Is iPhone 13 Pro camera better than the past devices?

Apple hoped to improve on past devices by learning from oil painting techniques when developing the new iPhone 13 camera , but did it really make things better?

The Apple design team explained their Cupertino studio's interdisciplinary approach in an interview with Wallpaper* magazine, describing it as a place where "industrial designers sat next to a font designer, sat next to a sound designer, who is sat next to a motion graphics expert, who is sat next to a color designer, who is sat next to somebody who is developing objects in soft materials."

That multi-medium approach clearly informs the processing techniques used in the iPhone camera app as well. "The iPhone 13's camera represents a significant upgrade," writes Wallpaper*, "with Pro models getting a triple-lens system with a macro mode and 6x optical zoom."

"The camera now has a new portraiture mode for photos and a cinematic mode for movies," UI designer Johnnie Manzari explains. "Both take advantage of the emotional aesthetics of shifting depth perception."

"We did a lot of research into the history of portraiture as an art form and a craft, going back to oil painting and how it informed photographic traditions," Manzari adds.

"We learned the value of focusing on the eyes, as well as how to treat the background and lighting." These inspired the features we've added to the iPhone over the years to balance these timeless principles in a more accessible and intuitive manner."

Alan Dye, Apple's VP of human interface design, adds, "It feels much more human and there's more of a connection to it, even though it's an analogue photography artifact."

What's the issue?

The possibility of capturing a more analogue, vintage feel for modern, digital photography is certainly appealing – and there is certainly some demand for it. The original Instagram logo was inspired by a Polaroid camera, and popular photography app Dispo allows users to take photos that don't 'develop' until the next day.

However, there may be a disconnect between Apple's intentions and how users perceive them.

Since the release of the iPhone 13, a number of users have taken to forum threads to express their dissatisfaction with the photos taken by the iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max, primarily due to processing that smoothes out the image and loses important detail.

One Reddit post with thousands of upvotes criticizes the "oil painting" effect on iPhone 13 Pro photographs when compared to more "natural" iPhone 11 Pro camera snaps.

"I don't know why modern smartphone cameras prefer (sic) the oil painting look rather than having some noise on the picture but retaining some details," the most popular comment on the post says.

Another thread on the MacRumors forum, titled "Really bad photos with iPhone 13 Pro (+Max) Merged," complains about the inability to disable this processing. "I tried everything and there's no way to avoid this," one commenter writes. "At least give us the option to turn off Smart HDR."

There's an entire thread on Apple's support site dedicated to users pleading for the option to turn it off, which appears to have been available on previous iPhones but was not implemented. "By default, the HDR version of a photo is saved in Photos," according to the Apple support website. You can also save the non-HDR version on iPhone X and previous models."

As a result, it appears that newer models limit the ability to do without this particular processing enhancement.

Apple's design team understands how to create a good product and how to draw from a wide range of disciplines – but it's easy to forget that, above all, users want control over which features they can use.

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