Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

More on the iPhone 8’s Camera System

John Paczkowski of Buzzfeed interviewed Phil Schiller and Johnnie Manzari of Apple:

[…] When I ask Schiller about the evolution of the iPhone’s camera, he acknowledges that the company has been deliberately and incrementally working towards a professional-caliber camera. But he quickly follows up with an addendum that tells you most everything you need to know about Apple and camera design: “It’s never just ‘let’s make a better camera,'” he says. “It’s what camera can we create? What can we contribute to photography?”

I love this sentiment. The physics of light and the pocket-friendliness of smartphones means that an iPhone will never truly replace a full-frame camera. But some of the things that were previously the exclusive domain of specific hardware — shallow depths of field and lighting, for instance — can increasingly be modelled in software. Apple’s interpretation is not perfect, but it’s damn good.

In related news, DxOMark has given the iPhone 8 Plus the highest rating of any smartphone camera they’ve tested, but I think their scoring is of dubious reliability.

First of all, I think that applying numerical scores to subjective or perceived qualities is terrible, so I’m already not a fan of their tendency to split hairs between a phone that’s an 88 and one that’s a 90. How can anyone possibly decide that one phone is two points better than another?

But, more critically, DxOMark didn’t bother testing the iPhone 7 Plus last year; in fact, they didn’t test it until last week, just one day before this year’s iPhones were announced. They rationalized this by saying that they were updating their testing protocol to cover things like ultra-low-light performance and newer software features like simulated depth-of-field.

Yet, despite their reservations about testing phones that make heavy use of software enhancements to improve image quality, they tested the Google Pixel just a couple of weeks after the iPhone 7 Plus was released. No question about it — the Pixel takes great photos and, much like dual-camera iPhones, that’s due in part to the machine learning work it does to boost image quality. In fact, not only did DxOMark test it, they felt comfortable crowning it the best smartphone camera, a feat which Google touted extensively in their marketing materials for the Pixel.

Now, I don’t think there was any collusion with Google or any nonsense like that. There are some people who believe that DxOMark’s updated protocol conveniently aligns with Apple’s camera priorities and I, too, don’t believe that there’s any favouritism going on there either — their updated test suite is simply reflecting the changing reality of these products. But I think that DxOMark somewhat soiled their credibility with such an enormous lag in testing the 7 Plus, without great reason to do so.