Photography

Under fake iPhone skies

I’m on my third iPhone: iPhone 5, iPhone 6s, and now iPhone 12 mini. It’s great to always have an easy-to-carry camera in my front pocket. With each successive model I’ve owned, Apple has improved the camera in remarkable ways that are plain to see in the images the camera makes.

That said, I’m not in love with the images I get from my iPhone 12 mini. They look extra saturated and extra sharpened, with contrast boosted too much for my taste. And the camera is clearly doing heavy processing of skies, or perhaps even inserting skies the software behind the camera is making up.

On my Ride Across Indiana last year, I photographed the Indiana Statehouse with my Canon PowerShot S95 and my iPhone 12 mini. Check out how each camera rendered the sky. The S95 is true to life, even though the clouds are a little blown out.

Indiana Statehouse

The iPhone 12 mini brought out a lot more blue in the sky than was actually there, and faded the clouds considerably.

Indiana Statehouse

I saw the same thing on my trip to San Diego recently. The day was mostly cloudy. A little blue sky peeked out from between clouds here and there. I made the same shot with two cameras one right after the other. The first was my Olympus OM-2n with the 40mm f/2 Zuiko lens on Kodak Ektar.

Paradise Point Resort

Look at what the iPhone 12 mini did with the sky!

San Diego resort

I never did this kind of comparison on my iPhone 6s, but I don’t believe it was as aggressive in processing the sky as my iPhone 12 was. The 6s probably enhanced skies a little, with the effect of making them look epic. Here’s a photo from somewhere in County Galway, Ireland, that I made with the 6s.

Irish landscape

I believe my iPhone 5 did little or no manipulation of skies. Here’s a photo of an old house in Hamilton County, Indiana, that I made with the 5.

Old house, Hamilton County

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30 thoughts on “Under fake iPhone skies

  1. Wow, that is some difference. My recent phones have been Samsungs and I have not noticed that kind of result, but now I will watch for it.

      • The longer I think about this the more irritated I get. Someone has made a decision that he (and it’s surely a he) knows more about what you want to photograph than you do. “Oh, you don’t want clouds. You want blue skies. Here.” I would be fine if it was a setting you could turn off. One more reason to appreciate not being part of AppleLand. Though I’ll bet GoogleLand finds other things to screw with.

        • I’ve turned off every default photo-enhancing setting I can find on my phone, and I still get these skies, the saturation, and the sharpening! I wish I had the camera from my 6s in the 12.

  2. Andy Umbo says:

    What an odd thing to concentrate on and improve? Although many times, skies can be blown out of correctly exposed “real” photographs, most professional photographers don’t take exterior photographs mid-day, but pre 9am and post 3pm, and usually the angles will be such that there will be tone in the sky. Wonder if they concentrated on improving that, or there’s something about just bringing blown out tones back down within a certain range, and you see it easily in the sky?

    Just had a discussion about this stuff over the weekend and I heard that more than a few photographers that use a digital point-and-shoot from about ten years ago or so, have reset them to shoot “vivid” because compared to camera phones, “real” color palettes are starting to look bland!

    I’d love to see a comparison test between a new iPhone and the Google Pixel 6. The Pixel 6 has been advertised as a “photographers phone”, and has been written up in advertsing (even in the Sunday NYT Magazine) as having accurate colors, especially in skin tones. The ads have shown photos of various ethnic groups and the accurate color of their skin.

    • Guilty as charged on setting my digital P&S to Vivid. When my Canon S95 was new I liked the colors it delivered, but as the years passed they seemed not to be as vibrant anymore. Setting the camera to Vivid solved that. But now you have me wondering whether I was influenced by the ultra-saturated look that’s so popular today.

  3. DougD says:

    Yep, we totally noticed that on our trip to Ireland. My wife’s IPhone 13 took photos that were more colourful than what we were actually looking at. Another strike against reality, just keep looking at your phone.

      • tbm3fan says:

        and where have you been?

        My wife gave me her Android but don’t ask me what pictures are like as I rarely use the phone except to check traffic. When out and about I always have one of my two Canon S95 or the Canon SX160 IS in my briefcase. I do have an iphone 6s but use it behind a slit lamp only with an adapter. Now you are going to make me take out the older Nikon Coolpix 5400 I used behind the slit lamp just to see what it looks like outside. Generally I use film when shooting landscapes by habit.

