For several years now, Apple has made the camera a priority on the iPhone. It's one of the world's most popular cameras, and every keynote for the last few years, an entire segment has been devoted to both its optics and its processing. With the upcoming iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c that's not going to change. Apple are masters of using software and hardware not only in tight integration, but in a way that creates far more than the sum of the parts. The iPhone camera is one of the best examples of that. So where can they take it next?
The original iPhone camera wasn't great. 2 megapixels, its only claim to fame was the interface and convenience that came from being built in. The iPhone 3G, which was more of a radio bump than a true next-generation device, kept the same camera. With the iPhone 3GS, however, Apple moved up to a 3mp sensor and added VGA video recording.
The iPhone 4 improved to 5mp and 720p, with a backlit illuminated sensor (BIS) and bigger microns. It also introduced the first front-facing camera, albeit it VGA. A LED flash came along for the ride, and high-dynamic range (HDR) was also added in a software update. The iPhone 4S went to to 8mp and 1080p, but the bigger news was that the BIS was improved, the lens was widened and the aperture was brought to f2.4. Apple also added a fifth piece of glass for better sharpness, and an infrared (IR) filter for better color. They also started to focus on the image signal processor (ISP), a part of the new Apple A-series chipset dedicated to improving photography. It provided facial recognition, image stabilization, and better focusing and white balance.
The iPhone 5 took all of that and, amazingly, squeezed it down into a much thinner package. Arguably, Apple could have made a better camera by staying with the same depth as the iPhone 4S, but that wasn't their priority. Not only did they manage to keep it just as good, they managed to get in some improvements as well. A new dynamic low-light mode made it, theoretically, 2 f-stops better. The 5 glass elements were more precisely aligned for better sharpness, and the surface was switched to sapphire for increases strength and scratch-resistence. The front-facing camera got a much bigger boost, to FaceTime HD 720p. Panorama mode came with the software.
This year, given the outer casing of the iPhone 5s will be very close to the iPhone 5, what can Apple do with the iSight camera? Moving the aperture to f2.0 seems possible. Some competitors are there already, and it would make both a realistic and measurable improvement, even if the overall package again stays the same. More megapixels aren't the answer, since they typically result in chopping up the same sensor into smaller pixels, which as Steve Jobs puts it, makes them worse at capturing photons. Staying at 8 megapixels should be just fine. Moving to 2 microns would be nice, but unless they increase the sensor size or drop the megapixel count - something HTC did with the One - it seems less likely.
Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) is something the HTC One and Lumia 902 have used to improve low-light photography. It physically "floats" the lens, allowing the aperture to stay open longer to collect more light, so as long as there's not much movement, it produces much better photos. It can also produce smoother video. I'd love to so OIS on the iPhone, but it seems unlikely that Apple would consider it until they move to a different casing design, which won't be until next year. Both Nokia and Samsung have experimented with bolting giant, face-hugger lenses to phones as well, both for huge pixel counts and for massive downsampling. That's anathema to Apple's model.
It does look like Apple will be moving to a dual-LED flash system, white and yellow, to better illuminate and color photographs in dark environments.
Hopefully the Apple A7 processor ads an even better ISP into the mix as well. Thanks to the Apple A6 ISP, the iPhone 5 at almost a year old still managed to take better "every day" photos than newer phones with cameras that looked much better on paper. Even OIS cameras, which out-shot the iPhone in low-light, low-motion settings, couldn't best it at general purpose photography. It turns out the chipset and the software inside are just as important as the glass on the outside.
4K (UHD/2160p) video recording probably isn't on the table for the iPhone 5s, but 120fps 1080p could be interesting. In addition to a gimmicky "slow motion" effect, it would produce better, smoother video all around. Moving the FaceTime HD camera up to 1080p doesn't seem that useful, though increasing its megapixel and general still photo quality would be welcome.
iOS 7, meanwhile, will add a square photo mode and basic photo filters. Much more subtle than Instagram, yet far less nuanced and numerous than VSCOCAM, they'll likely be of casual interest at best. (See our black and white filter comparison).
There's always a possibility Apple will have other photo-related iOS 7 features specific to the iPhone 5s to show off. Taking multiple pictures and being able to scrub back and forth through "time" to pick the moment when everyone's eyes are open - or edit it together - is increasingly popular. So are automagic upload-able slideshows set to music. Photo Stream is already getting improvements, but more is always better. Like, for example, unlimited free photo and video backup.
The only thing for certain is this - if Phil Schiller gets his usual camera segment in the keynote, he'll have a story to tell.
Best case scenario, the iPhone 5c keeps the same excellent camera as the iPhone 5 and simply switches from surrounding it in ceramic/pigmented glass to surrounding it in colorful polycarbonate. Worst case, to save a few bucks, it gets dropped down to the far more pedestrian iPod touch 5mp camera. I'm banking on the former. The latter makes less and less sense as time goes by. Likewise on the same 720p FaceTime HD camera on front.
No iPod-style hand strap. No over/under on one either.
We'll be imagining a lot more about the iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c, including designs, screens, cameras, chipsets, finger-print readers and more over the next week, so stay tuned. We'll only know for certain, however, when someone at Apple holds it - or them - up on stage, presumably on September 10.