Apple's Nokia hire shows it takes iPhone photography seriously

I have a confession to make. Up until fairly recently, I absolutely hated the camera on iPhones. It wasn't until I got an iPhone 5s that I finally felt like I wasn't fighting the iPhone to take a good picture. That's why I'm excited about recent news that Apple hired camera talent from Nokia.

If you missed it, word got out last week that Apple hired Ari Partinen away from Nokia. Partinen's LinkedIn profile describes him as "Lumia Photography Lead" for Nokia, and the working assumption is that he's going to be doing similar work for Apple.

Make no mistake, Apple has done a lot to improve the quality of iPhone photography with the iPhone 5s. While megapixel count didn't go up over the iPhone 5, the quality of the sensor improved. The sensor, the lens aperture and the pixels on that sensor are all bigger, which lets the iPhone 5s capture more light. True Tone flash helps balance flash intensity and color balance so your flash-enabled pictures look better. There's digital image stabilization, to take some of the jitter off movement. And more.

PureView is what Nokia calls its Lumia camera technology. Lumia phones sport cameras with high megapixel-count sensors, advanced optics, technology like optical image stabilization — which is yet to make its debut on an iPhone — and many in-camera processing tricks to improve image quality.

Bottom line: Many Lumia phones take really pretty pictures. The Lumia 1020, for example, sports a staggering 41 megapixel sensor, optical image stabilization and a host of other features that make it possible to take really incredible photos.

A friend once showed me a picture of his dog he'd taken on his 1020. The photo showed the dog standing on a rock outcropping in the woods, sun streaming through the leaves behind him. I was able to zoom in until I could read the number on the license tag hanging from the dog's collar. Stunning.

Now the 1020's camera is overkill — it adds a lot of heft to the phone, bulging out the back and unbalancing it. It's the sort of feature that would never make it onto an iPhone. But it is an impressive piece of hardware.

Many other Lumia phones are also graced with really powerful cameras. Some shoot spectacularly well in low light and can handle movement better than the iPhone. And most are very well integrated into the phone, not obtrusive and bulging like that monster on the 1020. The point is that Nokia's PureView is impressive camera technology, and it's good to have a senior engineer from that group now on Apple's payroll.

What's remarkable to me is just how much our phones have reinvented the way we do photography. Sure, when we go on vacation or attend special events, some of us still sling a DSLR around our necks or bring a point and shoot digital camera. But more and more of us are using our phones exclusively to capture the important moments in our lives.

This means that cameras have become a key differentiator for people buying digital devices like cell phones and tablets (as much as we might dislike it when we see an iPad rise out of the crowd at a wedding or dance recital). It's imperative for Apple to continue to improve the cameras on iOS devices. To that end, I look forward to what Partinen and the rest of Apple's camera engineers come up with for the next generation of iPhones and iPads.

What do you think of your iPhone's camera? Do you struggle to take good pictures or does it do what you expect it to? Let me know.

