The Future of the iPhone Camera: How the New iPhone May Forever Change the Way We Think About Pro Photography


As Apple’s WWDC kicks off this week, my thoughts keep coming back to the heated debate with my friends about the future of photography.

Let me step back for a second. Marissa Mayer famously said a few weeks ago that there’s no such thing as professional photographer anymore. The Internet rage followed, and she apologized, saying that what she meant is that we all take photos now. And it’s true. Nothing has revolutionized photography and made it truly global as Apple’s iPhone.

I think that hundreds of millions of consumers have been fooled by Apple. They entered (or websites) stores to get a phone, but what they got instead was a decent camera that is always with them.

It’s hard to look back to 2007 and see the first iPhone with its mediocre — compared to more advanced competition at the time — 2 megapixel camera and see the future.

But the thought that I keep coming back to takes the same approach — what if we look at iPhone 5 with its marvelous camera and see where we will be in 5 years from now?

Interestingly enough, I’m almost sure that professional photographers take more iPhone photos than they do with a professional DSLRs and such. I do, for one.

Carrying around 15 kilos (that’s 33 pounds for those on the imperial system) of equipment is not fun, especially if it’s a regular day and you are just walking around your city. But the one single feature that is missing from iPhone 5 that could truly break the market and create chaos is a RAW support.

Simply put, JPGs from iPhone are fine. You can put an Instagram filter on it, losing all the quality in the process, or you can take expensive DSLR and shoot in RAW format and get all the details, colors and preserve the quality while editing. It’s the holy grail of professional photography.


So why doesn’t the iPhone have RAW support? For one, there’s Apple’s famous closed ecosystem, where the company prefers to control all the aspects of hardware and software to deliver the best experience. However, we are seeing the hints that Apple might be opening up, giving more access for interoperability within apps, and it might happen as soon as WWDC starts.

The second point is that RAW required a lot more storage capacity, usually around 10x as much. So instead of approximately 5,000 shots, on the 16GB iPhone 5 you can only store 500. Not good. But with cloud storage, cheaper memory (and thus, the rumored, and inevitable, 128GB iPhone), it should be sufficient for professional photographers.

The third point, which probably made RAW support simply impossible before, is the CPU power. Processing RAW files is not a breeze even on iPad 3-or-whatever-the-current-number-is, so it’s definitely not consumer-ready (but I would argue that it’s pro-ready, since professionals would be willing to sacrifice time or battery life for that).

So why is it a big deal? Heavy DSLRs forced professional photographers seek alternative options — cameras that offer large sensors in small bodies and also boast RAW support — such as Fuji X100s, Sony NEX-series cameras, Canon EOS M, and many many more. It’s a huge market as photographers realize that mobility and accessibility is crucial — that is, having a camera with you is more important than having a pro camera at home.


Having iPhone do all that would mean proliferation of mobile phones in the places we have never seen before — professional underwater photography, professional extreme sport photography, even professional landscape photography — all that could be done with a future iPhone.

That will mean faster innovation in the sector, lower prices and even more amazing accessories for future iPhones.

If Apple opens up APIs to access RAW data of its Camera app, we will also see thousands of developers creating innovative tools, empowering current future generations of photographers to be creative.

The iPhone’s camera has been through a great evolution over the years, but opening up RAW capabilities is what will spark a real photo revolution.

About the author: Evgeny Tchebotarev is the co-founder and COO of 500px. Photographer, designer, motorcycle rider. This article originally appeared here.

Image credit: iPhone iPhone iPhone by kowitz

  • OldSch00lPhotog

    Unless a phone has optical zoom, I don’t see them ever really replacing a dSLR. Digital zoom? Yea phuq that noise! I can see mirror-less cameras replacing bulky dSLRs but never a smartphone.

  • 5234543252

    well you may TAKE as many photos as you want… nobody cares about them anyway. don´t be fooled and think that facebook likes mean ANYTHING.

    i CREATE photos… and i get payed for it.

