Photography

The 7 most egregious fibs Apple told about the iPhone XS camera today

Posted by | Apple, Apple Hardware Event 2018, Gadgets, hardware, iPhone, iPhone XS, Photography | No Comments

Apple always drops a few whoppers at its events, and the iPhone XS announcement today was no exception. And nowhere were they more blatant than in the introduction of the devices’ “new” camera features. No one doubts that iPhones take great pictures, so why bother lying about it? My guess is they can’t help themselves.

To be clear, I have no doubt they made some great updates to make a good camera better. But whatever those improvements are, they were overshadowed today by the breathless hype that was frequently questionable and occasionally just plain wrong. Now, to fill this article out I had to get a bit pedantic, but honestly, some of these are pretty egregious.

“The world’s most popular camera”

There are a lot of iPhones out there, to be sure. But defining the iPhone as some sort of decade-long continuous camera, which Apple seems to be doing, is sort of a disingenuous way to do it. By that standard, Samsung would almost certainly be ahead, since it would be allowed to count all its Galaxy phones going back a decade as well, and they’ve definitely outsold Apple in that time. Going further, if you were to say that a basic off-the-shelf camera stack and common Sony or Samsung sensor was a “camera,” iPhone would probably be outnumbered 10:1 by Android phones.

Is the iPhone one of the world’s most popular cameras? To be sure. Is it the world’s most popular camera? You’d have to slice it pretty thin and say that this or that year and this or that model was more numerous than any other single model. The point is this is a very squishy metric and one many could lay claim to depending on how they pick or interpret the numbers. As usual, Apple didn’t show their work here, so we may as well coin a term and call this an educated bluff.

“Remarkable new dual camera system”

As Phil would explain later, a lot of the newness comes from improvements to the sensor and image processor. But as he said that the system was new while backed by an exploded view of the camera hardware, we may consider him as referring to that as well.

It’s not actually clear what in the hardware is different from the iPhone X. Certainly if you look at the specs, they’re nearly identical:

If I said these were different cameras, would you believe me? Same F numbers, no reason to think the image stabilization is different or better, and so on. It would not be unreasonable to guess that these are, as far as optics, the same cameras as before. Again, not that there was anything wrong with them — they’re fabulous optics. But showing components that are in fact the same and saying it’s different is misleading.

Given Apple’s style, if there were any actual changes to the lenses or OIS, they’d have said something. It’s not trivial to improve those things and they’d take credit if they had done so.

The sensor of course is extremely important, and it is improved: the 1.4-micrometer pixel pitch on the wide-angle main camera is larger than the 1.22-micrometer pitch on the X. Since the megapixels are similar we can probably surmise that the “larger” sensor is a consequence of this different pixel pitch, not any kind of real form factor change. It’s certainly larger, but the wider pixel pitch, which helps with sensitivity, is what’s actually improved, and the increased dimensions are just a consequence of that.

We’ll look at the image processor claims below.

“2x faster sensor… for better image quality”

It’s not really clear what is meant when he says this. “To take advantage of all this technology.” Is it the readout rate? Is it the processor that’s faster, since that’s what would probably produce better image quality (more horsepower to calculate colors, encode better, and so on)? “Fast” also refers to light-gathering — is that faster?

I don’t think it’s accidental that this was just sort of thrown out there and not specified. Apple likes big simple numbers and doesn’t want to play the spec game the same way as the others. But this in my opinion crosses the line from simplifying to misleading. This at least Apple or some detailed third party testing can clear up.

“What it does that is entirely new is connect together the ISP with that neural engine, to use them together.”

Now, this was a bit of sleight of hand on Phil’s part. Presumably what’s new is that Apple has better integrated the image processing pathway between the traditional image processor, which is doing the workhorse stuff like autofocus and color, and the “neural engine,” which is doing face detection.

