The mobile camera war is currently being fought in glass, in chips, in apps, and on the cloud. Where should iPhone 6 be?

With the iPhone 6 — presumably due sometime this fall — Apple will no doubt continue its focus on photography and on making the best "everyday" cameras in the business. But how will they keep doing that? There are several possibilities. They can add a bigger piece of glass that takes up a lot more space but captures an incredible amount of information. They can continue to improve their already amazing image signal processor (ISP) that takes what information is captured and makes incredible use of it. They can also continue to improve the software that takes the bits, analyzes and processes the pixels out of them, and creates incredible results. And they can introduce fantastic cloud services that take whatever comes out of the phone and applies incredible server-side power to it. In other words, they can amp up the glass, in the chip, the apps, and/or the cloud. The question is, which way will the iPhone 6 go?

big glass bumps

With the iPhone 5s, Apple has done an amazing job of squeezing high-quality optics into very little z-axis — that is, thickness. What glass there is in the iPhone 5s is composed of five discreet elements, precision aligned, with a backside illuminated sensor (BSI), 8 megapixel, 1.5-micron pixel size, and f/2.2 aperture. Considering the casing is only 7.6mm thin, that's pretty close to an engineering miracle.

Nokia, by contrast, has a 41-megapixel Carl Zeiss lens on its Lumia 1020. It has six elements, is also BSI and f/2.2, and has 1.4-micron pixels. In addition to the giant lens, however, it adds optical image stabilization (OIS). In other words, it physically floats the lens so it can keep the aperture open for a long time and drink in a ton of light. All of that takes up a lot of physical space, however. Not only does it make the Lumia 1020 10.4mm thick, it forced a face-hugger-sized bump on the back of the phone.

The original HTC One also had OIS and a thickness of 9.3mm but managed to avoid the bump by rounding the entire back. HTC went with 4 megapixels of resolution, but larger pixels at 2.0 microns and an f/2.0 aperture. The new HTC One M8 added a second lens to the back. It records distance information so that, later, the focal point/depth of field can be adjusted.

Samsung, for its part, will be continuing to wage the megapixel war, going to 16 megapixels for the Galaxy S5. With those megapixels come a mega-bump, however.

There's a lot Apple could do to improve the optics on the iPhone, but would they do it if the cost was a thicker, bumpier product?

The signal processor

What the iPhone lacks in lens size it more than makes up for in image signal processing (ISP) power. Most recently, that's thanks to the supercharged Apple A7 chipset. The ISP focuses, balances, exposures, and otherwise processes the image so it comes out looking as good as possible. Some of this occurs pre-capture, like multiple facial recognition. Some of it occurs post-capture, like the auto (digital) image stabilization (AIS).

The A7 is so fast that saving high-dynamic range (HDR) images — something that took a few seconds on older iPhones — can now be done instantly and even automatically on the iPhone 5s. The A7 can also handle 10fps burst mode, dynamic exposure for panoramas, and more. It can even handle AIS, which requires 4 short exposure pictures be taken in rapid succession and then combined to produce the least noise, subject motion, and hand motion as possible.

Other manufacturers also have dedicated image signal processors yet none of them can yet do as much with as little as the iPhone 5s. If rumors are true and Apple is readying an Apple A8 processor for the iPhone 6, then even more image signal processing may be possible.

AIS can stabilize some amount of subject motion, which OIS can't do, but it's not as good for hand motion and doesn't allow the kind of long exposures for low-light that OIS makes possible. Likewise dynamic depth of field control currently requires a second lens to gather distance information.

The A8 ISP will no doubt be better than the A7, but how much better can it realistically be?

The camera app

The iPhone has always had a good camera app. With iOS 7 the old, heavily chromed, shutter-effect laden version was abandoned in favor of a newer, cleaner, blur-transitioning version but the functionality has remained much the same. What new features there are serve to support the Apple A7 ISP. Auto-HDR can be toggled on and off. Burst mode photos can be fully explored. Filters can be applied live and post-capture. Images can be auto-enhanced and have red-eye removed. And that's about it. Everything else from more manual controls to more in-depth editing to special effects are left to App Store apps, including Apple's own iPhoto.