  • s

    I don’t think having optical zoom or not is the problem here..It’s mainly about the sensor size and lens quality. Though you may not imagine it, smartphone/camera hybrid will be able to compete with real dslr somedays int the future just like mirroless does. But then pro dslr will advance as well so yeah, future, who knows.

  • Magali

    I don’t consider myself a professional & I hardly ever shoot RAW, even on my dslr.
    I agree with a lot of this article. I don’t think optical zoom is *that* important to everyone. My Fuji X100 is fixed lens & it gets a lot more use than my dslr primaly because it’s so easy to carry around & people are less intimidated by it. I don’t see phones ever completely replacing dslrs, but I think they will get a lot more use.

  • Guest

    Thankfully you don’t get paid for your writing skills, I guess?

  • Magali

    Absolutely. The Fuji X100 doesn’t have an optical zoom & it has still done very well. A lot of us prefer it like that.


    Pretty sure that guy takes horrible pictures.

  • Mike Z.

    Considering that most of my images end up as printed material or trade show displays I don’t think iphones will make that much headway into the “REAL” commercial world. iphones are fun, decent cameras but they lack the sensor size, bit depth and 300dpi resolution for commercial print work.
    But I’m just a full-time photographer with 27 years in the business and a wall full of ADDYS, what do I know…

  • Booray

    It seems whenever the great debate starts about phone cameras replacing Pro cameras they never address the single biggest factor that prohibits cell cameras from catching up:


    No matter what they do with the camera phone, it will never be able to do what a pro can do with off-camera lighting. Until they invent a powerful strobe and tripod that is remote triggered and fits in my pocket, I’ll stick with my pro gear. Yes, if you are a pro who only shoots natural light then camera phones are a real threat (or boon) but for most of us it’s no different than a Polaroid Land Camera.

  • Mike

    The future of pro photography is taking tiny crops out of huge MP photos using ultra small focal lengths?

  • Mako

    “I’m almost sure that professional photographers take more iPhone photos than they do with a professional DSLRs and such.” You certainly aren’t a sports shooter! I can easily shoot a couple of 1,000 files on a weekend. And I often DON’T shoot RAW because it would take too long to process them. Fortunately jpeg processing has come a long way in top cameras.

  • Dave Robertson

    True the Fuji X100 does not have an optical zoom, but it does have a fast f2 optical lens and a 12.3 APS-C sensor… this makes a very big difference in quality; screen and print. Until a phone can do this, count me out, but I would get a camera similar to the Fuji X100, which is the equivalent to a 35mm. (FF). There is also something to be said about the processing engine of a DSLR. The Expeed/DIGICs are awesome processors and they are very important in the overall quality of the photo. Yes phonemaras are getting better, but I do not think they will replace a DSLR anytime soon and if you are professional that has to worry about print, overall speed, flexability… well you all get the point.

  • w3rdsmyth

    Migali, they are speaking about optical zoom vs. digital zoom. It has nothing to do with being a fixed prime type lens. They are talking about all of the noise in an image from the digital zoom vs. the lack of noise from an actual real zoom lens.

  • SteveHolt

    Was perusing this site; then I read the line, “control all the aspects of hardware and software for best experience” and decided it was time to leave a nasty comment and then click the goodbye forever button…

  • Magali

    Yeah I figured. My personal solution then is to not use any zoom, obviously.

  • ietion

    +1 mako! You need an optical viewfinder in strong daylight for sports! You need all the focal length you can get! 6 fps are not that many quite often! You need a very fast focusing system! I don’t know how good a phone will ever be, but i doubt it will be better than a dslr designed to do all that!

  • Thiago Medeiros

    Come on, guys. Can’t believe you’re going such lenghts making a case for such a naïve idea. Raw data from a smartphone isn’t just impractical, it’s just plain unusable. Do you guys have any idea of the huge amount of processing required to convert the raw data output from tiny sensors into a viewable image? The tiny lens projects an image that is incredibly distorted, full of all sorts of aberrations and colors are all over the place. The “raw” file given to the user would have to be significantly pre-processed in order to be of any use (some camera manufacturers actually do that, which has pissed off some users in the past).

