This is an interesting video from tech YouTuber and smartphone aficionado Marques Brownlee that talks about the iPhone’s camera system and why it appears to be getting worse than the competition with each new generation. Having dumped iPhones myself back in 2017, it wasn’t something I’d really paid much attention to, but on watching his video, I realised that he was right. Their quality seems to be getting worse.
Marques has a theory as to why this is happening, and I think he might be right. In fact, he believes that one of them is something which Google has already fallen foul of with their Pixel series of smartphones. Fortunately, for Google’s sake, it looks like they course-corrected pretty quickly, but will Apple? Maybe.
It’s an odd thing because the iPhone consistently touts its new and improved camera system as one of its key selling points with each new generation that comes out, although it consistently misses the top spot in a lot of more objective and lab-based tests. But when you look the images… Like really look at them, they just don’t seem as good as those created by the competition’s latest smartphones.
Part of the problem, Marques posits, is that unlike traditional DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, smartphones are largely computational. The camera’s hardware compared to those large sensor cameras is quite lacking and so the software has to do all of the heavy lifting, often shooting multiple images simultaneously every time you hit the shutter so that it can ultimately produce a fairly good image.
As smartphone hardware has gotten better, though, he suggests that Apple is applying principles and techniques designed for older, less capable smartphone camera hardware. And as the hardware is getting better now, these techniques are not only no longer as beneficial but they can actually be detrimental. Given that 99% of iPhone photos are down to the software that Apple has created to interpret what the sensor sees, he feels they’re very overprocessed. Instead of capturing what the camera actually sees, they’re capturing what the iPhone’s computer thinks you want to see, which can be very different from reality, depending on what you’re shooting. They often have an overly HDR look, with oversharpening and subjects looking like they’ve been composited onto the very real backgrounds behind them.
He points out that Google faced a similar issue when after using the same camera and software combo for several years and then changing things up to a newer and much higher resolution camera with the Pixel 6. They noticed that their performance and quality reviews became worse. When they went back to their older hardware with the Pixel 6A, they were consistently getting those higher scores and more positive reviews again.
It’s been a while since I’ve used the iPhone camera regularly – mostly because I switched away from iPhones six years ago – but lately, I’ve been using iPhones again her and there, and shooting photos with them more often. The images do generally leave me feeling quite disappointed, particularly when shooting side-by-side vs other current flagship smartphones like the OnePlus 10 Pro – and even 2019’s OnePlus 7 Pro (which, by the way, was Marques’ Smartphone of the Year in 2019).
The iPhone camera isn’t terrible by any means. Apple’s been making smartphones with cameras in them long enough to maintain a minimum level of quality and Marques admits that he didn’t test everything. Whether or not Apple will do anything about the criticisms, though, remains to be seen. To be fair, though, many of the criticisms are levied by those who understand photography to some degree. Given that the vast majority of iPhone customers don’t seem to care – at least, not enough to complain – and just want snapshots that let them easily see whatever random scene they pointed their smartphone’s camera at without considering their artistic merit, probably not.
So, if photography is the main reason you’re choosing your phone, it might be worth shopping around – or at least seeing if you can find a good app that overrides a lot of the default automatic Apple processing.