A Few iPhone XS Camera Observations

One of the most impressive elements of the iPhone XS is the new camera, which appears to be far more enhanced than even Apple let on when they revealed it a few weeks ago. Before I get into a strong of posts comparing the 2018 and 2017 iPhone cameras, I wanted to take a look at some iPhone XS photos on their own to judge them without compassion…at least for now.

I took all of these over the past 2 days and I think they give a pretty decent summary of some things to note in this new phone. Also worth noting is that all of these photos are unedited, with the single exception that they have been scaled down to be 1920x1440px so this post didn’t get insanely large. If you’d like to download all of the full-res photos for any reason, you can get those here.

First up are a few selfies. These first 3 were done with Portrait Mode. In the solo shots, I purposefully put the sun behind me to make my face darker and a challenge to the HDR functionality. The twin shot with my friend Mark Miller, is just a photo we wanted to take and tested how well this effect would work with 2 people.

And finally here’s a shot with the sun directly behind me. By all counts, this should be a bad photo, but despite the unflattering angle (the things I do for this blog!) it exposed quite well.

Here’s another test of Portrait Mode on the back cameras, this time on a few things that the mode wasn’t really designed to handle. The first two look really good, and the iPhone’s ability to separate out intricate details in the frame is excellent. The third was just too much and it was not able to find all of the edges. And the fourth one was done in my kitchen last night with almost no light and with a subject that was pretty hard to pick out.

This photo has been edited so I don’t just share my family online willy nilly, but it was taken in a room with no lights on and the blinds closed. The sun had gone down and no one had gotten up yet to turn on a light. Yes, there is some aggressive smoothing going on and the single small light in the top right is blown out, but this photo is usable in a way that other iPhones would not be able to do.

Along the same lines, here’s a look at that blown out light up close, again with no really light in the room.

The next two photos are HDR shots taken with fast-moving vehicles. In the first, I’m on the sidewalk as cars go by at about 45mph, and the second is me from the passenger seat taking an HDR photo of a barn when we were going 70mph. I’m struck by how crisp these shots are even though there is tons of movement, which is often a killed for HDR style shots.

I will be sharing more photos going forward, including comparisons to the iPhone 8 Plus as well as how RAW photos work here. Much more to come!

Comparing HDR RAW capture on Lightroom, Halide, and Obscura

I love to shoot photos in RAW on my iPhone. The stock camera app does some excellent magic to get incredible photos, but in some cases I really just want to be old school and get a ton of image data and process things how I want.

One of the situations where I appreciate RAW the most is when taking photos with a large range of brightness in the shot. When shooting in the stock camera app, iOS will take a number of photos at different exposures and stitch them together to get an image it thinks looks good, and normally it does. But when you shoot RAW, you get a lot more data in the bright and dark sections of an image so you can boost of lower them without introducing grain or distortion to the image. Basically, you have control, not the computer. Maybe I’m old school, but I like that sometimes.

Below are 4 camera apps (stock Camera, Adoble Lightroom, Halide, and Obscurs 2) taking the same photo. It’s early morning, my living room has no lights on, and it’s bright outside. Let’s see how they all do.

Apple Camera.app

This was a big disappointment, as the iPhone 8 Plus really took a bad picture here. Even with HDR, everything outside the window is blown out. Meanwhile, the interior is quite grainy.

Again, the disadvantage of shooting in this format is that I’m basically stuck with what the camera spits out. It throws away a lot of image data to keep the file size smaller, so only minor edits can be made if I don’t like the decisions Apple’s app made.

So let’s shoot this in RAW and see what happens.

Adobe Lightroom

Lightroom is my go-to RAW camera app for iOS, in part because I pay for Creative Cloud and want to get my money’s worth, bot more so because I think it gets the best photos of any app I’ve tried before.

The difference between this image and what the stock camera app produced is night and day. This is a much more satisfying shot with little noise, good color, properly exposed highlights, and zero artifacts.

Also, and this will be true for the other 2 camera apps too, because this is RAW I can further modify this shot to be brighter, darker, have more/less contrast, and a whole host of other changes without degrading image quality. This simply isn’t as possible with a JPEG/HEIC image.


Similar to Lightroom, this image looks better than what the stock camera app produced, but not by as much. I got a lot of grain in the dark areas and wasn’t able to reduce the noise enough without also blurring out the whole photo. So better, but not quite as nice as Lightroom.

Obscura 2

This one was shockingly similar to the Halide image, and has basically the same result: better than Apple’s app, but not as clear as Lightroom.

Surprise! Pixel 2

What camera comparison on BirchTree would be complete without including the Pixel 2? I’m actually quite happy with this shot and think it’s a marked improvement over the iPhone’s stock camera. This is also using the Pixel’s stock camera app and this really shows off Google’s excellent HDR processing.

The outside is a little more blown out than I’d like, but it’s way better than the iPhone. Meanwhile, the interior is dark, but has less noise than you’d expect. This also shows off the notably colder color temperature the Pixel defaults to than the iPhone. iPhone shots tend to be warmer overall, while Pixel shots look cooler1.