Peter Cohen
  • Actually, I would rather see people use a phablet than a tablet as their camera - it's smaller. Currently the camera on the 5s does what I need, but if we could get something similarly powerful but not as bulky as the 1020 in the iPhone, I know people would use it more.
    As far as accessories like the Olloclip - I am going to purchase the 4-in-1 later in the year.
  • I think as an everyday camera, it's wonderful. It still struggles a LOT in low light though. I really hope that's a good deal of their focus along with a higher megapixel count. I don't need 41 but 16 would be nice...
  • I will say one thing while the iphone camera still has shortcomings i have found it much better than my htc one m8 or my galaxy note 3 in my office with mostly fluorescent light. but to this day my hands down favorite cameras have been the nokia lumia 900,920,icon (those are the ones i used.) Those cameras were amazing.
  • I'm not so sure Allyson. 8mp is perfect IMHO. It's capable of shooting 4k, true 4k with it's current sensor. As you eluded to, the sensor size, pixel ('bucket') size to collect light and it's aperture/lens and the elements that go into the lens itself. As those pixels get larger, they'll collect more light. True tone has made the iPhone usable in low light at short distances with excellent skin tones. When your subject is >10' away, you're right. It's bad. As are the rest, including my business phone, the Note 3 (if I'm not mistaken, it's got 16mp and shots regardless of conditions, other than a perfect 80-100 ISO shot in daylight, are a LOT noisier than my 5s). I think the 8mp sensor is truly the sweet you notice with the speed of the 5s shooter in 'rapid fire, spray n pray'...whatever you'd like to call it, the ISP and GPU on these are there...really close to shooting 4k for 8mp 'still grabs' while shooting video and NOT dealing with the video 'glitch' while grabbing the shot. As well, @4k, there's no need for OIS. It can simply 'crop' using an algorithm on the ISP to deliver a 1080p, 60fps shot without ANY shake, noticeable wobble or 'tearing' while panning. Again,YMMV, but just adding megapixels to add detail on the same size sensor without the ability to keep the same bucket depth, aperture and/or speed of processing well as the added digital 'noise' goes against the idea of the perfect cellphone cam. I think Apple's continued refinement of the current sensor is brilliant as it IS capable both shooting stills and 1080p video as well as 120fps @720p. That's awesome. Now double each, increase aperture to 1.8 and include 4k for 'RAW'or down sampled, cropped and perfectly stable 1080p motion....OR the 8 mp 'grab' for a still post shot without video interruption. To me, that's the route. If mpxls can be added with an increase in aperture, evolved backlighting on the sensor and maintaining the depth of the pixels. All the better. Especially if they're able to increase sensor size. HTC is on to something. They just need to double down to 8. That would be a beast of a camera but there's trade offs to make in this small of a device. Unfortunately. Fortunately Apple seems to understand this. As does Nokia and HTC. Grabbing the top dog from Nokia, the undisputed champion of phone-ography, that can ONLY pay dividends. Does Apple also get 'his' patents or is the IQ all in HTC's hands?
    Thanks for the insight
  • I agree that for now 8MP is just about right. The limiting factors are the sensor, lens, software and chip that turns that into an image. Going to a larger pixel count will improve marketing but not necessarily create a better image or better camera experience. In the right light the iPhone can grab enough detail to blow up an image much larger than most people ever consider for printing. While a 41 megapixel phone sounds impressive, it is quite slow and impractical to operate. If you really need high a resolution image like that then you are better off with a dedicated camera that also has the improved optics to make the file size worth while. The iPhone is still quite slow to capture a shot, especially if you are not in full sunlight. Improving the click to capture time would help greatly. I find the focus lag to be the most frustrating thing about phone cameras, but then I'm used to shooting with a DSLR. With the a phone camera you have to really dial back your expectations of the hardware, which is fine. I have gotten some very nice shots on my iPhone 5. But I think it is that camera experience that needs to improve more than the image quality at this point. For now there is still a distinct advantage to a dedicated camera, even a cheap point and shoot. The user experience and image quality combine to produce something that no phone camera can currently match. I think that will change as the hardware improves. But it will not change over night.
  • Oddly enough the Lumia 1020 wasn't one of the products he worked on (at last according to his LinkedIn info)
  • It's a good hire, but I always felt Apple took photography seriously. This is a nice addition to the team; just hoping it doesn't result in bulging cameras. If i wanted such heft, I'd carry a point and shoot or SLR.
  • "It's a good hire, but I always felt Apple took photography seriously." No they did not untill iPhone 4S. Nokia had a very good 5MPx cameraphone already back in 2007 and the 12MPx N8 is still very good with very well crafted optics -- and it was released in 2010, I think, before iPhone 4.
