Home Tech Apple iPhone 11 Pro: Is it worth upgrading just for a better camera?

iPhone 11 Pro: Is it worth upgrading just for a better camera?

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The Apple iPhone 11 and 11-Pro models announced on Tuesday brought very little new to the user experience and relatively little real incentive to upgrade from last year’s models. Apart from the faster processor, which is always nice but not essential for most people, the main emphasis was on cameras and photography. It could be seen as an obsession.

Smartphone manufacturers take cameras very seriously these days. Leica lends its name to Hauwei and Apple, as usual, ploughs its own furrow. Which doesn’t mean to say that Apple’s cameras are inferior to Leica’s Huawei designs. Whether they are or not is pretty incidental to buying patterns. Apple brand loyalty is such that very few, if any, aficionados would switch brands just to get what they might perceive as a better camera.

Paradoxically, as a photographer, I am far less concerned with smartphone cameras than the manufacturers (and general users) appear to be. For me, it’s nice — at most — to have a competent backup camera on my phone, just in case I go out without a camera (which is seldom). Most times, at the very least, I’ll have my Sony RX100 VI stuffed in my pocket.

Veteran Apple watcher John Gruber summed up the relationship between what was once “a phone” and what is now an “and-you-can-even-make-calls” computer with a camera attached:

“I have been using an iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone 11 Pro Max since last Wednesday. Most of what I have to say — and I think most of what one needs to know to understand them — is about the cameras. My biggest problem is that I wrote this review last year. I re-read my review of last year’s iPhones XS (regular and Max) and at almost every single paragraph I found myself wanting to say the exact same thing again this year. Not that these phones are the same as last year’s phones, but that the year-over-year improvements are equally impressive and at times mind-boggling…

“Several times over the past few years, I’ve had conversations along the lines of, “I know they’re never going to do this, but wouldn’t it be cool if Apple made a real camera?” As the iPhone camera system evolves, I’m starting to think Apple is making a real camera, right under our noses — or perhaps better said, right in our pockets.”

I don’t much care about using the phone as a camera; in fact, for that matter, I don’t much care about using it as a phone. To me, it is a pocket computer with a few embellishments. Apart from anything else, I find framing a photograph on a phone unnatural and something I do willingly only in emergencies.

Pro effects

Smartphone cameras, however, are important for the mass of users who are now used to having a camera about their persons at all times. Apple and other manufacturers clearly believe this to be so, such is their obsession with cameras. It’s no wonder point-and-shoot cameras have had their day when everyone has a similar capability built into their phone. And the development of multi-camera arrays and smart processing (especially to create “pro” effects such as narrow depth of field) is pointing the way to the future of the camera industry itself.

Despite the continued decline in sales of “proper” cameras and the inexorable move to the higher end of the market, I am optimistic for the industry. When talking about smartphone photography, most people forget the effect wrought on casual users by the flattering results churned out by smartphones.

Everyone is a photographer nowadays and most like what they see. The smartphone serves to flatter. The results from smartphones, thanks to software manipulation, are far more impressive than an amateur could have hoped to achieve with a cheap point-and-shoot from the early part of the century. But, as we know, these images have their limitations and are in their element on the small screen rather than plastering the side of a bus.

The latest iPhones and also smartphones from other manufacturers, are employing a battery of tiny lenses of different focal lengths and stitching together impressive results behind the scenes. This is much like the Light L16 camera which many still suggest represents the future of photography. Smartphone manufacturers are now catching up, encouraged by the apparent demand for ever-better cameras.

Flattering to deceive

I firmly believe that the smartphone with its embellishing camera is a grooming device for photographers. It encourages newcomers to take an interest in photography and, eventually, a sufficient number will be encouraged to try a traditional camera, perhaps even a system camera. Initially, they might be disappointed when comparing results to the magic of the smartphone (at least on the phone screen), but users would soon come to appreciate the advantages of a dedicated camera.

A fully specced iPhone 11 Pro now costs the thick end of £1,500 in the UK and those who dig into their bank balances for such a device will probably be surprised to find they can buy competent system cameras for half as much. And, for only a few pounds or dollars more, they can own a professional outfit.

So let’s not worry too much about the future of the camera industry. It will indeed become more specialised and, no doubt, the trend to higher-end devices will accelerate. It will probably continue to retrench for a few years. But the kindergarten is wellpopulated with smartphone users and the keenest among them will eventually graduate to a “proper” camera. It takes only a tiny percentage of conversions among the billions of smartphone users to make a huge impression on the camera market.