It may be new for Apple, but this kind of thing has been standard in many cameras for years. Both phones and interchangeable-lens systems like DSLRs use face and eye detection, some using neural-type models, to guide autofocus or exposure. This (and the problems that come with it) go back years and years. I remember point-and-shoots that had it, but unfortunately failed to detect people who had dark skin or were frowning.

It’s gotten a lot better (Apple’s depth-detecting units probably help a lot), but the idea of tying a face-tracking system, whatever fancy name you call it, in to the image-capture process is old hat. What’s in the XS may be the best, but it’s probably not “entirely new” even for Apple, let alone the rest of photography.

“We have a brand new feature we call smart HDR.”

Apple’s brand new feature has been on Google’s Pixel phones for a while now. A lot of cameras now keep a frame buffer going, essentially snapping pictures in the background while the app is open, then using the latest one when you hit the button. And Google, among others, had the idea that you could use these unseen pictures as raw material for an HDR shot.

Probably Apple’s method is a different, and it may even be better, but fundamentally it’s the same thing. Again, “brand new” to iPhone users, but well known among Android flagship devices.

“This is what you’re not supposed to do, right, shooting a photo into the sun, because you’re gonna blow out the exposure.”

I’m not saying you should shoot directly into the sun, but it’s really not uncommon to include the sun in your shot. In the corner like that it can make for some cool lens flares, for instance. It won’t blow out these days because almost every camera’s auto-exposure algorithms are either center-weighted or intelligently shift around — to find faces, for instance.

When the sun is in your shot, your problem isn’t blown out highlights but a lack of dynamic range caused by a large difference between the exposure needed to capture the sun-lit background and the shadowed foreground. This is, of course, as Phil says, one of the best applications of HDR — a well-bracketed exposure can make sure you have shadow details while also keeping the bright ones.

Funnily enough, in the picture he chose here, the shadow details are mostly lost — you just see a bunch of noise there. You don’t need HDR to get those water droplets — that’s a shutter speed thing, really. It’s still a great shot, by the way, I just don’t think it’s illustrative of what Phil is talking about.

“You can adjust the depth of field… this has not been possible in photography of any type of camera.”

This just isn’t true. You can do this on the Galaxy S9, and it’s being rolled out in Google Photos as well. Lytro was doing something like it years and years ago, if we’re including “any type of camera.” Will this be better? Probably – looks great to me. Has it never been possible ever? Not even close. I feel kind of bad that no one told Phil. He’s out here without the facts.

Well, that’s all the big ones. There were plenty more, shall we say, embellishments at the event, but that’s par for the course at any big company’s launch. I just felt like these ones couldn’t go unanswered. I have nothing against the iPhone camera — I use one myself. But boy are they going wild with these claims. Somebody’s got to say it, since clearly no one inside Apple is.

Check out the rest of our Apple event coverage here:

more iPhone Event 2018 coverage

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Nikon embraces a mirrorless future with Z series cameras and lenses

Posted by | cameras, Gadgets, hardware, mirrorless, Nikon, Photography, TC | No Comments

The largest trend in photography over the last five years or so, not counting smartphones, has been the emergence and maturity of mirrorless camera systems. These operate in a very different manner from traditional SLRs, and as such market leaders with decades embedded in the latter — namely Canon and Nikon — have resisted making the shift. That changes for Nikon today with its announcement of the Z6 and Z7, which show the company is making the change wholeheartedly.

The Z series comprises both these two cameras and a new lens mount, which in many ways is the more important news for photographers. The F mount has been around for decades and boasts some of the world’s best glass. But ultimately a more or less clean break was needed, and the Z mount manages to provide that, as well as solid back-compatibility for those who can’t bear to part with their old standby kit.

The cameras themselves, which have been rumored for ages and were known to be imminent, are both full-frame, meaning their sensor is as big as a 35mm still-film frame. Full-frame cameras are generally intended for professionals or deep-pocketed hobbyists: bodies generally cost well over $1,000 but offer improved image quality for a variety of reasons.

