Camera companies, like traditional phone manufacturers, dismissed the iPhone as a toy when it launched, in 2007. Nokia thought that the iPhone used inferior technology; the camera makers thought that it took lousy pictures. Neither thought that they had anything to worry about. Of course, neither anticipated the value of having a computer in your pocket, and what the camera folks, especially, didn’t anticipate was that, as the photographer Chase Jarvis puts it, the best camera is the one that’s with you.
The iPhone didn’t really start to cannibalize the camera business until the iPhone 4 came out, in 2010. That year, Instagram was born and a hundred and twenty-two million digital cameras were sold—a record, according to the Camera and Imaging Products Association, a Japanese camera makers’ trade organization. By 2015, however, that number had shrunk to about thirty-five million. Since that time, the iPhone has bulked up its photographic capabilities and formed a symbiotic relationship with social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and, especially, Instagram. The better the phone camera became, the more photos we started to snap and share. There are now nearly a billion smartphones worldwide capturing selfies, birthday smiles, breakfast sandwiches, Tuscan villages, and cats. In the past, such photos were taken by a point-and-shoot camera. Even today, the interchangeable-lens cameras and high-end cameras have their fans, so demand for these monsters still exists. But for how long?
We don’t know the digital-camera industry’s own answer to that question, but as of Wednesday the time frame certainly shortened. That was the day Apple announced its new iPhone. While in most ways the device launch was predictable, the iPhone 7 Plus, with its souped-up camera, made a big impression on serious photographers. The iPhone 7 Plus, which retails for seven hundred and sixty-nine dollars (or higher) has two lenses—a 28-mm.-equivalent, 12-megapixel lens and a 56-mm.-equivalent, 12-megapixel telephoto lens. Apple has managed to pack a lot of premium features—longer exposures, better aperture, and the ability to shoot digital negatives, which professionals call DNGs. A DNG is, essentially, a photo file that captures all the visual information possible for further manipulation, such as enhancing shadows or removing highlights. The new iPhone uses circuitry, software, and algorithms to create images that look and feel as if they came out of high-end cameras. Tellingly, Apple’s presentation of the camera’s abilities was the one aspect of the biennial iPhone rollout that wasn’t mercilessly mocked on social media.