        • As I’m sure you can see I don’t use my iPhone camera as a primary. I use it when I want to quickly share something, such as texting it to my wife or uploading it to Facebook. I don’t carry a regular camera with me everywhere, so the iPhone is just the camera I have on me when I need one.

  4. Mate, right there with you! They just aren’t designed for us, that’s the issue I have. It’s photography for the masses. Which is fine. But just not for us. This is a big part of why I bought a Sony RX100 VII

    • You make a good point. The average person won’t notice or care.

      I’ve turned off every default photo-enhancement setting I can find on my iPhone and still get amped-up results.

      Someday my beloved Canon S95 will brick. The Sony RX100 is on my short list. My wife has a Mk I and it’s terrific. But the Canon G7X is on that list too, and since I’ve shot Canon all these years I’ll learn it faster.

  5. I didn’t realize this was a thing. I have the iPhone 12 mini as well. Now I am looking back through some of the photos I have taken with this phone. Hmmm. I am not sure I like this. Feeling a little violated.

    • Yes! I feel a little betrayed. I know any photograph, even a film photograph, is an interpretation through the lens onto the recording medium. But to out and out manipulate an image in camera like this feels like heavy cheating.

      • Jim, this is what the masses like. It’s colorful and wow! So some of us old geezers continue to use B&W film in a primitive mechanical box with a lens attached.

        • Either we’re going to be left with an unrealistic record of this time period, or (as some predict) this ultimately doesn’t matter because nobody’s really saving these photographs anyway.

  6. The other issue that you illustrate very well with the first two pairs of shots is the main reason I dislike iPhone cameras so much – too wide an angle of view. The “normal” lens of my wife’s iPhone 11 looks to me like a 28mm, or 35mm at most, equivalent. The “wide” lens is ridiculously wide for me. (I’m discounting the digital zoom because even the unzoomed resolution is pushing it for 8×10 prints.)

    I don’t know what I will do when my iPhone X dies. Unlike all of the other iPhones it has a “normal” lens much like that of the iPhone 11 and a “telephoto” lens that looks more like a 50mm equivalent. I very seldom use anything shorter than 50mm, or equivalent, on my real cameras.

    • All of the iPhones I’ve owned have had a much wider default than I ever use routinely. But I figure that a major use case of the iPhone camera is group selfies, and the wide angle lets you get more people in from arm’s length. My wife and I do that often enough, and I appreciate it. But I wish there were a way to select 35mm or 50mm equivalent for other photography.

  7. Andy Umbo says:

    Not that this makes a heck of a lot of difference to people who are serious about photography, whether “pro” or “am”, but when this all started becoming a “thing” eight to ten years ago, I would be lamenting this, and end users would tell me: “…hey look, I get way better looking pictures on these things than I ever got from my film point-and-shoot or my early digital point-and-shoot”, so my family album has startred to look great!” So I guess for the average consumer of family photos, this is making the grade. Makes me wonder how they feel when they get their kid’s highschool yearbook photo back and it looks “bland”, i.e. “real”…

  8. I was disappointed when I switched phones last year. My iPhone 8 did stellar work. This new phone, the SE 2020 is inconsistent. I wouldn’t have bought this phone but it was the only iPhone they had in stock that day and I needed it that day.

  9. Darts and Letters says:

    Color me bad, I guess. because while I understand precisely the tendency to overcorrection which you speak of, I actually like the iPhone 12 pictures in those first two examples.

  10. I have noticed that with my Samsung Galaxy phones, although not as extreme as your examples. I also think that a lot of photographers do the same thing in post, which, while it may make for an attractive image, is not a true representation of what the photographer saw. I guess it is the difference between realism and the more expressionist forms of art. I love to see rich vibrant colours, but only if that is what was there in the first place. I also love to see muted pastels if that is what I was looking at. But, if everyone saw the world as I do, it would be very difficult to stand out and create something unique. And the world would be a dull place!

    • I’m all for photographers doing whatever they want! Capture reality or create art, whatever. I just want my iPhone not to make that choice for me!

    • I have a pretty good iPhone camera called Obscura that I use sometimes.

      On road trips I always come home and geotag my photos. I use my iPhone to make duplicate photos of places I don’t think I’ll remember the locations of, so I can use the tag from that photo to set the tag on the photo I made with my regular camera.

        • I use a program called GeoSettr. It shows a Google Map aerial view. You navigate to a place and drop a pin, then you select all the photos you made there, and click a button. Bam, it geotags the photos. It’s not perfect but it does work. I keep looking for better options but haven’t found one yet.

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