back to article Why the iPhone's megapixelage alone won't matter

Don't go getting all excited by reports that the camera in Apple's upcoming, new iPhone will be of the 3.2-megapixel variety. Merely pumping up megapixelage doesn't make a camera better. A 3.2-megapixel camera with the same sub-optimal optics and image-processing circuitry as is in the current iPhone will produce equally …


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  1. Andy ORourke

    I have a great device.....

    For taking high quality pictures, it's called a "camera" I also have a 2g iPhone with a crap camera for taking crappy pictures of crap things I don't care about too much!

  2. frymaster

    Even better

    ... just assume _all_ cameras on _all_ phones are crap :P

    While i'm sure there are exceptions, like presumably the ones mentioned in your article, in general they are all crap because of the optics. I have a very old digital camera with less megapixellage and it's miles better than any camera phone ever

    I thought the feature list on the original iPhone was lacking in many many ways; the quality of the camera wasn't one of them

  3. Brian
    Thumb Up


    Please mention these facts in every article about megapixels! Most people don't seem to get it.

  4. Anonymous Coward

    Sensor size not optics

    The limiting factor for image quality on cameraphones is the inordinately tiny CMOS sensors fitted to these things. Then the manufacturers make things worse by packing them with ever more megapixels leading to noisy images which have to be smothered with noise reduction to look partially acceptable.

  5. Chris Branch

    Cameraphones aren't much cop as cameras anyway

    Tiny lenses and tiny sensors will give you crap pictures. That's a limitation of the laws of physics. Other phones might have better kit than the iPhone but can any of them replace even a cheap compact camera?

    All cameraphones are equally convenient and no more. No point trying to find the cream of the crap.

  6. Stewart Midwinter

    Nokia too

    Another phone with a Xenon (i.e. 'real') flash and a Carl Zeiss is the 5-MPx-toting Nokia N82. This Nokia model also supports the use of a bluetooth external keyboard, while the iPhone doesn't. One size truly doesn't fit all.

  7. Steven Knox


    Someone's FINALLY realized that what's important on a PHONE is the CAMERA.

  8. Edward

    A truly useful phone....

    Photos schmotos - I want to know which phone is best at picking belly button lint!

  9. Sajjad Syed
    Thumb Down


    Can somebody just make a phone with a ridiculously oversized, overpowered antenna so I NEVER have to deal with my carrier's crappy reception ever again? I won't cry if there is no camera of any kind in it. Seriously.

  10. Andy
    Paris Hilton

    Woo! Let's prejudge!

    While I absolutely agree that more megapixels doesn't necessarily make a camera better, I can't subscribe to the point of view that it has no influence. To take it to absurdity, imagine the difference between a four pixel image and a four _megapixel_ image. It doesn't matter how good the lens is with the first sensor, nor how bad the second. The 4 pixel image is always useless in comparison.

    More megapixels won't suddenly make it a good camera, but frankly neither will improved optics - the size of camera phones limits how good they can be in lots of ways. If a few more pixels make it marginally better for snapshots – and it clearly will – then that's good.

    Oh, and finally... We're taking as gospel a rumour about more pixels, and not even considering a comparable improvement in optics? Where are we, The Register? Oh, wait... ;-)

  11. Vision Aforethought

    New Samsung ('Tocco 2') 8MP UltraTouch...

    ...that I am evaluating produces the most superb daylight images of any camera phone I have ever seen. (I have not tried the Sony C905 that is supposedly the best to date.) The Samsung doesn't have a Xenon flash, but for lower light snaps, the LED flash is incredibly bright. The phone (S8300) while not suited to business, is a great 'social' phone. (It also shoots video at 720x480 30FPS). If Apple can put this sort of camera in the next iPhone(s), it will mean less to carry around and of course, be idea for blogging decent quality pics direct to MobileMe, Flickr etc. The images from this Samsung are good enough for most photography needs. When viewed normal size in iPhoto on my widescreen monitor, (no zooming), it is impossible to tell them apart from those shot on my old SE K800i or even Pentax K10D. Agreed, when you zoom in, the lack of optical resolution is apparent (the lens in a phone cannot of course ever be manufactured to the size of the glass in a pocket digicam or DSLR), but for most uses, the quality is enough. And with more and more imagery purely for viewing online, perhaps shooting for A3 print quality is not longer going to matter for most people?

