Thoughts On The Future of iPhone Camera

The world of photography has changed dramatically. If, before, you were deemed photographer when you spent a better part of your day taking photos for a living (ok, you could be a serious hobbyist, too), today everyone is a “photographer”, as long as they carry a smartphone with a camera.

With latest WWDC announcements and expectations of the next iPhone this fall, my thoughts keep coming back to the heated debate with my friends about the future of photography.

Let me step back for a second. Marissa Mayer famously said a few weeks ago that there’s no such thing as professional photographer anymore. The internet rage followed, she apologized, saying that what she meant is that we all take photos now. And it’s true. Nothing has revolutionized photography and make it truly global as Apple’s iPhone.

I think that hundreds of millions of consumers, for one, have been fooled by Apple. They came in stores to get a phone, but what they got instead was a decent camera that was always with them. It’s hard to look back to 2007 and see the first iPhone with its mediocre — compared to more advanced competition at the time — 2 megapixel camera and see the future.

But the thought that I keep coming back to takes the same approach — what if we look at iPhone 5 with it’s marvelous camera and see where we will be in 5 years from now?

Interestingly enough, I’m almost sure that professional photographers take more iPhone photos than they do with a professional DSLR’s and such. I do, for one.

Carrying around massive 15 kilos (that’s 33 pounds for those on imperial system) of equipment is not fun, especially if it’s a regular day and you are just walking around your city in search of a scene to shoot and a latte to keep you going. But the one single feature that is missing from iPhone 5 to truly break the market and create chaos is a RAW support.

Simply put, JPG’s from iPhone are fine. You can put an Instagram filter on it, losing all the quality in the process, or you can take expensive DSLR and shoot in RAW format and get all the details, colors and preserve the quality while editing. It’s the holy grail of professional photography.

So why iPhone doesn’t have RAW support? For one, Apple’s famous closed ecosystem, where the company prefers to control all the aspects of hardware and software for what it thinks is the best experience.

The second point is that RAW required a lot more storage capacity, usually around 10x as much. So instead of approximately 5,000 shots on 16Gb iPhone 5 you can only store 500. Not good. But with cloud storage, cheaper memory (and thus, rumored, and inevitable, 128Gb iPhone), it should be sufficient for professional photographers.

The third point, which probably made RAW support simply impossible before, is the CPU power. Processing RAW files is not a breeze even on iPad 3-or-whatever-the-current- number-is, so it’s definitely not consumer-ready (but I would argue that it’s pro-ready, since professionals would be willing to sacrifice time or battery life for that).

So why is it a big deal? Heavy DSLR’s forced professional photographers seek alternative options — cameras that offer large sensors in small bodies and also boast RAW support — such as Fuji X100s, Sony NEX-series cameras, Canon EOS M, and many many more. It’s a huge market as photographers realize that mobility and accessibility is crucial — that is, having a camera with you is more important than having a pro camera, but at home.

iPhone’s sensor, unquestionably, will remain smaller, than in cameras like NEX or EOS M, but that’s the price for being always, unobtrusively, there in your pocket. Will the quality of such small sensor deteriorate the quality? Most likely. But considering that hundreds of millions of photos are taken with iPhones every day produce even worse quality photos makes me wish that RAW support was available today.

One amazing thing about RAW is that it evolves. If you take a photo you made a few years back and process it with Lightroom 1 and then with Lightroom 5, the processing algorithms will dramatically increase the quality of the final photo. So with time, having RAW originals can give a new life to old, forgotten photos.

Having iPhone do RAW processing would mean proliferation of mobile phones in the places we have never seen before — from underwater to street to landscape photography — all that could be done with a future iPhone.

That will mean faster innovation in the sector, lower prices and even more amazing accessories for future iPhones.

If Apple opens up API’s to access RAW data of its Camera app, we will also see thousands of developers creating innovative tools, empowering current future generations of photographers to be creative.

iPhone camera has been through a great evolution over the years, but opening up RAW capabilities is what will make a real photo revolution.