    Let’s ignore that for a moment; do you guys really think we would be able to extract so much highlight/shadow information from the tiny sensor? Dynamic range is just plain bad. The iPhone in HDR mode already extracts most of the information from clipped areas as it stands.

    Finally, the notion that the only feature missing from smartphone cameras that “prevent” them from professional use is Raw capabilities is simply simplistic and ingenuous.

    There are a million things that could be done to improve or revolutionize mobile imaging; raw shooting abilities is just not one of them.

  • Ren Bostelaar

    RAW from a camera with tiny optics and a tiny sensor? That’s not putting the cart before the horse, that’s just a horse attached to nothing.

  • Erik Mullinix

    There is quite a lot that a professional photographer can do that an average person with a phone does not consider. Framing, Lighting, and artistic picture challenges are the hallmark of something more than a casual i want to record this moment mentality. That said, I do think all images should be saved in RAW and applaud any company that includes that in their camera, phone other otherwise. I have seen some amazing imagery from phone using artists but nothing I have enjoyed has yet to compare to the SLR wielding picture hound.

    With the advent of tools such as Lightroom, Firmware options such as Magic Lantern. I believe that SLR wielding picture hounds will always have more options. The more you can fine tune the image you seek the more you learn about the creation of a great image. I am still learning myself, one day I hope to make a great image and will do that with an SLR.

    Note this poster is not in any way an oracle nor the definitive answer to all things picture. He is however a nerd who loves photography and dresses himself kind of funny.

  • Jared Youtsey

    Optical zoom. Bokeh? f/1.8 lens. RAW. Strobes.

    I think that the iPhone has a legitimate place in photography, even for pro’s. But it doesn’t REPLACE my DSLR. That’s still at least a decade away. Certain times, I pick my phone, especially if I want to share something right away. But in the end, I want to edit my photos. I want to shoot RAW and find the real life in my shots. Sometimes I’ve taken the same shot with both and prefered the iPhone. Until I got home and edited my RAW file. Then watch out!

  • Rob S

    Right that is why all those super zooms with RAW support have taken over from DSLRs… wait that didnt happen….

    That is why the Olympus M4/3s have taken over from DSLRs…didnt happen….

    That is why the Sony NEX has taken over from DSLRs…..didnt happen…..

    When will people figure out that taking good pictures consistently REQUIRES a certain mass to a camera? You need enough space for your hands.

    Do you even remember where phones were going prior to the iPhone? It was all about getting the SMALLEST phone possible. In Korea and Japan they were being worn as necklaces’. Phone watches were being demoed. The iPhone changed that and now you see ads that claim the iPhone is too small. Remember net books? They existed in a world where everyone wanted a smaller laptop. Turns out they didn’t. Turns out 14″ screens are about as small as people are willing to go on a laptop before they decide its just stupid. Even an iPad screen is bigger than most netbooks. SMART Cars were a big deal for about 5 minutes. Smaller is not always better and there is a tipping point where smaller sucks.

  • Sean Walsh

    The real concern isn’t whether DSLR owners feel threatened by a camera phone with RAW capability, but more so by the people that think a camera phone should be enough of a reason to dismiss hiring a pro with a DSLR; see also: Chicago Sun-Times.
    The best camera is the one you have with you, and I’ll back that up to no end. I’m a full-time professional photographer, but there are many times I’m out running errands, my gear is at the studio, and I see something that’d make a nice print. What’s with me? My iPhone. If I could shoot that one shot in RAW and extract more info in that file, I would love to have that option open to me. But to suggest that an iPhone with RAW could match the speed, precision, and optic capabilities of a pro-DSLR set-up is laughable.
    Use your camera phones for what they are – point-and-shoots for the days you’re not out to create your best work, but just want to capture something you see.