So it’s somewhat ambitious of Nikon to aim at this elevated market, where competition is tough, standards are high and prices are higher. Old favorites like the Canon 5D vie with new challengers like Sony’s a9, and it seems as if slowly but surely the latter are coming out on top, due in no small part to the advantages conferred on them by their mirrorless nature.

The Z7 starts at $3,400, which puts it squarely in professional territory. The Z6, at $2,000, sacrifices resolution but offers some other advantages — aside from holding onto that $1,400. If it were me I’d go for the latter, no question.

Big and small changes

The Z7 is the new flagship, and it closely replicates the ability of the popular Nikon D850, while adding a variety of improvements. Most obvious is body size; the camera is much, much smaller and lighter than its SLR predecessor, but is still far from petite. It also improves on a few stats like burst speed and autofocus in ways that will be appreciated by pros, and a new 10-bit N-LOG video output mode should provide more flexibility in post.

Its sibling, the Z6, has a lower megapixel count (24 versus 45) but further improves burst speed and may in fact prove superior in terms of video performance.

Both make the switch to an electronic viewfinder, or EVF, and apparently Nikon was very particular about this component. The resolution of the OLED eyepiece is 1280×960, which sounds low compared with phone and VR displays, but should be fine — and really, motion and color are more important. The rear LCD is also OLED, as is a little up-facing status display on the top plate.

Both also have in-body stabilization, which means lenses can be lighter and cheaper. The stabilization will work with older lenses too (more on this in a moment) and in cases where a long lens has its own stabilization system, the camera will defer to that at least on some axes.

I haven’t had a chance to play with these in person but I expect to soon; in the meantime, as always, DPReview has a solid set of first impressions.

Z-mount into the future

For many, the biggest change will be the switch to the new Z-mount system. There will be a series of Z lenses, and bonny lenses they will be, with the new dimensions allowing improved optics across the board. Everyone is hot about a F/0.95 Noct lens Nikon has been teasing for 2019. But with a hundred million F-mount lenses out there, backwards compatibility is a must.

For them there is the FTZ adapter, which fits between the Z and the old lens, bridging the old technology and the new. If the lens is relatively new and supports automatic aperture and focus, those will be available. And, in fact, these lenses will benefit from the new autofocus system and may perform better than they did originally, if not identically — slight changes will no doubt emerge from the addition of the new optics.

Older lenses, such as classics with manual focus and aperture, will still fit the adapter but can’t be magically endowed with automatic features.

The adapter is not inconsiderable in size — more like a pancake lens than a filter. So your favorite lightweight walk-around setup may be impacted negatively. But overall it seems like it should do nicely for most.

Nikon has made its play, and the Z series looks like a natural jump for thousands of photographers who have stuck with the brand for years out of loyalty and investment. It doesn’t take much away, it adds quite a bit and in a few years it will probably be a no-brainer rather than a “well, maybe.”

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Canon and Nikon are reportedly both planning full-frame mirrorless cameras this year

Posted by | Canon, Gadgets, hardware, mirrorless, Nikon, Photography | No Comments

It’s going to be an exciting year for photographers — finally — as both Canon and Nikon are reportedly planning full-frame mirrorless cameras for debut before the end of 2018. It’s good news for consumers, because it means that both companies have been investing heavily in the next phase of digital photography, and that competition in the mirrorless world is about to heat up.

Photography is a difficult space right now because smartphones have been eating up the low-end and increasingly the mid-range market. Point-and-shoots are effectively extinct, and DSLRs are reserved for serious shooters — though those occupying the middle ground, such as Fujifilm with its lively X series and Olympus with its PENs and OM-Ds, have been prospering modestly.

Mirrorless cameras, which basically do away with the bulky mechanical bits of a single-lens reflex camera but have virtually no drawbacks from their absence, allow for a more compact camera that still seriously outperforms phones.