Almost all other manufacturers have been more aggressive about adding functionality to their built-in camera apps. BlackBerry 10 offers time-shift so that you can move backward or forward to find the perfect picture, almost like a continuous, selective burst mode. HTC and Samsung offer a host of image manipulations and effects. Some of them, including Nokia, will even let you access the RAW image data.

Some of the effects are silly and, because of complexity, I'd argue many of them are better left to optional third-party apps. However, some are useful and some are just plain fun. Would Apple be willing to integrate even more options into the Camera app?

The cloud

Apple currently limits their iCloud imaging services to Photo Stream. Originally a way to temporarily store photos to aid in propagating them across iOS and OS X devices, Apple more recently added sharing to the mix. Now you can create albums for friends, family, and coworkers, like each others photos, and leave comments. It's... quaint.

Google, on the other hand, is awesome. Auto Awesome. If you're willing to let them suck all your photographs into the G+ cloud, they'll put the full weight of their massive server-farm behind it and perform effects from the functional to whimsical to the silly. Google also bought Nik Software, the makers of Snapseed and famous filter and FX packages. They're also putting considerable talent and resources behind their photography efforts.

Apple has a fantastic Pro Apps team, including those working on iPhoto and Aperture. Could they take those services to the iCloud?

The bottom line

Apple already makes the best image signal processors in the industry and their software is simple and solid. It would be great to see them do some of the dynamic focus stuff and a few of the specialty modes like multiple exposure but otherwise they seem to really be in the zone when it comes to post-capture, on-device processing.

That leaves better glass and server-side processing as the major opportunities. Could Apple make a better iPhone 6 camera by upping the optical ante? Almost certainly. Would it be willing to increase the thickness of the iPhone 6 to do it? Almost certainly not. While a thicker iPhone would also allow for things like longer battery life, it would make for a heavier device, like the Lumia 1020, and that is something Apple has thus far avoided at all costs. Likewise, it's tough to see Apple doing anything that would result in an unsightly bulge. A slightly raised camera, like on the iPod touch, is one thing. (Especially if the trade off is an even thinner casing, which is what happened with the iPod touch.) A big honking protrusion is quite another.

Services aren't typically Apple's forte either. They also don't like manipulating people's data on the cloud, preferring to keep things local when they can. iWork for iCloud is a recent exception, so maybe there's some hope for iPhoto for iCloud. It would be great to have a viable competitor to the Google and Facebook-based photo clouds. Storage and backup aside, though, there seems little advantage to Apple doing in the cloud what they can do on-device.

All of that adds up to the iPhone 6 likely getting what we typically get from Apple — slightly better optics, impressively better ISP, slightly better Camera app, and small improvements to cloud services. Camera nerds will want more, but it's a strategy that best serves the every day photographer Apple is focused on.

Still, we're a long way from September so let me know — what would you like to see from the iPhone 6 camera?

