the iPhone 14 pro is expected to make a major break with Apple tradition, and we’re not just talking about it vanishing notch: The flagship’s main camera has also been tilted to finally make the jump from 12 MP to 48 MP resolution.
Is that a big deal? At least the Nokia 808 PureView came out back in 2012 with a 41MP sensor — not to mention the countless Android phones from Huawei, Xiaomi, and Samsung that have come out with high-megapixel cameras in recent years.
But for Apple fans, it would be a significant change for two reasons. First, since the iPhone 6S in 2015, iPhones have been built around 12MP sensors. That means the iPhone 14 is expected to deliver the first major megapixel bump in seven years and the most dramatic in iPhone history.
But it’s also important because of the timing. Currently we rate the iPhone 13 Pro as that best camera phone you can buy, and at a time when a phone’s photographic capabilities have never been more important. So why is Apple now risking such a dramatic change to its flagship phone camera?
There are a few likely explanations – and interestingly, very few have to do with photography. The jump to 48MP would mirror the trends we’ve been seeing lately for mirrorless cameras, which are increasingly walking a tightrope between traditional photographic demands and exciting new possibilities in imaging.
The timing certainly makes sense – the only question now is what Apple plans to do with those extra pixels…
trust the process
In the past, combining small sensors with high megapixel counts was about as advisable as using FaceApp on your dog. In other words, a pretty bad idea, because more megapixels mean smaller pixels, and smaller pixels mean weaker image signals with more overall noise. That noise would likely obscure any additional detail you gained from the higher resolution, so lower-megapixel sensors were the sensible choice.
This is why the iPhone has stuck to a 12-megapixel camera sensor for so long. It was starting to look like a photographic dinosaur, especially when compared to the 108MP Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra and 50MP Google Pixel 6 Pro. But the logic was, and still is, pretty reasonable – as long as you look at it through the lens of photographing for the internet.
So what changed to get Apple to rethink? First, there were the processing advances that were being made for high-megapixel sensors. “Pixel binning,” treating four adjacent pixels on a sensor as one large pixel, has become so sophisticated that even full-frame cameras like the Leica M11 accept it now In the case of the M11, you have the option of taking photos at 60MP, 36MP or 18MP.
Apple will no doubt try to claim it invented the technology with its magical “SuperPixel” mode. But Android phones have shown that there are now few, if any, downsides to offering a high-megapixel mode alongside a traditional 12MP mode. Powerful chips and multi-frame processing have largely eliminated traditional noise problems, although the corollary is often a hyper-real HDR look.
It’s not that 12MP isn’t good enough anymore – that resolution will always be fine for social media, and that Sony A7SIII is still one of the The best full frame cameras around with a 12.1 MP sensor. But 12-megapixel sensors no longer have the flexibility or their traditional low-light advantages over high-resolution alternatives. And that’s partly why, how reliable insiders like Ming-Chi Kuo have predictedthe iPhone 14 will likely make the big jump to 48MP.
The lack of downsides to a megapixel fest is one thing, but what are the upsides? The other big reason for the change is probably the rapidly increasing importance of video. Just like with mirrorless cameras, this has become the main focus of Apple’s camera developers – and here, too, the new sensor could have a big impact.
What is the iPhone 14 doing with its extra pixels? The most obvious answer is 8K video recording. The iPhone 13 Pro already records in 4K/60p and is probably the best videophone you can buy, but you’ll need at least a 33MP sensor for 8K video – so that’s one area where the iPhone 14 flexes its resolution riches could.
Who needs a phone with an 8K video camera? Nobody at the moment. Not even professional filmmakers deliver videos or movies in 8K as very few people have the ability to watch videos in this resolution and it creates huge workflow headaches due to file size. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that 8K video on the iPhone 14 is pointless specs.
One benefit of shooting in 8K is that it gives you the ability to crop the footage and explore alternative angles while maintaining 4K resolution. Admittedly, that’s less appealing with a small phone sensor than with a full-frame camera like that Canon EOS R5. But if the iPhone 14 has 8K video capabilities, we’d bet Apple will use it for an interesting software trick with a suitably ridiculous name.
For example, in our entirely made-up “author mode,” the iPhone 14 would use those extra pixels to give you a few different 4K (or 1080p) angles of a scene from one lens. Some video shooters use “reframing” to achieve this effect when editing talking-head interviews, while the Filmic app’s “DoubleTake” mode lets you do something similar with multiple iPhone cameras. The latter’s clips are capped at 1080p, so using an 8K resolution from a main camera could be an alternative way of getting new angles from an automated video edit, akin to Adobe Premiere Pro’s Auto Reframe feature.
The iPhone 14’s 8K camera might not be just for traditional video, either. Another possibility addressed by Ming Chi Kuo is that the resolution is ideal for creating content for what is to come Apple glasses, which are expected to have two 4K micro-LED displays (one for each eye). VR videos ideally need at least 8K resolution, which is why Canon’s VR push focuses on the Canon EOS R5. Again, this is a side benefit for a high-megapixel sensor, but the future-proofing certainly makes sense.
Keep it snappy
But what about traditional photography on the iPhone 14? For all the fancy benefits of a 48-megapixel sensor, it has to at least match the still-image performance of its 12-megapixel predecessors or it’ll fall faster than Wile E. Coyote in our phone camera rankings. Luckily, there’s good reason to believe that it’ll at least match the iPhone 13 Pro here, and at best probably surpass it.
One of the reasons for this is that the iPhone 14’s sensor is expected to be larger than today’s flagship. Recent leaks have suggested an increase in diagonal length of up to 25-35%, which means more delicious light for these algorithms to work their magic with.
The iPhone 14’s default photo mode will likely remain 12MP, thanks to pixel binning at that default 48MP resolution. But in good light you’re likely to have the ability to shoot at a higher resolution – and this could open up the possibility of improved hybrid zoom performance to challenge that Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra.
What the iPhone 14 won’t bring, according to the latest rumors, is a periscope zoom lens to match its Samsung rival. After both Jeff Pu of Haitong International Securities and Ming Chi KuoThis folded lens design will not appear on the iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max until 2023 and will offer a 5x optical zoom.
So while the iPhone 14’s expected move to a 48-megapixel sensor would be a significant one, photographers might be better off waiting until next year to upgrade — or at least until test results for the iPhone 14 camera come in. Plugging a complex imaging pipeline into a new sensor is no small feat – and while we don’t expect Apple to make any major mistakes, there’s always a chance of teething problems.
The delayed switch of the iPhone 14 to a 48-megapixel camera would be typical of Apple. The company is rarely first with new technology, preferring to refine things slowly and then present them as “breakthrough” features.
But while the move from a 12-megapixel camera would be significant, it’s also not as significant a change as it used to be. Many photographers would argue that it’s not particularly advantageous for shooting still images, and a phone camera’s specs (other than sensor size) are now far less important than its software processing.
This is an area where the iPhone has excelled, despite often having technically “inferior” hardware to its Android competitors. So we’re looking forward to seeing what the iPhone 14 does with its rumored high-megapixel sensor, and if it spawns some new software tricks to sit alongside such Photographic Styles and Cinema mode.
More important, though, might be what Apple is doing with the iPhone 14’s other cameras — and the non-photographic tricks the 48-megapixel sensor could help it in the video and AR/VR realms.