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Have iPhone Cameras Become Too Smart?

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For a large portion of the population, “smartphone” has become synonymous with “camera,” but the truth is that iPhones are no longer cameras in the traditional sense.


In late 2020, Kimberly McCabe, an executive at a consulting firm in the Washington, D.C. area, upgraded from an iPhone 10 to an iPhone 12 Pro. Quarantine had prompted McCabe, a mother of two, to invest more effort into documenting family life. She figured that the new smartphone, which had been released the month before and featured an enhanced camera, would improve the quality of her amateur snapshots. But the 12 Pro has been a disappointment, she told me recently, adding, "I feel a little duped." Every image seems to come out far too bright, with warm colors desaturated into grays and yellows. Some of the photos that McCabe takes of her daughter at gymnastics practice turn out strangely blurry. In one image that she showed me, the girl's upraised feet smear together like a messy watercolor. McCabe said that, when she uses her older digital single-lens-reflex camera (D.S.L.R.), "what I see in real life is what I see on the camera and in the picture." The new iPhone promises "next level" photography with push-button ease. But the results look odd and uncanny. "Make it less smart—I'm serious," she said. Lately she's taken to carrying a Pixel, from Google's line of smartphones, for the sole purpose of taking pictures.

Apple has reportedly sold more than a hundred million units of the iPhone 12 Pro, and more than forty million of the iPhone 13 Pro since it débuted, in September of last year. Both models are among the most popular consumer cameras ever made, and also among the most powerful. The lenses on our smartphones are tiny apertures, no bigger than a shirt button. Until recently, they had little chance of imitating the function of full-size professional camera lenses. Phone cameras achieved the standards of a basic digital point-and-shoot; many of us didn't expect anything more. With the latest iPhone models, though, Apple is attempting to make its minuscule phone cameras perform as much like traditional cameras as possible, and to make every photo they take look like the work of a seasoned professional. (Hence the names 12 and 13 "Pro," which are distinguished from the earlier iPhone 12 and 13 models mainly by their fancier cameras.) The iPhone 13 Pro takes twelve-megapixel images, includes three separate lenses, and uses machine learning to automatically adjust lighting and focus. Yet, for some users, all of those optimizing features have had an unwanted effect. Halide, a developer of camera apps, recently published a careful examination of the 13 Pro that noted visual glitches caused by the device's intelligent photography, including the erasure of bridge cables in a landscape shot. "Its complex, interwoven set of 'smart' software components don't fit together quite right," the report stated.

From The New Yorker
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