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • Either way it will be the best camera on a smart phone that everyone can use. I am new to the iPhone and boy have I been impressed. This thing is so polished. Just need a bigger screen and it is over. That being said, I would rather it be on the glass with a couple small tweaks to the cloud.
  • Even if the iPhone has a stellar camera (it does), I don't believe it's the better one, specially compared to the Lumia 1020's 41 Behemoth.
  • I meant the best camera that EVERYONE can use. Sent from the iMore App
  • And "everyone" cannot use the Nokia? My colleague who has the 1020 seems to have less usability hurdles with it than I have with my 5S. I now believe the Nokia/WP combo is the most accessible, polished and approachable the industry has yet seen during the last 30 years. I have an iPhone myself, but I had my parents switch back to WP (lower-end Lumias) since they are less techncially-inclined and do not speak any English, the latter point of which in particular is a requirement on iOS. iPhones are OK for the geeks like me but not for the ordinary folk. Heck, the user cannot even upload photos to the cloud for sharing without some complicated foreign 3rd party service. The average user is simply not going to accomplis that. Now I no longer need to support their devices and asnwer to simple usability questions over the phone. Fabulous.
  • Definitely "glass". - It's like when recording a song; You start with the best possible mics, and you then have great results no matter what kind of cheap or expensive processing goes on. An $10 mic's result can't be processed to sound like an $60 one, without software costing at least double that. And yet the results won't be as good. But an $200 mic will perform excellent and require minimal processing - if any.
  • I kinda hope for more manual controls for the iPhone camera app. From my experience, the iPhone has the best automatic camera mode of any smartphone I've tried, but I'd like some manual options (not full blown DSLR capabilities, but maybe something like a slider for manual focus would really be helpful for me).
  • iPhone is really the best, and I would like to see a lot new things in it, one new things is 240fps, cause 120fps on 5s is good but still it can't capture very fast actions like bullet fired from a gun, or if that's too much then atleast, a cat jumping from a tree(which was not like slow motion in 5s)
  • I don't know much about how it all works, but for me zooms are the weakness of all smartphones. If anyone can produce optical zoom results with a digital zoom without me having to carry around attatchable lenses then that would be the best camera. I imagine something can be done software wise to improve results of zooming on an iphoneIt is certainly something I can see being improved considering the powerhouse the A7 is and A8 will be.
  • This! The digital zoom on phones is ok but not good. Sent from the iMore App
  • The camera has to be massively improved, MP, Zoom, shutter speed, etc. Size of the phone itself I don't want changed if at all possible. If they make the screen bigger, don't change the size of the unit itself.
  • It's strange how many iPhone users that just don't snap pictures that much or at all. I for one use Burst mode and all the wonderful native tools and lots of third party apps to enjoy the marvelous iPhone 5s camera Just wish I had one when I was a kid but had to make due with my point shoot and wind which I used more than ten of my friends do with there super slick camera phone Sent from the iMore App
  • I would be ok with a slightly thicker iphone. As long as the whole thing was slightly thicker. IE more room for battery and a better camera. As long as we don't end up with a monstrosity. Like where the camera part is thicker than the phone.
  • What you are wishing for here is a non-1020 higher end WP-like device, ala 930. But Apple will never go down that road, for their philosophy has always been and will always be style over substance. They could add 1mm of thickness and improve the user experience (battery life, camera) tremendously, but they won't, since that's not their thing. Similarly, they could fix the maps, but why bother? Like J. Ivy emphasizes, It is a fashion/design item which commands a brand price premium, not an every day smartphone for ordinary folk. That would be bland and boring and not so good a business.
  • You have it wrong. Apples style is user experience first, with a design that is well thought out. The camera is already great. There's nothing wrong with the maps either. I like it better than google maps. Apple maps being vector based can cache several states worth of information right on the phone. When I was in an area with crappy edge internet. My maps still worked and still loaded up. It even loads if your in airplane mode for areas you have recently looked at. Apple has made things thicker before to add features they want. The ipad 3 was slightly thicker than the ipad 2, for example. Like I said, I wouldn't mind a thicker phone with a little more battery, even though I have never had battery issues on the iPhone. But I know apple will deliver a good user experience first and foremost.
  • +1 Sent from the iMore App
  • I don't need more megapixels. I think going much larger has a diminished return of investment (plus, we're all moving to tiered data; do we really need larger files?). I would like to see better low light sensitivity and better image stability.
  • "With the iPhone 5s, Apple has done an amazing job of squeezing high-quality optics into very little z-axis — that is, thickness" That would be Sony as they made the optics. Apple did the amazing feat of ordering the correct part. Some may call that a sales miracle. :)
  • Is there a single part in a mdoern iphone that Apple designs themselves? I do not think there is. They are good at buying the right stuff, and from business point of view, that seems to have served them very well.
  • I wish rather than try and make it paper thin they made it a little thicker. Then could accommodate more room for an even better camera and also a much larger battery. Because after all how good is a phone if it's dead or needs charged multiple times a day? Sent from the iMore App