The new iPhones might look strikingly similar to outgoing models, but just because the casing looks familiar doesn’t mean that it should be dismissed as more of the same. Why? Because at least one of the new iPhone 7 models will likely feature major camera improvements that make the iPhone much more competitive with standalone shooters.
Apple’s bid to significantly improve the iPhone’s camera
In what could be considered chump change when taking into account its current financial situation, Apple acquired Israeli imaging tech firm LinX early last year for $20 million. Less than a year later, it filed a dual camera patent for using multiple cameras to provide optical zoom, among other things.
In a 2014 press release, LinX had this to say about its multi-camera array:
The image quality of mobile cameras has reached a dead end. Device makers are striving to differentiate using imaging capabilities but the pixel size race has ended and next generation cameras do not reveal any dramatic improvements. LinX cameras revolutionize mobile photography and broaden the usability span and user experience, allowing us to leave our SLRs at home.
Notice the sharpness and low light performance afforded by LinX’s dual camera array
Obviously, Apple files lots of patents, and many of the ideas it patents never materialize into real products. But coupled with the acquisition of LinX and the various dual camera housing leaks that we’ve seen over the last few months, it seems likely that some of LinX’s tech will make its way into the next iPhone.
Keep in mind that the acquisition involved more than just LinX’s intellectual property, as several key engineers from LinX, including company co-founder, Ziv Attar, have been at Apple since February of 2015. It’s not hard to imagine that these engineers have been working with Apple legacy engineers on creating some compelling camera-centric features.
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Telling the story
Schematic leaks and statements from credible analysts, like KGI’s Ming Chi Kuo, are just one part of the puzzle. Hardware components can only tell so much, while software tells the real story behind why Apple designs its products the way it does.
There are some obvious features that could be made possible by a dual camera module: a wide-angle + standard focal length lens is how at least one manufacture, LG, has chosen to wield its dual camera module on its flagship G5 smartphone. But with the iPhone, users should think bigger than that.
The point is, with the acquisition of LinX, there are many directions that Apple could take its updated camera. That’s why I’m looking forward to this year’s iPhone event much more than last year’s event. Here are just some of the possibilities for the new dual camera system in the upcoming iPhone hardware refresh:
- Better low light performance
- Perfect color accuracy
- Faster exposures
- Zero shutter lag
- Improved HDR performance
- Post capture focusing
As you can see, these are all things specifically mentioned by LinX in one of its brochures prior to being acquired by Apple. What’s even more fascinating about all of this, is that at least a couple of the items on this list caught the attention of then Apple CEO, Steve Jobs.
In Walter Isaacson’s biography, we learned that Jobs wanted to change photography, much in the same way that he, at the helm of Apple, spearheaded change within the music industry. A few months prior to his death, in the summer of 2011, Jobs met with Lytro founder Ren Ng, and was provided with a demonstration of the company’s new light field camera. Lytro’s camera, which is still available for sale, features zero shutter lag and allows users to focus on specific areas of an image in post.
Lytro’s post capture focusing would make for an impressive software feature
After viewing a demo of Lytro’s light field camera, Jobs wanted Lytro to work with Apple. Of course, that never happened, but as you can see from the brochure embedded above, both zero shutter lag and post capture focusing — two staples found in Lytro’s cameras — are areas of expertise for LinX’s engineers.
While that feature sounds great, the overall camera experience stands to be enhanced by the addition of a second camera. More specifically, one of LinX’s goals was to achieve SLR-level quality photography. One has to believe that improving overall image quality remains a key driving force for Apple.
The truth about current smartphone cameras
With the release of the iPhone, Apple effectively neutered the point-and-shoot camera industry. It’s not that the iPhone takes better pictures than a point-and-shoot camera, it’s just that the pictures the iPhone takes are generally good enough, and the convenience factor of always having a camera on your person plays a significant role as well.
Yet, we seemed to have reached a plateau where smartphone cameras are pretty good across the board. Some are better than others, but almost any modern smartphone can take a decent picture in good lighting.
Apple and Android OEMs, like Samsung, continue to produce smartphones that are capable of taking impressive-looking photos and videos, but for discerning photographers, there’s still a huge difference in image quality and the type of shots that standalone cameras make possible.
Smartphone cameras produce impressive results, but feature inherent limitations
Smartphone cameras feature several disadvantages when compared to standalone cameras that are solely created for shooting photos and video. The most obvious disadvantage has to do with space. Smartphones have a severely limited amount of real estate to work with, and as such, there are limits for sensor size, lens size, battery size, etc. The fact that there’s just not enough physical room to work with is by far the biggest limiter to the modern smartphone camera.
