Tech

This is what Apple needs to do to make the iPhone 12 camera unbeatable

We asked photographers, filmmakers, and YouTubers to chime in on what Apple needs to keep its camera crown.

With the iPhone 11 Pro, Apple reclaimed the crown for best smartphone camera with class-leading features like Night mode, improved Smart HDR, Deep Fusion, wide stereo recording, and more. Every time I review a new Android phone, the only question that people want answered is whether or not the camera is better than the iPhone 11 Pro. The answer has been no (so far).

Take your pick of the best Android phones — Samsung’s Galaxy S20 Ultra, Google’s Pixel 4, the OnePlus 8 Pro — and all of them take good photos, but the iPhone 11 Pro still consistently outshoots them on image quality, color accuracy, low-light, and video.

It’s no wonder the iPhone has become many professionals’ camera of choice. Magazines love to brag about shooting their covers with iPhone; supermodel Naomi Campbell styled and shot herself with an iPhone for the latest cover of Essence. Lady Gaga’s “Stupid Love” music video was #ShotOniPhone and so was Selena Gomez’s “Lose You to Love Me” music video. Late-night comedians like Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, and Conan O’Brien, and the cast of Saturday Night Live have all shifted to shooting with their iPhones during the coronavirus pandemic. American Idol and Keeping Up with the Kardashians are using iPhones to continue their seasons. These productions aren’t using Pixels or Galaxy phones, they’re using iPhones. Sorry, Annie Leibovitz, but everyone’s shooting with an iPhone, not Pixel 4.

You may look at the iPhone 11 Pro’s cameras and be satisfied. “What more do you need?” That is what I’m going to tell you. Because as great as the iPhone 11 Pro’s cameras are, there’s still so much more that Apple could do to make it the ultimate camera.

More resolution

Ask any photographer and they will tell you the same: more megapixels isn’t everything. This is true! Except, more megapixels, which means more resolution is definitely welcome if it doesn’t come at the expense of image quality or autofocus.

Take the Galaxy S20 Ultra. It has a main camera with a huge 108-megapixel image sensor — the largest on a smartphone. The megapixel count makes the iPhone 11 Pro’s 12-megapixel sensor sound diminutive in comparison. But as I detailed in my extensive S20 Ultra camera comparison, the iPhone 11 Pro’s 12-megapixel photos hold their own. While 108-megapixel photos give you more pixels to crop with, the image quality is noticeably worse than the default 12-megapixel “pixel-binned” photos the camera spits out; higher resolution photos are less sharp and worse for low-light.

Raymond Wong / Input

“My main one [camera request] is a bigger sensor,” mobile filmmaker Nick Grey, who has over 17,000 Instagram followers and makes videos for the fine people at mobile accessory maker Moment, tells Input. “That would help with depth of field and low-light performance. Would want this on all three lenses, not just the main lens. The ultra-wide and tele-lens seem to be neglected!”

I don’t think Apple should unnecessarily compete with a 108-megapixel camera for its next iPhone. Hell, Apple doesn’t even need a 48- or 64-megapixel camera. But a modest megapixel resolution bump to 16 or 20 megapixels in the iPhone 12? Gimme!

“I’m looking for stability and sharp images.”

“I’m looking for stability and sharp images. Razor-sharp details in what we’d call decent light,” says New York City street photographer Brayan Casas, who publishes much of his work on Instagram. He currently shoots with a Fuji X-Pro3, but would ditch for an iPhone camera if it could cover “90 to 95 percent of my needs and still have room to be creative.” Casas says he’d love to see “improved detail through sensor size or larger pixels.”

All three rear cameras on the iPhone 11 Pro have 12 megapixels. The last time Apple gave the rear cameras a resolution boost was the iPhone 6S — released in 2015. Apple is on generation six of the 12-megapixel camera (6S, 7, 8, X, XS, 11). The iPhone is overdue for a resolution upgrade.

