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Monday, 16 September 2019


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There is every indication that Apple, having recognized that they are essentially up against the laws of physics at the size of these optics and sensors, has devoted much of their engineering effort to "computational photography". Most of the improvements in this round of iPhone stem from AI, machine learning, and other algorithmic improvements. I would be willing to bet that the majority of these 800 engineers are computer scientists. The keynote address explains this.

"Still, I'd still like to know what all those engineers do all day. I don't want to rat on anybody or get them in trouble with their boss, but I'm getting a little suspicious."

All wise-assing aside ...

It's not really that they added just a third lens ... each lens sits in front of an entirely separate and new lens/sensor/whatever assembly. So what those people were doing is building those assemblies and making sure that they work with all the other hardware in the system and providing an interface to make them work with the software in the system.

Having worked on projects like this I'll say that this: as we all know, no one should care how hard Apple worked ... but since you brought it up I'll say that these things are in general an order of magnitude more complicated to pull off than you can possibly imagine.

So while I have my doubts about the quoted number of engineers (I imagine in my brain that many of those 800 people work on more than just one camera system ... but rather on the general imaging pipeline used on all the phones), I would not underestimate how much work it took to add what appears on the surface to be a fairly incremental feature on to the system.

Did you see the demo that the Filmic people gave where their video capture app can capture three video streams in parallel from three different cameras? That was some cool stuff.

It’s a surprising number but then again how many iterations are they making that never see the light of day. Also, I’m assuming they are including software engineers which may include a huge number of QC people etc.

They are hammering a nail is what they're doing.

Engineering is hard. Great engineering is really hard. Harder yet is explaining product development to someone who has never been involved in product development.

I was once the unknowing and never-been-involved person. One product development cycle fixed that.

"Maybe the stories I've been hearing for years about computational phone-ography, something that seemed to be so imminent when the iPhone 7 with its two lenses came out, are just fairy tales."

Do the Light ASIC and software packages found in the Nokia Pureview 9 count as real honest to gawd computational "phone-ography?"

But poaching an idea from the aftermarket to capitalize on what customers are already buying is kind of an ordinary move, not to mention rather anti-Jobsian in spirit, isn't it? Do you really need 800 people for that?

It's a very Apple move and the tradition definitely stretches back to the Jobs era.

And, no, I'm writing this on my MacBook Pro surrounded by Apple products. Hardly your typical hater :)

My problem with all smart phones is ergonomics and cost. Both have never been inproved on, ever. OK cost maybe.

Try taking pictures with just one hand. Worse try doing one hand picture taking with the phone in landscape mode.

I'll stick with my old fashion camera (Fujifilm XPro-2) for pictures and my 5 or 6 year-old not very smart cellphone for voice and text communications. And that dumb phone is really cheap thank-you.

Your best ever.

For a guy who mostly sees the world through a narrower angle of view, 52 mm SLR equivalent borders on wide angle.

I suspect there were only 2 engineers working on the camera. The other 798 were managers, marketing, and other assorted functionaries of dubious value.

Yawn. There have been wide angle lenses on Android phones for years.

Mike, I sense a game changer here? We have to get past the whole idea of a print as a final stop for an image and recognize that there is a whole generation that wants to look at images on a screen. Also a generation that wants to share the image rather than place the image on a wall in a house or studio. Times there are a changing as the song goes. I love the idea of a camera in my pocket so much that I may find a reason switch out of my I phone X, and purchase the 11. It would make no economic sense except, it is a camera and cheaper than most of my other cameras. My two cents. Eric

To continue the "wise ass" comments tradition...If Apple is like most big American corporations, they have a defense contracting division developing (classified) technology for the military to weaponize. That would take care of 780 engineers. The other 20 are developing trinkets for the retail trade. Keeps the accountants and the share holders happy. It can be likened to prohibition, where the bootlegger set up a candy store in front of his building and sold moonshine out the back door.

