Why Apple Needs to Improve the Camera in the iPhone

Apple will announce their new iPhones later today, and it’s time that they improve the camera. Not the lenses or the software; that’s what they’ve done in recent years. Adding a dual-camera system is great, adding software features like portrait mode is interesting. But the iPhone camera is still only 12 megapixels, and many other smartphones have much better sensors.

Apple increased the size of the sensor with the iPhone 5s, five years ago, and the iPhone X has a slightly larger sensor. They moved to a 12 Mp sensor with the iPhone 6s; that was three years ago. Bu other manufacturers have sensors that offer much greater resolution. The Nokia Lumia 1020 has a 41 Mp sensor, and phones from Motorola, Asus, Huawei and Sony have sensors around 20 Mp.

Megapixels aren’t everything; optics are incredibly important, the ability of a sensor to work in low light is important (though part of that is related to the size of the sensor), and the software that makes the photos from the sensor is probably one of the most important elements. The dual lenses on certain iPhones allow you to have both a wide-angle and telephoto lens, which is great when you’re outdoors, but I find that indoors, the iPhone often switches to a zoomed shot of the wide-angle lens, with poor image quality, when I tell it to zoom.

I would love to see Apple add a monochrome sensor; this takes black and white photos by collecting luminance data, and nothing else. It’s a lot better than converting a color photo to black and white, but in smartphones it is used to add detail and contrast to color photos as well. (Huawei has a few cameras with this, as do a couple of other manufacturers.)

As we’ll see later today in Apple’s presentation of the new iPhone, the camera is incredibly important. In fact, it’s one of the few features they can tout that average users understand and appreciate. People take scads of photos with their phones, and having a better camera can get some people to upgrade. But while Apple’s software for converting sensor data to photos is excellent, they are lagging in the quality of the sensor. I hope that Apple ups the size to at least 16 Mp today; if they went higher, that would be a very good selling point to get people to spend more on an iPhone instead of buying one of the new cameras that have been announced in recent weeks.

Update: not much new in the camera hardware, and some improvements in the software.