#926. The Challenge of Smart Cameras

By Leonard Norwitz | Opinion

Nov 08

Yes, Apple has made some improvements to its smartphone camera performance, but how significant are these – and to whom?


The new iPhone 11 camera specs:

  • Camera 1: 12MP wide, f/1.8
  • Camera 2: 12MP ultra-wide, f/2.4, 120-degree FOV

The iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max

  • Camera 1: 12MP wide, f/1.8
  • Camera 2: 12MP telephoto, f/2.0
  • Camera 3: 12MP ultra-wide, f/2.4, 120-degree FOV

Let’s start with the language. It would be a great help to potential buyers if Apple et al were to come up with a consistent and meaningful nomenclature for its smartphone cameras and lenses. 

The term “telephoto” is widely used regarding Apple 2- and 3-lens camera-phones to describe what is, in fact, only a “normal” lens. In fact, the term “telephoto” is used wherever a roughly doubling of the main camera lens – i.e. the wide-angle lens — on a smartphone camera is discussed or employed. Nor is Apple’s “telephoto” a portrait lens, though the phone’s menu indicates as much. It’s a 52mm angle of view equivalent lens, with nothing like the depth of field control that we would expect from an f/2.0!  This means it sees very much the same way our eyes see the scene. Ditto for the iPhone Xs-Max, which uses more or less the same two camera lenses as on the 11 Pro.

Panorama mode on the 11 models can only be activated with the wide angle lens, which I have always found limiting except for indoor shots since it would make that which appears small, smaller. Panorama mode ought to be an option for the so-called “telephoto,” which would create more normal appearing perspectives as well as being able to display more there. On the other hand I am not averse to preparing shots for later panorama merging with third party software.

The important differences, as I see it, between the Xs-Max and the 11, 11 Pro and Pro Max are its updated software for better dynamic range, primarily by way of its “Deep Fusion” contrast control, a “Night Mode” option, and the addition of an ultra-wide angle lens for all three models. This latter, however, strikes me as a gimmick, not only because I gave up on ultra-wide angle photography a few years ago, but because it’s impractical for small device sharing displays. How do you see what’s going on when everything has been reduced to the size of a gnat. Why not simply use panorama mode! And, I would argue, that it is especially pointless for landscapes since the resulting image does not represent the view that generated that “wow” response when we first came upon the scene. In the hands of people other than experienced photographers, the ultra-wide lens becomes little more than a toy.

In a stroke of marketing genius, the iPhone 11 substitutes the ultra-wide 13mm equivalent lens for the “telephoto,” (which is the third lens that comes with the Pro models) thus requiring the serious smartphone camera user to acquire one of the two Pro models.  This in addition to the fact that the display on the 11 is LCD but on the Pro models, the display is OLED, which I have come to appreciate on the X-Max.  (More on the display in a bit.) I realize that users have different preferences. Mine lean strongly (at least 8:1) to the use of the “portrait” lens (much the same as the 11’s “telephoto” ) over the “main” lens on the X-Max (similar to the “wide” on the 11).  By the way, I don’t use the “portrait” lens all that much for portraits, but for basic street and landscape photography.  The iPhone Model 11 is, therefore, a non-starter.

An aside, digital.CameraWorld.com weighs in on the subject, thus:

So do you need the longer 52mm equivalent third camera on the iPhone Pro? If you have an older iPhone with a second telephoto camera you’ll already know how much use you get out of this and whether it’s something you need. Camera phone photographers is typically immediate, up-close and wide, though, so a longer focal length may not be as important as it is on a regular camera.

Yet all the images they show to demonstrate the camera’s capabilities in this regard are anything but.

