You Push The Button, AI Does The Rest – the most computational iPhone camera ever.

October 13, 2023 ·

Dan Wells

An iPhone – 1900 model (this one’s actually from 1924, but early Brownies are very similar)

Found a Brownie camera in good shape at Granny’s Antiques in Payson.

            Apple and Fujifilm made major announcements on the same day recently – September 12, 2023. The contrast between them is actually not new in any way – it goes back to the invention of the snapshot by Eastman Kodak in the late 19th Century. As Kodak was inventing this new use for photography, L.F Deardorff and others were improving the design and image quality of large-format cameras. The divide that began in Rochester, NY more than 100 years ago is with us today, with smartphone cameras to document our lives and larger-format cameras with a wide variety of capabilities to make art. This pair of articles, which share an opening paragraph, examines what that looks like today.

            As Fujifilm released gear that had me thinking of L.F. Deardorff, camera movements and the ultimate in image quality, Apple left me thinking of the OTHER important photographic innovation that came out of the same city at around the same time – the Kodak #1 Brownie. The Kodak slogan “You Push the Button, We Do the Rest” was a brilliant way to sell cameras to people who were NOT interested in photography, but wanted a record of their daily lives. Prior to Kodak (who had been selling cameras to the masses for a little over a decade when the Brownie came along – the Brownie was a cheaper version that more people could afford), cameras had been for photographers. You had to know how to process and perhaps coat your own plates, since the pre-Brownie Kodaks were the first cameras to use film.

Memory cards, circa 1880 – a selection of dry plates.

Dry plate processes, where you at least didn’t have to coat your own plates immediately prior to exposure, but could carry a number of exposures in a bulky case, date only from the 1870s. In 1870, being a photographer meant carrying some sort of a darkroom or changing bag and bottles of chemistry to coat wet plates, while in 1900, it meant pressing a button. Wet plates made it to some amazing places – witness Mathew Brady’s  haunting images of the Civil War – but the average person wasn’t going to travel with a wet plate outfit to document their life. People might have a photograph taken to mark a special occasion in their lives, and well-known people were photographed often. Frederick Douglass was the most photographed person of the 19th Century, as he was among the first to realize the power of photography to tell a story. If you weren’t someone like Frederick Douglass, though, a photograph was for your wedding, or to be sent home to your family from the Civil War, or the day your business opened.

Kodak changed all that, with a system of cameras, film and processing that took a lot of the work and specialized knowledge out of photography.  You can still easily make photographs with a #2 Brownie today (the #1 was only made for a year, and it takes 117 film that is almost impossible to find – the #2 was made for many years and is easy to find at antique shops and yard sales,  takes 120 rollfilm and makes 6×9 cm negatives). You have one shutter speed plus time exposure, three apertures (some sources say they are around f11 ,f16 and f22, while others say f16, f22 and f32 – the shutter’s about 1/40 second, but probably not accurate in its second century anyway, so you’ll be relying on film latitude). The lens is around 100mm, fixed focus – about ten feet to infinity.  Kodak understandably recommends the largest aperture for most exposures (the original film was probably well below ISO 100, so f11-16 at 1/40 still requires pretty good sun). With the narrower apertures available, Tri-X might be a great modern film (with a vintage look and a TON of exposure latitude) to start with. Small aperture in full sun, medium in open shade, big in shade? An exposure meter would take the fun out of it!

Film loading was finicky, but once the film was in, Kodak’s advice to be at least ten feet away, wide open, plenty of sun, would produce a picture most of the time. There was a “portrait lens” accessory  that was really a close-up lens. It dropped the minimum focus to 3.5 feet, but lost infinity, so you had to be careful the subject was at the right distance.

The revolution was that an inexpensive Brownie would produce a usable picture much of the time with just a nudge of its shutter lever (no, it wasn’t actually a button, at least at first). It relied heavily on exposure latitude and depth of field, but it had plenty of both, and contact printing a 6×9 cm negative masks quite a bit of camera shake and focus error. Using a camera no longer meant being a photographer and having to know something about photography. As long as you remembered “outside, during the day, not too cloudy or too close”, you were going to get something to remember your day by. 