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Jobs Halo

    A pixel is just a picture element

    A pixel is just a picture element and if it is a crappy picture element a lot of them will make a crappy picture.

    S'funny really. My other phone has oodles more pixels and takes far crappier images that iPhone 3G.

    Not a fanboi comment but a mere summary based on empirical observation.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Chris Branch

    "Tiny lenses and tiny sensors will give you crap pictures. That's a limitation of the laws of physics. "

    Care to state which laws enforce this limitation? Size is irrelevant, quality is not. If you don't believe that, look through a microscope and you'll find very high quality, and very small, lenses (and in some 'scopes, sensors).

    Cheap is cheap, quality is not, and size is a red-herring.

  14. Chas

    SIze is only one issue

    "Care to state which laws enforce this limitation? Size is irrelevant, quality is not. If you don't believe that, look through a microscope and you'll find very high quality, and very small, lenses (and in some 'scopes, sensors"

    With a microscope, the lens is very much larger than the object it's imaging. The opposite it true with a camera. You need a better understanding of the laws of optics before making such preposterous statements.

    If size were not an issue, as you claim, why then are RED producing a 241 megapixel CMOS chip measuring 6 x 17 cms for their upcoming Epic 617 video camera?


  15. Dick Emery


    The tiny sensor used means that it just means more noise. Cut the crap with the pixel count and concentrate on what really counts. The optics.

    One of the camera manufacturers (Olympus I think) has stated they are getting out of the megapixel wars and concentrating on what actually counts in making a photo better.

  16. Bill
    Thumb Up

    Things are changing...

    The newest generation cellphone cameras are really starting to reveal most dedicated devices now - The Samsung INNOV8, Nokia N86 8MP, and Samsung Omnia HD spring to mind. Hell, even my older Samsung G810, with Xenon flash and 3x opitical zoom, can compete well against some dedicated cameras. No, it doesn't take DSLR quality pics. But, it will give a simple Kodak point-and-shoot a run for it's money.

  17. Mathew White

    5 mega pixel

    I think that the obsession with the iPhone Pro is a distraction.

    Its pretty obvious that the 5MP camera is for (a) new Display(s), along the lines of the LED display already shipping.

  18. Anonymous Coward

    @Mathew White

    Why would you put a 5MP web cam in a display?

    5MP image measures around 2560x1920 pixels and is about 500 KB to 1 MB.

    Apple's 30" Cinema Display measures 2560x1600 pixels.

    So only people with 30" displays or larger with a stooopidfast net connection would be able to display [most of] your gigantic face, and it would _only_ be your face, cos you cant do anything else with a camera embedded in a display. Pointless.

    Not saying this is proof of iPhone Pro, but Apple certainly wont be squeezing those cam's into their displays.

  19. Matthew
    Thumb Down

    They are still important

    They need to be at least 3.2 to look decent as a computer desktop. Im sure if a mobile phone company has gone to the trouble of making a 3.2mp camera the the chances are it will have decent quality optics.

  20. Mark


    @Woo! Let's prejudge!

    I think what the poster is getting at is that if the existing 2MP camera produces shit images then upping the pixel count is unlikely to make it any better - the thing is like a pin-hole camera as it is and all they'll be doing is upping the pixel density.

    @@Chris Branch

    "Care to state which law of physics?" - The one that makes the amount of light entering increase with aperture I'd guess. Small lens means small aperture. Small aperture means very little light entering. Very little light entering means greater amplification of sensor signal which gives a noisier image. This is part of the source of the shit image. Pixel density, and hence how prone a sensor is to noise (leakage into adjacent photo sites etc), will be another factor.

    In short its camera is shit and is likely to stay that way without a major rethink.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Most important issue with a camera...

    The DISTANCE from the lens to the sensor is paramount. This is why most photographers dislike compacts. Camera phone are worse. A good quality lens is very important too, again, camera phones generally suck. The physical size of the sensor is important, however the megapixel count in camera phone is largely irrelevant due to the miniscule sensors that are installed. So, feature list fanatics, your lamenting the camera in iPhone and telling us how much your Nokia/Samsung/HTC is better because of it's 'superior camera' is largely bollocks.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    All this arguing ...