  • w3rdsmyth

    Haha, you will get no argument from me. I shoot with primes. :)

  • Rob S

    Amen brother!

    What I shoot on my iphone in a month of sundays doent match what a shoot at one car race….or lax match…

  • geodesigner


  • Matt

    Wow, of all the possibilites that tech brings and he only wants RAW output? Not that I don’t see that as a good thing…

    Tech will one day bring a camera that does not take much if any technical knowledge. Will that be the end of good photography? It will mean a lot more bad photos, but it also means that more art will be done. Today we are limited by our tools that require technical knowledge to use correctly in a wide variety of situation. That keeps out a lot of people, some of who can make good art.
    If we remove all technical challenges what is left? Vision.

  • worker88

    The shift is definitely happening, it’s happening sooner than we realize. We wont be buying cameras, we will probably be buying apps from camera manufactures that mimic their products.

    The consumer market of point and shoots raced to the bottom and will be non existent, it’s just not a solid model for income.

    When is the last time you’ve seen a person whip out a point and shoot camera, if so how surprised were you? How many?

    Theres a reason the first picture hardly has any cameras out

    Surprisingly my personal work went from being captured with my DSLRs to film point and shoots to GF1 to iPhone. This happened fast. The quality degrades, but its more about being there and experiencing things than processing RAW files and sticking a camera in someones face being “that guy”.

    I can’t imagine shooting most of what I shoot with phone camera from today (a mix of product and fashion) but if the right equipment was produced…

    A lot can happen in a few years.

  • Rabi Abonour

    Yeah, this is a pretty appalling article. RAW is hardly what keeps photographers tied to their DSLRs.

  • Renato Murakami

    Very weird thing to pick about when it comes to iPhone 5 camera… RAW?
    I mean, not all photographers that uses dSLRs even use RAW, and when they do it’s to get that extra post-processing ability with more information and latitude (dynamic range) that the APS-C or full frame sized sensor provides.
    No matter how much the author is willing to compliment iPhone 5’s camera, even when there are several other better smartphone cameras in the market (lots of Android models, Nokia PureView), it’s not going to do much about it’s tiny sensor – you won’t get much extra information or latitude from iPhone 5’s sensor.
    And then, when you consider the time it takes for post processing, and how many iPhone 5 users would actually put this to use… well, not much is left.
    Shure, Apple could open the software side for RAW, but you know, we’re talking about the most closed architecture here among all the options.
    And then comes processing power and space… Apple being notorious by closing up it’s system entirely for external storage (unless you jailbreak it) – what would people do about the RAW files? Pay 3x the price for extra space?
    Apple has tons of other stuff to solve before even considering RAW file format.
    Nokia is probably far closer to it, with sensors 4x bigger than iPhone 5’s. But it’s still a hard sell. It’s 4x bigger than iPhone 5’s but still…. I think 4x smaller than APS-C.
    I’m just hoping for now that being on Windows Phone 8.1 enables it to get more photography centered apps…

  • John Adkins

    FWIW, I love my iPhone but most definitely take waaaay more photos with my “real” camera. As a ‘professional’ a phone will most likely never replace my dSLR for several reasons. One, personally, I prefer the heavier weight of my dSLR because it helps me to stabilize more easily and feels better in my hands. Two, I like having interchangeable lenses. Granted that smaller cameras have those now also, but I don’t believe the quality is the same… yet. Now if they come out with an 18-200 2.8, I may go to just one lens. Three, as of right now and probably in the near future, there is no way in Hades I would show up to *any* job with a phone. I’m not saying you didn’t make some valid points, but I think your future must be closer than mine. :)

  • wilmark johnatty

    RAW??? – you think its RAW thats makes a DSLR great?? Come-on Petapixel!!

  • Chris

    Don’t forget quality glass. The whole 4.5mm lens on the tiny sensor just doesn’t cut it for the commercial clients I shoot for….

  • KewlDewd

    All good reasons, and there are many more. All those thinking the iPhone replacing DSLR’s is right around the corner are not professional photographers. There’s a LOT more to a professional camera than RAW output.