A late-generation film compact (a Pentax IQZoom 140 from 1994). This camera was released almost simultaneously with the first Apple QuickTake. At the time, the 0.3 megapixel digital camera posed no threat, but a decade later…

The Brownie went on to inspire many generations of compact cameras (and photographers, many of whom moved from a Brownie to something else when they wanted more control), just as we can trace Fujifilm’s new body and lenses back to the Deardorff. The Brownie’s descendants are made to get you the best possible image without having to think about photography, and that image has gotten better and better. No automation existed at the time of the Brownie, so Kodak simply had to used fixed values for each variable. What one shutter speed will work best? Well, 1/40 second is a good compromise because the film is really slow. They could have done 1/100 to reduce shake (the lens is about a 100mm focal length), but that would have required either faster film, which didn’t exist, or a wider aperture that would have reduced depth of field. What aperture? Well, it needs a lot of depth of field, so let’s go for a narrow aperture, which will also mask some of the imperfections in the single-element lens. How long a lens? Well, 100mm is just about the diagonal of the film (in an early example of a normal lens).

One of the inventors of autoexposure technology…

As “You Push the Button, We Do the Rest” cameras evolved, automation replaced fixed values. The first camera with autoexposure, the Super Kodak Six-20, actually appeared as early as 1938, but it was extremely expensive ($225 then, over $4500 today), and it came into a world exiting the Great Depression and entering World War II. Only a few hundred were made. In a fascinating coda, one of the first patents to cover autoexposure was granted to one Albert Einstein and a collaborator in 1935. Einstein had already entirely reimagined the universe and won his only Nobel Prize (most historians of physics think he should certainly have won two and perhaps three) – BEFORE attempting to invent autoexposure. I don’t have any idea if it’s true, but I am imagining a befuddled-looking Einstein on a hike in the Swiss Alps trying to get his camera to work, then drawing something on the back of a napkin… Einstein’s method was never commercialized, but the first working AE system followed within a few years. It took until the late 1950s before autoexposure compacts became commercially successful. Einstein, who died in 1955, may never have owned a camera where he didn’t have to think about light (the discoverer of relativity, light quanta and the photoelectric effect probably did enough of that in his day job). By 1970 or so, all but the cheapest compact cameras featured autoexposure, often using a fixed aperture or shutter speed while the meter controlled the other variable.

Autofocus was first seen in a compact camera in 1977, and became common by 1980 or so – well before the Minolta Maxxum/Dynax became the first successful autofocus SLR. Most early autofocus compacts used a different type of AF from what we think of today. They shot a beam of light or sound at the subject and measured the time of return to calculate distance. Computationally, it’s very simple – the camera is essentially playing “Marco Polo” with the subject. It’s also the same principle as a laser tape measure – although cheap laser diodes were not available in the 1970s, so they had to make do with a less precise light source.  

An early autofocus camera (the large gold disk is the sonar-based focusing device). This SX-70 Sonar OneStep is the quintessential instant camera, but it is also one of the very few large-format autofocus SLRs ever to exist.

The problem is that light is fast and hard to time, while sound is diffuse (unless you are a dolphin, who can identify very small objects by their sonic echo). Since it isn’t looking through the lens, it doesn’t work with interchangeable lens cameras – if you mounted a 300mm f2.8 lens on a camera with external autofocus, the focus would not only be unable to differentiate between parts of the subject, it might very well be measuring something entirely outside the field of view of the lens. A decade or so later , through the lens autofocus became available, although compact cameras tended not to use it until the digital era, because there is  (almost always) no reflex mirror to direct light to the autofocus sensor in a compact.  Instead of actively sending out a beam, SLR-style autofocus is passive, analyzing the image the lens forms. Some compacts used a separate rangefinder lens with SLR-style passive autofocus, while many continued to use active systems that timed a beam of light or sound. Essentially all digital cameras use passive autofocus, because the image is right there on the sensor, accessible to the autofocus system. Many use beamsplitter prisms directly on the sensor (phase-detect AF).

The third piece of the puzzle was the elimination of the wait to see your pictures. Polaroid was, of course, the pioneer of instant film, although Kodak, Fujifilm and others have made cameras and film, and Fujifilm is currently very successful with their Instax series. Polaroid is back, relatively recently – you can get film for a lot of old Polaroid cameras (although, sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a present source of 4×5” instant film – you can actually get new production 8×10” Polaroid film for a very high price, but not 4×5”) , and quite a few photographers are having fun with it.

