Having just seen the new iPhone 14 release, I noted that one of the selling points what the “best camera ever on a phone”. The specs, as well as a new raw file format, look impressive. But, no matter what Apple does to their phones, they will hardly be able to beat a proper camera. Here is why.
It seems like each year, Apple invents their best camera yet, which makes sense as the camera is pretty much the only thing that always changes on the iPhone. So much so, that even Steve Jobs’s daughter posted a meme about the new iPhone 14, and how it essentially looks the same. Nonetheless, in their “best camera yet “the Pro models can capture 48MP files in raw format. That sounds great on paper, but in practice, it may not be as impressive as it seems at first. As someone who owns a studio-grade 5Ds camera (50MP), I asked the following question: should I scrap my setup in exchange for an iPhone 14 Pro? Well, the answer is no. No matter how many megapixels in whatever formats iPhones may capture, they won’t ever get as good as proper cameras. On a technical level, image quality goes far beyond the number of megapixels and the format they were captured in. So, what does affect image quality?
The Big Megapixel Lie
I clearly remember buying an 8-megapixel Canon 1D Mark II camera at the start of my journey, which was not too long ago. Well into the 20+ Megapixel age. The “my phone has more” phrase haunted me. Yet, I knew very well that although my sensor is older, it is physically larger and captures better color than a phone’s sensor. Sure, I couldn’t print large-scale images, but I could work in low light (ISO 3200) way better than someone with a phone.
More megapixels have become a synonym for better image quality. However, that is as big of a myth as bigfoot. Many amateur photographers strive to buy a camera with as many megapixels as possible. Phone companies release 100+ Megapixel phones for the same demographic of people.
Sure, if used properly, a high-resolution camera can deliver stunning results, but it has to be in the right hands. As someone who owns a Canon 5D Mark IV (32 MP), and a Canon 5Ds (50MP), I often use the lower-resolution camera. There is a reason the 5Ds is called a studio camera. The amount of detail captured is staggering, but so is the amount of imperfections. The higher the resolution the less tolerance there is for imperfection. Even if you’re slightly off on the focusing, it will be noticeable. If your subject is slightly blurred, people will recognize that a lot faster. This is why a lot of the things I shoot, I tend to shoot in lower resolution. Not every image needs 50 Megapixels. Sure, a lot of my work is shot in the 5Ds, but when I get that camera out, I also get out world-class lighting, and crew, and create an environment where that resolution will enhance the image as opposed to ruin it.
Physics That Affect Image Quality
First and foremost, sensor size. There is debate on this online, but an APS-C sensor will never be as good as a full-frame, and a full-frame will never be as good as a medium format. If the opposite were true, a lot of photographers, as well as camera companies, would not spend extra money on larger sensors. If anything Hasselblad would’ve been out of business, and not released their X2D.
The size matters because the photosite size matters. If you’re curious, a photosite and pixel are not the same. Not just the physical dimensions of the sensor, but the physical dimensions of the individual photosites. As a general rule of thumb, the bigger the photosite, the better the dynamic range of the image. Dynamic range is responsible for color accuracy and color transitions. That’s why medium format cameras have remarkable color reproduction: the photosite size is larger than in full-frame cameras. That is why my Canon 5Ds will be superior to the iPhone 14 Pro, but inferior to a Phase One.
Another factor that matters in image capture is the resolving power of the lens. Camera lenses have dozens of elements that work together to create the perfect shot. Lens construction is also largely dependent on hardware, not software which means that a professional lens will outperform any glass that Apple may have put in their iPhones. Zoomed in, iPhone images will likely have imperfections such as chromatic aberration and purple fringing. A different question is, does it matter?
The photographer is often the most important factor in image quality. You can get the best crew and gear on set, but ultimately if the photographer is trash, their image will be trash. A photographer who invests in gear instead of themselves is a very disappointing sight. I may be at the extreme end of this, as I went from obsession over gear to conservatism. Eventually, I hope to end up somewhere in the middle. In any case, photographers should pay less attention to what camera they have. Sure, an iPhone won’t be as good, that’s the point of this article, but at the same time, if you put the right subject in front of an iPhone, the image will be stunning. You just need to have taste, an eye for good things, and a little creativity to create such things.
You may remember an article of mine from a year ago, where I said that phones have replaced cameras in a lot of fields. With startups such as RecNGo, which focus solely on using phones to replace cameras for streaming and recording video, it is safe to say that phones will only get better. Profoto has figured out a way to sync flash with phones using AirX, making it even easier to create stunning photographs with the gear you have. Yet there is not much you can do about sensor physics. Image quality can be enhanced with AI, but AI won’t make the photo look like it was shot by a medium-format camera. The AI can’t add bit depth or make the pixels larger. There is a limit to how good iPhones can get. Who knows, maybe after they Max(pun intended) out their cameras, they will focus on making the speakers sound like a high-end stereo system. In the meantime, the iPhone 14 is a great image-capturing device, but it won’t be as good as a professional camera.