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Google and Apple Are Killing It With Photo Tech


When it comes to hardware phone makers are bored because there’s not much left to improve. However, when it comes to the camera in your phone, Apple and Google still have a lot they can do on the software side. On this front, both companies are absolutely killing it.

Portrait Mode Is the Best New Photography Feature Since Camera Phones

If Portrait Mode was the only new innovation Apple and Google added to their phones, I would still be impressed. For those who haven’t seen it, this mode creates a narrow depth of field, focusing on the subject’s face while adding a soft blur to the background. This isolates the subject and makes them stand out a lot more. It sounds like a simple, even boring thing until you see it in action. Once you try it, your selfies will never be the same.

Apple and Google have different approaches to this feature, but they have the same effect. Apple’s iPhones use a dual-lens camera to analyze at your pictures from two slightly differently angles and apply a faux blur. Google’s Pixel 2 only has a single lens, instead using image recognition software to detect the subject in a photo, then blur everything else. The downside to this method is that it occasionally gets it wrong, blurring part of an ear, or maybe the tip of your hat. Apple’s tech has a slight edge on this front, but both phones can immediately give your pictures a stunning look.

Live Photos Capture The Delightful Moments Before and After Your Pictures

Your photos aren’t just images. They’re moments. Freeze frames in time from a memory that was at least important enough to justify taking your camera out of your pocket and preserving it. Live Photos (or Motion Photos, as Google calls them) take a small video that spans the second or two before you take a picture to the second or two after it. You can view the picture on its own, or you can tap a button to see this small video.

It doesn’t sound all that interesting on its own until you see the little moments you miss. For example, the picture above was taken at a friends wedding. My girlfriend wanted to take a sweet picture as the evening slowly drifted into twilight. I wanted to touch her butt. Motion Photos let us split the difference. The full-sized photo is gorgeous, romantic, and picturesque, but seeing the few seconds around that single frame tells a much different story of that moment.

Slow Motion Video Is Finally Accessible For Everyone

You know those YouTube videos where they record ridiculous stuff with an insanely expensive slow-motion camera? Well, now you can do that same thing with your cat. Google and Apple’s phones are capable of shooting slow motion video of up to 240fps. Sometimes the picture quality drops a bit, since the phone has to capture twice or even four times the number of frames per second with the same hardware, but you can capture entirely new moments like your kids playing sports or the pets’ antics.

Now, this isn’t going to be quite the same quality as the professional videos you’re used to seeing online. Those cameras are capable of 1,000fps, or even 10,000fps for really fast things like a bullet. Comparatively, 240fps is not nearly as slow. So, if you record a hummingbird, you might not be able to see an individual wing flap, but you can still get a really good look at the bird as it flies past your feeder.

Oh Yeah, You Have a 4K Video Camera Now

This year it was finally starting to be a good time to buy a 4K TV. However, the phone you got two years ago might already be able to record video in 4K. Starting from the iPhone 6S/6S Plus/SE and the Nexus 5X/6P onward, Google and Apple’s phones contain 4K video-capable cameras. This is a big deal even if—arguably, especially if—you don’t have a 4K TV.

For starters, when you downscale 4K video to normal HD (or 1080p), the video usually looks better. All those extra pixels also give image stabilization features a lot more detail to work with, so you can stabilize your shaky phone footage. You can even grab single frames of a 4K video, which are roughly the equivalent of an 8 megapixel photo. That won’t make a huge photo by any stretch, and taking a photo properly will almost always be better. However, if you want to make a photo album from frames of your video, you have all the pixels you need to do it.

Phone cameras are getting so good that we don’t have to judge them by megapixel count or sensor quality as much anymore. Sure extra megapixels are great, but the real magic is found in all the little features Apple and Google keep adding—features that make it easier to take awesome photos and shoot fantastic video.

Eric Ravenscraft Eric Ravenscraft
Eric Ravenscraft has nearly a decade of writing experience in the technology industry. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, PCMag, The Daily Beast, Geek and Sundry, and The Inventory. Read Full Bio »