Instant photography in its recent revitalization is something quite different from instant photography in its first heyday, and it appeals to a different market. The first time around, instant photography appealed first to people who wanted to see their snapshots right away, with an important secondary market among professionals (largely studio photographers) who wanted to check setups to make sure they got the shot. This time, the market is hipsters, artists and an overlap between the two who want the unique look of an instant photo, or the physicality of an image viewed in person.

Polaroid was owned by a company that licensed the name to makers of various cheap electronics (no part of the “real” Polaroid ever made junk TVs, for example) until recently. The Impossible Project, the people who restarted production on vintage Polaroid film, now own Polaroid – but some of the licensing deals are still in force, almost certainly because they have yet to run out, rather than because The Impossible Project is licensing the name to junk electronics makers. This has led to a “use your judgment” situation with certain products. Anything camera or film-related is probably Impossible Project (high quality, although perhaps not cheap), and anything that doesn’t seem typically Polaroid is probably junk. The question is with things like inexpensive cameras (Impossible Project if they’re film, junk if they’re digital, as far as I know) and non-photographic products like polarized sunglasses that Polaroid once made (junk, as far as I know).

An EOS D30 like this one was my first serious digital camera, as it was for many people. Photo by Valtteri Vuorkoski (Wikipedia)

Of course, the next part of the story is the elimination of film altogether – very roughly, the dawn of digital photography was  around the turn of the millennium. There were a few digital cameras before that – the first entry in DPReview’s database is the Kodak DCS420 in 1994. However, the Class of 2000 brings us the EOS-D30, a special camera for The Luminous Landscape, because it was the camera that brought the site to prominence. Michael Reichmann claimed its superiority over 35mm film (looking back, it had less resolution, but less noise, than  color print film at the same ISO, and the result was often, but not always preferable. It was the second digital SLR that didn’t have a gargantuan processing unit hanging off the bottom or even carried over the shoulder, and it cost half as much as the Nikon D1 of the preceding year, while taking better pictures (although it was much slower).  It was also the first mainstream camera to use a CMOS sensor. If you look at your digital SLR or mirrorless camera today, it’s the D30’s heritage you see staring back.

 A number of the famous early digital compacts are also Class of 2000 – this was the heyday of Olympus’ C-series with their beautiful lenses, Nikon’s split-body Coolpixes were already on their third iteration (plus one “s” model) with the Coolpix 990, and Canon introduced both the G-series of premium compacts and the Digital Elph series that year. Minolta, Kodak, Kyocera (Yashica in some markets), Casio, Agfa, Epson and even HP all joined the usual suspects in releasing cameras that year, Ricoh and Pentax were separate, as were Sony and Minolta. One company that notably made no cameras in 2000 was Apple. The QuickTake line had been discontinued a few years before, while the first iPod was still in the future (and iPods would not gain cameras until several years into their life), let alone the first iPhone. Apple only made Macs at the time, and no Mac came with a webcam. Apple would not even release an external webcam until 2003.

Apple’s first camera from 1994 (and one of the very first consumer digital cameras) – a QuickTake 100.

For a company that made no cameras of any sort in 2000, Apple sure sells an awful lot of them today (close to a billion annually, counting multiple cameras in the same device). They sell well over 200 million iPhones annually, each with multiple cameras, plus cameras in iPads (generally two cameras each), Macs, and, until recently, iPod Touches. They claim uses for these cameras, especially those on iPhones, beyond snapshots that record your life. I have always believed that, while an iPhone (or a high-end Android phone with comparable cameras) may be the best Brownie ever made, it’s still a Brownie, a machine to capture life, because You Push The Button,  AI Does The Rest. Each year, the amount of AI in the iPhone’s default image goes up – there’s more and more processing done without user input, and less and less room for the photographer to contribute to the image.

For snapshots, the increase in automated processing is nothing new. You could easily consider a minilab to be a primitive form of AI-based image processing. It examined not only the exposure, but also the colors in a scene, and tried to correct them toward an “average” scene. Minilabs failed when faced with unusually bright, dark or colored scenes. Early models simply averaged the scene (with some operator intervention possible, but the average one-hour photo clerk wouldn’t bother). Later models used various types of patterned metering, similar to a centerweighted meter in a camera. The final analog minilabs had a scene database, similar to the way matrix metering works in a camera.

