The iPhone 13 figures to introduce plenty of changes when it arrives this fall, from a new A15 Bionic processor to fast-refreshing 120Hz displays. But some of the more noteworthy enhancements to the new iPhone could be slated for its camera, as Apple looks to keep its place at the top of the list for the best camera phones.
Cameras may just be one part of the smartphone experience, but they're an increasingly important part. That's because the smartphone you're carrying around could be the only camera you own — it's certainly the camera you turn to the most often. And as the smartphone market matures, cameras are one area where phone makers can distinguish their products from what the competition offers.
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"I think consumers expect the latest camera technology whenever they buy a new flagship phone," said Ben Arnold, NPD’s consumer electronics industry analyst. "While I don’t think the camera is an iPhone buyer’s top purchase criteria, it factors into the decision on whether to update immediately or later. It could also weigh into the decision to buy the next iPhone or get a previous generation and save some money."
Invites for the Apple event on September 14 have already gone out. We'll hear all about the iPhone 13 there. But for now, here’s everything we’ve heard about the iPhone 13 cameras thus far, and what it could mean for you.
iPhone cameras vs. the competition
To date, Apple's done an excellent job tempting users to upgrade to the latest and greatest iPhones with the camera enhancements added to each subsequent iteration. We put the iPhone 12 Pro Max at the top of our list for best current camera phones, and that's an opinion shared by testing firm DxOMark.
"The last Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max is a very good camera for photo — top 4 in our current photo ranking — and video," said Hervé Macudzinski, DxOMark's image science director. "When the device was launched, it was the best photo camera we had on the market."
Top iPhone 12 Pro Max camera features included a bigger main sensor to let in more light and a sensor-shift image stabilization system for super-steady video. The three other iPhone 12 models are among the best phones for taking pictures and video as well in our head-to-head testing.
But it's been six months since the iPhone 12 came out, and other phone makers haven't stood still in that time. Samsung continues to improve the cameras on its flagship Galaxy S phones, with the Galaxy S21 models producing especially sharp zoom shots from their dedicated telephoto lenses. OnePlus is teaming up with camera specialist Hasselblad to produce better cameras on its phones, and you can really see the fruits of that partnership in the OnePlus 9 Pro, with its much-improved color.
Google's Pixel 6 won't ship until later in the fall, but we're already hearing rumors that the Pro model of that phone will adopt a telephoto lens; Google has also confirmed that it's tweaking its software algorithms to take more accurate and more beautiful photos featuring people of color.
Improvements like these may not dissuade current iPhone users from switching over to Android, but they can influence upgrade decisions. "Apple’s iOS ecosystem tends to be extremely sticky, and in many Western markets, iPhone owners are often choosing which new iPhone to get, not cross-shopping with Android alternatives," said Avi Greengart, lead analyst at Techsponential. "That said, imaging is a key consumer buying decision point, and the competition has significantly improved their cameras."
Apple is notoriously tight-lipped about unannounced products, and we won't get any official word about the iPhone 13's new photo capabilities until the company is ready to show off its new phone. But the rumor mill can be a great help in setting expectations for upcoming iPhones, and we're already getting what seem like pretty solid details of what's planned for the iPhone 13.
iPhone 13 camera upgrades: A 6-element ultrawide angle lens
For the iPhone 12 models, Apple changed the main camera into a 7-element lens, also increasing the size of the aperture on that camera. Apple is reportedly planning a similar move with the iPhone 13 Pro models, only here the focus will be on enhancing the ultrawide angle lens on those two phones. Specifically, Apple is expected to upgrade to a 6-element lens for the ultrawide angle camera; the current iPhone 12 Pro models use a 5-element lens for that shooter.
DxOMark doesn't comment on specific rumors, but Macudzinski is happy to talk about how adding another element to a lens can improve photo quality. "Generally speaking, using one more element in the lens allows for a better control of the optical aberrations (distortion, resolution, lens shading) especially in the field," he said.
That, in turn, gives a camera maker options, depending on what kind of image they want the lens to produce. The extra element can increase the field of view while keeping general image quality the same. An increased aperture can gather more light to improve the trade-off between texture and noise in a low-light shot. Or the camera can improve the distortion profile, removing that "fisheye" effect that can appear at the edges of shots taken with an ultrawide camera.