The Sony RX100 is tiny, but can produce images far better than a smartphone can
Even when compared to an ultra-compact point-and-shoot like Sony’s RX100, there’s simply no comparison when it comes to image fidelity and low light shooting ability.
iPhone cameras sport a fixed aperture — the size of the opening in the lens — which means that the lens always lets in the same amount of light. Over the years iPhone camera apertures have become wider to allow more light in, but remain fixed.
|iPhone 6 Plus||8||ƒ/2.2|
|iPhone 6s Plus||12||ƒ/2.2|
|iPhone 7 Plus||??||??|
Standalone cameras, on the other hand, feature variable apertures that users can adjust via lens or camera settings. Wider apertures allow more light in, and shallower depth of field, while narrow apertures reduce light intake and allow deeper depth of field. In other words, a wider aperture, in general, allows for better low light photos, and lets users pull off that cool-looking blurred background (or foreground) look.
Over the years, the iPhone has improved significantly when it comes to both megapixel count and aperture. Since 2013’s iPhone 5s, however, the aperture has remained at ƒ/2.2.
We also have to keep in mind that since the iPhone 6s’ camera sensor features an approximate ~7x crop factor, that the aperture is really comparable to ~ƒ/16 on a 35mm full frame sensor:
- iPhone 6s native focal length / aperture: 4.15mm/2.2 = 1.8
- effective iPhone 6 focal length (35mm equiv.)/1.8: 29/1.8 = 16
With this in mind, it’s easy to see why an iPhone, while still a very capable camera, is at a disadvantage when compared to standalone cameras with much larger sensors. Aperture, in particular, low light capabilities, could be a point of emphasis for the upcoming refresh.
The iPhone, and virtually every other smartphone camera features a prime lens with a fixed focal length. The iPhone 6s, for instance, features an effective focal length of 29mm — wider than 35mm glass on a full frame camera like the Sony A7SII.
The iPhone’s camera features no optical zoom like you’ll find on zoom lenses connected to interchangeable lens cameras such as the Sony a6300. If you want to zoom in or out with the iPhone’s camera, you’ll literally need to physically move closer or further away from your subject.
The iPhone’s camera has a fixed aperture and focal length
Of course, you can always opt to use one of the many dongles available to lend a wider or more narrow field of view, but the iPhone’s camera itself is stuck at a set focal length.
Keep in mind that the lack of zoom isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Lots of photographers, even those with cameras capable of accommodating a zoom lens, opt for primes due to their superb image quality and portability.
That said, for an all-in-one device like the iPhone, it would be nice to have the ability to zoom, if only just a little, without any negative side effects on image quality. Again, this is an area that may be addressed with the upcoming refresh.
Tip of the iceberg
The aforementioned possibilities are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential of dual camera systems. The Wall Street Journal’s initial report about the LinX acquisition noted other possibilities, such as automatic background removal, 3D object modeling and face recognition.
In addition, LinX competitor Corephotonics showcased enhanced zooming and low light performance in a hands-on with CNET back in late February. Corephotonics’ dual camera system takes photos with both cameras at the same time and uses data from both sensors to compose a high quality final result.
Corephotonics’ enhanced zoom (right)
All of the original ideas expressed in the patent that Apple filed for the dual camera technology might not come to fruition, but it illustrates how Apple is thinking. For example, the patent suggests that a single piece of filming could generate a combination of 4K video, 1080p video, slo-mo video and stills. Imagine, for example, being able to take a video, and then zooming in on a particular area of the video that plays back in slow motion without noticeable quality degradation.
The real key is that Apple’s software is what makes all of the hardware tick. Having awesome hardware is important, but the company shines brightest when it is able to build intuitive and easy-to-use software that takes advantage of the power offered by the hardware at hand.
Potential side benefits
Reports that Apple will drop 16GB iPhone SKUs from its lineup might very well have been in the works all along, or it could be the result of the higher quality photos and videos that make 16GB untenable. New iPhone 7 SKUs will reportedly start at a base 32GB, which is great news for customers who opt for the cheapest new iPhone.
Another side effect of the higher camera quality is the report that a 256GB iPhone 7 Plus SKU is in the cards. If, as it turns out, the new dual camera system will let users shoot multiple streams of video simultaneously, that could put a serious hurting on storage space, and very well warrant a 256GB option for prolific shooters.
Apple’s iPhone 7 invites with plenty of bokeh!
Needless to say, if you’re an iPhone camera enthusiast, you should be very excited to see what could perhaps be the largest camera leap in the iPhone’s storied history.
Apple sent out invitations yesterday for the September 7th unveiling, and the invites feature plenty of eye-catching bokeh — i.e. a portion of a photo that is not in focus, an effect that’s much easier to pull off with a wide aperture. Coincidence? Probably not.
Top image credit: Jermaine Smit