One notorious issue with minilabs is that they were calibrated to get colors right on Caucasian faces, and were generally vexed by darker skin tones, especially Black people whose skin can be as much as two or three stops darker than the average Caucasian (the full range of human facial skin tones is around five or six stops from the lightest Nordic blonde to the darkest African or Indigenous Australian, although the lightest and darkest stop or so are less common). MANY automated photo printers are calibrated to put faces about a stop above 18% gray.  That is just about right for an average Caucasian or a lighter skinned Asian, but a lot of Latino/a, lighter skinned Black and darker skinned Asian people have skin tones right around 18% gray, while many Black people’s skin tone is as much as a full stop below 18%, and very light Caucasians can be two stops above 18%. Modern digital correction technology is getting better at correctly reproducing darker skin tones, but it is still a serious problem. Very light skin tones are much less difficult for AI to get right, but they’ll occasionally blow a highlight.

            Smartphone cameras build the automation of a one-hour photo print right into the camera, and then they add a great deal of automation that one-hour photo never had. The advantage is that they are considerably “smarter” than an average minilab, but the disadvantage is that there is no negative that can be printed better. Like a Polaroid, the final result is really all you get. Even when a smartphone claims to produce a “raw file”, there is almost always quite a bit of AI manipulation already in it (unlike a raw file from most cameras, which really is the sensor data with a simple gamma curve applied).

Is this the future? The Paragraphica camera (image by Paragraphica creator Bjorn Karmann)

How long until the lens and sensor are eliminated, and the image is produced by generative AI based on the location and who was there? While this may seem extreme, a prototype of a “lensless camera” that uses GPS and generative AI already exists – it’s called Paragraphica. Maybe the first application is not on Earth at all – how about an AI-based “telescope camera” that knows where it’s pointed and, instead of trying to take a picture, reveals one from images taken by the Hubble or James Webb Space Telescopes, using AI to scale and combine images. Those images are FAR more detailed than anything an amateur telescope can make. If this seems far-fetched, Samsung is already replacing the Moon as captured with their smartphone cameras with an image taken with a serious telescope (without asking).

I eventually HAD to include an image of an actual iPhone… An iPhone 15 Pro in Natural Titanium, showing its cameras. Apple does gorgeous press shots (I wonder if they shoot them on something like a Phase One)?

This year, in addition to all the AI that is already in the iPhone, there are two new AI features that bring us farther and farther from actually seeing the image as it comes off the sensor. All of this does not matter if what you want is a pleasing image – if the use you have is for a Brownie. It matters immensely if what you are trying to do is photography as art, if you wish to express yourself photographically.

The first new feature that embeds AI further into the image-making process on the new iPhones is the new default image resolution of 24 MP. There is no 24 MP sensor anywhere on any iPhone, nor is there a 96 MP sensor (24 MP quad Bayer, used binned). Apple’s AI-based Photonic Engine  could be doing any one of three things. They specifically mention that the 48 MP sensor is quad Bayer (2×2 blocks of adjacent pixels are filtered to the same color), eliminating the otherwise attractive possibility  of a “dual Bayer” sensor where two adjacent pixels, rather than four, share a color. It would require rectangular pixels, but might be the easiest way of getting 24 MP output from a 48 MP sensor.  

First, it’s possible that it’s using the 48 MP quad Bayer sensor, but binning only two pixels rather than four. It would then be dealing with odd-shaped, rectangular pixels in software, as well as figuring out the color filtration. This is probably the most straightforward solution (the Nikon D1X actually used two-pixel binning and rectangular pixels, and that was over twenty years ago), but it doesn’t seem like what Apple’s actually doing. The second reasonably easy possibility is to use the output from the 48 MP quad-Bayer sensor as input to a digital zoom algorithm – either take the 48 MP output, de-Bayer it taking the quad Bayer filter into account and shrink it, or use it in 12 MP mode and enlarge it. Again, easy enough, but Apple always wants to be too clever by half.

What it seems like they’re doing (from their own description) is combining two exposures, one de-Bayered at 12 MP and one at 48 MP. Or are they taking one exposure and de-Bayering it two ways? From their description, it sounds like two separate exposures, but not decisively so. It also seems like it is actually more than two exposures in many circumstances – the 12 MP exposure, and possibly the 48 MP exposure, are themselves likely to be composites using Apple’s Photonic Engine technology. This is certainly a way of taking advantage of both extra sensitivity and extra resolution on a quad-Bayer sensor – it’s theoretically sound, and could have some advantages. On the other hand, it’s extremely calculation intensive. There’s no way of (honestly) calling a hybrid of a 12 MP image conventionally de-Bayered and a 48 MP image involving quad-Bayer color anything LIKE a raw file, even if you do also refer to it as ProRAW.

