Archive for March 24, 2022

Thursday, March 24, 2022

iPhone Cameras and Computational Photography

Sebastiaan de With:

When you take a photo on a modern iPhone — or any smartphone for that matter — you might like to think that what you saw was what you captured, but nothing could be further from the truth.


Automatic edits on photos can go wrong. When there are object in motion, the ‘merging’ of photos creates artifacts, or ‘ghosting.” This all worked out with smarter algorithms, more powerful chips, faster memory, and an iPhone that could simply take photos so fast that there were fewer gaps in photos.

Fast forward to today, and your iPhone goes way above and beyond HDR. It has not been a setting you can toggle for a while. When you take a photo now, the camera on the iPhone will merge many shots to get your final result. Today, your camera essentially always ‘edits’ your photos for you. And exactly how it edits them… is a bit of a mystery.


While the jump [in RAW] from the X to the 11 is noticeable, the move to the 13 Pro is much less so, despite having a faster lens and larger sensor. It’s possible there is a lot more detail that the sensor and lens can resolve, but we can’t really tell — possibly it’s because the sensor resolution has been the same 12 megapixels since the iPhone 6S, which launched seven years ago.

There are lots of nice photos in this post, though it made WebKit crash three times for me.

Nick Heer:

Like de With, I think Apple’s processing choices are often too aggressively tuned for noise removal, even on my iPhone 12 Pro. A little grain is fine for my tastes and even more is acceptable in darker images.

Kyle Chayka:

But the 12 Pro has been a disappointment, she told me recently, adding, “I feel a little duped.” Every image seems to come out far too bright, with warm colors desaturated into grays and yellows. Some of the photos that McCabe takes of her daughter at gymnastics practice turn out strangely blurry. In one image that she showed me, the girl’s upraised feet smear together like a messy watercolor. McCabe said that, when she uses her older digital single-lens-re#ex camera (D.S.L.R.), “what I see in real life is what I see on the camera and in the picture.” The new iPhone promises “next level” photography with push-button ease. But the results look odd and uncanny. “Make it less smart—I’m serious,” she said. Lately she’s taken to carrying a Pixel, from Google’s line of smartphones, for the sole purpose of taking pictures.


One expects a person’s face in front of a sunlit window to appear darkened, for instance, since a traditional camera lens, like the human eye, can only let light in through a single aperture size in a given instant. But on my iPhone 12 Pro even a backlit face appears strangely illuminated. The editing might make for a theoretically improved photo—it’s nice to see faces—yet the effect is creepy. When I press the shutter button to take a picture, the image in the frame often appears for an instant as it did to my naked eye. Then it clarifies and brightens into something unrecognizable, and there’s no way of reversing the process. David Fitt, a professional photographer based in Paris, also went from an iPhone 7 to a 12 Pro, in 2020, and he still prefers the 7’s less powerful camera. On the 12 Pro, “I shoot it and it looks overprocessed,” he said. “They bring details back in the highlights and in the shadows that often are more than what you see in real life. It looks over-real.”

John Gruber:

I don’t think Chayka is being overly disingenuous, but for 99 percent of the photos taken by 99 percent of people (ballpark numbers, obviously) the iPhone 12 or 13 is a way better camera than an iPhone 7.

Nick Heer:

Right now, the iPhone’s image processing pipeline sometimes feels like it lacks confidence in the camera’s abilities. As anyone who shoots RAW on their iPhone’s camera can attest, it is a very capable lens and sensor. It can be allowed to breathe a little more.


Google’s Pixel was the phone that really kicked off this computational photography stuff. It seems its interpretation of images is seen — by this owner anyway — as less intrusive. But I do not see the iPhone 12 Pro issues she raises in my own 12 Pro’s photos, such as desaturated warm tones.

John Nack:

f anyone reads that New Yorker article and thinks they’ll prefer shooting on an iPhone 7, please show them these iPhone 7-vs-12 shots I took.

Via John Gruber:

A lot of times when new iPhones are reviewed — including my own reviews — camera comparisons are made to iPhones from just one or two years prior, and differences can seem subtle. Separate iPhones by five years, though, and the results are striking.


Update (2022-04-19): Riccardo Mori:

But let’s go back to Chayka’s article. The point that is the most thought-provoking, in my opinion, is the emphasis given to one specific aspect of the newer iPhones’ computational photography — the mechanisation, the automation, the industrial pre-packaging of a ‘good-looking’ or ‘professional-looking’ photo. Much like with all processed foods produced on an industrial scale, which all look and taste the same, computational photography applies a set of formulas to what the camera sensor captures, in order to produce consistently good-looking results. The article’s header animation summarises this clearly: a newer iPhone passes by a natural looking still life with flowers in a vase, and for a moment you can see how the iPhone sees and interprets that still life, returning a much more vibrant, contrasty scene. Certainly more striking than the scene itself, but also more artificial and less faithful to what was actually there.

That’s why, in Chayka’s view, his iPhone 7 took ‘better’ photos than his iPhone 12 Pro. It’s not a matter of technical perfection or superiority.


Especially with low-light photography, what these newer iPhones (but also the newer Pixels and Samsung flagships) return are not the scenes I was actually seeing when I took the shot. They are enhancements that often show what is there even when you don’t see it. Sometimes the image is so brightened up that it doesn’t even look like a night shot — more like something you would normally obtain with very long exposures.

