One Small Step for iPhone, a Giant Leap for Photography

To say the new iPhone 11 Pro camera system is amazing simply does not do it justice. This is a major leap forward in smartphone photography with serious implications for professional photographers.

It is no big secret that I am a huge fan of smartphone photography. I love having such a powerful camera in my pocket. It gives me a type of freedom that I will never have with my Nikon DSLR or my Fujifilm X-series mirrorless camera. I can shoot, edit, and then post, all a single device in only a few minutes. Before we had smartphones, we had complex workflows that took hours. Now, with the new iPhone 11 Pro, we have abilities that have no equal in the dedicated camera market. Features such as; Smart HDR, Night mode, and Portrait mode all hide what can only be called a true revolution in photography. This new “computational” approach to the photographic capture process changes everything. Apple might not have invented any of these features, but they have implemented them masterfully, in ways that allow you to take your creativity beyond anything you might have imagined.

Ok, hyperbole aside, the new iPhone 11 Pro brings some serious capabilities to the table while taking image quality up to a level that will surprise you. Personally, I was stunned at how sharp, detailed, and color-accurate images from this camera system are. The quality improvements are so good they are simply not comparable to previous generations of iPhones, including last year’s awesome iPhone XS/XS Max. This is simply another level entirely.

First off, the new cameras on the iPhone 11 Pro are a “camera system”. Understanding how these cameras work together to generate the final image or video is critical to grasping why this system works as well as it does. In a conventional DSLR or Mirrorless camera you have a single lens/sensor combination that works essentially as a single pipeline for the image capture process. This means that in order to get higher quality images you need a larger sensor paired with high quality lenses. In the world of computational photography this conventional understanding that a larger sensor/lens combination is required to produce high quality images is turned completely around. Simply put, by combining multiple frames taken nearly instantaneously and using data from all three cameras, the iPhone 11 Pro can create images and video that are functionally equivalent to having a much larger sensor/lens combination. I’ll admit, this is a really hard concept to grasp. Being able to take photos that are nearly identical to photos from a dedicated DSLR or Mirrorless camera using your smartphone seems like it would be virtually impossible. But yet, the results speak for themselves.

Shot on iPhone 11 Pro Max

As I write this, multiple reviews of the iPhone 11 Pro are popping up nearly everywhere I look, so I won’t be reviewing the phone itself. There are much better reviews out there if you are interested in the non-photography aspects of the iPhone 11 Pro. What I will be discussing are three major new photography features of the new iPhone and how they will impact your creativity.

Go Wide

I’ve already asked the question if the iPhone 11 Pro’s new wide-angle lens is a game changing feature in a previous post. I now have my answer thanks to spending some time using the new iPhone, and that answer is “yes”. I’ve used the Moment Wide 18mm lens for years on previous iPhones and Apple’s new 13mm ultra-wide on the iPhone 11 Pro is easily just as good. Subjective image quality might be even better, thanks in part to not being an add-on lens, and the wider 13mm view is just awesome for grabbing epic landscapes and architecture shots. The bad news is the f/2.4 aperture, it makes low-light work tough and always gives you a wide depth of field no matter how close the subject is. Distortion is also obvious (see panorama below), and sharpness is slightly less than the iPhone’s other two lenses. It’s still game changing in that you now have 13mm ultra-wide lens on your iPhone, combined with the other two lenses this gives you a 13–52mm total optical reach.

Go “Portrait” Wide

Ever since the iPhone 7 Plus we’ve had portrait mode, and it was, for the most part, great. With each new generation of the iPhone, the image quality of portrait mode was incrementally improved, but no major changes were made. Until now. With the iPhone 11 Pro Apple has introduced what I feel might be one of the most significant upgrades ever; the ability to use portrait mode with the 26mm wide-angle lens. This is a major improvement. Being able to use either the telephoto 52mm or the 26mm lens for portrait mode gives you much better control over how much of the environment you can show behind your subject while also giving you that incredible depth-of-field control. It’s also worth noting that by using the 26mm lens you also get that faster f/1.8 aperture which blends optical bokeh (background blur) with the computationally generated bokeh, a significant quality improvement. I’m truly surprised that Apple has not highlighted this feature more, as it really completes the overall “pro” feature-set with the ability to control depth-of-field across multiple focal lengths.

Go quietly into the night (mode)

Ok. Deep breath. This is a big one. Google has it, so does Samsung, and now it’s coming to the iPhone and boy did Apple get it right this time. Night mode on the iPhone 11 Pro is nearly unbelievable. Image quality is virtually noise free, colors are not unnatural, and even moving subjects are usually sharp. When I watched the keynote, I was not impressed with night mode at all. I figured it was nothing more than Apple implementing the same faux-long exposure features that have been in several 3rd party apps for years. Boy was I wrong. Night mode on the iPhone 11 is an amazing engineering and software feature that truly shows off just how powerful these devices have become. When night mode kicks in, a complex sequence of captures, some at high shutter speeds, some longer, plus some computational magic that combines them together, gives you photos that are utterly amazing. The big kicker here is…it happens nearly instantly. That’s the part I did not understand completely from the keynote. I assumed that this was just something you could only use in scenes where there was virtually no motion over the span of several seconds. In practice, night mode usually does all this magic in less than two seconds or even less depending on lighting. You could take a photo of someone walking down the street at night and complexly expect to get a noise-free image with no blurring of your subject. Seriously. Try that with your DSLR! Throw the iPhone 11 Pro up on a tripod and it magically switches to traditional long exposure mode. Perfect! Apple really got this feature right, and I fully expect to be shooting a ton in poor lighting simply because I can on the iPhone 11 Pro.

That whole “Pro” thing

I completely get where Apple is going by calling the iPhone 11 Pro “Pro”. This is by far the most capable iPhone camera system ever. Image quality literally mops the floor with most entry-level DSLR and mirrorless cameras while coming dangerously close to the level of semi-pro gear. That said, I don’t think you will see folks shooting weddings using the iPhone 11 Pro but it is completely reasonable to say that this is the first iPhone that, in a pinch, you could shoot some serious “pro” level work and expect great results. And that really says a lot about how far these devices have come. I said it over a year ago, the future of photography belongs to the smartphone and it sure feels like it is starting to arrive.

What do you think? Tried the iPhone 11 Pro yourself, shout out in the comments if you agree that it’s “Pro” level gear (or not)!

Originally published at https://www.rittmuller.com on September 28, 2019.

A devout technologist, I write about AI, cybersecurity, and my favorite topic, photography. https://www.rittmuller.com

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