The second extremely AI-intensive new feature is the “seven lenses” on the iPhone 15 Pro models. Some of these are actual optical focal lengths, although all but two involve either additional computational photography or tiny-pixeled 12MP cameras. The two “legitimate” settings, which use the full resolution of the main camera (some computed combination of 12 MP at a 2.44 µm pixel pitch and 48 MP at a 1.22 µm pixel pitch to yield a 24 MP output image) and don’t add any additional computation are the actual focal length of the main camera lens (Apple calls this 1.0x and claims it’s 24mm in full-frame equivalence, although I’ve also seen 26mm) and Macro mode, which Apple inexplicably considers a focal length. As far as I can tell, macro just enables close focusing on the lens.  The iPhone main camera has relatively conventional  autofocus, so macro mode is just adding focus travel. Any lens with a focus limiter, from old Sigma zoom lenses that focused to 1:2 at the flip of a switch to $15,000 telephotos that let you select from two or three focus ranges to speed up AF, works the same way.

There are three more focal lengths that make optical sense, all using 12 MP sensors with pixels in the just over 1 µm class (if they’re outputting at 24 MP, it’s simply enlarging the image). Those are the ultra-wide camera at native focal length (Apple calls it 0.5x or 13mm), the telephoto camera at native focal length (on the iPhone 15 Pro, it’s 3x or 77mm and on the 15 Pro Max, it’s 5x or 120mm) and the 2x mode. The 2x mode works by taking a center crop of the main camera sensor read out at 48 MP. Since the crop is half the width and half the height of the sensor, it’s 12 MP, but it uses the small-pixel readout, not the binned quad-Bayer readout. Both the ultra-wide and telephoto modes have their own lenses and sensors, and both of those sensors are 12 MP, with 1.12 µm pixels. The 2x mode actually has slightly larger pixels, at 1.22 µm, on the two Pro models, but it is “un-binning” pixels that are grouped in fours under single color elements, so its spatial resolution is 12 MP, but its color resolution is an anemic 3 MP. Similarly, 48 MP mode has 48 MP of spatial resolution, but only 12 MP of color information

Apple doesn’t explain exactly how the last two focal lengths work, as there are no 1.2x (28mm) or 1.5x (35mm) lenses anywhere to be found, and nothing with a nice, even divisor. These modes definitely output at 24 MP, and Apple credits “the power of computational photography”.  They don’t offer any more explanation than that. The most straightforward way would be to read the sensor out at 48 MP, crop to size and enlarge or shrink the result as needed for 24 MP. The “28mm” mode would actually be quite close simply by cropping , while 35mm would require some enlargement. Apple likes serious computation, and they have the processing power to do it, so they might be using some data from the telephoto lens, the 12 MP mode on the main sensor, or both. Apple is claiming that this process goes well beyond a simple crop from the main sensor, involving neural networks in an unspecified way. Whatever they’re doing, there is sure to be a strong influence from a crop of the main sensor, read out at 48 MP. This means that there is a strong influence from a readout mode that has 48 MP of spatial resolution, but only 12 MP of color resolution (before a significant crop), and uses 1.22 µm pixels.

Phone makers don’t want to admit this, but almost all phone sensors are comparable to the sensor in a $100 compact camera (albeit with massively more capable post-processing).

            To give a sense of just how tiny these pixels actually are, it is worth comparing them to Sony’s 3.76 µm standard pixel, found on non-phone cameras ranging from 26 MP Pentax, Sony and Fujifilm APS-C to Phase One’s 150 MP 54x40mm medium format. The smallest iPhone pixel, on a non-Pro iPhone 15’s main camera reading out in 48 MP mode, is just barely above 7% of the size of a standard pixel. The ultrawide/telephoto pixel on all iPhone 15 models is a bit under 9% the size of a standard pixel. The Pro models in 48 MP mode use a pixel 10.5% the size of a standard pixel. Finally, the non-Pro models in 12 MP mode are 28% the size of a standard pixel, with the Pros at 42%. The iPhone 15 models, with their new 24 MP default, no longer allow easy access to the 12 MP readout without additional processing. I haven’t seen any mention of a “give me 12 MP straight from the sensor” option in any of the launch coverage. It is possible the option is included, but Apple tends to make things less complicated by making AI processing difficult or impossible to turn off.

