Apple will announce new iPhones tomorrow, and this year's event has all the usual features of an iPhone introduction, I'm sure. Expect a tease video that shows you up close photos of different parts of the phone before revealing everything. Expect a lot of talk about how powerful the processor is. Expect dunks about how Android never seems to be updated. Expect a kind of whiz-bang AR demo.
Above all: expect a lot of talk about the camera. Because the most striking expected change in the basic shape of the iPhone X series is that it will have a large square camera module with extra lenses – and everyone is already focused on it (excuse the pun).
Chaim Gartenberg has already written the news about what to expect tomorrow. So unless there is some sort of surprise, it feels like the only thing we don't know yet is the quality and capabilities of the iPhone 11 Pro's camera system.
Smartphones – and especially iPhones – have been large, fast, beautiful and well-made for years. So in some ways the camera is the nothing but something that we can certainly expect to improve year after year, at least in a way that is really important to users.
We all hope for a longer battery life, but the chemistry of batteries seems to be a more difficult challenge than the physics of light – at least with light you can apply calculations to improve the image.
It may be a little boring to see such a relentless focus on the camera, but that is where Apple & # 39; s greatest chance of improvement still lies. Maybe it's too much to hope for, but this year I'd like to see Apple do more than just improve the camera a bit. I would like to see something like a generation change, a step higher than what exists on every telephone today.
The rumors indicate a system with three lenses on the "pro" level iPhones: a normal, a telephoto and a wide angle. This system has been the rigor for Android phones around the past year. Android phones have also improved Apple when it comes to low-light photography and computational photography.
In both low light and computational photography, it has been Google's Pixel that has led the industry, and both cases are examples of broader thinking about what a camera sensor is. Google sees that sensor as a source of information more than a source of light, and has been more aggressive in finding creative ways to use algorithms to manipulate that information into something pleasant.
Apple is expected to move a bit in that direction – rumors suggest that it could use the information from the wide-angle lens to enhance photos of the regular lens (and in some cases save it completely). It is also widely believed that Apple will close the gap with the Pixel by introducing a kind of night mode.
That's all fine – in fact, if Apple doesn't at least match what is generally available on Android, it will be a disappointment. But I hope for something more.
I recently spoke with a photographer who has just upgraded the iPhone 5S to the iPhone XS. I said something about how she should be so happy with the huge leap that the cameras have made in those generations. She looked at me in astonishment and answered, "It's the same!"
Of course she knows it isn't. But in a very real sense, she is not wrong. The very best smartphones take photos that are so good that many people cannot see that they were not taken with a decent point-and-shoot camera. But blow them up on a large screen or really zoom in on the pixels or watch how they deal with difficult light situations and you can almost always see that. You know for sure if you will ever print them.
The best smartphone photo still looks like a smartphone photo. I also don't want to denigrate these photos. Some of them are great, worthy of a billboard or an art gallery, but they are amazing smartphone photos.
My colleague Nilay Patel and I have had the same sermon for a few years now: if you really want the best possible photos, instead of spending a thousand dollars on a smartphone that takes 10 percent better photos. , then spend it on a really good compact camera.
It is of course something else to take with you, but it might be worth it. Once you see the difference between smartphone photos & # 39; s and camera photos & # 39; s, it's hard to undo them.
I would like Apple to make a camera system that closes that argument – or at least makes it harder to defend it.
Apple has weaned us from its traditional two-year cadence. We used to get a big new redesign one year, then an S model the second year, and then the cycle the next year. Not anymore, and you could argue that it hasn't been like that since the iPhone 7.
This year we still get phones that clearly belong in the line of the iPhone X and iPhone XR – and that's fine. But if Apple wants us to see these models as more than just an S-iteration of the same old thing, it has to justify those large square camera modules.
I hope that the camera will change a big step, but not so much that I am demanding or even demanding assuming the. The physics of light is difficult and squeezing more out of the sensor with clever use of algorithms is not much simpler.
I am sure I will be amazed at what these cameras can do. But to convince me to upgrade from my iPhone XR, they have to regret buying a Sony RX100 camera, at least a little bit.