Sharper ultra-wides

The iPhone 11 and 11 Pro’s ultra-wide camera is a lot of fun to shoot with. But it’s imperfect. Picture sharpness is crisp in the center and falls off as you reach the edges. In bright daylight, you may not even notice this drop in sharpness, but you can absolutely see the difference between indoor and low-light photos.

Indoor photos are noisier and blurrier. In low light, the ultra-wide camera completely falls apart — image quality is average, but not great. Nowhere near on par with the main camera.

The edges of this ultra-wide photo are far mushier than the focal point.Raymond Wong / Input

Most of the blame can be pinned on the lens. Its optics are not as good as the main or telephoto lens. I’d like to see Apple give the ultra-wide lens a faster aperture (lower f-stop) than f/2.4. Widening the aperture to f/2.0 or f/1.8 would allow more light to enter the lens, which would result in better exposure for indoor and low-light photos.

“For video, the ultra-wide is, by far, the best lens to film with, but because the sensor isn't as good as the main camera sensor, it starts falling apart real fast in tougher situations like low light,” Matti Haapoja tells Input. Haapoja is known for his filmmaking tutorials on his 886,000-strong subscribers on his YouTube channel.

Jacked Night mode

Night mode is a game-changer on the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro and helped Apple catch up with Night Sight on Google’s Pixel phones. The only caveat is that Night mode only works on the main camera. Contrary to what Apple claims, Night mode shots taken at “2x” zoom aren’t actually using the telephoto lens. Sebastian de With, co-founder of the popular Halide camera app, revealed the trickery at play: 2x Night mode photos are just cropped in pics taken from the main camera. Clearly, there’s room for a real Night mode using the telephoto lens’ optics.

Tech YouTuber Danny Winget, who has over 477,000 subscribers, and is known for his in-depth smartphone camera comparisons, tells Input he’d like to see Night mode for video.

Night mode on iPhone 11 Pro (left) preserves more dark tones than Night Sight on Pixel 4 (left).Raymond Wong / Input
Night mode on iPhone isn't always superior. These the sky and stars in this Night mode pic (left) are clearly not properly exposed like on Pixel 4 with Night Sight (right).Raymond Wong / Input

“What would change the game with the iPhone 12's camera is if Apple introduced a Night mode for video recording in real-time and implemented Deep Fusion technology for more detail and less noise,” says Winget. “They already have the best video [recording] on a smartphone. This would make the iPhone 12 unbeatable.”

Safwan AhmedMia, one of the UK’s biggest tech YouTubers with over 1.5 million subscribers and who also does comprehensive phone camera comparisons, is hoping the iPhone 12 will sport Night mode for the ultra-wide camera.

“I'd love to see Night mode for the ultra-wide camera. I'm somebody who uses the ultra-wide camera a lot, and it's a real shame right now that it's practically unusable in low light on my iPhone.” I couldn’t agree more.

More killer video

Many of the YouTubers and photographers I spoke with all agreed the iPhone is the best smartphone camera for shooting video. That said, many of them also echoed similar thoughts on how Apple could make the iPhone’s camera an even more killer for video.

“I would really love to see them improve the overall level of detail or have a higher bit rate/depth. When you zoom in on a photo or video, the tight detail quickly fades into a mushy blur,” says Caleb Babcock, who’s a vlogger mobile filmmaker at Moment and boasts over 41,000 Instagram followers. “Especially because of the small sensor, where we won’t get a ton of depth of field it could really win in deep detail.”

“Another thing is the colors. I wish the iPhone could mimic colors out of a Canon or Fuji sensor. I think it looks a bit plasticky and fake most of the time without some editing.”

“I expect Apple to improve the image stabilization and hopefully bring a native pro video mode as well,” says tech YouTuber Justin Tse, who started his channel eight years ago shooting with an iPod touch and has grown it to more than 536,000 subscribers. “8K video recording proved to be somewhat impractical on the Samsung Galaxy S20, so I don’t anticipate we will see that on the iPhone 12.”

