Apple debuted an impressive-sounding new photo feature with the iPhone 14 called the Photonic Engine. Here’s what it does and how it affects your iPhone experience.
Computer assisted photography
If you’re interested in smartphone photography, you’ve probably heard the term computational photography. It is essentially the use of algorithms and software to help smartphones’ tiny cameras take better photos. So your iPhone can take amazing pictures without being as big as a DSLR or mirrorless camera.
Apple’s Photonic Engine is a computational photography technique that overhauls the iPhone’s image processing stack to improve photos taken in medium to low light conditions. It helps iPhone deliver better color fidelity, more detail and higher brightness in photos.
According to Apple, you can expect double the performance in medium to low light for photos taken with the various iPhone cameras. However, the effects vary depending on the specific camera. For example, Apple says the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max’s ultrawide camera will see up to a 3x improvement. In contrast, the ultrawide shooter of the iPhone 14 or 14 Plus has images that are only 2x better.
How does it work?
According to Apple, Photonic Engine significantly improves the quality of photos taken with all iPhone cameras by using its Deep Fusion technology earlier in the imaging process than previous generation iPhones and on uncompressed photos. Deep Fusion is also a computer-assisted photography technique that Apple introduced in iOS 13.2 for the iPhone 11 series. It has since appeared on all recent iPhones except for the second generation iPhone SE.
Deep Fusion takes nine photos taken at different exposure levels and combines them into the best possible photo. During processing, the technology goes through all the millions of pixels, pixel by pixel, to select the best elements for the final photo from each of the nine photos. This helps the iPhone reduce noise and enhance detail.
By triggering Deep Fusion goodness earlier in the image capture pipeline, Apple claims it can preserve subtle textures, deliver better colors and retain even more detail. So you essentially get everything that Deep Fusion made possible on previous generation iPhones and more.
Which iPhones have Photonic Engine?
Photonic Engine is only available for iPhone 14 series, which includes iPhone 14, iPhone 14 Plus, iPhone 14 Pro and iPhone 14 Pro Max. It will likely be available on future iPhone models in its current or updated form, but unfortunately it is not compatible with older iPhones. The reason for this is probably the change in camera hardware of the iPhone 14 series compared to the iPhone 13 series. There are some holdovers, like the iPhone 14 using the same primary shooter as the iPhone 13 Pro, but there are some other upgrades.
How to use Photonic Engine
Unlike night mode and similar features, which you can turn on or off with a switch on your iPhone, Photonic Engine works in the background and is automatically used by the iPhone when it thinks it needs it. This means you cannot manually enable or disable Photonic Engine on your phone. But if you take a photo in a less brightly lit environment that isn’t dark enough for night mode, the Photonic Engine is very likely working to improve your photo.
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Still getting night mode and Smart HDR?
The Photonic Engine does not replace night mode or Smart HDR on the iPhone. You can still turn on these two computational photo features manually, or let iPhone trigger them automatically when it detects a dimly lit or brightly lit environment. Your iPhone automatically judges the brightness of an environment and then uses Photonic Engine, Night Mode or Smart HDR.
Improvement in low-light photography
Capturing great photos in low light is a challenge, especially for smartphone cameras. So it’s nice to see that Apple is constantly innovating to improve photos taken with iPhones, especially in less-than-ideal lighting conditions.
Photonic Engine is just one of the many exciting features debuting with the iPhone 14 range; Check out our guide to what’s new in the iPhone 14 series for more information. You’ll also find our best iPhone roundup helpful when planning an upgrade.