Back in Black... or White

It’s hard to believe that I’ve had my iPhone for almost two years already. I am amazed that I haven’t grown tired of it or become apathetic about it. When I think back to my first cell phone, which was from the Motorola DynaTAC 8000-series, I’m amazed at how far we’ve come.

Dr. Martin Cooper, lead engineer of the team that developed the first hand-held cellular telephone, holding a Motorola DynaTAC 8000x

Yes, I used to own (and use) one of those; no, I’m not as old as you might think; and yes, it really was that big. See for yourself:

I wish now that I had kept it instead of selling it to pay for its successor. But I digress. The iPhone was as revolutionary as The Brick (as the DynaTAC was known) was in its day. The Brick was revolutionary because it gave people a capability they neither had nor could afford before. The iPhone was revolutionary because it threw out the 34-year-old user interface and replaced it with one that was in tune with the features available and made everything intuitive. And fun. When, pre-iPhone, did you ever think using your cell phone was fun? Never?

OK, so here we are just about two years after Apple introduced the world to what a phone could be. Earlier this week, they introduced the iPhone 3G S. While certainly not revolutionary like the original iPhone, it is a definite evolution and a major refinement of iPhone’s capabilities and usability. From a photographer’s point of view, however, the 3G S really is a huge improvement over the 3G and original iPhone. I dare say that taken in toto, the photographic capabilities may be revolutionary.

Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way first. The first two iterations of the iPhone had pretty rudimentary (read “crappy”) cameras as I, and many others, have noted. Several improvements will appear on the iPhone 3G S.
  • Apple claims that low-light performance will be much better on the 3G S.
  • The 3G S will have an autofocus camera instead of the fixed-focus camera that previous generations, and indeed most cell phones, have. More on that below.
  • It will have a built-in macro mode. The current iPhone camera has a pretty long minimum focusing distance because of its fixed-focus lens. This hinders it not only for artistic photos, but also for application-driven imaging like capturing and decoding barcodes.
  • Video
  • The addition of a GPS receiver in the 3G made iPhone’s photo geocoding much more accurate. The introduction of a magnetic compass in the 3G S will fill the last major missing capability needed to enable some very interesting applications.
It’s not all roses with iPhone 3G S. I was hoping for some sort of illumination device like a flash or an LED light. Apple made no mention of whether the 3G S improves upon the “shutter” speed issue I discussed two years ago. A self-timer would have been nice (although third-party apps provide this missing function).

So, why are the improvements in the 3G S’s camera so noteworthy? Let’s take the example of autofocus. Not many phones have autofocus cameras yet. That in itself makes autofocus on the 3G S novel, but what I think is really interesting is the touch-to-focus feature. Instead of doing the dance where one puts the desired point of focus in the middle of the viewfinder, presses the shutter half-way to focus on that area, then recomposes the picture the way it should have been in the first place, the person taking the photo can compose the shot and then very intuitively change the point of focus without modifying the composition. This reminds me of Canon’s so-called “eye focus” technology from the EOS Elan and EOS 3 film cameras that caused the camera to focus on the portion of the viewfinder at which the photographer was looking. Why hasn’t this technology made it into the digital SLRs yet? One last comment about autofocus: it could allow the camera to record the approximate distance to the subject (we’ll have to wait until the 19th to find out whether or not the 3G S does). This, combined with the GPS and new compass, would make it possible to determine the position not only of the camera, but also of the subject. The next level of geocoding! Imagine tapping (or clicking) on a photo and seeing a Google Map with pins denoting the location of the camera and the subject! This capability would have been so incredibly useful on my 2005 trip to China. I predict that we will start seeing this same capability in dSLRs in two years or less.

I didn’t intend for this entry to become so long. I think I’ll pause here and finish my thoughts in the next entry within a day or two. Oh, in case you were wondering, the title of this entry refers not only to the fact that the blog is alive again, but also to the two colors in which the iPhone 3G S will initially be available.

A contemporary photo of Dr. Cooper with a 1973 prototype of the DynaTAC. Notice the keyboard layout and the complete lack of a display. Notice also the puzzled look of the man in the background who probably hadn’t even been born yet in 1973.

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