Haapoja also says he’d like Apple to create “ accurate software to emulate shallow depth of field which will most likely be possible if they add a LiDAR Scanner” to the iPhone 12 Pro. “Apple has already solved the dynamic range issue with small sensors and if they can solve shallow depth of field then it’s game over.”

“If Apple can solve shallow depth of field for video then it’s game over.”

Shallower depth of field or portrait mode for video is one of the most popular requests from YouTubers and filmmakers. While Samsung has included “Live Focus Video” on its flagship Android phones since the Galaxy Note 10, the effect is less than perfect. Blurring out the background while keeping a subject in focus is way harder for things that move than still photography.

Better stabilization

The ultra-wide camera is the only lens on the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro without optical image stabilization (OIS). Most people are not going to be bothered by its omission. I can’t stand it.

Traditionally, ultra-wide lenses are used for shooting landscapes — scenes that don’t have a lot of things moving around. For buildings and flower fields, the lack of OIS is fine. But if you’re shooting city architecture with cars and people that happen to be moving in the shot, you’re going to see more fuzz than you’re used to from the main and telephoto cameras.

The lack of OIS is most apparent when you’re shooting video. Footage is disappointingly shaky compared the other two lenses that have OIS to smooth out hand and body shakiness. Go ahead and try to shoot a walking time lapse with the ultra-wide — the footage is unusable.

Low-light performance for the ultra-wide could be better.

An iPhone with OIS for the ultra-wide lens would be an extra cost, but so worth it for it. It’d also maybe be an industry-first. I know of no other flagship smartphone camera with OIS for the ultra-wide lens. Most likely because of cost, phone makers have felt it unnecessary to add OIS to the ultra-wide. Apple could change this.

If not OIS for sharper ultra-wide photos, I’d like to see Apple improve its image signal processing. Use machine learning or AI and to sharpen the photo without making it look artificial. Google does this with the Pixel 3 and 4, sharpening digitally zoomed photos beyond what their optics alone can achieve. It wouldn’t be impossible for Apple to apply a similar technique to ultra-wide photos. Less easy would be sharpening ultra-wide videos; here’s where OIS would solve the problem.

4K slow-mo

I love shooting with the iPhone’s slow-motion mode and I’ve used it on many occasions to create professional-quality content. See here, here, and here for some of my favorites.

However, like the ultra-wide lens, slow motion is in need of an upgrade. First, it’d be great to get some more resolutions. Currently, the iPhone shoots slow motion in these resolutions and frame rates:

  • 1080p at 120 fps
  • 1080p at 240 fps
  • 720p at 240 fps (encoded in High Efficiency aka HEVC)

If you compare this to many Android phones, the iPhone already wins. Some phones like OnePlus phones didn’t even get slow-motion recording until recently. But iPhones have been able to shoot in 4K for a while now, which makes you wonder: why isn’t there 4K slow-mo?

“A really good looking 120 fps would be nice,” says Babcock. “4K 120 fps would be rad. Something that could be sharp and actually integrated into a video.”

Kinda grainy.

I’m sure Apple has its reasons. My guess is 4K slo-mo would push the iPhone’s CPU hard, causing it to heat up fast and chew through battery life quicker. I already notice more heat and battery drainage shooting continuous slow-mo on my iPhone 11 Pro. But these engineering challenges are for Apple to figure out. I’m just here to make a reasonable request as a creator.

And while I’m picking apart the slow motion, it’d be great if Apple could improve the image quality for it, too. Like the ultra-wide, slow motion looks great outdoors. Indoors and low-light, not so much. There’s way more graininess to the video quality in less-than-bright lighting.

Bigger zoom

5x, 10x, 30x, 100x zoom — everybody except for Apple is doing more zoom in their phones. It’s time for Apple to join the pack.

Similar to increasing the resolution, moderation is key. If you’ve read my review of the S20 Ultra, you’ll know that while 100x hybrid zoom sounds pretty fantastic, it’s pretty garbage both in terms of image quality and shooting experience.

100x photos from the S20 Ultra look like a blob of pixels. Mushy, fuzzy, and useless. Holding the phone steady enough to shoot is another problem (that’s why there’s a crosshair in the corner of the screen).