I am told that sometimes, corporate big wigs give to charity, or have more expenses by employing a few more people to fine tune profits in order to get into a lower tax bracket.

These are things few lensmen know much about but nice to talk three talk four about in between pressing the shutter.

I applaud the self-awareness of being in wise-ass mode.

As for the 800 it does appear heavy at first blush. But context may add clarity. Many will be working on aspects that will only come to light in later years. many will be working on indirect matters related to miniaturization, power management (where the results have been excellent once again), software, taking advantage of Apple's vast lead in processor power etc.

As for telephoto I agree with you. Kind of. Because in this context maybe that is a telephoto. Just a thought.

The big thing I have noticed are the difficult to measure incremental improvements. I have an iPhone 8 and an X. The output is noticeably better in the latter, but so incremental that I am not sure I would notice unless I had both. Which I suppose circles back to your comment about not having yet used the camera.

You mention that the ultra-wide-angle lens constitutes "poaching" because of the aftermarket add-ons. But the aftermarket lenses all have issues. One is that most of them are difficult to keep centered on the underlying lens. For a while, Schneider made an integrated system of camera case with bayonet lens mount, and add-on lenses that fit the mount, solving the alignment problem. I believe they've stopped making that system for the newer cameras. The other issue is simply that you have to _carry_ the auxiliary lenses. That means that unless you're very dedicated, you won't have them when you want them, especially if you're a typical casual photographer like most of my family and acquaintances. So having the capability built in is a real step forward.

Re: Fools

Captain Penny was the host of a children's television series on WEWS-TV (Channel 5) in Cleveland, Ohio from 1955 to 1971.

Captain Penny would say at the end of every show,
"You can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool Mom.


Mike, the 800 are not at Apple. They are at the infamous Dpreview, you know, the "experts" who know more than the manufacturers do and expound on pixels, dynamic range, ISO standards, numbers of card slots, inferiority of film, uselessness of monochrome, workflow, etc. Taking pictures? Why waste time on that?

I don't think the ultra-wide is market poaching. Having to find a tiny clip-on lens and clip it on is always going to be second-best to having it built in. There are clip-ons for tele and macro as well, does that mean phone makers should not build them in for fear of poaching?

I don't see myself ever being in the market for an iPhone. My 3-year-old Moto G does all I want. But it's interesting to follow the technology.

I just re-read your article in the voice of Sheldon, from Big Bang Theory, and imagined his face as he spoke your words.

It gave the article more weight and made it hilarious at the same time.

I might start doing that for the news about Brexit and see what happens.

I was just about to hit the link to The Pensky File......when on beat two...it came back to me....in full color...with most of Costanza's dialogue......somethings are forever etched into our brains....and we don't even know it!!!

There may well be 800 engineers working on the project, but it's a jobshare and they each do one day a year. Their communication doesn't seem so hot either.

Considering the annual product release schedule of the Apple iPhone it should come as not surprise that the 800 engineers are working on something else.. perhaps the 2021 iPhone release. It's no accident that pro level film camera releases came every 8 years or so (Canon and Nikon) and more recently their DSLR behomoths come every 4 years or so.. because it takes that long to refine any meaningful improvements. This annual rip-off we're presented is just a warmed-up version of last year's iPhone. But we all knew that. The cognoscenti in the Apple universe point to iPhone 12 (i.e. next year) as the next major release for which the 800 have been fighting feverishly against the Android horde.. Any reference to "The 700" is merely a coincidence.. I believe the iPhone 11 will be the most undersold iPhone to date as the marketplace reaches saturation and more people see into this cheap ploy to part us and our money. Think of it.. you're spending $1000 for ONE more lens.. That's expensive glass. I prefer to keep that money for a real lens :-)

Maybe the 800 engineers have been working on this https://twitter.com/SteveStuWill/status/1172630674903203840?s=20

[I love those active data charts. That's a cool one. Thanks. --Mike]

Mike, I enjoy the vast majority of your posts. They are informative, thoughtful and entertaining. Sorry, but this post on the newest Iphone is none of those three.