Whatever Apple ends up doing here, it sounds like the ultimate goal is to have the iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max produce higher-quality shots when you switch to the ultrawide lens.
iPhone 13 camera upgrades: Sensor-shift stabilization
As noted above, the iPhone 12 Pro Max introduced sensor shift stabilization, in which the image sensor is stabilized instead of the lens for smoother, better quality images. You can see the impact of sensor shift stabilization in this video we shot during our iPhone 12 Pro Max testing, where the image remains steady even as the person holding the camera moves through the woods.
It’s a great feature to have, but it’s only available right now on Apple’s most expensive iPhone. The iPhone 13 will reportedly change this by bringing sensor-shift stabilization to all models, so that even people buying the less expensive iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 mini would benefit from this feature.
iPhone 13 camera upgrades: A larger image sensor
Image sensor sizes could get larger for the iPhone 13 models. Specifically, a common rumor points to the iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max upgrading to a sensor with 1.9um pixels. That would improve image quality in low light, according to Ross Young, founder and lead analyst at Display Supply Chain Consultants (DSSC).
As for the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 mini, those phones would adopt the sensor with 1.7um pixel sizes currently found on the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Again, the idea is that this year's iPhones will do a better job capturing photos when the lights are low.
Like DSCC, Mizuho Securities also says no new iPhone SE model in 2021, have to wait till 2022. They do say all iPhone 13 models will have integrated touch, BOE will join LGD on both 6.1" models, mini and 13 will adopt 12 Pro Max camera sensors, & sensor size will increase on Pro. pic.twitter.com/G9f6cz8dm0October 2, 2020
"Talking about the benefits of the camera in practical shooting occasions — particularly low light — is a good way to differentiate and market the phone’s photo capabilities," NPD Group's Arnold said.
iPhone 13 camera changes: A folded lens telephoto camera
Perhaps the most attention on the iPhone 13's potential camera improvements will focus on the telephoto lenses featured in the Pro models. This is an area where competitors like Samsung have clearly jumped ahead of Apple. The Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Plus, for example, support a 30x digital zoom, while the Galaxy S21 Ultra can ramp things up to a 100x zoom. The iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max are limited to 10x and 12x digital zooms, respectively.
"The area where Apple is obviously behind is at the high end with periscope zoom systems, where Apple is limited to 3x optical zoom and Samsung and Huawei flagships offer hybrid systems that produce good photos at 10x and usable pictures from even farther out," Greengart said.
Apple could address that shortfall by turning to a folded lens camera of its own for its telephoto shooter, which gets around the limitations placed on the telephoto lens by the smartphone’s size. "With folded camera lens technology, you can design [a] camera module with [a] longer focal length (4x, 5x and more) while limiting the z axis," Macudzinski said. "With such a design, the thickness of the smartphone is not any more a constraint for the focal length, but it still limits the sensor size and, to some extends to the lens aperture."
Put another way, a folded lens uses a periscope-like structure to refract light, thereby improving the camera's ability to zoom in on a subject. It's an approach other phone makers have taken. Even if Apple doesn’t follow suit this year — some expect Apple to turn to a periscope lens in time for the iPhone 14 —it’s clear Apple is looking at ways to improve all of its rear cameras.
iPhone 13 camera changes: Other possible improvements
Those are just a few of the improvements being bandied about for the iPhone 13 cameras. Apple's rumored to be working on software enhancements and camera upgrades that make it easier to photograph the night sky or add a portrait mode to video. Other rumors suggest the LiDAR sensors Apple introduced to the iPhone 12 Pro models last year could find their way to the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 mini, though there's no consensus on the likelihood of this happening.
"There’s a lot of interest around depth sensing and AR capabilities with the iPhone," Arnold said. "Those new features and their applications will become additional ways to compete with other devices."
We won't know whether these and other rumored camera features will make the final cut for the iPhone 13 until Apple releases its phones this fall. But it's clear from all the chatter that camera enhancements will be a key part of Apple's plans for the next version of its smartphones.
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Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.