  • So how did you struggle to take a good picture with an iPhone before the 5s? Low light and image stabilization is something all cameras have had trouble with at some point, and that usually taken care of with software. Other then those two points you brought up, what else? There are pages on Flickr with great looking photos taken with iPhones.
  • They need to vastly improve low light, stabilization and above all zoom and megapixel. Like Ally said, I don't need 41, but I'd like at least 16. Sure it's "good enough" now, but it has to be better to make me stop using my dSLR as much as I do.
  • IF you're a DSLR user, you'll never find an equal that fits in your pocket. Never. You obviously know photography and light if you shoot with one, right? Unfortunately the size of the sensor in your DSLR is massive in comparison. APS-C or FF, they're many times the surface area (sensor) than can be fit into a cell phone. Learn it's limitations and use it where possible. Don't look to a phone to replace your DSLR anytime soon. That said, look at what Sony is doing with the RX100(?) I believe. A one inch sensor in that little guy. If you're looking for a small DSLR replacement, check that little guy out. If you're a Canon gal, the G16 has a significantly larger sensor than it's older siblings. It's significantly larger than the Sony though. More megapixels isn't indicative of a better shot. Especially when you double up on the same size sensor. Something has to the pixel's depth, or ability to grab the light while the 'shutter' is open (I know, I know). Just an analogy to the ol analog days past;)
  • It doesn't have to be equal, but it has to be something that takes photos better than it does now, with a high enough pixel count, zoom quality better than it presently has and overall finished image quality to make me not feel like I am giving up quality on the go. There are times where a DSLR isn't going to be available, feasible or favorable to lug around. I'd like something that gives me stellar photo quality without requiring me to bring another device along.
  • "... the 1020's camera is overkill — it adds a lot of heft to the phone, bulging out the back and unbalancing it. It's the sort of feature that would never make it onto an iPhone." Those are two things Apple doesn't (often) do: overkill and bulging.
    Here's to hoping they don't do either in the "iPhone 6."
    (Clinking of glasses, guzzling of gin Martinis, chomping of olives...)
  • Peter, I think this might be a better forum for teaching people about digital photography instead of asking for more stuff (that you really don't need). Megapixels for instance...are meaningless. Having more doesn't do ANYTHING to help you take better pictures. Pro-DSLR's from back in the day were using 2-4 megapixel cameras and having those images blown up onto billboards. I've been using a Canon 20D (8.2mp) for my book and agents and producers couldn't tell the difference between those and the very few shots in my book when I was able to use MF. The sensor on MF cameras is almost three times as large and on 11x14 inch prints, no one could tell the difference. Then we go to my 4S. I printed up an image that had been cropped and edited (in camera) to a very large 20x20 in. The people in the lab here in LA just assumed I had used a MF or DSLR camera to take it, when I told them it was my 4S they were stunned. To be cliche, it's not the equipment, it's the person taking the picture. Using lower end equipment simply forces you to be a better photographer because you don't have the luxury of having the equipment saving you from mistakes. Instead of blindly asking for more larger numbers on teh stat sheet, find out what your work is missing and learn how to get better with what you have. Honestly, most people have no idea how to use their phone cameras to the fullest.
  • I just need frequent shots and less noise in images. And also camera settings with control of resolution and other settings! Sent from the iMore App
  • I just don't understand how more consumers don't demand this from Apple. My reasoning being "if it's available, why is it not in my phone?" I know that Apple likes to stay simple, but the fact that the mp's haven't gone up in years makes me constantly debate whether I'll be able to stay with Apple. If they do not increase their mp count in the next iPhone, I will not continue. The tech/hardware is out there, so it should be in my phone too.
  • I am constantly impressed with the pictures that come out of my iPhone 5s. Sure, they don't compare to the shots from my Canon 50D and the handful of incredible expensive lenses that I also use, but the iPhone is able to handle most of my snapshot needs. Nokia's 41 MP sensor is a neat trick. In theory, it should adequately address the lack of optical zoom on most phones by giving you enough pixels to crop and still have acceptable resolution. I'd still like to see RAW capability, although I recognize that the file sizes would be a challenge for most phones.
  • Hi ,
    It's a good hire, but I always felt Apple took photography seriously. This is a nice addition to the team; just hoping it doesn't result in bulging cameras.
  • probably to late to see any of his work on iPhone 6
  • gud hiring by apple... but i think iPhone 5s is best in all iPhone's