    ... over Megapixels and quality is pointless anyway

    Given that manufactuers are forever pushing more and more megapixels as the defactor in great digital photos, I suspect that the mass unwashed will think that a 5MP iPhone is far better than the 2MP iPhone and so will spend another ££££ in upgrades making Steve Jobs just a little bit richer.

    I actually like taking photos on my phone with the ability to upload them immediately to Twitpic or Flickr, but I wouldn't trade in my DSLR or even my 35mm SLR - noone seriously into photography would use a camera phone for their work, yet the camera phone definitely has a place in the capturing of everyday life - quality be damned.

  23. Mathew White

    @Anonymous Coward


    1) most people use their built in iSights for messing around in photobooth not for video conferencing.

    2) if your shelling out £2000 for a display, you gona want more than a crappy 1.3MP camera in it.

    3) why would you release a product thats not going to be refreshed again for probably 2 years with 2 year old technology in it.

    4) Still produces a higher quality image when scaled down.

    5) Its a marketing thing.

  24. Steve

    @ AC 3rd April 2009 21:26 GMT

    Tiny lenses means little light to the sensor, meaning greater exposure time or a noisier image. Tiny lenses also mean the optical system tends towards being diffraction limited - beyond a certain point (this is a bit complicated), the smaller the lens, the more blurry the photo will be, no matter how good the optics, sensor and subsequent image processing is.

    As it is, I can see that my fairly wide aperture superzoom (dedicated) 7.2MP camera clearly becomes diffraction limited when I use full zoom and reduce the aperture size.

    @ AC 4th April 2009 04:40 GMT

    Not quite! Cameras use interpolated pixels, monitors do not.

    A 5MP camera has 5 million sub pixels. My 30" 2560x1600 monitor :cD has 12.3 million sub pixels, so there is scope for having yet more pixels - and then there's the ability to crop unwanted parts out.

  25. jonathan ash

    I think everyones forgetting something....

    It really doesnt matter how many megapixels the new iphone has or what optics it decides to use, Apple will release the new iPhone with the new iCamera using iOptics and all the fanbois will rush out, buy one, instantly loose all common sense (not that they seem to have much to start) and announce that the camera quality is better than a top SLR.

    Just to add I have a nokia n95 and the camera on it is just as good as any basic point-and-shoot and for spontaneous photos it fits the bill!

  26. Andrew Davenport
    Thumb Down

    Camera on a phone?

    Surely Apple should realise that its pretty bloody pointless when there is no MMS function with which to send the photos in the first place!!

    I was shocked to discover this when i got my iPhone.

  27. Cameron Colley


    Have Apple decided to go into the camera market then, iWonder? I can just see it now -- a beautifully designed camera with a fairly decent lens, upgradeable but only using a proprietary connector and display and only one button -- for the shutter. The pictures will be good but will be stored in a new iPicture format and the camera will only interface with Apple products.

  28. Mark Mitchell
    Thumb Down

    @Cameron Colley

    You are sooo funny. Admit it you've never used an Apple product have you - you are aware that the iPod/iPhone can be used on Windows too aren't you ?

    Open your eyes a little - there's a wonderful world outside of your Microsoft comfort zone.

  29. Carl

    SE C905

    I have a SE C905 and the pictures are better than an old 5megapixel standalone cam that I own. The Xenon flash can really make the difference!

  30. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Look, I have a suggestion, it is quite radical, but I think it may work in today's post apocalyptical finance world:

    If you like the iPhone and it does what you want (within reason) then buy one, remembering at all times that should I, or anyone else, chose not to buy one then this means absolutely nothing other than that you and I have selected to purchase different phones. I am sure you will remember that in the grand scale of things this is really less important than whether we like the same bands or not.