The iPhone 11 Pro's 10x digital zoom vs. Galaxy S20 Ultra's 10x hybrid zoom.Raymond Wong / Input
A 100x crop of the iPhone 11 Pro's 10x digital zoom (left) vs. Galaxy S20 Ultra's 10x hybrid zoom (right).Raymond Wong / Input

“I would love to see Apple go beyond the standard 2x telephoto or implement a hybrid zoom to give their users extra reach,” says Winget. “Even with all the faults of the Galaxy S20 Ultra, the 5X zoom is incredible and even looks great with the 10X hybrid zoom. I find myself missing this feature on my iPhone 11 Pro.”

Apple doesn’t need to go to the same extreme with zoom for its next-gen iPhones. It just needs to include zoom that’s better than the aging 2x optical zoom. Leakers EverythingApplePro and Max Weinbach claim the iPhone 12 Pro has a 3x optical zoom.

It’s not just more zoom range creators want. Grey says he’d like the tele lens to get a faster aperture so he can shoot closer and get better image quality in low light and shallower depth of field. “A f/1.8 aperture on the tele lens would be so dope. I love shooting tight on my cinema camera and often try to do the same on phones.”

No love for AI?

The most surprising thing I noticed is that no photographer or filmmaker or YouTube creator asked for more AI, which is interesting because machine learning is the one thing phone makers keep adding more to their camera systems.

Whether it’s AI scene detection for recognizing things like faces and skin or food or trees and the sky, we’ve seen more phones tack on these features. “AI is nice, but I would want more robust editing options and RAW image editing if possible,” says Casas.

The common thread seems to be, perhaps, less front-facing, AI like gimmicky scene detections and more back-end AI that doesn’t get in the way of shooting photos and videos. For example, Night mode on the iPhone 11 is only possible because of the machine learning techniques enabled by the A13 Bionic chip’s third-gen Neural Engine which fuses multiple photos into one brightly exposed shot. Deep Fusion is another use of background AI to sharpen details in medium light (you won’t even know if a photo has been “deeply fused” unless you use an app like Metapho).

Rather than get more AI, professional photographers seem to want more "real" camera features like manual controls and RAW editing. "A pro mode, including RAW image capabilities, would also be sweet," says professional photographer Samuel Elkins, who commands over 738,000 Instagram followers.

Honestly, I couldn’t agree more with the creatives I spoke with. I’m less interested in an iPhone camera that tries to make a dull-looking chicken cutlet look more appetizing with AI algorithms than I am with Apple improving its computational photography with machine learning techniques. I’d much rather Apple apply AI and machine learning to the Photos app to better recognize faces and objects and bring it up to parity with Google Photos than to simply suggest using Night mode when it’s clearly dark out.

Staying ahead

Compare the camera differences between an iPhone 11 Pro and an iPhone XS and the differences in shooting performance may seem trivial, especially if you’re shooting mostly outdoors. But I review phones for a living — lots and lots of phones — and I see these differences. I obsess over the details. I’m not afraid to call out a seemingly cutting-edge camera when it has inferior autofocus compared to its predecessor. That’s my job. People deserve to know.

My job is to appreciate the milestones that smartphone cameras have achieved, but also see where things can be improved. Look beyond the spec list. Other phone cameras have more megapixels and more zoom and more AI, but I keep coming back to the iPhone 11 Pro because it is the most consistent and reliable smartphone camera for both photos and videos.

Apple has come a very long way from the original iPhone’s 2-megapixel camera. Since the iPhone hit the scene, it has leapfrogged past traditional camera makers like Canon, Nikon, and Sony, to become the most popular camera on Flickr where it has held the top spot for years. Not shocking news considering it is the camera that’s always with you.

The iPhone 11 Pro camera is the best smartphone camera, but there’s still so much more than can be improved before it becomes perfect. In a few more years, kids may ask “what’s a camera?” the same way they ask “what’s a computer?” Now isn't the time for Apple to rest on its laurels.