The camera on the first iPhone in 2007 was nothing revolutionary, even for the time. It was 2 megapixels. You couldn’t zoom in on the photos, not even digitally. There was no flash. There was no editing of pics. And there was a single camera on the back—there was no front-facing camera for selfies, which had not yet been invented. Well, not really (paywall).
Fast forward 11 years and the iPhone XS has three cameras—two 12-megapixel ones on the back and one that is 7 megapixels on the front. Where there was once no flash, the flash now comes with four LEDs. More impressive is what those cameras can do, and how far they’ve come in relation to traditional photography and DSLR digital cameras.
The new flagship iPhone XS and XS Max come with dual-lens systems—one wide-angle and one telephoto. The iPhone XS wide-angle lens has an equivalent focal length of 26mm, while the telephoto has the equivalent of a 52mm lens. We say the “equivalent of” because, in real cameras, the focal length is a measure of where the light rays would converge to form an image on a frame of standard 35mm film or on the sensor of a full-frame DSLR.
The increased sensor size means that, even though the photos are still 12 megapixels (that’s six times the original), more light is reaching the larger megapixels and so each is much richer in information. And still, these sensors are nowhere near the size of what goes into a full-frame DSLR.
Since the release of the iPhone 6 in 2014, the iPhone has had a “bump” on the back where the camera protrudes rather than sits flush as with previous generations of the phone, which allows the lens to sit further away from the sensor and gives you higher-quality pictures similar to what you get in a proper camera. Apple’s chief designer Jonny Ive once described this (paywall) through what sounds like gritted teeth as “a really very pragmatic optimization.”
From the longer focal length to the larger sensor to maintaining the same-sized body, all those improvements were achieved in a year—and are being produced at scale in the hundreds of millions.
The most impressive leaps in the iPhone come not through the glass on the front, but via the software inside.
Professional photography is often distinctive for the depth of field, usually with the subject being in sharp focus and the background being blurred. That blurry background is often referred to as bokeh, but that’s not correct; it’s the visual quality of the blur that is known as bokeh. Apple has focused a lot on manufacturing good bokeh that is pleasing on the eye, even if its executives sometimes have trouble pronouncing it.
How good is the iPhone at creating beautiful photography via software? So good that many of those features—like Portrait mode and Depth Control—are coming to its cheaper XR model, despite the fact that the XR only has a single wide-angle camera—