They seem quite clearly to be a big part of the future of photography, which is why every company has been investing heavily into the technology. Early results weren’t great, and it was clear that Canon and Nikon in particular have had their priorities divided: DSLR sales have been dropping, but flagship full-frame (that is, with sensors the size of 35mm film) DSLRs still represented the best of the camera world, embraced especially by professionals.

But inroads have been made, especially by Sony and Fujifilm, into even that professional space. The Alpha and X-Pro series have shown that mirrorless cameras can perform at least as well as DSLRs, and boy are they easier to carry around.

So, faced with either innovating and cannibalizing their own sales, or allowing competitors to eat their lunch, Canon and Nikon have chosen to do the former… after a couple of years of the latter, anyway. We’ve seen the early results from Canon in the form of the mid-range M50, but it seems Nikon has kept theirs under wraps.

Canon Rumors and Nikon Rumors report that the companies both plan to sell full-frame mirrorless cameras by the end of the year — in Nikon’s case maybe even by the end of the month.

Going full-frame means several things:

  • They believe their mirrorless systems are good enough to compete with SLRs at a professional level
  • They believe professionals are ready to make the transition to mirrorless
  • They are ready to do so themselves, cannibalizing and eventually winding down SLR sales

That last point is likely the scariest for them. These are companies that have been making SLR cameras for the better part of a century — it’s not just part of their core competency but key to their identity as camera makers. This is essentially a point of no return for them. Sure, SLRs will stick around for a while longer, but sooner or later the burden of improving and manufacturing them as sales decline and mirrorless systems take over will prove too much.

What about the cameras themselves? There are supposedly two from each company. Nikon’s have lots of rumored details, the most important of which are that there will be one high and one low megapixel model, in-body stabilization (allows for smaller lenses), a new lens mount and naturally an electronic viewfinder. Less is known (or rumored anyhow) about the Canons, but they will likely share many of these characteristics.

Don’t expect a lower cost to accompany this shift. These cameras will likely cost in the $2,500-$4,000 range, just like the SLRs they’re replacing.

This is also a chance to really go to town on the features and shooting experience; both companies need to make a big impression, not just with the customers they’ve lost to rival systems but to their own loyal shooters. So there may be other major changes, such as to the interface, layout and so on. Expect lots of digital integration like wireless tethering as well — better than the junk they’ve been foisting on us for the last few years.

Will this reverse the tide of smartphones taking over the photography world? No, but it’s heartening to see these rather inertia-bound companies finally embrace the future. I love SLRs, and I plan to shoot on them forever in one way or another, but as an occasional serious photographer I’ll be glad to give these new systems a try.

I’ve asked both companies about the rumors, but I doubt they’ll comment. On the other hand, if the rumors are true, we won’t have long to wait before they turn into facts.

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Under a millimeter wide and powered by light, these tiny cameras could hide almost anywhere

Posted by | cameras, Gadgets, hardware, Photography, science, Solar Power, University of Michigan | No Comments

As if there weren’t already cameras enough in this world, researchers created a new type that is both microscopic and self-powered, making it possible to embed just about anywhere and have it work perpetually. It’s undoubtedly cool technology, but it’s probably also going to cause a spike in tinfoil sales.

Engineers have previously investigated the possibility of having a camera sensor power itself with the same light that falls on it. After all, it’s basically just two different functions of a photovoltaic cell — one stores the energy that falls on it while the other records how much energy fell on it.

The problem is that if you have a cell doing one thing, it can’t do the other. So if you want to have a sensor of a certain size, you have to dedicate a certain amount of that real estate to collecting power, or else swap the cells rapidly between performing the two tasks.

Euisik Yoon and post-doc Sung-Yun Park at the University of Michigan came up with a solution that avoids both these problems. It turns out that photosensitive diodes aren’t totally opaque — in fact, quite a lot of light passes right through them. So putting the solar cell under the image sensor doesn’t actually deprive it of light.