While Portrait mode (AI-generated bokeh) has been an option on the Pro iPhones  for a few years, Apple has now gained enough confidence in it that the phone will automatically  generate a depth map every time it detects faces (human or animal). Unlike most of the rest of Apple’s AI features, the user can choose whether to use it. What’s new is that it’s always there waiting in every image where it might make sense  – you can turn it on years after taking the photo.

There is actually one more brand-new, computationally intensive mode coming soon that most of us will never use. The Pro iPhones are capable of spatial video (video with a 3D depth map), using the main camera, the ultra-wide camera, and probably quite a bit of computing power. There are almost no details available, but the one detail we DO have renders it almost entirely useless. We don’t know how big the files will be, what the format might look like, or any recording time or resolution limitations.

A Vision Pro (Apple press image). Not only do I not imagine they’re planning to sell very many at $3500, I don’t even think they CAN sell very many – the screens are in short supply.

The detail that renders all of that irrelevant is that we do know the only device that will play spatial video back – Apple’s Vision Pro headset. The Vision Pro is a $3500 VR/AR headset that doesn’t exist yet, except as a limited-production prototype used for development. There are a few in Apple developer centers, and there may be a few more at the offices of big developers. What are the chances that Vision Pro is a big seller? It’s a $3500 content consumption device that replaces NO other device (well, maybe a single well-heeled techie might own one instead of a TV????). Nobody has ever sold mass quantities of a VR or AR headset except to gamers, and Apple is NOT regarded as a gaming company – more of a company that has been a thorn in the side to gamers. No gaming headset has successfully sold much beyond the $500-$700 range, and no professional-grade VR headset has ever found a wide market.

NASA’s favorite camera for imaging the galaxy and beyond. The images will look stunning on the Vision Pro (and there may be scientific value to using a headset for visualization), but the James Webb Space Telescope is more complex than an iPhone.

There are three possible early markets for a high-end headset, and none of them go well with iPhone video. Headsets have played a part in scientific (research) visualization for years, and I can see NASA and similar operations paying $3500 a pop without blinking an eye, since much of the equipment they use is considerably more expensive than that. Much of what they are visualizing involves simulation, rather  than cameras, and the rest involves some rather specialized cameras. You can’t actually photograph events at a subatomic scale, and, while you CAN photograph galactic-scale events (other than the inside of a black hole), you are more likely to use the James Webb Space Telescope than your iPhone.

Museumgoers watching an IMAX film – photo by NASA

The second possibility is science education. Science museums are willing to spend lavishly on visualization hardware (IMAX theaters are one of their favorite tools, and those don’t come cheap). There are two questions there – one is that headsets are not a great tool for groups – they’re isolating, while museums are largely trying to involve visitors in groups. Relatedly, passing a headset from person to person poses at least some level of health concern (and in the case of the Vision Pro, a technical concern involving the custom fit facial seal). Even if Apple caters to the museum market with a projection-based setup that simulates the Vision Pro experience for a group, the second problem is that the work museums are doing doesn’t generally involve a small sensor and a modestly wide-angle lens. They are using highly specialized cameras and lenses, and “please use your phone” isn’t going to impress interpretive filmmakers who have been photographing lions without disturbing their behavior by using 1000mm lenses on REDs and Varicams. “I’m sorry, Mr. Attenborough, we have to use this tiny-sensor camera with a 24mm lens instead of the 1200mm on the big sensor because Apple says so”  will probably not go over very well…

How many famous directors will give up their Sony Venice (or Red, or ARRI Alexa, or Panasonic Varicam, etc…) to make movies with their iPhone, just to satisfy the Vision Pro? I’m sure there will be a way to use a Venice (or two) to make Vision Pro video…

The third possibility is a new type of cinematic experience. Until the price of a Vision Pro goes down, most people won’t be buying them for their home theaters. When it does, there is a type of filmmaking that might offer an immersive experience in a headset – the problem is that it isn’t iPhone friendly. I can hardly imagine James Cameron’s expression when a production assistant hands him an iPhone and says “Mr. Cameron, please put down that Sony Venice and stow that bag of your favorite Zeiss lenses – Apple says we are supposed to use this instead for their new headset”.  You can’t shoot an epic with one 24mm f1.8 lens and no manual focus or iris. Vision Pro will be at its most effective for showing epic film, precisely where lens choices and capabilities are most important, if it breaks into film at all.

