Can the iPhone Ever Get as Good as a Professional Camera? Probably Not

Having just seen the new version of the iPhone 14, I noted that one of the selling points was the “best camera ever on a phone”. The specs, along with a new raw file format, are impressive. But, no matter what Apple does to their phones, they can hardly beat a proper camera. Here’s why.

It seems like every year Apple invents its best camera yet, which makes sense because the camera is pretty much the only thing that always changes on the iPhone. So much so that even Steve Jobs’ daughter posted a meme about the new iPhone 14 and how it basically looks like. Nevertheless, in their “best camera yet”, the Pro models can capture 48MP files in raw format. It sounds great on paper, but in practice it might not be as impressive as it first appears. As the owner of a studio-grade (50MP) 5Ds camera, I asked the question: should I give up my setup in exchange for an iPhone 14 Pro? Well, the answer is no. No matter how many megapixels in all formats iPhones can capture, they’ll never be as good as proper cameras. On a technical level, image quality goes far beyond the number of megapixels and the format in which they were captured. So what affects image quality?

The Big Megapixel Lie

I clearly remember buying an 8 megapixel Canon 1D Mark II camera at the start of my journey not too long ago. Well into the 20+ megapixel era. The phrase “my phone has more” haunted me. Still, I knew full well that although my sensor was older, it was physically larger and captured colors better than a phone’s sensor. Sure, I couldn’t print large scale images, but I could work in low light (ISO 3200) much better than someone with a phone.

More megapixels have become synonymous with better image quality. However, it is a myth as big as bigfoot. Many amateur photographers strive to buy a camera with as many megapixels as possible. Phone companies are launching phones over 100 megapixels for the same demographic of people.

Of course, if used correctly, a high resolution camera can deliver stunning results, but it needs to be in the right hands. As the owner of a Canon 5D Mark IV (32 MP) and a Canon 5Ds (50 MP), I often use the lower resolution camera. There’s 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 imperfections. Even if you are slightly off focus, it will show. If your subject is slightly out of focus, people will recognize it much faster. That’s why a lot of things that I shoot, I tend to shoot in low resolution. Not all images need 50 megapixels. Sure, a lot of my work is shot in 5D, but when I pull out this camera, I also pull out world-class lighting and crew, and create an environment where that resolution will enhance the image instead of spoiling it .

Physics that affects image quality

First, the size of the sensor. There’s debate about 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-frame. If the opposite were true, many photographers, as well as camera manufacturers, wouldn’t spend the extra money on larger sensors. If anything, Hasselblad would have gone bankrupt and not released their X2D.

Size matters because photosite size matters. If you’re curious, a photosite and a pixel are not the same. Not just the physical dimensions of the sensor, but the physical dimensions of the individual photosites. Generally, the larger the photosite, the better the dynamic range of the image. Dynamic range is responsible for color accuracy and color transitions. This is why medium format cameras have remarkable color reproduction: the size of the photosite is larger than in full format cameras. That’s why my Canon 5D will be superior to the iPhone 14 Pro, but inferior to a Phase One.

Another important factor in capturing images 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 hardware-not software-dependent, meaning a pro lens will outperform any glass Apple may have put in its iPhones. Zoomed in, iPhone images will likely have imperfections such as chromatic aberration and purple fringing. Another question is, does it matter?

The photograph

The photographer is often the most important factor in image quality. You can get the best team and gear on set, but ultimately if the photographer sucks, their image will suck. A photographer who invests in equipment instead of himself is a very disappointing sight. I may be on the extreme, as I’ve gone from gear obsession to conservatism. Eventually, I hope to end up somewhere in the middle. In any case, photographers should pay less attention to the camera they have. Of course, 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 picture will be stunning. All you need is taste, an eye for good things and a bit of creativity to create such things.

Final Thoughts

You may remember one of my posts from a year ago where I said that phones have replaced cameras in many areas. With startups like RecNGo solely focused on using phones to replace cameras for video streaming and recording, it’s safe to say that phones are only going to get better. Profoto has found a way to sync flash with phones using AirX, making it even easier to create great photos with the gear you have. Still, there’s not much you can do about the physics of the sensors. Image quality can be improved with AI, but AI will not make the photo look like it was taken by a medium format camera. AI cannot add bit depth or enlarge pixels. There is a limit to the quality of iPhones. Who knows, maybe after they max out (pun intended) their cameras, they’ll focus on making speakers like a high-end stereo system. Meanwhile, the iPhone 14 is a great image capture device, but it won’t be as good as a professional camera.

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