Is the iPhone 13 Pro Camera Too Concerned With Perfect Photos

Kyle Chayka has an interesting piece in The New Yorker (metered paywall):

Apple’s newest smartphone models use machine learning to make every image look professionally taken. That doesn’t mean the photos are good.

Each picture registered by the lens is altered to bring it closer to a pre-programmed ideal. Gregory Gentert, a friend who is a fine-art photographer in Brooklyn, told me, “I’ve tried to photograph on the iPhone when light gets bluish around the end of the day, but the iPhone will try to correct that sort of thing.” A dusky purple gets edited, and in the process erased, because the hue is evaluated as undesirable, as a flaw instead of a feature. The device “sees the things I’m trying to photograph as a problem to solve,” he added. The image processing also eliminates digital noise, smoothing it into a soft blur, which might be the reason behind the smudginess that McCabe sees in photos of her daughter’s gymnastics. The “fix” ends up creating a distortion more noticeable than whatever perceived mistake was in the original.


There is one easy answer to this. Shoot RAW. You can use the free (on iPhone) Adobe Lightroom or Obscura 3.


And Apple Photos will edit RAW now.

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Interesting, isn’t this another case where Artificial Intelligence should be renamed to Artificial Stupidity? Grist to the mills in the debate “computational” vs “real” photography.

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There’s only so much a camera can do when it’s squished inside a tiny iPhone. And the cameras in mobile phones are designed to adjust exposure and range. It’s actually amazing to me that a mobile phone can do any of this at all. But a mobile phone camera, whatever the brand, can only do so much, especially when compared to freestanding digital cameras.

You can adjust the HDR in your iPhone if you are unhappy with how your iPhone renders your shots, or you can turn it off:

I always remember the days when I had to lug my very weighty 35mm around + extra film cartridges and flash bulbs or a removable flash device that needed charging after not many shots, and take them in for expensive processing, and a significant % of shots turned out to not very good at all. Sometimes this was because the weather report said it would be sunny, but it was not. If you didn’t bring a particular type of film or have the right long distance or wide angle lens, or didn’t have flash bulbs or a detachable flash device, you would most likely be SOL for good exposure.

Now you can mess around in Photos, Photoshop or whatever, to make shots look more like you would want them to. Now that I don’t have to deal with changing lenses, removable flash, running out of film, expensive processing, etc., I bless my iPhone and HDR for it every time I use its camera. And whenever Apple announces a new iPhone upgrade, it tends to increase the capabilities of the cameras. Not all my photos are perfect, but it’s light years better than it was not so long ago in the past.

My iPhone is an iPhoneX so I can’t comment from hands-on, but per this discussion

the option to turn off HDR is no longer an option.

also, an in depth exploration of the iPhone 13 Pro lens, and problems inherent in digital photography

includes this:

Since iPhone 12 Pro, Apple has introduced its own RAW format for shots. Previously, taking RAW photos meant you lost out on all of Apple’s magic and powerful image-processing — photos often required lots of editing when shot in RAW vs. JPG. Images were noisy and lacked dynamic range; after all, in regular JPG shots the highlights and shadows were brought out through taking multiple exposures. Enabling ProRAW gives users a way to get this smart processing, with all the flexibility and image quality of a RAW file.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t let you opt out of some of this processing. My biggest issue is not being able to opt out of noise reduction, but on iPhone 13 Pro there’s a far bigger issue. Even if you enable ProRAW in the first party camera, switching lenses in Apple’s Camera app does not mean it will actually switch to the proper camera

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My iPhone 12 will be delivered at the end of the week, so I’m a little disappointed with the prospect of losing control over the photos it takes.

I’ve not yet looked for alternative photo-taking apps, but IIRC there were a number of such apps for earlier iPhones which gave the user control over focus, f-stop, shutter speed (whatever that means in the digital world ), and so on. This page (amongst many) has an overview. Has anyone looked into these recently?

I suppose the question is whether Apple gives app developers access to the camera basics or to an API after some processing.

