When the Nexus 5 debuted in late October, one of the handset's chief selling points was its cutting-edge image capabilities. However, Mountain View's newfound emphasis on high-caliber imaging may extend beyond hardware and deep down into the bowels of KitKat.
According to a report on CNET, Android's the Hardware Abstraction Layer (HAL) in Google's latest release includes support for raw images and burst modes, and these capabilities will be made available to developers in a future update.
While this is a hopeful note for photographers and other creative types who would like to utilize the world's most popular mobile OS, Android has clearly fallen far behind iOS and even the newly spec-spolosive Windows Phones in the high end photography game.
"Android currently has the worst base-line cameras out there, meaning phone [manufacturers] have to do a lot of work to make them acceptable," said analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insight & Strategy. "HTC and LG have done a decent job shoring up the shortcomings, but iOS and Windows are clearly on top."
The new baked-in capabilities represent--at the very least--a step in the right direction for Google.
So, what will these future Android phones (or Android-based cameras) be able to do?
Oh baby, I like it raw
If you went the rest of your days without ever knowing what a raw image file is, you probably will still have managed to live a full and happy life.
But to the true photography nerd (er--enthusiast), the raw image format is key to making that picture of the lone wooden chair resting gently in the sun beam juuuuust right.
A raw file contains all the information from a captured image. It's basically a data-dump from the sensor, meant to be processed later. Most consumer grade digital images automatically produce a JPEG file, though more are beginning to offer a raw option.
Most of the time, JPEG is just fine. However, larger raw files give photographers greater ability to fiddle with image parameters such as lightness, white balance, and saturation. It essentially lets you change many of your camera settings after you shoot.
The new capabilities will give Android apps a core raw image underpinning and will lead to apps that provide greater ability to tweak their images. Raw files have long been available in iOS, and will soon make its way to Nokia-soft.
However, in order for future Android apps to make the most of raw images, they will have to be captured with top-notch hardware.
"KitKat brings the Android baseline camera capabilities up to par but also provides an opportunity to differentiate with raw capabilities," comments Moorhead. "[Manufacturers] will still need to do a lot of work with raw capabilities to make it useful to photography enthusiasts. Better sensors and lenses will be required."
This newfound core raw functionality may be particularly useful to Android based-cameras with the beefy prosumer gear already in place like the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom or Galaxy GC110.
Bursting your way to better images
Burst mode is another capability that will be deeply engrained into Android. But in order to really understand what burst mode has to offer, we should learn a little more about HDR.
HDR imaging is a set of techniques, which produce images with a large swath of intensities from the darkest darks to lightest lights.
One of the ways this effect is achieved is by digitally combining different images of the exact same scene taken at multiple exposures. This is where burst mode can come in handy. When a device captures numerous images with various parameters (a "burst"), they can be combined after the fact into a single striking image.
Android devices already have the ability to produce HDR images, but new burst capabilities will help give developers a way to bring top-shelf photography features to a number of applications.
Of course, burst mode is also handy for capturing action shots. If something is happening quickly, it's useful to just hold down the shutter button, capturing as many images and you can, so you can go back later and take the one that captures the moment best. The iPhone 5s added burst mode to Apple's lineup.
As Android continues its march to ubiquity, it may be poised to become the Windows of the mobile age. However, Mountain View has clearly also learned lessons from Apple: Namely, make sure to appeal to the creatives, the tastemakers, for they are the ones who will propel your company into its next chapter whatever strange form that may take.
For right now, Android still has some work to do in that department.