iPhone 14 pixels: Why the 48MP sensor is not the big camera news this year

Let’s talk about pixels. Specifically, iPhone 14 pixels More specifically, iPhone 14 Pro pixels Because while the headline news is that the latest Pro models offer a 48MP sensor instead of a 12MP one, that’s actually not the biggest improvement Apple has made to this year’s camera.

In fact, from the four The biggest changes this year, the 48MP sensor is for me the least important. But bear with me here, as there’s a lot we need to unpack before I can explain why I think the 48MP sensor is far less important than:

  • sensor size
  • pixel binning
  • The photon engine

One 48MP sensor, two 12MP

Colloquially, we talk about the iPhone camera in the singular and then we refer to three different lenses: main, wide angle and telephoto. We do that because it’s familiar, that’s how DLSR and mirrorless cameras work, one sensor, multiple (interchangeable) lenses, and because that’s the illusion that Apple creates in the camera app, for simplicity.

The reality is, of course, different. The iPhone actually has three cameras. modules. Each camera module is separate and each has its own sensor. When you tap, say, the 3x button, you’re not just selecting telephoto, you’re switching to a different sensor. When you zoom in, the camera app automatically and invisibly selects the appropriate camera module, and after does any necessary farming.

Only the main camera module has a 48MP sensor; the other two modules still have the 12MP ones.

Apple was completely upfront about it when it introduced the new models, but it’s an important detail that some may have missed (our emphasis):

For the first time, the Pro line features a new 48MP main camera with a four-pixel sensor that adapts to the photo being captured and features second-generation sensor-shift optical image stabilization.

The 48MP sensor works part time.

Even when using the main camera, with its 48MP sensor, it only takes 12MP photos by default. Again Apple:

For most photos, the four-pixel sensor combines every four pixels into one large quad pixel.

The only time you shoot at 48 megapixels is when:

  • You are using the main camera (not telephoto or wide angle)
  • You are recording in ProRAW (which is off by default)
  • You are shooting in decent light.

If you want to do this, that is how. But most of all, you won’t…

Apple’s approach makes sense

You might ask, why give us a 48MP sensor and then not use it for the most part?

Apple’s approach makes sense because, in truth, there are very There are few occasions when shooting at 48MP is better than shooting at 12MP. And since doing so creates much larger files, eating up your storage with a ravenous appetite, it doesn’t make any sense for this to be the default.

I can only think of two scenarios where capturing a 48MP image would be useful:

  1. You intend to print the photo, in a large size
  2. You need to crop the image a lot.

That second reason is also a bit questionable, because if you need to crop that much, you’re better off using the 3x camera.

Now let’s talk about sensor size

When comparing any smartphone camera to a high-quality DSLR or mirrorless camera, there are two big differences.

One of them is the quality of the lenses. Standalone cameras can have much better lenses, both for physical size and cost. It’s not unusual for a professional or amateur photographer to spend a four-figure sum on a single lens. Smartphone cameras, of course, can’t compete with that.

The second is the size of the sensor. All things being equal, the larger the sensor, the better the image quality. Smartphones, by the very nature of their size and all the other technology they need to accommodate, have much smaller sensors than stand-alone cameras. (They’re also limited in depth, which imposes another substantial limitation on sensor size, but we don’t need to go into that.)

A smartphone-sized sensor limits image quality and also makes it more difficult to achieve shallow depth of field, which is why the iPhone does this artificially, with Portrait mode and cinematic video.

Apple’s great sensor + limited megapixel focus

While there are obvious and less obvious limits to the size of the sensor you can use in a smartphone, Apple has historically used larger sensors than other smartphone brands, which is part of the reason the iPhone was seen during long as the benchmark phone for camera quality. . (Samsung later switched to doing this too.)

But there is a second reason. If you want the best possible quality images from a smartphone, you also want the pixels be as big as possible.

This is why Apple has religiously stuck to 12MP, while brands like Samsung have crammed up to 108MP on the same size sensor. Compressing many pixels on a tiny sensor increases noise substantially, which is especially noticeable in low-light photos.

Ok, it took me a while to get there, but now I can finally say why I think the larger sensor, pixel binning, and photon engine are so much more important than the 48MP sensor…

#1: iPhone 14 Pro/Max sensor is 65% larger

This year, the main camera sensor on iPhone 14 Pro/Max is 65% larger than last year’s model. Obviously that’s nothing compared to a standalone camera, but for a smartphone camera, that’s (pun intended) huge!

But, as we mentioned earlier, if Apple were to squeeze four times as many pixels into a sensor just 65% larger, that would actually result in worse quality! That’s exactly why you’ll mostly still be shooting 12MP images. And that’s thanks to…

#2: Pixel Binning

To capture 12MP images on the main camera, Apple uses a pixel binning technique. This means that the data from four pixels is converted into a virtual pixel (by averaging the values), so the 48MP sensor is mostly used as a larger 12MP one.

This illustration is simplified, but gives the basic idea:

iPhone 14 pixels - pixel binning illustration

What does this mean? Pixel size is measured in microns (one millionth of a meter). Most premium Android smartphones have pixels that are between 1.1 and 1.8 microns. The iPhone 14 Pro/Max, when using the sensor in 12MP mode, does indeed have pixels that measure 2.44 microns. That’s a Really significant improvement.

Without pixel binning, the 48MP sensor would, more often than not, be a downgrade.

#3: Photon Engine

We know that smartphone cameras of course can’t compete with standalone cameras in terms of optics and physics, but where they can compete is in computational photography.

Computational photography has been used in SLRs for literally decades. When you change metering modes, for example, you’re telling the computer inside your DLR to interpret the raw data from the sensor in a different way. Similarly, in consumer DSLRs and all mirrorless cameras, you can select from a variety of photo modes, which again tells the microprocessor how to adjust the sensor data to achieve the desired result.

So computational photography already plays a much bigger role in standalone cameras than many realize. And Apple is very, very good at computational photography. (Ok, still not good at cinematic video, but give it a few years…)

The Photonic Engine is the dedicated chip that powers Apple’s Deep Fusion approach to computational photography, and I’m already seeing a big difference in the dynamic range of photos. (Examples to follow in an iPhone 14 Journal article next week.) Not only the range itself, but also the smart decisions that are made about which shadow to draw, and which highlight to tame.

The result is significantly better photos, which has as much to do with the software as the hardware.

To wrap

A dramatically larger sensor (in smartphone terms) is a big deal when it comes to image quality.

Pixel binning means that Apple has effectively created a much larger 12MP sensor for most photos, allowing you to reap the benefits of the larger sensor.

The photonic engine means a dedicated chip for image processing. I’m already seeing the benefits of this in real life.

More to follow in an iPhone 14 Journal article, when I put the camera through a more extensive test in the coming days.

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