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19 COMMENTS

  1. Yes, agree ref. 5G. Though, check out the iPhone 11 Pro video that describes how the Filmic app uses the multi-camera resources. Quite brilliant! It really gives everyone (that has a iPhone 11 Pro and Filmic) all the tools to be ‘proper’ film maker!

    • I agree that if you need the extra facilities the 11 Pro is probably worth getting. For those of who don’t do serious video and have other cameras to play with, the upgrade is that compelling. It allows us to justify keeping last year’s model for another year.

  2. I usually wait two cycles to upgrade as there is usually nothing revolutionary in a single cycle. I find my phone carrier usually offers me a special deal on upgrading by that time to keep me as a customer.

  3. I am still wringing the neck out of my almost out of contract Iphone 7 plus, and in the market for a new phone for the next few years… However this is where I go all Northern, as I dont see the value in always having the latest and allegedly greatest.

    While I continue to be haranged by my mobile provider to upgrade, or trade up, or just plain old buy a new device. I have started to watch the price of the XS, and the XS Plus. I will possibly buy in to one of those when my contract officially ends in January, but only if the price is right, and has dropped sufficiently after the introduction of the Iphone 11. If it isnt right for me, I will plod on with the 7 plus until the price drops far enough, and in the mean time make a saving on just paying for the sim only part of my contract for a bit.

    Bit like camera’s really, the new ones are not always the best ones in my humblest of views.

  4. Yes but the purchase of a proper camera is not going to make an iPhonographer into a better photographer Mike.

    I reckon that Apple reached its zenith with the 7, we are now moving towards computational photography, which is miles from photography, since what one snaps can be modified beyond recognition in software. There is no longer a connection between the photographer’s eye and that of the camera.

    However, that does not mean that someone who is happy to use one, can not be taken seriously.

    There is a photographer called Mark Hobson (and I am sure there are many others), who produce excellent pictures from a mobile: https://lifesquared.squarespace.com/

    My daughter is also an excellent snapper, who rarely uses anything other than an iPhone, she has just upgraded from a 5 to an 8. She works for an international news gatherer and aggregator and is a picture editor, occasionally she will leave the office with the office Canon 1D, but she prefers her phone.

    Personally, I am capable of traducing the art, no matter which camera I employ.

    • See my reply to David B. I think we are all more or less saying the same thing. As indicated in the article, supremely flattered-by-electronics smartphone photographers could well be disappointed by moving to a traditional camera, however advanced. They will get the knack. But perhaps this will be good for the learning process and will create a new band of enthusiasts.

  5. “..This is much like the Light L16 camera which many still suggest represents the future of photography..”

    As you’ll see from the ‘Light’ page, the camera’s shown as “Sold Out”, and there’s been no successor.

    Unlike its marketing nonsense which claims, or claimed, that it was “Portable and powerful” and “Lightweight”, it was huge, heavy and cumbersome. And like most marketing, its claims of “High-quality images” and “52-megapixel resolution” had to be taken with a pinch of salt: sometimes it gave “52-megapixel resolution”, but only when you’d zoomed to very specific points at which it could combine max resolution from three sensors. Otherwise, you got something like 17 megapixels, and there were fuzzy and unfocused regions where the “stitching” process failed, and definitely did not give “High-quality images”.

    By the time the makers had finally got the thing working, they’d been overtaken by more agile companies which had made multi-sensor smartphones ..Huawei and Apple, for example. And the L16 was nowhere near as small and slim as a smartphone! ..So, ultimately, despite the hype, it was pointless.

    The tempting blurb says “The L16’s unique lens array allows photographers to make depth adjustments long after capture.” Yes, -v-e-r-y- -l-o-n-g- after capture, with its creaking and sluggishly dreadful ‘Lumen’ app.

    The L16 was simply 16 smartphone camera units in one bulky, heavy box with a big battery. They’ve not made another. So now it represents the past of photography.

    Anyone remember the 4-lens ‘Nimslo’. Yes, like that.

    • I did see the “sold out” notice and I wasn’t suggesting the L16 was the answer. But the concept of using a number of lenses and software manipulation something that smartphone manufacturers seem to have embraced. There’s no doubt this sort of electronic manipulation will develop and will be used to flatter the smartphone user. But let’s hope it whets the appetite for proper cameras.

      • More lenses – actually more lenses + their sensors – along with the “software manipulation” you mention, is just a way of packing the versatility of a zoom lens into a small space, without a zoom’s bulk.

        Cameraphones with three lens+sensor units – giving, say, wide, normal and telephoto capability – use a whole load of processing to deliver what a normal bulky ’dumb’ zoom gives.