    If you don't like the iPhone or have an alternative preferred choice for your mobile phoning needs then I would recommend you do not buy an iPhone. I would humbly suggest that should you elect to not buy an iPhone then it is really none of your business if I, or anyone else, elects to purchase said Jobsian mobile conversational device, and that, in the grand scale of things, it can in no way diminish you or your family, or indeed anything, that someone you have never met, and in all likelihood will never meet has elected to purchase a mobile phone which differs from the mobile phone you selected to purchase for yourself.

    Next I will resolve global warming, the Middle East problem, international banking and all religious issues. Once I sober up enough.

  31. Francis Vaughan

    Laws of physics

    "Care to state which law of physics?"

    Law of conservation of information. Which translates to a limitation the the amount of real information present in the image. Even with the best optics on the planet, the total number of photons arriving at any sensor scales with the size. If you halve the size of a camera, scaling everything, the sensor receives one quarter of the photons for each exposure. Sensor quantum conversion efficiency is pretty much fixed. The effective sensitivity (i.e. the ISO equivalent rating) is a function of the quantum conversion efficiency and the amplification applied to the sensor.

    You can apply more amplification to get the voltages up before analog to digital conversion, but the raw information is not actually there. So you simply get more noise.

    The upshot is that small sensors have vastly worse noise.

    Cameras will apply noise smoothing algorithms - which is little more than blurring out the noise. They then try to sharpen the blurry image, which, in the end leads to a pretty unsatisfactory image. But one with a less obvious speckilng of noise. Typically these images actually holds less real information than a picture taken with a sensor with fewer but bigger pixels. If used in broad daylight it isn't so bad, just poor. But once you get into any sort of lower light situation, even just a cloudy day, it is not good at all. Indoors and it really starts to some unstuck.

    In the end, the answer is easy. Bigger and fewer pixels. Accept that the correct design decisions should start with how the camera will be used, and how the results will be viewed. Poor light conditions and computer screens (or other camera screens) is the answer. This quickly leads to the conclusion that a similar sized sensor with one, or at most two mega pixels is the right design. Not a market driven design based upon an ignorant idea that more pixels is always better.

  32. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    @Francis Vaughn

    Great post - thanks for the information.

    To the original "Care to state ..." poster: get down, and stay down

  33. Anonymous Coward


    Why is there always an N95 owner that pops up on these posts with a "My Nokia brick is the mutts nuts!"? Have you read the article? Have you understood the science bit? Didn't think so. Still your N95 will be able to do an analysis on the data from the article, I'm sure...

    While I'm at it, no Mr C905, you xenon flash DOESN'T make a difference. Any difference that you can see is perceived. Again, try to understand the sciency parts...

  34. David Simpson

    What complete nonsense!

    "Merely pumping up megapixelage doesn't make a camera better. A 3.2-megapixel camera with the same sub-optimal optics and image-processing circuitry as is in the current iPhone will produce equally crappy photos - just bigger ones."

    WRONG ! The reason phone manufacturers use CMOS senors and not CCD is because a phone generally has one general processing unit this unit processes photos, mp3 files and everything else, I had a 2Mpx SE camera phone and it took really impressive photos (compared to an old 2Mpx Nikon camera) when i upgraded to a Samsung U900 Slide phone I was blown away by how good the 5Mpx camera was in it, and it even took video. The images were sharp and had no noise at all (except low light which is a problem for any CMOS) I could even use them as wallpaper on my 19" monitor.

    So basically you are talking rot, the iPhone's camera is a cheap piece of crap and not even up to the quality of the 2Mpx sensor in the original SE walkman phone (from 2004), the iPhones camera does not shoot video because Apple don't want it to or can't spare any CPU power to manage it (since jailbroken phones can shoot video)

    How about calling a spade a spade, if Apple put a better unit in the new iPhone it will also need a bit more power from a new ARM chip as the iPhone is obviously not powerful enough to run more than a cheap ass 2MpxCMOS.

  35. Ray Reilly

    Maxout Smartphone

    I'll only be happy with a 3G Nikon.

    Though maybe a 3G Nike would do, comme Maxwell Smart.

  36. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Andy ORourke

    I don't recall seeing your picyure of a google car? was your camera at home? or the picture too crap? same old argument same Fail.

    I'm sure you can see this phone has a capable camera!