That breakthrough led to the creation of this “simultaneous imaging and energy harvesting” sensor, which does what it says on the tin.

The prototype sensor they built is less than a square millimeter, and fully self-powered in sunlight. It captured images at up to 15 frames per second of pretty reasonable quality:

The Benjamin on the left is at 7 frames per second, and on the right is 15.

In the paper, the researchers point out that they could easily produce better images with a few tweaks to the sensor, and Park tells IEEE Spectrum that the power consumption of the chip is also not optimized — so it could also operate at higher framerates or lower lighting levels.

Ultimately the sensor could be essentially a nearly invisible camera that operates forever with no need for a battery or even wireless power. Sounds great!

In order for this to be a successful spy camera, of course, it needs more than just an imaging component — a storage and transmission medium are necessary for any camera to be useful. But microscopic versions of those are also in development, so putting them together is just a matter of time and effort.

The team published their work this week in the journal IEEE Electron Device Letters.

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A system to tell good fake bokeh from bad

Posted by | bokeh, cameras, dxomark, Gadgets, Mobile, Photography, Portrait mode, TC | No Comments

 The pixel-peepers at DxOMark have shared some of the interesting metrics and techniques they use to judge the quality of a smartphone’s artificial bokeh, or background blur in photos. Not only is it difficult to do in the first place, but they have to systematize it! Their guide should provide even seasoned shooters with some insight into the many ways computational bokeh varies in quality. Read More

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Foxconn is working with RED to make cheaper and smaller 8K cameras

Posted by | 8k, Asia, cameras, digital cinema, Foxconn, Gadgets, hardware, Photography, red, TC | No Comments

 Foxconn, AKA Hon Hai Precision Industry, AKA the company that made your iPhone, is working with digital cinema pioneer RED to create affordable 8K cameras, the company announced. Chairman Terry Gou told reporters in Taipei, the Nikkei’s among them, that the goal is to reduce both the price and the size of such camera systems by two thirds. Read More

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NASA engineers stare at the sun to see shockwaves from supersonic flight

Posted by | Gadgets, NASA, Photography, Schlieren imaging, science, supersonic, TC, Transportation | No Comments

 Before the eclipse this summer, NASA warned us over and over again not to stare directly at the sun — but now they’re doing just that. Its researchers have reinvented a photography technique more than a century old, using the sun itself as a backdrop in order to capture the shockwave produced by a new supersonic jet. Read More

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Lytro’s ‘living pictures’ cease to live

Posted by | Gadgets, Lytro, Photography, TC | No Comments

 As part of its move away from consumer gear towards professional cinema hardware, Lytro has killed off the site that once hosted “living pictures,” still photos taken with its cameras that could be refocused after the fact. This will turn a handful of those pictures, where they had been embedded on the web over the past few years, into empty frames. Read More

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Reflex aims to Kickstart film photography with a new old SLR

Posted by | 35mm, Crowdfunding, film, Gadgets, Kickstarter, Photography, reflex, SLR, TC | No Comments

 Mating digital photography with film seems to me an alluring yet ultimately quixotic endeavor; who doesn’t love the idea of a camera that combines the weight and handling of a 35mm SLR with the convenience and precision of a digital one? Yet it has never been done, and likely never will be. Reflex is the latest to try, though, with a new 35mm camera built for the modern tech-loving… Read More

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A dormant chip in the Pixel 2 will soon let developers write better camera and AI apps

Posted by | AI, Developer, developers, Gadgets, Google, hardware, image-processing, ML, Photography, Pixel 2, TC | No Comments

 Here’s a surprise: Google’s Pixel 2 phones include a custom system-on-a-chip (SoC) that’s optimized for image processing — but it currently just sits there, doing nothing. Google says it’ll turn this chip on in the coming weeks as a developer option in the preview of Android Oreo 8.1. Read More

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