing touch.

For example, the Redmi K40 gaming version has a lightning flash, which looks dynamic and young. Very much in line with the "Fast" label of gaming phones.

Meizu also has a lot of experience in flash design. The ring flash launched by Meizu Pro 6 has now become the brand's logo design, and Meizu 18 Pro is still in use.

Charm Blue E2 once integrated the flash into the antenna, and created the first streamlined flash design, which is much more agile and elegant than the common round and long strip flashes on the market.

From functionality to decoration, mobile phones have embraced flash for about 20 years. In the past 20 years, the form and function of mobile phones have undergone many innovations, but the flash is like a nail household, stationed in the mobile phone camp.

After new features such as flashlight, notification interaction, and heart rate monitoring are unearthed, what other aspects of it can be innovated depends on whether the product managers' brains are big enough.

TalkFresh. Work email: wanghelong@ifanr.com.

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