Over the years, the main lens on Apple’s smart phones has seen increasingly wider angle of views from about 32mm equivalents on the iPhones 5 and 6, to about 28mm with the 7+, 8+ and X models to 26mm for the Xs or Xs-Max and 11 models. Depth of field, despite the fixed wide aperture, is deeper than we might expect due to the small size of the sensor, which is why smartphone camera photos tend to be in focus, front to back, and, no doubt, what has contributed to their popular appeal.  A fixed wide aperture also has the advantage of better low light photography, as well as inviting faster shutter speeds, thus helping to combat a tendency to camera shake, which is inevitable given how one has to hold it to shoot.  Shallow depth of field, on the other hand, which is important for serious photographers, has been difficult-to-impossible to achieve except by way of software manipulation, and then only if the subject fills a good part of the center of the frame.  This requires some thought and planning and time on the part of the user, so it is no wonder that Apple has dropped the designation “portrait” in favor of “telephoto.”  Not that we have any better control over depth of field, but at least there is the suggestion that thought is no longer necessary to use the camera.

I take it that a longer focal length is not practicable due to the thinness of the phone body, thus folding and periscope lens designs from companies other than Apple, and the “optical zoom,” which I can tell you from past experience can be drek compared to simply cropping the image.  I say this while other companies are releasing high resolution cameras with outstanding optical zoom capability.

The matter of “zoom” is a ready subject for another lexo/photographical aside.  It is important to understand that an optical zoom does not behave in the same way as a zoom lens.  An optical zoom progressively crops the image, filling the frame, while losing resolution in the process; a zoom lens provides an infinite progression of focal lengths, filling the frame while retaining resolution.  There are essentially two ways to make up for losses resulting from an optical zoom: [a] begin with a staggering degree of resolution at the wide end, thus permitting up to 8x “zooming” whilst ending up with an acceptable number of pixels for the “telephoto” image crop – this is the solution provided by One-Plus, Oppo, Huawei and Samsung; [b] begin with a modest resolution, limit the amount of zooming to 2.0x or so, and make up for losses with interpolating software – this is Apple’s solution, and within its intended parameters, works well enough.

All of which takes us to a discussion of the target market for this camera: device sharing photography, where post-processing is performed instantaneously or by the user with the phone’s software.  The images are not assumed to be printed, which, at 12 MP, there certainly is plenty of res for (8.5×11 without resing up!), nor for work station processing . . . which reminds me, before I forget, to comment on the OLED display for the two Pro models.  There is the pleasure and certain utility to a brighter display for the photographer, no doubt, but the fact is easily ignored that the only people who will appreciate the extra brightness and improved color contrast are those that own this camera or others with this display.  Nothing of this advantage is transmitted to friends unless you hand them your phone to look at your pictures. 

So much about this device is intended to provide immediate, automatic gratification, a trend that I’ve become increasingly concerned about, especially as it applies to Internet social politics and awareness in general.  The fact that this is all achieved by AI is all the more alarming.  People are increasingly being encouraged to give up critical thinking, which is a necessary condition for photography, as it is for optimum survival.

I say this as Apple invites a great number of user options to command this or that effect and pre- and post-operations.  Yet I find their inclusion suspect.  Your average smartphone user just wants to choose the lens for the best angle of view, and if someone or something is too small to see properly they can always be enlarged with a two-finger spread. As for us photographers, expect for Apple’s built-in, judiciously applied HDR, which I do find useful to control for blowing out of bright light values, many of the other options are better served on one’s computer.  Such is my opinion. Your mileage may differ.  It all comes down to the objective of smartphone photography, which I shall return to shortly, following a brief confession.

Truth is I find I use my iPhone camera about as much as I do my “real” camera, but as a camera rather than for instant sharing of my life.  (Perhaps if I had a life, I would see this differently!) Even so, few smartphone photos make my screensaver gallery, let alone prints.

So, you may well ask, what do I see is the value of smart-phone picture-taking?  There are two: the first, and by far the more popular, is to replace the wallet for the sharing of snapshots — which sharing can be performed remotely.  This is way cool and offers possibilities that remind us what century we are in.  In so doing, however, files are generally resized downwards, making the point of high resolution smartphones moot.  Do we really see qualitative differences in images displayed from smartphone to smartphone, especially once shared by Mail, Twit, Instagroupy, or Googly Photos, that are not attributable to the display itself?  I suspect not.

The second is to use for photography when a serious camera is impractical or, simply, not handy.  After all, we usually have our smartphone with us, but not always our camera.  The resultant photos can, and should, be manipulated in post, if for no other reason than to maintain our critical thinking skills.


