Of iPhones and Real Cameras

For the past week or so the web has been buzzing about all things iPhone 11 (and Pro and Pro Max—they share everything but size and number of lenses). Mainly however, the discussion has focused on their new camera systems. 

My friend Robert Catto did a post on the subject, comparing several images using all three of his new 11 Pro’s cameras: normal wide, super-wide and telephoto. It’s very much worth checking out. I personally upgraded to iPhone 11 from an 8 Plus—which is now Jacob’s 8 Plus while Anaïs gets his 6...and before you mention how unfair it is for the eldest to always get the newer stuff: Anaïs has my iPad Air 2 and Brydge keyboard. And yeah, yeah screens...whatever. It’s almost 2020.

I haven’t spent tons of time shooting with this new phone (I likely won’t anyway), but I did do my own random tests over the weekend. I think what has most impressed me is the new Night Mode (and I’m not alone here, judging from most reviews). Because in many ways, this is the best expressions so far of computational photography, and how profoundly this is about to alter our landscape. The concept of using increasingly powerful AI and machine learning to combine and process multiple layers, analyzing a scene within mere milliseconds to invisibly capture the best possible rendition—all while the user remains completely oblivious to the entire internal workflow; anyone looking over over the shooter’s shoulder will have seen a shutter press, nothing more. In the case of Night Mode, the iPhone provides a sort of countdown as we hold still while the image is composited before our eyes...and unless you get a serious case of the shakes while this is going on, the results are pretty impressive. The subject still needs to be as still as possible but handheld shots work fine.

However: let’s not get carried away just yet. I was very impressed by the results of Night Mode in the image below (it was VERY dark). Even shared it with my KAGE buddies. On the iPhone screen it rocked. On the iMac screen…not so much. ISO 2000 on a sensor this tiny does not look all that great, with blotchiness and lack of detail that’s very apparent as soon as you leave the confines of its maker. Judge for yourself.

That green stuff is not artifacts btw: that was a green lampshade reflecting on the speaker. Is this better than what was possible before? Of course. And it looks great on mobile devices. It’s not magic though. Computational photography is compensating for the technical flaws of these systems, but small sensors remain tied to the same annoying laws of physics that govern our own world. Wanna fly away? Not without help you won’t. Reality does bite.

Now, this is all newish...but it’s not SUPER new. We’ve been hearing about this technology for a couple of years. The clincher I believe is that we’re now seeing the first generation of devices where the promise is coming to fruition. So yes, iPhone 11 is—in most cases—impressive. GFX impressive? Nope. X-Pro3 impressive? Not at all (uh huh, I just went there)…;)

Bottom line: glass matters and sensors matter and optics matter and gosh darnit, those laws of physics still matter as well. Again, I can bat my arms all I want, I’m not leaving the ground anytime soon. So as impressive as results can be, as Robert mentioned in his post there’s still a certain “mushiness” to the files when viewed on a larger screen. This isn’t just about megapixels either, I think it has more to do with resolving power—which would explain why it’s more apparent in “far away” scenes: close-ups can be downright impressive in terms of detail but zoom in on a landscape and...meh. And the super-wide lens, as other have said, is much more prone to this. It’s certainly fun but the quality is slightly less than its normal wide counterpart.

That said, this is the very first time I’m not cringing when processing iPhone files. I don’t buy a new model every year so I might be late to the party on this, but that’s my takeaway when compared to my most recent experience. Landscapes still don’t do it for me in most cases, but close-ups—even with that super-wide—definitely hold up to scrutiny and my usual manipulations.

Portrait mode has come a long way…

Portrait mode has come a long way…

I still pretty much hate shooting with a phone. I hate the controls and I hate holding a device at arms length. I’m fucking old apparently. I still also believe there’s an intimacy missing that ultimately impacts how and what I shoot. But I can’t help imagining the road ahead of us, as all this technology advances and trickles down. The iPhone is certainly a real camera, I won’t argue to the contrary. But damn it: let’s imagine this level of brainpower AND physical controls AND form factor AND optics coming together.

Brave. New. World. 

P.S Our cameras are already integrating this sort of technology and real-time analysis. But at the moment, it feels like each segment of the industry lacks the full strengths of the other. I think there has to be an inevitable confluence at some point.