  • Swade

    You know… except for prime lenses.

  • Evgeny Tchebotarev

    If you shoot JPG with your DSLR… that article will likely miss a point with you.

  • Evgeny Tchebotarev

    You are on Android, right?

  • Evgeny Tchebotarev

    iPhone 5 lens is 2.4, so it’s pretty close — half a stop.

    Big sensor makes the biggest impact on DOF and such, but we can’t really expect to have that in a smartphone, can we?

  • Evgeny Tchebotarev

    I’m not, but I’m a hobbyist landscape and fashion/portrait photographer, and my city shots are almost all iPhone, because I’m tired of carrying D800 with 70-200 around for every latte in the city.

  • Evgeny Tchebotarev

    Do they specifically care for the lens size or the results?

  • Evgeny Tchebotarev

    Agree re: Flash argument. I never use flash, but I’m fine shooting my landscapes without.

  • Evgeny Tchebotarev

    Would love to see your portfolio. Do you have a link?

  • Evgeny Tchebotarev

    Share a link to your portfolio, I’d love to take a look.

  • nameless

    The only phone that makes beautiful photos is iPhone? what about Samsung, Sony, HTC…. ??? I’m not an Apple basher, but statement like “iPhone changed photography” instead of generic term “smart phone” is really incorrect(from my point of view).

  • Genkakuzai

    Give me a bigger sensor, sharper optics and RAW and I’ll be a happy camper, no doubt about that. Not giving up my dSLR anytime soon, but they can co-exist just fine.

  • Jore Puusa

    All cameras are light tight boxes with a small hole in them. The only thing that really matters is ergonomics, meaning how to hold camera in different situations.

    So, fot instance take an iPhone to a war in the jungle. When battery dies, so dies Your photography. To shoot You have to use both hands while a pro may shoot with a cam in one hand only and use the other hand as a bumper when ducking in a mortar attack. Using a DSLR You may have ten extra batteries with You.
    IPhone won´t take the humidity, it dies as well.

    Say one shoots with iPhone and has bright sun behind, the screen is not visible, you have to seek an angle to see whats in the picture and You loose the situation.

    All the pictures from iPhone look the same, their angle of view is the same, the bokeh is the same, the height of shot is the same usually ( usually shot standing and iPhone at arms length.) Even those thousands of image spoiling software makes the pix look the same. The backgrounds are always the same, messy –cause DOF is the same.
    In the hands of educated pro the iPhone can be used as a tool in some occasions. The pictures are not born in the camera, they are born in the brains of the photographer. IF he has been reading and studying a lot ( history, novels,poetry etc) he may use the parallers ( metaphors) inside the picture to show differences which draw attention. IF he is ignorant, his pictures are just reproduction of what is in front of the camera. Then it is the same what he uses iPhone- or state of the art DSLR.

    English is my third foreign language, sorry about the mistakes….

    Jore Puusa
    Teacher of photojournalism
    Helsinki, Finland

  • Evgeny Tchebotarev

    Of course there are other things — glass, sensor and faster shooting, but whenever I’m in for a market for a compact camera, nothing matters more than support of RAW. If the compact camera doesn’t have RAW — it’s a species on the verge of being extinct.

  • Evgeny Tchebotarev

    I’ve tried and continue to use many others (e.g. Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 4). While the optics and sensors are great, Android suffers a bit from lack of quality software processing.

    So yep, iPhone 4s/5 is the best camera on the phone at the moment. Even beating HTC and Samsung.

  • Evgeny Tchebotarev

    Bigger sensor and sharper optics don’t play too well with people’s desire to have the thinnest phone.

  • Genkakuzai

    Fully aware of that. Personally I’d gladly get a slightly thicker phone and a reasonably sized sensor.

  • Evgeny Tchebotarev

    To your first point, people I knew who were shooting war in the jungles never used digital, cause it’s just not enough. Film camera is robust, dependent and doesn’t need batteries.