Recently, YouTuber Marques Brownlee, who also goes by the alias MKBHD, shared the results from his 2022 Smartphone Awards. In these, the iPhone 14 won in the category for “Best Camera System.”
Despite this award, this same YouTuber pointed out something that many photographers might have reason to debate, namely that iPhones are now making photos worse. The culprit? Post-processing.
In another video posted to YouTube before announcing the results of the 2022 Smartphone awards, MKBHDv shared results from the Award’s blind camera test.
In these, the iPhone 14 actually came in 7th place, with 1st and 2nd place titles going to two Google phones, the Pixel 6A and the Pixel 7 Pro, respectively.
These results underscored the main question of why the iPhone fared so poorly.
According to his argument based on both parts of these awards, post-processing is simply becoming exaggerated in some cases. This is especially the case with the iPhone, which is otherwise considered to have one of the best phone cameras on the market today.
As MKBHD argues, the majority of phones handle photography pretty well under decent conditions such as clear lighting and easy backgrounds.
However, when varying colors, textures and lighting conditions crowd into a scene, the post-processing systems in some phones start to fail with how much they exaggerate certain corrective features. According to the YouTuber, the iPhone 14 is a major culprit in this.
All high-quality modern smartphone cameras need to use a fairly broad range of tricks to improve the quality of the photos they take. A part of the reason why is that their sensors, despite their often high megapixel counts, are very small and can only capture so much light, color and detail.
These tricks include noise reduction mechanisms, white balance tweaks and artificial brightness adjustments.
More recently though, Apple and others have taken these tweaks to new levels with features like Smart HDR, which combines several photos together to make one single composite shot and then adds all sorts of post-processing on top of that.
The result, according to MKBHD’s argument, is that images start to skip past realism and into the territory of digital weirdness.
The YouTuber shows this off in his videos with comparisons between photos taken with an iPhone 14 Pro and models such as Google’s Pixel 7 Pro. The results shown by him are indeed visibly more natural-looking in the Google phone’s image.
The iPhone photos on the other hand are over-lightened, over-sharpened and even display colors that start to look unnatural.
In other words, even though the iPhone 14’s camera is technically excellent and features some of the world’s best sensor technology from Sony, the digital manipulation that Apple’s internal hardware and software applies to these sensor outputs spoils their potential.
Apple has indeed been adding steadily more steps to the image post-processing in its phones over the years and has now reached a point where the end result deteriorates quality instead of adding to it, at least in some contexts. Smart HDR is a particular culprit in these problems.
Other iPhone reviewers and users have pointed out these same issues on Twitter, mentioning their complaints about certain aspects of Apple’s Smart HDR technology, or the fact that Apple has no option for deactivating it, which simply seems absurd.
This effect is part of Apple’s Smart HDR, which ‘segments’ human subjects in photos and boosts their brightness significantly when backlit post-capture.
We’ve illustrated the subject detection and a likely ‘how it looked’ to the camera:
— Halide (@halidecamera) September 20, 2022
In basic terms, one problem with the iPhone 14 and its even pricier versions is that it overdoes the post-processing in some photographic contexts, mainly because of Smart HDR technology. The second problem is that Apple, as is so very typical of the company in certain ways, gives its users no options for disabling this feature if they want to.
iOS feature request: An option to turn off Smart HDR. Sometimes it just ruins the photos (in this case, it destroyed the sky compared to the Live Photo without the same processing). pic.twitter.com/Zb4cPS6qO4
— Filipe Espósito (@filipeesposito) October 5, 2022
Users of iPhones can take purely RAW photos with their devices, but this is hardly a solution for anyone who just wants a quick, simple, clean JPEG shot that doesn’t take up several dozen megabytes and requires conversion to be shared on social media.
MKBHD’s YouTube video on this whole subject is worth a watch too. It goes into additional details and quite a few examples.