Let's talk about the iPhone 14 Cameras! Do megapixels matter?

Let's talk about the iPhone 14 Cameras! Do megapixels matter?

It’s only May 2022 but we already know a lot about the iPhone 14 models, let's dig in, especially about that 48 MP camera, what it might mean and if it will be enough of a reason to upgrade. We’ll also look at a competing phone that recently made the megapixel jump and what that can tell us about photography features. We’ll cover the biggest iPhone 14 rumours, not just the photography stuff.

This post is based on recent reports, which means this is all subject to change and may not pan out! A 48 MP camera would be a big reason for photographers to upgrade if the technology works well. This capability is nothing new though, in the world of Android, dating back to 2018 when Sony launched the IMX586, which promised a leap in image quality by dramatically increasing the resolution, this then shipped in early 2019 in the first phones including the Honor View 20.

It is no surprise Apple isn’t moved by the competition, in this case sticking with 12 MP for as long as they have, they’ll release a feature when they think it’s ready and are happy enough for the competition to go spec-crazy in the meantime offering 108 MP or even 200 MP cameras.

Let’s go back with a brief history of the iPhone's primary wide, rear camera and the evolution of megapixels, I’m looking here at when there was an increase in megapixels, not at every model in-between:

  • iPhone 2007 (also known as the iPhone 2G) started with a 2-megapixel camera
  • iPhone 3GS 2009 moved to a 3.0-megapixel camera
  • iPhone 4 2010 got a fancy 5-megapixel camera
  • iPhone 4S 2011 went with an 8-megapixel camera
  • iPhone 6S and 6S Plus 2015 a big leap to a 12-megapixel camera
  • iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max 2022 are expected to go to a 48-megapixel main camera

So we can see straight away, that 12 megapixels have been holding strong for many years, that’s not to say Apple hasn’t improved the cameras in other ways, with more advanced sensors and computational features like Smart HDR, Night mode, and Deep Fusion for example. Here is a snippet of the iPhone 13 coverage that expands on this:

“The iPhone 13 lineup represents the first time Apple has increased the primary camera’s sensor size across the board since the iPhone XS and XR in 2018, though last year’s 12 Pro Max had a 47 percent bigger sensor than the 12 and 12 Pro. Sensor size is a key factor in image quality because, together with lens aperture, it determines how much light the camera is able to capture. More light, less noise and blur.”

The megapixels determine how big the resulting photos are and how much detail is captured, with 12 megapixels being 4032 x 3024 resolution, while 48 megapixels are 8000 x 6000.  Just increasing the megapixels count doesn’t automatically increase the quality of the photos taken it can result in worse photos, especially in low light, so something called pixel binning can be used to take advantage of those extra megapixels, without introducing issues with the resulting output:

“Already in use on some Android phones like Samsung's Galaxy S21 Ultra, pixel binning merges data from multiple smaller pixels on the camera's image sensor into one "super-pixel" for improved low-light sensitivity. Pixel binning would allow iPhone 14 Pro models to shoot high-resolution 48-megapixel photos in bright conditions and 12-megapixel photos in low-light conditions that are still of higher quality.”

It's likely Apple wanted to wait until they had a solution to make use of all those megapixels without compromising the quality. The iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max are reported as having a 48-megapixel sensor but we don’t know if that means the iPhone Camera will take shots in 48 MP, rather than just use pixel binning, resulting in 12 MP photos with improved super-pixels when needed. The Google Pixel 6 phones introduced last year jumped from a 12 MP camera to a 50 MP sensor but interestingly, there is no way to take 50 MP shots, it’s capped at 12 MP, using pixel binning as needed. Overall, the Pixel 6 models, with all that new camera tech were highly rated, improving upon the previous generation, rather than just another iteration.

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Could Apple’s implementation of pixel binning be called Deep Fusion 2 or perhaps Smart HDR 5?

Apple already do something that sounds similar to pixel binning, Deep Fusion! Introduced with the iPhone 11 in iOS 13.2 and available on newer models including most recently the iPhone SE 2022, this “uses advanced machine learning to do pixel-by-pixel processing, optimising for texture, details, and noise in every part of the photo”. Apple expands on how this works, back from the 2019 launch:

“It shoots nine images. Before you press the shutter button it’s already shot four short images, four secondary images; when you press the shutter button it takes one long exposure and then in just one second, the Neural Engine analyses the fused combination of long and short images, picking the best among them, selecting all the pixels, and pixel-by-pixel, going through 24 million pixels to optimise for detail and low noise…”

Deep Fusion 2, if that’s what it is called, will use those extra pixels, which will give it lots more detail to work with, as well as analysing data from multiple shots to compose the final image. Hedging my bet, this could be just as easily called Smart HDR 5 (v4 launched with the iPhone 13), as both of these technologies are used depending on the lighting available:

“With the wide (standard) lens in bright to medium-lit environments, Smart HDR will be used while Deep Fusion will activate for medium to low-lit scenes (Night mode naturally kicking in for dim-lit shots).

The telephoto lens will generally use Deep Fusion except for shots that are very brightly-lit when Smart HDR will take over For the ultra wide lens, Deep Fusion is never activated, instead, Smart HDR is used.”

Since the iPhone 14 Pro/Pro Max is likely to be running the supped-up A16 or an 'A16 Pro' next-gen chip, that would make sense, it will have a greater capacity to process all this imaging data almost instantly and it wouldn’t be the first time a Camera feature is limited to a particular spec, I’m thinking of ProRAW which required the extra RAM in the iPhone 12/13 Pro & Pro Max to work. The other iPhone 14 models (non-Pro) are expected to have last year's chip even though it may still be called the A16 for marketing purposes.

So what are the latest reports telling us about the iPhone 14 exactly, first with the features said to be exclusive to the Pro models:

  • Notch replaced with “Pill and hole-punch" TrueDepth camera array
  • Taller display with thinner bezels
  • Larger corner radii for a more streamlined appearance
  • A16 chip
  • 48-megapixel main wide camera with 8K video recording

With the standard iPhone 14 models are said to offer:

  • No iPhone 14 Mini, a new iPhone 14 Max is in the line-up instead
  • Non-Pro iPhone models get 50% more memory
  • Improved battery life as a result of an improved 5G chip
  • Wi-Fi 6E network connectivity
  • Emergency satellite features
  • Upgraded front-facing camera with autofocus

The line-up is expected to be a 6.1-inch iPhone 14, a 6.1-inch iPhone 14 Pro, a 6.7-inch iPhone 14 Max, and a 6.7-inch iPhone 14 Pro Max.

Getting back to the iPhone 14 Pros as we start to wrap up this post, a 48 MP camera is appealing in principle, it means you can crop photos more without losing details, it could assist with zooming in, in-between the different focal lengths, it would signify a new chapter in iPhoneography, as we have learned finally moving us on from 2015.  Low light and Night shot images would be improved by pixel-binning too.

There are still lots of questions, like will this be a feature like Deep Fusion, which you can’t control directly, will we get a choice shooting 48 MP shots, will this burden the Camera app even more, with new options or can we get a Pro Camera App? If the file size does go up if we can take 48 MP shots (it surely wouldn't be on by default), what about iCloud storage, will we see new tiers or a bump-up in storage and will there be any improvements to ProRAW? Personally, depending on how Apple implement this on the iPhone 14 Pros, I’ll be looking closely at these models, though it's much too soon to upgrade and the smart money is on the iPhone 15, with USB-C the reports suggest, and possible a periscope lens with 5x zoom, I’d still be very interested in the 48 MP camera later this year.

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