[It's a blog, so if you don't like something, wait a bit. Something new will come along. --Mike]

In Australia the top model of this phone costs more than I paid for my Nikon Z6.....

it's not "three lenses" it's "three cameras" (well, four) …

the non-featured comments, at least at this point, are more astute — the fact that three cameras can work together, via the supercomputer in your hand, is the big leap for these phones; and then you can interactively change how the cameras' images merge right on the screen; these are capable video cameras too; how cameras with multiple lenses can go beyond our assumptions has been covered in this blog before, and this is the fruit of that research reaching consumers

one specific: adding the ultra-wide does not simply do what add-on lenses have done — it's another whole camera; the data from this additional camera can be integrated with that of the other cameras; for example you can choose to zoom out or reframe *after* you take the shot, or the data from two cameras can be merged for noise reduction or other purposes; the triple-camera video demo psu mentioned is another great example

another: the "selfie-camera" is not just a selfie-camera; vloggers and other self-broadcast type work will gain a lot from this camera's improvements

downside? some photos are going to have awkward artifacts as the massive software system tries to piece it all together; you'll need the phone cam in hand to take a good look at that

1. Have you used an add on wide angle lens on your iPhone? I have, and it was a good one. It is not a pleasant or rewarding experience.

2. Steve jobs did his share of market poaching.

“Sherlock” is a verb in the computer industry, which means to introduce a product to the OS that makes a third party product obsolete. The word refers to a product introduced by Steve Jobs and Apple in 1998. The product called “Sherlock” made a third party product called “Watson” obsolete. Rather cheeky of Jobs and Apple to give it that name.


3. Your current iPhone camera is using computational photography on nearly every photo you take, unless you are shooting .dng files.

As I read more and more about "computational photography" I find myself wondering about the legal implications. If someone takes a photograph of a crime or other incident with a smartphone that does computational photography, will the photograph be allowed into evidence? Photographs are getting farther and farther away from a record of the "reality" (always a somewhat fluid concept) in front of them.

Leica has recently announced dedicated infrastructure and staffing realignments to support 'computational imaging'.


'You see, ya can't please everyone, so ya got to please yourself'

Ricky Nelson, Garden Party

I see the iPhone 11 as a very expensive solution looking for a problem.

Don't get me wrong, earlier iPhones were literally life changing for me because they freed me from my office: the 3g made it possible, and the 6+ made it comfortable. I really, really like iOS and its security, especially with dropbox in the game with low cost, low data, high speed file syncing. And having native MS Exchange and Office software is icing on the cake.

But what I do not want or need is a very fancy, very, very expensive but extremely limited camera with a communications device cum powerful but also limited computer, however sleek. A$2500 - which is what one of these babies cost in Oz - would buy me decent desktop hardware, or a laptop, or a Nikon Z6 (as someone else has commented), or an Otus lens, or TWO new Nikon Z primes, or a Fuji XF100F with a lot of change, or ... you get the idea.

What I want and would pay such an asking price for, is an iPhone with dual, active 4g SIMs (but not e-sims, which are impossible to change when travelling internationally, and almost unworkable here in Oz). That allow me to merge my working and private life in a groundbreaking way for me.

But that is not the Apple way. So I'm sorry Mr iPhone, it's not you, it's me. It's been a great decade, but bye bye! Although I loath Android, Huawei P30 pro (dual 4g active SIM), here I come.

Kirk has already answered your question, more or less:

This post came over as rather grumpier than usual, Mike! I won't be buying one of these, but not because it's ugly (which is it, a bit) but because I bought an iPhone XS just a year ago, so I certainly don't need to upgrade this year. Maybe next year, when we're told there will be a significant redesign and 5G.