            Apple appears to be betting on people shooting personal videos destined for social media in a format that requires a Vision Pro to view. First of all, no major social media platform is likely to accept Vision Pro specific video. We don’t know how big the files are going to be, but the best guess anyone has is “huge”. Meta, Google and TikTok have no love for Apple, since all three make their money on ad tracking while Apple sells devices based in part on their resistance to tracking. Meta in particular has been in open warfare with Apple over ads and tracking, claiming Apple is costing them billions of dollars annually in lost ad revenue. How likely would they be to turn around and say “we’ll happily host enormous files that work only with a very expensive Apple device owned only by the most hardcore Apple fanatics?”.

            From a user’s viewpoint, even a Vision Pro owner is unlikely to post their social videos in a Vision Pro format unless their friends also have Vision Pros. The number of social groups (outside of Apple employees and seriously wealthy early adopters) who are likely to have a Vision Pro as a common denominator is tiny. Think of the “green bubble” phenomenon, when one Android user turns an iMessage group into ordinary SMS. Most group chats I participate in end up “green bubbled” because someone doesn’t use an iPhone. The iPhone is the most successful consumer tech product in history, and it’s been around for 16 years. It’s also reached the point where everybody knows what it does. Even with that kind of penetration, it’s a difficult common denominator to find. If “you need an iPhone” is hard to achieve, how much harder will it be to find groups where everybody has a brand-new device that is three times as expensive as a top-end iPhone, and for which the use case isn’t completely clear.

            In addition to the new AI added to this year’s iPhones, there is all the AI they have accumulated over the years, plus Apple’s philosophy – as described by Apple’s Senior Director of iPhone Product Marketing, Maxime Veron. “For the vast majority of our customers, we just aim to process everything in the background so that the process is invisible and out of the way so that people can take great photos and videos and capture beautiful, true-to-life moments in one click.” You Push The Button, AI Does The Rest by any other name.

The star of the show – Apple’s exceptionally capable A17 Pro is at the heart of the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max -the Neural Engine that makes much of the computational wizardry work is at lower left.

            Essentially every iPhone image is a composite of multiple images, sometimes from multiple cameras. At a minimum, there are several different exposures combined in order to increase dynamic range, and there is often more than that going on. Apple has referred to this technology as Deep Fusion and, later, Photonic Engine, and it is always active. Photonic Engine merges images to improve sharpness, detail, color and motion blur. Depending on the situation, the phone may use additive blending, may pick the best image in a given area, or may combine different techniques – all done automatically and with zero user control.  Night Mode and HDR mode are more or less extensions of the Photonic Engine technology, where a user choice extends an always-on effect.

  It is extremely difficult to get a picture out of an iPhone that is not heavily modified by AI, since Apple’s “ProRAW” format still outputs the composite image created by the Photonic Engine.  Some third-party apps will provide a true raw file, but the result is generally disappointing – the limitations of ~1 µm pixel size are readily apparent when all the magic is taken away. A real raw file will look like an image from a compact camera with a similar sensor size (e.g. something like the $100 camera pictured below). Everything beyond that is “AI Does The Rest”.  

Sensor size visualized – the large green square is 33x44mm medium format, the largest commonly available sensor, while the small blue one is the largest sensor on any iPhone (the main sensor on the iPhone 14 Pro and 15 Pro series). Many iPhone images rely on the ultra–wide or telephoto cameras, with sensors ~1/4 the size of the main camera sensor.

The small size of the sensor is fundamental to the design of the thin phones that we all prefer – putting a much larger sensor in a phone would require either a much larger camera bump, compromising even farther on the lens to keep it flat, or a combination. There are a couple of phones with sensors the size of those in premium compact cameras instead of cheap compacts (so-called 1” sensors). They use three compromises to get there. One is that there may physically be a 1” sensor in the phone, but they’re actually using something less than that, since the lens doesn’t fully cover the sensor. The second is that the lens could be compromised to keep it flat, and the third is an outsized camera bump. All 1” phones use at least one of these strategies, and most use a combination of two or all three. It is also useful to remember that even a 1” sensor is roughly 1/3 the size of APS-C, and about 1/7 the size of full-frame.