Jeff Carlson (tweet):

I do highly recommend that you read the article, which makes some good points. My issue is that it ignores—or omits—an important fact: computational photography is a tool, one you can choose to use or not.

Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t really give you that choice, except via third-party camera apps. There is no longer an option to save both the normal and HDR versions of a photo. I usually like the results of Smart HDR, so I leave it on, but sometimes it does a poor job and then I’m stuck without access to the original.

See also: TidBITS-Talk.

Christopher Alexander, RIP

Robert Steuteville (via Hacker News):

Christopher Alexander, a towering figure in architecture and urbanism—one of the biggest influences on the New Urbanism movement—died on Thursday, March 17, after a long illness, it was reported by Michael Mehaffy, a long-time collaborator and protege. Alexander was the author or principal author of many books, including A Pattern Language, one of the best-selling architectural books of all time. He is considered to be the father of the pattern language movement in software, which is the idea behind Wikipedia.

My understanding is that Wikipedia was inspired by WikiWikiWeb, a wiki about software design patterns, not that the software movement was the idea for Wikipedia. However, A Pattern Language likely influenced the form of the C2 wiki—not just its content—since the book itself is written like a wiki.

Aaron Hillegass:

One day in the early 90s, I started reading “A Pattern Language” in a bookstore in Austin. I was so fascinated and so broke, that I returned to the bookstore every day until I had read all 1200 pages.

Inscrutable App Store Billing

Marco Arment:

Am I missing something, or has Apple done a really great job of making it impossible to figure out which purchases on a family plan led to each charge on my credit card?

Marco Arment:

What App Store credit-card fraud looks like: a slow trickle of small charges last week, then nearly 20 charges totaling over $700 over the weekend.

AmEx flagged the first one as suspicious — $10 last week — but Apple’s billing is so opaque that I said it was probably valid.


I ran into this a few weeks back, this site turned out to be super helpful


Family Organizers can now review purchases charged to their shared payment method, and they can submit refund requests for purchases initiated by family members. Family Organizers will be able to view purchases and manage requests as long as a member is part of their family group.

You can search by amount, but not by product name, company, or order ID. It also cannot display the purchases grouped according to how they are bundled into credit card charges. I like how Amazon does it where—with their Visa—the order numbers appear on your card statement and you can easily search for them on the Web site.


Not a great answer, but it’s not terrible if you use the Apple Card and look in Apple Wallet. Every charge from Apple is detailed, including subscription or app name, icon, and cost. Does not say who made the purchase, though. Could be much better.


Apple Removes In-App Google TV Purchases

Hartley Charlton:

Apple has seemingly removed the ability to buy and rent TV shows and movies in the Apple TV app for Android TV and Google TV in the latest update to the app.


FlatPanelsHD suggested that Apple may have stripped back the functionality to avoid Google’s 30 percent commission on in-app purchases. Not all TV in-app purchases were covered by the commission previously, but it is possible that Google introduced new terms, prompting Apple to scale back the app.

Nilay Patel:

There was a meeting where someone at Apple was like, “Okay, let’s reduce the functionality of the Apple TV app to avoid Google’s platform fees” without even a hint of irony

Turning computers into endless shopping malls with tedious fee disputes has paid for a lot of Ferraris, but down here on the ground all that’s happened is a bunch of apps with annoying user experiences by design

Could we please stop hearing about how the goal is to make the best products that delight customers?

John Gruber (tweet):

I can confirm via, as they say, sources familiar with the matter, that this is entirely about Apple and Google not being able to reach mutually agreeable terms on in-app payment commissions. Until this update, Apple had been running on an exemption not to use Google’s IAP. The exemption expired, so Apple TV on Android TV is now “reader only”. Apple TV on Amazon’s Fire platform has long been “reader only” as well for the same reason: Apple would rather not sell or rent any content at all on these platforms than do so while paying Google/Amazon the commissions they demand.


What’s hypocritical is Apple offering a “How to Watch” button, with a simple clear explanation of how you can buy or rent new content to watch on Android TV by making the purchase on a different device. That’s not allowed on Apple’s own platforms — Apple has a rule against explaining the rules.

Nick Heer:

This reminds me of Amazon’s deal with Apple, allowing it to sell some of its media through its own purchase flow in its Apple TV app, thus exempting it from Apple’s commission. These deals between giant companies are ever-changing, which creates an unpredictable and often worse experience for users, and are generally unavailable to smaller developers.


Apple Submitted New Proposal to ACM

Florian Mueller:

The Apple-ACM saga over in-app payments in dating apps continues with another €5 million ($5.5 million) weekly fine, but there’s more. Dutch tech reporter Nando Kasteleijn published a note (image) from the competition enforcement agency of the Netherlands, the Autoriteit Consument & Markt (Authority for Consumers and Markets; ACM). It translates as follows:

“Apple made new proposals this morning to comply with the ACM’s requirements. We are now going to evaluate whether those proposals are sufficient. We will also speak with various market actors. We hope to complete this analysis shortly. It is true [as the reporter apparently asked] that Apple failed to meet the ACM’s requirements as of last weekend. Therefore, the 9th penalty payment also became due. The total amount is now at 45 million euros [$49.7 million].”

Hartley Charlton:

The ACM did not disclose any details about Apple’s newly proposed remedy, which it said it would now assess, and the organization continued to impose its ninth weekly penalty of €5 million on the company.