    (its a SonyErricson K850i since been replaced with samsung i8510)

  37. Alan L
    Paris Hilton


    Well, a phone is a phone. Any phone.

    Any phone with a camera has some additional functionality.

    For some stuff, especially in UK climes with a tendency to more rainy/damp days than glorious sunshine days, then a neat Xacti CA9 seems to fit the bill nicely.


    I don't think so. It's the same old horses for courses kind of thing. I suppose I could have gone for something in the region of 27,000 GBP but I didn't.

    Same with the phone.

    I can't say I've had many phones but the iPhone does the business for me. More important than the X Mp of the camera is how stunningly brilliant iPhone handles multiple IMAP email addresses. That is far more an important consideration for li'l ol' me'

  38. Charles Manning

    re: Laws of physics

    Sure those laws of physics do exist, but they are not the limiting factor. Other factors are far more important.

    [Car analogy: the speed of light limits how fast a car can go, but issues like wind resistance come to play far sooner]

    Size matter because it is all a matter of scale. Smaller lenses and lens to sensor distance need more precise mechanics and more precise surface finishing. That makes making small, cheap lenses quite a challenge.

  39. P. Lee
    Paris Hilton

    You're all forgetting

    that when a drunk is taking a picture of another drunk with her t-shirt over her head, standing up through the sunroof of a moving limo, neither pixel quantity nor lens quality nor anything else is going to turn this into a good thing.

    Icon: see what I mean?

  40. Antidisestablishmentarianist

    @Jonathan Ash

    "Just to add I have a nokia n95 and the camera on it is just as good as any basic point-and-shoot"

    I haven't seen a 'My N95 already does this and is better than everything in the world' style post in ages. Nice one.

  41. Ian Fogg

    Interesting iPhone camera weirdness example pic

    It's possible to get some really odd image distortion using an iPhone camera in daylight.

    For example pictures see "iPhone camera scans, not snaps"

  42. Tom Hawkins

    Re: iCamera?

    Shurely you mean 'Have Apple decided to go BACK into the camera market?'

  43. RichyS

    A couple of replies...

    @Andrew Davenport

    The next iPhone (with OS 3.0) will have MMS. And you can still send photos via email and upload to MobileMe (and all sorts of other things with various apps, I'd have thought); so the point is a little moot.

    @Cameron Colley

    Apart from your fairly pointless post (Apple are way better at using open standards than most other big software houses -- AAC used by iTunes/iPod is not an Apple standard [okay, so the Fairplay DRM filth is, but at least they're getting rid of that], H.264 used by Quicktime/iPod/iPhone/Apple TV is another MPEG standard, Safari 4 is the most standards compliant browser, etc. etc.); Apple did once release a camera. If I remember correctly, it was a re-badged very early Kodak digicam that looked more like a Sony Discman. It took very bad VGA images. I remember my school having one (the Kodak one, not Apple), and it was useless. And very expensive! I'll see if I can dig up a link

    Here it is:

    Old stuff is rubbish!

  44. Steven

    @Mark Mitchell

    Open your eyes a little - there's another wonderful world outside of your Apple comfort zone.

    Please ignore the fact that I didn't actually refer to Microsoft though....

  45. Paul Bruneau

    Strange article, what was the point?

    Attention: Some components can be improved, and some might not be improved which might result in less improvement than you might have been thinking about maybe.


  46. Jamie Hylton


    I like the idea of an iCamera to create the iPhone Pro. Now they've extended the API around the docking interface, why not just sell a camera dongle which maybe even has its own power source (solar power charging?), that you plug into the bottom of the iPhone when you want to take iProfessional iPictures and download them to your iMac and use iPhoto to edit them, facial scan them etc.

  47. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton


    Sounds like a pretty impressive bit of circuitry on that chip cloaked with a nice bit of (speculative) software.

    Interim conclusion:

    1 - get new phone soon after release (I hope the queue handling is better handled this time round)

    2 - turn the old phone into an -ahem- more open device?

  48. Alex


    All I will be expecting is a decent camera on the iPhone. If, on my screen, the pics aren't particularly brilliant quality, then I would ask Apple the question "Why?"

    At the end of the day, you can take a picture but it would probably be crapply taken anyway!

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