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iPhone 8 / X: A Photographer’s Perspective

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Its become a ritual. Every fall I tune into Apple’s launch event to anxious to hear all about how the new iPhones will impact tiny format photography for the coming year.

This year’s new iPhones (the iPhone 8, 8plus, and X) have a lot of new features including facial recognition, augmented reality, wireless charging, an OLED display, and a ton of exciting camera improvements. Apple even threw in a complexly new phone design with the iPhone X that does away with the space hogging home button and bezels.

In this post Steve Jobs era, Apple has had a hard time meeting the expectations of its customers and critics, who each year expect them to double the hours in the day, or reinvent some new area of their lives that they didn’t know needed reinvention. Sadly this year was no exception as my Facebook and Twitter feeds were full of naysayers who didn’t think the new phones were compelling enough to shell out $500-999.

As a photographer I was having the exact opposite reaction. If you are serious about taking photos with your iPhone, this is a must have upgrade cycle.

Let’s take a look at all the goodies that Apple put into these new iPhones for photographers.

A new sensor…

We’ll start with the big news. Both the iPhone 8 and iPhone X models contain a new 12 mega-pixel image sensor. Apple claims this new sensor is faster, capable of capturing more dynamic range in photos, and has “deeper pixels”. We like deeper, or perhaps more accurately, larger pixels. Generally speaking, the larger the pixels are, the better the quality will be of the image captured by the sensor.  By including a new sensor with larger pixels, it’s safe to assume that these new iPhones are going to produce higher quality raw images. Exactly how much higher quality is the nine hundred and ninety nine dollar question.

On that account, Apple did give us some hints that we can use to estimate the change in quality. During the keynote, Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller, said that the new iPhone 8 camera captures 83% more light. Without any significant change in lens aperture, this means that the size of the pixels in the new sensor must be significantly larger than those used in the iPhone 7 plus.

Schiller also mentioned that iPhone 8 (and presumably iPhone X) now have hardware dedicated to noise reduction. This might be needed to compensate for the increased heat generated by the larger sensor, but either way it’s good news that Apple is adding more hardware to their image processing pipeline. Dedicated noise reduction chips will further increase image quality especially in the shadow areas of the image or low light situations.

Because this new sensor has the same number of mega-pixels I think most of the technology press missed out on how significant the image quality improvements are likely to be. I wish someone would have asked Apple how much deeper those pixels are going to be. But, with an 83% improvement in light collection I’m guessing they are at least 50% larger. That might put the pixels at 1.9 microns for the iPhone 8/X sensor instead of 1.22 for the iPhone 7 plus. For comparison, the sensors in most full frame DSLRs contain pixels that are between 4-5 microns in size. The good news here is that Apple isn’t losing focus on raw image quality. Instead that are working on closing the DSLR gap.

Better colors…

We were also told that the camera also has a new “color filter”. Apple didn’t give a lot of details about this, but the new color filter it likely to improve color fidelity of images – meaning more accurate color rendition, less color contamination, and less color noise in shadow detail. Judging from the choice of sample photos Apple presented they found a way to get really good color out of this new sensor.

More image stabilization…

The next announcement that caught my attention was that the iPhone X introduces optical image stabilization for both camera lenses (as opposed to just the wide angle lens in the iPhone 8plus). This will be helpful for reducing image blur when using the telephone lens in low light situations. More stabilization allows camera apps to use slower shutter speeds in low light instead of cranking up the ISO (which reduces image quality). The net result should be cleaner images when using the telephoto in more subdued lighting. I can’t wait try this for portraits.

Rear curtain sync, err, I mean “slow sync”…

Another announcement that I’m excited about is the ability to use the built-in flash in a new “slow sync” mode. As far as I can tell this is essentially a fancy new name for what is typically referred to as “rear curtain” sync in other camera systems. Rear/slow sync means that the flash is fired just before the shutter closes instead of upfront when it first opens. It’s a significant shift that allows you to properly expose for the ambient light in a scene (such as a sunset) but then introduce flash at the last second to “fill in” a dark subject in foreground. Without slow sync mode, the exposure of iPhone photos that utilize the built-in flash have been based solely on the light emitted by the flash – resulting in properly exposed foreground subjects but dark or completely black backgrounds. Combined with better image stabilization this slow sync feature is going to make it very easy to use create beautifully balanced flash photos.

Infinite contrast displays, oh my…

The new iPhone X uses OLED technology instead of back-lit LEDs for its new edge-to-edge screen. One of the benefits of OLED is that it can produce a lot more contrast – meaning deeper and truer blacks. This is going to be helpful not just for viewing images, but also for editing them on the iPhone.

Faster everything…

Like all new iPhones, these new models contain faster microprocessors and chips. This time Apple claims they are 70% faster than iPhone 7.  While you may think your current iPhone is fast enough, having more processing power in the phone means that the camera do more complicated things. This might mean the ability to compute better stitches in panorama photos, or it could enable faster auto-focus, image sharpening, or noise reduction. Let’s face it, the future of tiny format photography is computational. For example, the new Portrait Lighting features that were introduced today are only possible with these faster chips.

As a photographer I can’t imagin passing on this upgrade cycle. The cameras in the Phone 8 and iPhone X have been significantly improved by the addition of new dedicated hardware and a larger image sensor. Based on how much I shoot with my iPhone, the image quality improvements alone are enough for me to justify the upgrade.

However, when you factor in all the other camera improvements (faster performance, better colors, more stabilization, slow flash sync, etc.) it feels like these new iPhones might just take tiny format photography to a new level.

6 Responses
  • Bing
    September 23, 2017

    Real curtain synch is not slow synch.

    • Peter
      September 24, 2017

      True. In fact there is no “curtain” in tiny format camera systems. But slow sync delivers much of the same benefit.

  • Paul
    September 23, 2017

    iPhone 8 or iPhone X? Is it better to wait and maybe wait some more for iPhone X or get an iPhone 8 now?

    • Peter
      September 24, 2017

      I ordered an iPhone 8plus thinking that it might be hard to get an iPhone X before the end of the year and I wanted the better camera now. Also I know that my Moment lenses will work with the iPhone 8plus. All that said, I know that once I get the iPhone X in my hands, I might wind up with two phones. 😉

  • Chris West
    September 24, 2017

    Problem is that iPhone teardowns and X-ray images have shown no increase in sensor size at all or pixel pitch? So I am a bit confused by it all. Seems like the 83 percent comment was not reflective of sensor size st all.

    • Peter
      September 27, 2017

      Agreed, it is a mystery. But the report I just read might shed some light on it. Apparently they are using a “stacked” sensor design that this time around appears to use a technique called “hybrid bonding” where the sensor substrates are physically bonded together in some way. That appears to be a more engery efficient design and may be what Apple was referring to about “deeper” pixels. I’m going to keep following the bouncing ball.

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