The big takeaway for me is that I plan on happily taking RAW photos for the foreseeable future. The flexibility I get in editing images, especially tough HDR shots, is invaluable and is something I don’t want to lose.

For an even more explicit demo of how much data is lost when shooting in a non-RAW format, check out the video in this tweet.


  1. Temperature-wise, at least. 

2 Flagships, 2 Budget Phones, and a Real Camera Walk Into…oops…Take the Same Picture

Last night I gushed a little about how wonderful the camera on our phones have become in recent years. The phone I have in my pocket these days is either an iPhone 8 Plus or a Google Pixel 2, both of which are widely considered to be best in class, but I wanted to put these up against some other cameras to see how good they really are. Here’s what I’m comparing:

This comparison is by no means an attempt to make any one camera look bad, and obviously this isn’t really a fair fight. I’m just satisfying a curiosity on my end in regards to how far apart brand new phones are compared to budget phones from 1-2 years ago, as well as a regular point-and-shoot.

On a technical level, these photos were all taken with the stock camera apps and had no retouching done after the fact. The image files below are the full-res images, so pardon if they take a minute to load. The only exception is the Nikon camera, which was edited a bit in Lightroom since an unprocessed RAW file is not what anyone actually outputs, so I made some edits to make it look similar in exposure and saturation to the phones on display1.

The Shot

Here’s the full resolution shot from each camera. This indoor shot is meant to compare the clarity, color accuracy, and natural (non-portrait mode) depth of field form each lens.

Right off the bat we see some striking differences. The Moto and Nextbit phones really look worse than the rest, with the Robin struggling with color and the Moto just producing an incredibly soft image considering this picture was taken directly under a lamp. The Pixel and iPhone shots look pretty good, with the iPhone doing a better job of hiding the flicker of the LED bulb this shot was lit by2. Meanwhile, the Nikon does well with color reproduction and the softest background blur.

Zooming In

Now let’s zoom in a bit to each photo and see what the details look like.

At this point the differences are massive. The Nikon 1 continues to be the best in the bunch, with the iPhone very close behind. The Pixel has a little more noise in the image when you zoom in which I don’t love, but looks fine overall. The Robin looks like you took it into Photoshop and applied the watercolor effect to it and looks like it’s doing this to compensate for an otherwise very noisy image. The Moto just needs to go home though, this is terrible.


Despite this being a single image, I think we get some good information out of this, even if that information it’s that surprising. The iPhone and Pixel cameras are worlds better than those found on the Nextbit Robin and Moto G4. The Robin came out in February 2016 and cost $399 while the Moto G4 came out in May 2016 and cost $199. As expected, phones that are 2 years old and had less-than-flagship specs for their time don’t take great pictures today.

That said, the fact that the iPhone and Pixel do just about as well as the standalone camera is kind of remarkable. It’s exciting to see where we’ll be in a few years.

  1. It goes without saying that I can do much more with this image than any of the phones since RAW gives me tons more flexibility. 
  2. I’ve noticed this over and over in my shots with the Pixel 2. It seems to always shoot at a shutter speed that syncs well enough with LED refresh rates and makes lighting a bit off. 

The iPhone 7 Plus Gets Shots I've Never Seen from a Smartphone

Yesterday I wrote about breaking the iPhone 7's portrait mode, but I actually really love the camera and felt it only fair to share a few of the nicer photos I've gotten from this incredible lens. I'm only scratching the surface of what is possible, but I'm truly blown away that these images are from my phone!

Here's a distance shot at 1x zoom:

And here's another one at 2x zoom (optical):

Finally, another shot at 1x zoom:

And the same shot at 10x zoom (digital):

Purposely Breaking the iPhone 7 Plus's Portrait Mode

Apple shipped the iOS 10.1 beta this week with it's much anticipated "portrait mode" on the iPhone 7 Plus. Lots of people are sharing the beautiful pictures this feature can create. Here are a few of my favorites:




So I wondered what the limits of this feature was, as Apple seems to have designed it for shots like the ones above. What if you took shots it wasn't really designed for? To find out, I took a few shots during my run this morning. I took very little time to compose anything and have not done any post-processing to these, they're exactly as they came out of the camera app.

Side note: I don't know why literally every time I get a new phone the weather turns to shit. It's a cloudy, rainy day here in Illinois, so none of these shots are particularly photogenic.

First up is a simple street sign. This doesn't look terrible, but it does look a little artificial. It got the depth right, but the straight lines make the halo effect around the sign extremely pronounced. This shot is definitely worse than the standard shot you would get without the blur.

Next up were some flowers, which turned out pretty good. I took this one in haste and could have focused better, but this shot shows that the depth effect doesn't just blur everything in the background. You can clearly see levels of blur on different parts of the plant.

The orange flowers in front are the subject, while the the other orange flowers are slightly blurred, and the purple ones in back are considerably more blurred.

I dared to try a selfie mid-run, and this is easily the weirdest shot I got. I have to mention this was mid-stride and I hadn't shaved yet for the day. I'm a scrub, but stick with me here.