        It’s the drive to miniaturise which led to this ‘computational photography’, just as the drive to miniaturise led to 35mm photography from 8”x10” or roll film photography. But really tiny 8mm Minox (‘spy camera’) and 16mm stills photography weren’t really sensible – it gave grainy and none-too-sharp enlargements ..and so it faded away. D’you know anyone who uses a Minox nowadays? Some attempts at miniaturisation are just too extreme to hold their own (remember Clive Sinclair’s early ‘Matchbox Radio’? ..who uses one now?)

        Multi-lens cameraphones will fade away when other means to produce a miniature zoom appear. Some cameras – and phones – use a folded zoom (like the folded light path in binoculars) to fit a real zoom inside a tunnel within the device, so as not to protrude. When small, cameraphone-sized, lenses may be made to change focal length by squeezing the lens elements, or changing their refractive capabilities, then the need for multi-lens+sensor units will also fade away.

        Light bulbs in cars (and homes) are being replaced by LEDs, so smaller and simpler devices will replace multi-lens cameras ..although evolution hasn’t yet progressed beyond multi-lens flys’ eyes. But maybe they serve orientation purposes, with sunlight-polarising features built in.

        “..let’s hope it whets the appetite for proper cameras..” b-b-but these ARE proper cameras now. You’re saying “let’s hope these miniature 35mm Leicas whet the appetite for proper Speed Graphics and glass plate cameras”. That era’s been and gone, Mike.

        Now – as I once mentioned – I must go and light the fire under my ‘proper’ Stanley steam car.

        • I want a ride on that Stanley Steamer when you’ve built up enough pressure. Always had a soft spot for steam cars and trucks (Foden, wasn’t it). Anyway, Clive Sinclair has a lot to answer for. His first calculator was less than the size of a matchbox and we had one in our office as the sole evidence of the modern era. Sadly, some colleagues’ fingers were too stubby to even attempt a calculation. Then there was the Sinclair C5, another example of wacky imagination that failed miserably. I remember attending the launch press conference and, I seem to remember the little tricycles with trolley poles (with a flag on top to warn larger vehicles) riding round the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace. Everyone thought the Sinclair C5 was the vehicle of the future. Sadly (or, perhaps fortunately) not so.

          • I went to a (..I thought it was ‘the’..) C5 launch at Alexandra Palace in north London. The C5s went round an enclosed arena like dodgems.

            I said “Look, I want to try one on a real road..” and Clive finally allowed me onto the tarmac outside. Alexandra Palace is built on the top of a hill – which is why the BBC used it as the site of its first television transmissions.

            I rolled forwards down the hill OK, but then I tried electrically driving UP, with the C5’s battery and Hoover motor supposedly driving the little plastic-cased trike. Halfway up, the juice ran out ..but there were no automatically-applied brakes! ..So I rolled 50 feet backwards downhill till I’d got my feet back on the pedals! ..This was being advertised as a way for little old grannies to do their local shopping, but the thing was utterly unroadworthy, and hopelessly dangerous on hills.

            R.I.P.C.5. (..though now it’s the name of a Citroën; bad choice!)

          • Ah! Must have got the wrong palace! Come to think of it, I can now remember, although I have it sort of mixed up with the launch of. The Ariel 3 three-wheel which was equally disastrous. The Buckingham Palace pictures were probably from an old newsreel.

          • Ah yes, I get mixed up between the launch of the Vulcan bomber and the Titanic. Easily done. Big crowds at both ..or am I thinking of the Royal Yacht Britannia..? Anyway, a floaty thing ..or am I thinking of the Norwegian Christmas tree in Holloway Road, or is it Trafalgar Square?

            No, I’m thinking of the Monument, which is really (REALLY) a giant telescope..

  6. Beyond the consumerist phase of the frantic introduction of new models, there lies the possibilities of computational photography and in built communications in cameras. Yes the ‘Light’ is not still around, but most people now have these features on their phones and they are very happy to have them. The features on phones will continue to multiply to the detriment of ‘traditional’ cameras. It is not only compact cameras that have lost sales, as the sales of ILCs (interchangeable lens cameras) have also declined sharply. Traditional camera manufacturers to not want to make the jump to the new paradigms as they make very healthy profits on large lenses etc, but the day cannot be far off when they will also have to jump. The advantages of larger sensor cameras are to be seen mainly in printing/publication, but many people no longer print and their photos are largely viewed on small hand held devices. As for migration from smartphones, this will only take camera companies so far. Time and tide stand still for no man.

    William

  7. For iPhone users, I can say that the camera has definitely improved and new users can also experience good photography so either way if you are willing to buy iPhone 11 pro for the camera then go for it.

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