Apple’s iPhone 14 Pro Camera Uses A Technique Pioneered By Nokia In 2012
The scene was Barcelona in February 2011, when Microsoft’s then-CEO Steve Ballmer closed a deal with Nokia’s CEO Stephen Elop for the Finnish smartphone giant to use Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system (OS) to take on the iPhone and Android as both giants struggled to jump on the smartphone gravy train. Two years later, Ballmer even put a gun to the head of the Microsoft board to acquire Nokia’s “devices and services” business such was his belief in Nokia’s hardware and the Windows Phone operating system. But within a year and a half, when Satya Nadella took over Microsoft, he wrote down the Nokia acquisition and Elop left Microsoft. Today apart from the Surface Phone that uses Android Microsoft doesn’t have much of an imprint in the smartphone space. Nokia has licensed its brand to HMD Global which has struggled to sell smartphones since its relaunch at the end of 2016.
But at Barcelona in 2012 after Nokia had sworn its allegiance towards the Microsoft OS, it launched a device called the PureView 808 which pioneered camera technologies that no smartphone maker has been able to match up until 2019 — which was Huawei’s P30 Pro. Last week when Apple launched the first iPhone with a 48-megapixel camera system — it used the techniques that Nokia used a decade ago.
The PureView 808 was a ground-breaking phone — in fact less so a phone because it was based on the Symbian operating system and more of a camera with its 41-megapixel sensor. It was the first phone to have such a high-resolution camera, but also such a large sensor (1/1.2-inches). Nokia further refined the concept with the Nokia Lumia PureView 1020 which was based on Windows Phone in 2013.
It has taken Apple a decade to deploy a camera system of this kind. Its 48-megapixel resolution uses a technique called Pixel Binning which combines four pixels to create a superpixel which has more light sensitivity and dynamic range. Nokia’s phones shot at 5-megapixels, but these new iPhones operationally are 12-megapixel camera phones. 48-megapixel resolution is overkill for a smartphone, and even with a large sensor as the iPhone 14 Pro which is 65% larger than the iPhone 13 Pro would shoot unattractive (noisy) photos as the sub-pixel size will get reduced as only x number of pixels can be crammed into limited space. Hence Pixel Binning is used.
Now, the iPhone already has an exceptional camera, and it was not a case of Apple not having the ability to use Nokia’s technique. In fact, Damian Dinning, the man who led the PureView camera development at Nokia till 2012, explains that they didn’t have the processing power for computational photography that these modern camera systems are capable of hence they used such big sensors.
“There’s been a lot of improvements over the last 10 years, especially in ISP development which is powering some very heavy lifting image processing which makes these modern designs possible. We just didn’t have that same ISP power 10 years ago,” Dinning said on Twitter who now develops connected cars at Jaguar Land Rover.
Why The iPhone 14 Pro Will Have A Killer Camera
Nokia’s phones were limited by computational power in 2011. Apple had an advantage in performance and ISP — with the launch of the iPhone 4 and the A4 processor which enabled computational photography. Its cameras have always been propelled less so by the physics of optics but more than AI and computational trickery. But in the last two years, Apple has added some optical muscle to the camera system and this year it has added a 1/1.28-inch sensor which is massive. The larger the sensor, the more light it can capture.
This sensor will be the largest on a phone sold in India at the time of authoring this article. It even beats out the Vivo X80 Pro which has a 1/1.3-inch sensor. It’s only behind the 1-inch sensor on the Xiaomi 12S Ultra which will not be sold in India. Samsung’s Galaxy S22 Ultra has a 1/1.33-inch sensor which is smaller and considering its 108-megapixel resolution — it needs to cram more pixels in less space. That’s why the iPhone 13 Pro is more than a match for the Samsung and the Vivo X80 Pro and Xiaomi 12S Ultra beat it regularly.
Apple’s problem hasn’t been computational but optical as the competition since 2019 adopted these high-resolution camera systems that piggybacked on the pixel binning technique that Damian Dinning’s team at Nokia pioneered. In fact, Huawei which had a partnership with Leica had hired many of the camera engineers that worked on Nokia’s PureView cameras.
It is no secret in the sphere of computational photography Apple and Google are unmatched. But now that Apple is starting to marry that might in computational photography with optical superiority — its camera system has the potential to be potent — possibly the best in the business. An iPhone camera that is the best will not surprise people, but it could significantly pull away from the competition.
Another similarity with Nokia’s PureView cameras is how Apple is approaching zoom. Apple recommends zooming or cropping into a ProRaw file shot at 48 megapixels. This is something Nokia also enabled with PureView. Apple even uses the technique to create a lossless zoom at 2x which it believes offers optical quality and higher fidelity than the 2x zoom on the iPhone 12 Pro while retaining its 3x optical zoom using the telephoto lens. Mind you, these phones also get the second-generation sensor-shift stabilisation a type of optical stabilisation (OIS). Nokia also pioneered OIS with the Nokia Lumia 920 in 2012.
A lot of what Apple is doing has its roots in Nokia and its ill-fated marriage with Microsoft. But what’s exciting is that Apple hasn’t abandoned what has made its devices exceptional but borrowed from the past and adapted it for the future.
Sahil Mohan Gupta is a technology journalist based out of New Delhi. He tweets at @digitallybones