Portrait mode did a great job of separating me from the background, as the hard halo effect we saw on the street sign above is not an issue. The blur level is much higher than I would want, but I think this has to do with how close I am to the camera. Apple didn't tell us to take selfies in this mode, and I don't think I ever will again.

The real problem, and I'm sure you noticed immediately, is that my headphones are too thin to register and get lost in the background. I almost look like I'm wearing AirPods with EarPods thrown over my shoulder just in case. Obviously this is one of those cases where fake depth of field is not as good as the real deal; a nice camera would be able to blur the background while knowing that my headphones are a part of the foreground.

Finally we have a complex object that really puts the depth perception to the test. This picture looked better than expected on the phone, but it's definitely artificial-looking when you blow it up on a larger screen.

The real test on this one was to see how it handles an object where the background is around the object, but also mixed in the middle of it as well. Let's zoom in to 100% to see how it looks up close.

It's very interesting (and impressive) that it actually understands that much of what is in the body of the tree is actually behind it, and tries to blur those sections. It's not 100%, but it's doing better than I expected.

Despite pushing the mode beyond what it's meant for in this beta period, I think this is a game changer for mobile photography. The shots people are already getting are absolutely stunning, and separates the iPhone from the rest of the smartphone industry. Everyone else can fight over having the most megapixels, but this changes the entire conversation.

Let's Stop Calling Them "Smartphone Cameras"

Let’s not beat around the bush anymore and start calling the cameras in our phones what they really are, cameras. Yup, they’re just plain old cameras. There’s no longer a need to specify that they’re not a “real camera” anymore. I know it’s semantics, but I think it’s important to realize what these things have become over the past 8 years.

2005-2009: A nice perk you rarely use

Image via Matt Haughey Image via Matt Haughey

The cameras in phones were next to useless for years. Around 2005 or so, they finally got good enough that people would use them in a pinch to get a shot they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. These pictures look terrible, but they were better than nothing. Here’s a line from Engadget’s review of the Sony Ericsson S710a from 2005:

Although its sensor, lens and the resulting pictures blow away pretty much every other cameraphone available in the States, the S710 still cannot replace your high end digicam. Still, it's perfect for snapshot from a day, or (thanks to the flash and CCD) even a night out on the town.

I got married in 2009 and we received a point and shoot camera that was not great, but was certainly far better than the cameras in either of our phones at the time. On our honeymoon we took all of our photos on that camera and almost never used out phones.

2010-2012: The camera you have with you

Image via Engadget Image via Engadget

2010 saw the release of the iPhone 4 and the original Samsung Galaxy S, each of which had really nice camera for the time. They were certainly a step up from what we had before, and we started to hear more and more people saying they were leaving their real cameras at home more often and just taking pictures with their phones.

This was the era of people generally understanding that smartphone cameras were not as good as a standalone camera, but the difference was so little that most people did’t care. And if they did care, the mere reduction in friction in taking a photo with your phone was enough to get many to just use their phone.

Besides, selfies had become the biggest innovation in photography in decades and nothing did that better than a smartphone.

2013-2015: The only camera that matters

Image via Me :) Image via Me :)

I realized when I was talking pictures with my iPhone today that this is the best camera I own. I have a low to mid-range mirrorless camera that I love, but my iPhone gets almost as good images in most situations. And the specs in these things are amazing! High end phones have 12MP+ sensors, fancy true-tone flashes, 8MP wide angle front facing cameras, optical image stabilization, laser auto focus, 4K video, and 240FPS slow mo these days. These are not just get specs to have in a smartphone, they’re great for any camera!

It really hit me when I was shooting some sample footage when I first got my iPhone 6S Plus. The video I was getting out of the iPhone was far, far better than what I was getting out of my Nikon. “How can this be?!” I asked myself. How could this phone camera not only get close to the quality of my $800 camera, but actually demolish it? It was a startling realization, and if I look around at the world, it’s the way it’s been for a few years.

How many young people bring a point-and-shoot with them when they go out with friends? I went to a book signing last week and we all got pictures with the author: it was assumed that we would all have out own smartphone with us to take the picture. Even I, a staunch supporter of “real cameras” find myself taking far more pictures with my phone than anything else.

And I haven't even touched on the fact that images and videos I take from my phone can be immediately shared to Twitter, Facebook, iMessage, Snapchat, Instagram, and infinite more places. I can also use Pixelmator and Snapseed to edit my images on the phone without even waiting to get to a computer to make them just how I want them. And services like iCloud Photo Library and Google Photos let me take every photo I have ever taken with me wherever I am. Software is eating the world, and it's made cameras completely badass.

I will still continue to bring my Nikon with me for special occasions because I do want that more professional quality and enhanced control that I get with RAW images, but I bet even those days are numbered as Apple and others get even better at a rapid pace.

Like it or not, our smartphone cameras are cameras nowadays. All dedicated cameras are bulky, offline, and don’t even take noticeably better photos than our phones in many cases. It’s amazing and just another example of smartphones being the ultimate “omni-device” that sucks up countless products into one that is so much better in every way.