Is the iPhone Camera Good Enough for Most People?

There’s a Facebook post that’s been making the rounds lately, by Vic Gundotra, a former senior vice president for Google. In it, he points out how good the iPhone’s camera is. He starts by saying:

The end of the DSLR for most people has already arrived. I left my professional camera at home and took these shots at dinner with my iPhone 7 using computational photography (portrait mode as Apple calls it). Hard not to call these results (in a restaurant, taken on a mobile phone with no flash) stunning. Great job Apple.

Then, in reply to a comment, he says:

Here is the problem: It’s Android. Android is an open source (mostly) operating system that has to be neutral to all parties. This sounds good until you get into the details. Ever wonder why a Samsung phone has a confused and bewildering array of photo options? Should I use the Samsung Camera? Or the Android Camera? Samsung gallery or Google Photos?

It’s because when Samsung innovates with the underlying hardware (like a better camera) they have to convince Google to allow that innovation to be surfaced to other applications via the appropriate API. That can take YEARS.

Also the greatest innovation isn’t even happening at the hardware level – it’s happening at the computational photography level. (Google was crushing this 5 years ago – they had had “auto awesome” that used AI techniques to automatically remove wrinkles, whiten teeth, add vignetting, etc… but recently Google has fallen back).

Apple doesn’t have all these constraints. They innovate in the underlying hardware, and just simply update the software with their latest innovations (like portrait mode) and ship it.

Bottom line: If you truly care about great photography, you own an iPhone. If you don’t mind being a few years behind, buy an Android.

Now, cue up a few hundred commenters, who go from praising Android to calling iPhone users “sheeple,” to praising the iPhone. Yes, the idiots are out again…

But this brings up a broader question: is the iPhone camera good enough for most people? Yes, certainly. Will it replace the DSLR? Certainly not. The use cases are very different. I think Gundotra has peers who used DSLRs for family photos, which is something they’re not very good at (well, they are, but they’re overkill). What is more correct is that the iPhone camera has killed the point and shoot camera, the compact, fixed lens camera.

Part of the reason for this is its software, as Gundotra points out, but also the hardware. While the iPhone at 12 Mp lags behind many point and shoot cameras – which are often 16 or even 20 Mp – it’s the camera that people have in their pocket, so it’s easy to use. In a way, it’s the ultimate point and shoot camera, because there’s really nothing to set up. Take it out of your pocket, point, and shoot. You may want to tap the display to set a focus point, but even for most people that’s overkill.

But for those interested in photography, the DSLR with larger sensors, more megapixels, better high-ISO shooting, and interchangeable lenses, will remain popular. They just won’t be any more popular than SLRs were back in the days of film. Those of us who remember those days remember that most people had Instamatics or Polaroid cameras; it was very rare to see someone take family or vacation photos with an SLR.

I think a lot of people bought DSLRs because they were cool tech gadgets, but then they realized that they didn’t need them, they were too cumbersome, and the learning curve was too high. Much of the DSLR market won’t renew or upgrade, instead putting their money into iPhones (and, perhaps, other smartphones). And those using advanced cameras will have advanced needs and techniques. As things should be.

Apple has been promoting the cameras on its iPhones in recent years, because there aren’t many new features that speak to average users. Expect them to continue along this route for several years, perhaps even upping the resolution to 16 Mp. However, given the limited space inside the iPhone, it may not be easy to get a larger sensor inside the body far enough away from the lens. (Perhaps they can use a curved sensor…?) But even at 12 Mp, the iPhone takes very good photos that are good enough for most people.