Apple's iPhone 11 camera packs wide-angle photography punch
Apple's new iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro phones get a wider angle lens and new computational photography smarts, upgrading what might be the new phone's most important feature.
Stephen Shanklandprincipal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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It's time for Apple's iPhone 11 camera to go wide. The new smartphone has an ultrawide wider-angle camera that joins the regular camera, Apple said Tuesday. And the higher-end iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max keep the telephoto lens of last year's iPhone XS models but widen the lens' aperture for better low-light performance, giving new photographic flexibility to serious photographers who want three cameras.
"You can now see the beautiful framing of mother nature, but the details are still there," said Kaiann Drance, senior director of products management and marketing for iPhone, speaking of the new wide-angle camera. "This is great for epic landscape shots ... and tight spaces where you can't back up."
The new lens can be used by tapping the zoom button, which will show a "0.5x" option along with the regular "1x" option for the main camera and a "2x" option for the more telephoto camera. Apple announced the new phone and camera designs at its annual iPhone launch event in Cupertino, California.
Watch this: Hands-on with the iPhone 11's ultra-wide-angle camera
Cameras are a key way to make this year's smartphone stand out from last year's model -- and the large, squarish camera protrusion does make the new iPhone stand out. Even though people don't upgrade phones as often as they used to, the ability to get better photos and videos remains an important selling point for people who may not care about improvements to chips or other components hidden inside a phone body.
At launch, the new iPhones get a night mode for better low-light performance. And the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max also will get a photography software upgrade this fall called Deep Fusion that'll let the phone combine the best of multiple shots into one image with low noise and high sharpness, said Phil Schiller, Apple's head of marketing.
Deep Fusion will be the first time that the Apple A13 chip's neural engine -- a big chunk of transistors to accelerate machine-learning tasks -- will be used directly in shooting a photo, Schiller said. "It is computational photography mad science. It is way cool," Schiller said.
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The iPhone 11 and 11 Pro have three cameras, each with the same 12-megapixel resolution Apple has offered for years. The main wide-angle camera has an f1.8 aperture and the equivalent focal length of 26mm (in 35mm-format film-era camera terms). The more telephoto lens has a 52mm-equivalent focal length and an f2.0 aperture -- significantly better at capturing light than last year's f2.4 lens. And the new ultrawide lens has a 13mm equivalent focal length (that means a 120-degree field of view) and an f2.4 aperture.
Only the wide and telephoto cameras have optical image stabilization, a feature that compensates for shaky hands and smooths video. Optical stabilization is most useful for longer focal lengths, so you're less likely to miss it on the ultrawide camera.
Having three cameras brings new challenges. Apple aligns each of the three to make sure the scenes aren't mismatched and calibrates each so the colors and exposure match, the company said.
With dual cameras on the iPhone 11, Apple now can calculate depth information of the scene for better portrait mode photos. And with the three cameras on the 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max, the phones can now offer portrait mode on the wide-angle camera too, not just the telephoto as with earlier iPhones.
Also new with the iPhone 11 phones is a video feature called extended dynamic range that's designed to better balance the light and dark regions of a scene.
iPhone cameras once led the market, but competing phones like the Samsung Galaxy and Google Pixel have caught up and in some ways surpassed Apple's devices. In 2019, Apple brought new computational photography smarts and a larger image sensor to its iPhone XS, XR and XS Max phones.
A nicer camera could prove to be some compensation for customers who want to stick with iPhones while missing out on the faster new 5G mobile networks that Android smartphone buyers get to tap into. Those are in early days today, but they're gaining in maturity every month.
The new iPhones for this year also come at a time of malaise in the smartphone market, with people holding onto their devices longer than before. They also arrive as Apple faces possible tariffs on the devices it builds in China, including the iPhone.