I submit a few annotated photos thus shot with the Xs-Max and post-ed:

There are two things I aim for in my photography, sometimes unconsciously: a story and a certain degree of disorientation. This first shot accomplished both.  It was one of a series of attempts at a self-portrait whilst shooting into a mirror.  Once straightened, the image is reversed so that the text behind me is corrected , thus making it appear that the picture is taken by someone else.
My self-imposed operating principle is that I never add anything to the image that isn’t already there, however latent.  This shot appears to be contrary to my rule but in fact it is merely a straightforward B&W conversion of a complex reflection pool.
Next is a study in contrasting unlike shapes and textures, desaturated in Luminar.
The side of this building near the Cantor Art Museum at Stanford U caught my attention. After some serious cropping with Photoshop’s perspective tool, the image was desaturated in Luminar with lots of subtle cloning in PS to ensure linearity.

Now, two pairs of befores and afters:

The first shows my penchant for noirish B&W.
The second, while not much of a photo, demonstrates how much latent resolution these images retain that permit it to suffer the abuse of perspective management; afterward a dose of Luminar recovered my subjective impression of opulent decadence.

Four photos that required very little in post, but enough to turn a snapshot into, hopefully, a photo.

The first is a routine B&W conversion, with the visible furnishings in the window made ever so more apparent with a small boost of selected contrast. The plane is as it presented itself – honest!
The tennis court required more perspective cropping than is practicable with the phone software and display.
The cactus was one of the first shots taken with my then new Xs-Max, with the cactus sitting in for a portrait. I wanted to test the limits of the faux DOF adjustment. Not bad, even on the needles, but I cleaned them up a bit anyhow.
The ceiling of the Cantor Museum is the result of a simple point & shoot with subtle cloning out of a part of the ceiling that I wanted to make less evident. I’m totally impressed by the Xs-Max’s contrast control here.

  Now a panorama:

This wide shot of an apparently abandoned locker started life as seven separate frames with the “portrait” lens, intended to be merged in Photoshop. The conversion to B&W was done with Luminar.  If I were to have used the panorama mode on the iPhone, the wide angle lens would have had to be employed, and the picture would have devolved into a morass of leaves and branches, the quasi-circular road would have been lost, and the locker would have been too small to catch the eye.

Another set of two pairs of befores and afters at the Cantor again.


The first is of a large walk thru outdoor sculpture where light and shadow changes with the sun’s attitude. Though the original intense color is part of what caught my attention to start with, I felt the image worked better in a desaturated monochrome.

The B&W of the kneeling sculpture with reflection of both it and myself was in my mind when I composed and shot this arrangement.

Finally, three images presented in full resolution. Click any for 100% views.

The first represents my fascination with walls, the challenge being the final framing.
The second shot is something of a mystery to me. I know where it taken, but not why. In any case, it is entirely candid, the woman suddenly raised her arm as if signaling someone out of the frame. It was a moment.
The last shot was taken with my iPhone 6-Plus, an example of a study that I expected to return to one day with a “real” camera. It was taken through glass out of the 12the floor of a government building in downtown San Jose. Detail’s not bad, considering.

All but three of these photos were taken with the longer lens, as if in reply to those who question its usability.  The three wide angle shots are: the theatre interior facade, the final shot with the 6-Plus, and – perhaps a surprise – the shot with the woman sitting on a bench.  The clue is its phenomenal depth of field.


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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I am aghast! What is it about these contraptions that makes photography “easier” or “simpler”?

    • Leonard Norwitz says:

      I remember the first experience I had with a digital camera about 20 years ago – one that required being held at arm’s length to see the composition. So I declared the idea “dead in the water!” Couldn’t see. Couldn’t hod still. Then came smartphone cameras some years later and I had the same notion – until I saw its reasonably sharp images. As more AI is employed, I became more resistant again, but for ethical reasons. Damn the ease! My best retort is to use only prime lenses for my serious camera. Not an analogous move, but it makes me feel better.

      My point is that I enjoy the challenge that photography can demand. Smartphones, despite their ever-growing optional post-operative tools, go some way to undo this aspect of the creative relationship.

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