Is iPhone in danger of losing its photography crown? [Opinion]

On Sunday, Nokia quietly launched a first-of-its-kind smartphone called PureView with an array of five main cameras on its backplate.

Apple set a high bar just two years ago with the dual-camera iPhone 7 Plus. In a year where iPhone users are waiting for Apple to release its first model with a third camera, it’s hard not to feel like Apple has fallen behind in the mobile photography space it defined and owned.

Several competitors have gotten way out front with triple-camera smartphones. Huawei has sold at least one smartphone with three lenses for the last year. Two of the company’s phones, the P20 Mate and P20 Pro, possess the top-rated camera, according to independent testing lab DxOMark.

Just last week, a three-camera smartphone by Xiaomi and the Samsung Galaxy S10+ received DxOMark ranks higher than the current Apple flagship, the iPhone XS Max.

Another Chinese company, Oppo, says it will release a phone with a 10X optical zoom that maintains the finest details. Sony and camera company Light are teaming up to build modules with four cameras.

iPhone camera in battle over features

Smartphone wars, where brands once died on the hill over megapixels, now battle over extra cameras, telephoto lenses, realistic-looking bokeh effects and high dynamic range. Rivals wage war with hyperbolic marketing language that freely uses words like “best,” “first” and “only.”

Take a picture or nine with this nine-camera smartphone prototype from Light

Take a picture or nine with this smartphone prototype from Light.

In the past, nobody could beat the mighty iPhone camera. But Apple ceded some of the ground it broke within the last year to brands bringing more cameras and new photo features. Plus, in some cases, these competitors deliver the goods at lower prices.

Extra cameras, better bokeh and the like do not guarantee better pictures, however.

True photographers can work with any camera. The quality of their photos flows from their eyes, heart and mind. Instagram addicts who use their smartphones for selfies and documenting good times with friends likely won’t care much either.

In fact, the smartphones in DxOMark’s top 10 are separated by only a few points gained or lost by wonky measurements of quality the average person wouldn’t spot.

However, many mobile photographers do care about those features — and upgrade their phones often.

Would a phone like the Nokia 9 PureView — with its five cameras working in concert to capture true colors and a wide dynamic range — convince iPhone users to cross over to an Android? Maybe not. But its $699 price tag could make more than a few consumers wonder what they would get with a far more expensive iPhone.

Challenges of building a better iPhone camera

Apple proves over and over that it doesn’t need to be first with technology. Cupertino would rather be better. So it is likely the iPhone camera team, while working on its own ideas, is watching to see what new features fail to deliver after competitors launch them.

The camera team’s aspirations likely get tempered by other teams at Apple, too. Especially the design team, which locked the iPhone into an ultra-thin form factor. This makes it challenging to house necessary components such as advanced camera sensors and optics.

Teams that concentrate on battery life, heat dispersion and chips also must figure out how to deliver with the processing power necessary to synthesize multiple images the way the Nokia PureView does to boost image quality.

Once Apple meets those challenges, the company needs to solve one final problem. It needs to figure out how to build a feature-packed device cheaply enough to set a price that quells growing criticism over expensive iPhones.

Chat rooms, tech pundits and comments on blog posts suggest Apple fans have grown impatient with incremental iPhone improvements. Apple also faces a perceived lack of innovation.

Smartphone camera systems offer a lot of room for innovation. And Apple’s success pushed its competitors to make better smartphone cameras.

This makes the spotlight on the 2019 iPhone lineup a little hotter.