iPhone Camera 3.0

I’ve taken some really good photos with my iPhone. I’m not just talking about pix worthy of shoving onto Instagram, though there are plenty of amazing photos out there. And I’m not just talking about shots that have been munged to look like they were taken with old, broken, or inexpensive analog cameras. No, I’m talking about photos that approach professional quality, that look as if they were taken with dedicated and very expensive equipment.

Some pix I’ve taken are so good that I’ve sold a few as prints. (I sideline as a photographer. I gotta keep busy.) That says a lot about how far the iPhone has come in its ability to take a good shot. But as good as the iPhone 4 and 4s is at taking photos they can be still bested by a cheap pocket cam.

San Sebastian iPhoneSan Javier Mission, Tucson AZ.
Almost any cam can take advantage of great light when it’s available.
A better lens would have made this sharper, crisper, better.

Camera App: Camera+
Post Processing App: PhotoForge 2

Need a decent zoom? Want to play with depth-of-field? Want to shoot in camera-raw? Want full manual control? Don’t look to the iPhone, or any smart phone, they just don’t have the chops to do the really fun stuff. Sure, you can buy after market add-ons and apps that kinda-sorta give you some of the control you want, but really, for the most part and like some of the women I’ve dated, they are just faking it.

All of this brings me to my iPhone camera wish list. See, I’ve become so attached to my iPhone’s camera that it is now the only camera I take with me continually (I keep my Canon 40D, big tripod, and lenses in the car, but my iPhone is in my pocket). It’s true that I’m giving up some capability, but with a growing number of truly great photo manipulation apps available for iPhone and iPad, I can approximate, with really good results, many of the features dedicated consumer cams offer. However, I don’t want to keep faking it. I want real depth-of-field, real off-camera flash, real zoom and standard lenses. So, this is what I want my next iPhone to do when it comes to shooting pix:

External Flash
The problem with built in flash, not just on the iPhone, but even on DSLRs, is that the resulting photo looks like it was taken with a flash. The lighting of the subject originates near the lens and so the subject is lit from the front.

This is fine for snapshots and some artsy ad bits, but if you want the really cool pix you need to be able have far more control over your lighting, and that means an external flash. Having a dedicated external flash lets you bounce the light off a reflector or wall so as to illuminate your subject in interesting ways.

How could an external flash work with an iPhone? The flash could get a signal through the dock port. Create a case that allows the connection of the flash unit or wireless flash syncing and there ya go!

Jake iPhoneJake in a coffee shop
Jake was sitting in a coffee shop near this big window and great wall.
He was nice enough to let me take this shot.
Note that lighting from the side makes for a very interesting photo.
iPhone was steadied on a nearby table.

Camera App: Camera+
Post Processing App: Snapseed, TouchRetouch

I’ve wished for this before and it still makes sense in my world. I know there are add-on lenses you can buy that do an admirable job, and you can even buy a rig that will let you mount DSLR lenses on an iPhone (or vise versa), but none of that is good enough. I want autofocus and auto-aperture. I want lens data to appear on the camera’s info screen just like it does in consumer and pro cams. It’s possible by building a case that does more than just hold up the lens, the case could have a dock connection that would transmit info to and from the lens.

The lenses themselves don’t have to be exceptional quality, but should equal what can be found in a good quality consumer cam. Canon, for instance, makes low-end lenses with plastic mounts and fewer glass elements, but the picture quality from these lenses are top notch.

Basically, what I’m looking for is sharper images, and that’s directly related to the quality of the glass. As you can see from the pix I’ve posted in this article the iPhone can produce some reasonably sharp shots, but they could be so much better with decent lenses.

Asparagus iPhoneAsparagus.
Synthcam simulates depth-of-field by letting you set focus points,
then jiggle the camera while the shot is taken.
What’s in the focus points remain in focus while everything else is blurred.

Camera App: Synthcam
Post Processing App: Snapseed, TouchRetouch

This is a tough one. You can mechanically stabilize an image one of two ways; stabilize the sensor or the glass elements in the lens. Both cases require room for the stabilization mechanism. In consumer and pro cams there’s plenty of room, but there may not be room enough in a phone designed to be carried around in your pocket.

I’ve gotten along thus far without in-cam stabilization. I could continue using my tripod when I want the shot to be especially crisp. Still, hardware image stabilization has proven its worth time and again over the years so having it in an iPhone would certainly put considerable distance between itself and the competition.

Camera Raw Output
This should be slam-dunk easy. All Apple needs to do here is provide access to all the data the sensor sees. Raw image processing isn’t for everyone, which is why you don’t see it on cheaper consumer cameras. Raw images take up lots of space and they often look terrible because that data hasn’t been massaged by an image processor yet.

The upside to shooting raw is that you have access to ALL the image data, which means that you can pull out details and fix pix that might otherwise be throw-aways.

Manual Control
There are many apps that do a really good job of wresting manual-like control from the iPhone. A good example of this is one of my current favorites, Slow Shutter Cam, which simulates manual shutter control by taking multiple exposures and aggregating them to create your final shot. While this technique works in most cases it isn’t true manual control over your shutter, which would likely become apparent when you try to capture lightning.

The same is true for aperture control. Depth of field shots, where the area of focus is narrow and any object outside the focus area is blurry, can be simulated as well, but, again, this is a trick and can’t work well in all situations where a fully opened aperture would.

Like raw image processing, manual control isn’t for everyone, but having it available with a good set of lenses gives the advanced amateur and pro the tools they need to produce some really spectacular results.

Lk Eola iPhoneLake Eola at sunset. Orlando, FL
Top Camera does HDR on the iPhone right.
The shot would be sharper if better lenses were available.

Camera App: Top Camera
Post Porcessing App: Photoforge 2

The thing is, with the possible exception of mechanical image stabilization, none of these features are exceptionally hard to create. They are, indeed, add-ons, but the difference is that a lens or camera maker could work closely with Apple to produce a product that works seamlessly with the iPhone. In fact, these add-ons could all be Apple branded for all I care. That way if there’s a problem we would only have to go to one place for help.

Also, camera makers have got to be feeling the affects of smartphone sales on their lower end, and presumably tighter margin, consumer cameras as phones become more capable. It would seem logical, at least it would to me, to embrace smartphone technology and develop products consumers would want to buy. Imagine if Canon or Nikon, or even Kodak developed an interchangeable lens standard for smartphones. They would create a whole new ecosystem and, most important to them, a new revenue stream to replace or at least supplement flagging consumer cam sales.

The real winner from this would be consumers. Not everyone will want an all-in-one device that takes and makes phone calls, plays music and videos, and takes exceptional photos and movies, but there is definitely a calling for such a device. Check out all the amazing pix in Flickr, Instagram, iPhoneograph and other places around the Net.

There’s a photographer’s adage that says that the best camera is the one you have with you. Millions of people always have their iPhone with them and the photos they’ve taken are amazing. It’s hard to imagine what fantastic images we’d see if Apple would give the iPhone camera the boost I’m talking about.