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.

12 thoughts on “Is the iPhone Camera Good Enough for Most People?

  1. I have a Samsung Luna (one of the big bargains in smart phones). The default Camera app (which I assume is Android) has clear descriptions of each mode, and is easy to use. Experienced photographers will appreciate the Manual mode.

  2. I have a Samsung Luna (one of the big bargains in smart phones). The default Camera app (which I assume is Android) has clear descriptions of each mode, and is easy to use. Experienced photographers will appreciate the Manual mode.

  3. Sadly, many people think photography is about gear and its acquisition. Especially searching for the “best,” as if plopping down a credit card for the latest shiny object will make a difference.

    Making compelling photographs has never been about gear. It’s about the photographer, and his/her life experiences, curiosity, imagination, eye, understanding light, and various skills. IMO, photographs are successful if they stir a viewer’s imagination, releasing a narrative in the process.

    Though I have a dSLR and several “mirrorless” cams, I pretty much shoot with my iPhone. Everyday. I’ve used it casually and for projects. Some of my best iPhone photos I like just as much as those I’ve made from so-called “real cameras.”

    • The simple pro-iPhone argument is… You can’t take a picture without a camera. The iPhone (and other smartphones) are always with you. SLRs can’t be. *

      For me, smartphone cameras aren’t real cameras. When you hold the viewfinder of an SLR up to your eye, you engage with the subject in a way not otherwise possible.

      One exception… the SX-70.

      • “For me, smartphone cameras aren’t real cameras. When you hold the viewfinder of an SLR up to your eye, you engage with the subject in a way not otherwise possible.”

        Not real cameras? I’ve made plenty of photographs with my dSLRs and my iPhones over the years. Many are of strangers I engage on the street (click my name, for a variety of both) in conversation and a few portraits.

        After making at least a thousand photographs of subjects I’ve encountered over the years, I’ve yet to notice any difference on either the engagement or how I am received and treated.

        It has nothing to do with gear. Rather, it’s about your approach and behavior. If you approach people honestly and with good intentions, trust and respect begins to flow between subject and photographer. I’ve yet to detect any difference on that using my dSLR and heavy lens vs. my iPhone. It’s all about empathy and respect.

  4. Sadly, many people think photography is about gear and its acquisition. Especially searching for the “best,” as if plopping down a credit card for the latest shiny object will make a difference.

    Making compelling photographs has never been about gear. It’s about the photographer, and his/her life experiences, curiosity, imagination, eye, understanding light, and various skills. IMO, photographs are successful if they stir a viewer’s imagination, releasing a narrative in the process.

    Though I have a dSLR and several “mirrorless” cams, I pretty much shoot with my iPhone. Everyday. I’ve used it casually and for projects. Some of my best iPhone photos I like just as much as those I’ve made from so-called “real cameras.”

    • The simple pro-iPhone argument is… You can’t take a picture without a camera. The iPhone (and other smartphones) are always with you. SLRs can’t be. *

      For me, smartphone cameras aren’t real cameras. When you hold the viewfinder of an SLR up to your eye, you engage with the subject in a way not otherwise possible.

      One exception… the SX-70.

      • “For me, smartphone cameras aren’t real cameras. When you hold the viewfinder of an SLR up to your eye, you engage with the subject in a way not otherwise possible.”

        Not real cameras? I’ve made plenty of photographs with my dSLRs and my iPhones over the years. Many are of strangers I engage on the street (click my name, for a variety of both) in conversation and a few portraits.

        After making at least a thousand photographs of subjects I’ve encountered over the years, I’ve yet to notice any difference on either the engagement or how I am received and treated.

        It has nothing to do with gear. Rather, it’s about your approach and behavior. If you approach people honestly and with good intentions, trust and respect begins to flow between subject and photographer. I’ve yet to detect any difference on that using my dSLR and heavy lens vs. my iPhone. It’s all about empathy and respect.

  5. So I can take perfect shots in perfect (i.e. outdoor) lighting with my iPhone 6. For anything indoors or in low lighting, utterly hopeless. For architectural shots, church interiors and the like, which I like to take, the results from the iPhone are invariably grainy and dismal; certainly no good for printing or enlarging. So I see myself lugging my DSLR around on trips and tours for the foreseeable future, unless or until a later iPhone model matches its capabilities. At least lighter-weight DSLRs are on offer these days (I have a Nikon 5500).

  6. So I can take perfect shots in perfect (i.e. outdoor) lighting with my iPhone 6. For anything indoors or in low lighting, utterly hopeless. For architectural shots, church interiors and the like, which I like to take, the results from the iPhone are invariably grainy and dismal; certainly no good for printing or enlarging. So I see myself lugging my DSLR around on trips and tours for the foreseeable future, unless or until a later iPhone model matches its capabilities. At least lighter-weight DSLRs are on offer these days (I have a Nikon 5500).

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