Apple's developing advantage in iPhone photography

Apple's focus on and investment in camera technology is paying off.

Apple, iOS, iOS 11, iPhone, iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, iPhone X, photography, Photos
Daniel Masaoka

Can you see why Apple has been so focused on making photography great again on its iPhones?

Incremental, but innovative

Apple has been working hard to improve the camera ever since it realized iPhones were becoming more popular than cameras. With its LED flash, the iPhone 4 was a significant step on the journey. Today we have AR.

Don’t get me wrong: I see other smartphones sometimes offer more megapixels, but that’s only part of the story. It doesn’t matter how big your images are if you don’t have software to optimize them, hardware to improve them, services through which to share them or powerful image management tools to help you make the best of them.

A big picture

To me, its clear someone in Cupertino experienced a "Eureka" moment in which they realized that taking good images isn’t just about the size of the CCD, but also depends on the software, flash, hardware processing, depth of field and everything else.

For Apple, this big picture about photography was the big picture.

That focus is paying off:

“The iPhone 8 Plus is the best-performing mobile device camera we have ever tested. Its overall DxOMark Mobile score of 94 sets a new record, beating out the 90 points for both the Google Pixel and the HTC U11, as well as the 92 that its sibling iPhone 8 just scored.” DxOMark.

The world in your image

Apple continues to develop (or acquire) technologies with implications on photography.

  • Some depend on hardware, such as the dual camera sensor introduced in iPhone 7.
  • Others depend on software (Photos, image processing).
  • Other innovations (item and face recognition, for example) depend on a combination of software and hardware.

The Portrait-taking improvements introduced in iPhone 7 Plus, 8 and X are winning high praise everywhere. And don’t neglect how photographs you take on an iPhone can be so easily synced and improved on a High Sierra Mac.


Can you see the direction of travel? 

Images are escaping into three dimensions — four if you are one of those who sees AR as a portal to an augmented planet.

In the most recent iPhones, photo improvements mean Memories collections work in both portrait and landscape view, the Depth API Apple uses for Portrait mode is now open to third-party developers for use in their apps, and Live Photos are editable.

Clips shows how the company thinks about the different components in an image — Live Photo meets AR? Not unlikely, given all these technologies come from the company that’s also given us Animojis.

And it’s all by design. Do you really think Apple shifted image format just to save storage space? 

Photos plus

Today, top Apple analyst, Ming-Chi Kuo of KGI says Apple’s all-new front-facing TrueDepth camera puts the company up to two-and-a-half years ahead of the competition.

That assumes Apple won’t continue to develop new innovations.

I think the move to new image formats matters. Containerization means images aren’t just images, those files also carry sound, location and video. In small packages.

Every single one of these photo-focused improvements combined gives Apple a tremendous platform advantage — not just in photography, but also in terms of the future of photography. Still images and video are combining.

The developing picture

Apple hasn’t even begun to weave technologies acquired with September’s acquisition of Regaind, a developer of technologies that use AI to figure out things like aesthetics, sharpness, color and more.

That tech seems likely to both improve Memories and help iPhoneographers get more out of the images they already have.

The roll call of known image-associated acquisitions by Apple in recent years also includes face recognition system Emotient, Faceshift motion capture, and Perceptio image recognition.

To help put those purchases into context, Apple acquired augmented reality firm, Metatio in 2015, and we’ve only seen AR appear this year.

Apple inside

The hook that underpins all of this is the powerful A11 Bionic processor inside the latest crop of devices.

Not only does this drive all the on-board AI-based image management tools, but it also renders graphics faster, boosts image sharpness and much more — think about TrueTone light-correcting technology or on device facial analysis.

None of this is accidental. Apple continues to invest in its own silicon to handle this stuff. Its latest iPhones even include an Apple-designed GPU.

Once again, Apple is looking to create unique selling points, combining its skills in user interface, hardware and software design. Like so much of what Apple does, the significance of which is not always so clear, it's no secret.

"We're in a time where the greatest advances in camera technology are happening as much in the software as in the hardware," Apple’s marketing chief, Philip Schiller, said. "And that obviously plays to Apple's strengths over traditional camera companies."

The idea now is that you can pick up an iPhone and capture great images — and video — without needing to spend time learning how to use the device.

In the future, this will also extend to new forms of image, as still and moving images combine to create new opportunities for creative expression. What do you expect to be doing with HEIF images three years from now?

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Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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