As for the '800 engineers', I think you're being a bit unfair. I've never worked at a company anything like as cutting-edge as Apple, but I did spend 13 years working in a small software company building business web apps, latterly in Java Server Pages. Our software had to keep evolving with increased functionality. I came to understand that while it was easy to get it to work pretty reliably most of the time for most users, the amount of effort required to get it to work perfectly, every time, for all users regardless of the weird parameters they were throwing at the application, was many times greater. So I'm not surprised that there are so many people working on this aspect of the phone's functionality.

Finally, I'll mention once more something that I think that many people have forgotten. When Steve Jobs did his "not three devices, but one device" speech, the three devices were: a phone; an Internet communications device; and a music player (i.e. an iPod). He didn't mention a camera in any meaningful sense, but here we are, rather more than 10 years later, and the camera is the main feature - of a phone! Obviously, all the other stuff - the internet communications, the music player (which has also become internet-based) and, yes, the boring old 'phone' functionality, have been solved pretty much perfectly. Yes, one phone may offer higher data speeds than another, but once you've got 50mbps on LTE, does it make any difference?

Who would have guessed that phones would morph into most people's main camera? Not the photographic industry, methinks...

New-fangled Camera

Imagine if these guys had today’s computing power.

I’m reminded of a story my father told me years ago. He was visiting an engineering firm and the owner was showing him around. They came to a large room with men sitting at drafting tables (this was in the 1940s) but not seeming to be doing much. The owner commented “I hope to God they’re thinking because they’re costing me money!”

I wonder how many engineers Nokia used to put 5 cameras in their latest phone.

3 camera phones? Phooey. So last year.

Personally, I am intrigued by the CAT S60. For $600, it provides a FLIR thermal imaging camera with a range up to 100ft and it's fully submersible.

Not really in the market for a $1000 phone.

All the snarkiness may be fun but I think time will prove the iPhone and its worthy competitors the beginning of the end for traditional cameras.

BMW employs 124k, GM 225k. Apple employs 132k (includes part time) and much of that is in the retail operation. I'm pretty sure that if you look into any complex product you appreciate, you're going to find a very large engineering staff.

There's little doubt that innovations and ideas tend to start with an individual or a small group in tech. The problem is producing it for consumers. Given that with a smartphone you're talking about sensor, ISP, lens, and now AI elements, all of which have to be integrated with a CPU/GPU/power system, just how many people do you think you need to do that right?

I can't decide if having 800 engineers means the new lenses do or do not require a dongle.

From what I read in a review of the 11's cameras, one important difference as compared to clip-on aftermarket lenses is the fact that one can zoom from ultra-wide to 'telephoto' while shooting video and the switching from one of the lenses to the next is effectively imperceptible. That's something that can't be done with aftermarket lenses.

Traditional camera makers really need to wake up. Computational photography is the future. There's so much that it can eventually do. We're just seeing the first steps in phones/cameras now. Apple is accomplishing what Light, with their 16 lens camera tried.

I do wish Apple would release a clip-on controller accessory to make the ergonomics better than holding the flat slab. Something akin to the camera sleeve the late Nokia made for there 41 MP 1020 camera.


The concluding paragraph from Joanna Stern at the Wall Street Journal (after some pretty interesting real world camera and battery tests) …

Last year’s XR is now a great value at $600. If you’re a photography nut and are OK spending over $1,000 for the absolute best, the Pros are there for you. Just don’t be mad when next year’s iPhones—potentially with 5G connectivity—blow them away.

When (!) it comes, 5G will be really big.

I'm keeping my iPhone eXcesS. I'm replacing my iPhone SE with an iPhone XI. I won't be giving-out the telephone number of the XI, it will only be used as a camera and a sound recorder. I have no idea how may engineers worked on Apple Watch 5 (nor do I care), but I have ordered one too.

I don't pay much attention to the mileage of others—the only person I have to please is me.

I hope all is going well, after your recent sugar poisoning.

Does that thing still make phone calls?

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