My iPhone 12 mini running iOS 15.4 has the option to turn off Smart HDR (it’s the last item in a long list of settings under Settings > Camera).

I can recommend the Adobe In digital photography, controlling highlight clipping is crucial. Taking DNG Raw photos with “Show highlight clipping” will get you the best exposure to work with in Photos or professional software like Lightroom or Photoshop.

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I predominantly use my iPhone camera for things like price labels in stores, remembering what section of the car park I’m in and basic snaps of quirky things. I still carry a small camera (Fuji X-E3) almost everywhere I go. As an old photographer, I like the process of using a camera and have never enjoyed phone photography (whilst accepting its convenience). It also gives me absolute control without worrying about what someone/something thinks I might want.

i have (but rarely use) the halide app. does anyone know if it gets around some of this excess processing?

I have not used it myself, but I think you will find this summary enlightening: Halide Developer Explains How Apple’s ProRAW Option Works on iPhone 12 Pro

Just to clarify. To use Adobe Lightroom for free, you have to register and get a user on Creative Cloud. You will get a free trial that you then must cancel before the trial expires. After that you use your Adobe-ID in Lightroom and the only thing that does not work is Sync to Adobe online storage. You will have to export your DNG (RAW) files to Photos.

I have not fired up my DSLR in ages, and my fancy lenses sit idly in my closet wishing they were being utilized by…anyone. I seem to recall that there are a few third party photo apps that all you to set the iPhone exposure and color temp controls manually. I guess the photo websites are the best places to search for those recommendations, but I’m satisfied just using my iPhone 11 for grab-shots and panorama photos anyway.

Maybe someone here can recommend a manual photo app that overcomes this AI issue?

I can highly recommend ditching the Apple Camera App (it is good for getting QR code menus in restaurants) and going to a camera called Pro Camera developed by Cocologics in Germany and available on the Apple App Store.

4.7 stars out of 5. Under development for 4 years and constnating being improved. Not expensive either when compared to hardware costs.

Try this on for size. In the camera Parallax Correction. Shooting columns in a Roman Temple and want all the verticals to be correct. Push one button to change the mode and everything is corrected before you release the shutter.

You can see my ProCamera results on Instagram looking at the most recent stuff from 2021 on. @fogcitynative on IG.


Like trilo, I primarily use the phone camera for record-keeping and such like, and always carry a ‘real’ camera, partly because I have little use for wide angle and a lot of use for longer focal lengths and good macro. For anything more interesting than signs and labels, a real camera is much more convenient. It takes 2-3 seconds to bring the micro 4/3 E-M5 up, frame a shot and hit the shutter, one handed if necessary. Takes a lot longer to get the phone out of my pocket, turn it on, open a camera app, and oops the bird or bee is long gone. I use a long strap to carry the camera bandoleer style so it doesn’t stress the neck muscles, and micro 4/3 is quite light anyway. I also often carry a TG-6 point & shoot which has some nice features including gps, compass, and works underwater, but it’s slower to use than the dslr (as slow as the phone), and not up to situations like wind blowing the subject around.

I do sometimes use the phone camera on microscopes with a gadget that holds it on the eyepiece. For that I like Procam ($10, Tinkerworks) because the controls make sense to me, and it has time lapse and a watch app for a remote shutter.

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As I posted a similar note elsewhere a few weeks ago, I ditched my DSLR and compact camera a while back when I got tired of lugging them around. On the other hand, I will always have my iPhone with me whether I’m raking leaves in the yard or taking the trash out. Taking photos is just my hobby. I’m not even qualified to call myself an amateur photographer. So I don’t really notice how much the iPhone camera automatically edited the photos. About the only thing I miss is the viewfinder because it’s sometimes difficult to see the screen in broad daylight.

Thanks for the tip. Does Pro Camera have some kind of visual indication of blown out whites?

I completely agree about the qualities of a dedicated, “traditional” camera. I used to tote mine around all the time. Alas, so many other things to do these days, making the phone workflow so much more convenient. I think it also encourages creation more than appreciation and cultivation. I wish there were easier ways of doing the latter two, but that’s a different topic.