            I may seem to pick on Apple – I’m not trying to. First of all, this is how phone cameras work, whether Apple or Android. A phone camera is always a very cheap compact camera with enormously sophisticated post-processing to hide that fact. f  I’ve been an Apple user and even an Apple fan, owning many Macs, iPads and, yes, iPhones, for 40 years. I currently own an iPhone 12, which I just upgraded to iOS 17.  I like it a lot it as a phone, navigation device and music player, and the camera is just fine for what I use it for, as a visual notebook, recording an unusual sign, a funny expression on a friend’s face or a receipt. It’s good at a lot of things, but not as good as the machine made to do that thing, operated by a person with an interest in that function.

If you REALLY need to know where you are in the world, you might use something like this. This survey-grade Trimble GPS will tell you to within centimeters.

            Just as a phone camera is fine for snapshots, but falls down for any photograph requiring a modicum of control, the same is true of navigation. It works exceptionally well for standard urban navigation in a standard vehicle. It fails when any parameter falls outside the norm. Only with the recent release of iOS 17 did the iPhone gain the ability to download maps in its default navigation application (Apple Maps) so that navigation still works when the cellular signal goes away. Cell service is so reliable in major cities that we take it for granted – but it dies out in many rural areas and most large National Parks, among other places. Apple Maps also doesn’t ask about the size of your vehicle (so it doesn’t work at all if you’re driving an 18-wheeler, and it’s not great if you’re riding a motorcycle). Phone GPS accuracy is fine for standard road navigation – the error (~5 meters) is almost always smaller than whatever you’re trying to find – but a surveyor would laugh before pulling out her Trimble GPS accurate to a few centimeters.  Just like the camera, it works very well (and without thinking about it) if your needs aren’t complex.

            This is true of many of the things that phones do – they do a basic job, good enough for people who don’t depend on the function. A smartphone will measure a room, but not well enough for a contractor. It will serve as a calculator, but not for an engineer. It’ll write e-mail, but not nearly as well as a computer. If you’re reading The Luminous Landscape, you’re probably a photographer, and the camera in your phone is not enough – except that photographers ALSO take snapshots. Similarly, even surveyors navigate to their jobsite, even contractors measure their own house to see if the couch will fit, and even engineers add up grocery bills.

            While it’s not really a camera for art, Apple has built a great snapshot camera, maybe even the best ever, and the Brownie and its descendants have a honored place in the history of photography. What I won’t do, though, is upgrade my iPhone for the sake of a better camera. I use the camera, but I use it for “Brownie jobs”, while I have a descendant of the Deardorff for when I need one to make a serious image. I don’t need a better Brownie than the one my iPhone 12 provides, since I own a camera that does things that no Brownie will ever do.

An attractive group portrait of iPhone 15 Pros – I’m especially partial to that Natural Titanium on the right, as I suspect many photographers of an age to remember the Contax G1 or the Olympus OM4 Ti will be.

I upgrade my iPhone either when it breaks, when it hits the vintage list and I can’t get security updates, or when there is some compelling new feature. Around 2012, that was every couple of years – now, it’s closer to every five years, since the iPhone has gotten so good at so much. I can’t think of a single feature the iPhone 15 Pro Max has that my iPhone 12 doesn’t that would cause me to upgrade. Apple is so good at making the experience essentially identical across models, and even an older iPhone is now so fast, that they are taking away their own upgrade market. I don’t buy the “Pro” iPhone, because so much of what differentiates it is the camera, and I don’t need the best camera on my phone – I have a medium-format system for that. Maybe I WILL buy the Pro when it comes time to upgrade my iPhone 12, though – the titanium seems like a nice thing to have for a device that’s in and out of pockets and bags many times per day.

Dan Wells

October 2023

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Dan Wells, "Shuttterbug" on the trail, is a landscape photographer, long-distance hiker and student in the Master of Divinity program at Harvard Divinity School. He lives in Cambridge, MA when not in wild places photographing and contemplating our connection to the natural world. Dan's images try to capture the spirit he finds in places where, in the worlds of the Wilderness Act of 1964, "Man himself is but a visitor". He has hiked 230 miles of Vermont's Long Trail and 450 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail with his cameras, as well as photographing in numerous National Parks, Seashores and Forests over the years - often in the offseason when few people think to be there. In the summer of 2020, Dan plans to hike a stretch of hundreds of miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, focusing on his own and others' spiritual connection to these special places, and making images that document these connections. Over years of personal work and teaching photography, Dan has used a variety of equipment (presently Nikon Z7 and Fujifilm APS-C). He is looking for the perfect combination of light weight, ruggedness and superb image quality.

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