Low-light video performance should be Apple’s next priority on the iPhone

There has always been a huge difference in low-light video and photo performance on iPhones. But a recent holiday really highlighted how dramatic that difference can be, especially when it comes to the telephoto lens on the iPhone 14 Pro Max.

So much so that I would argue that low-light video performance really needs to be Apple’s next priority when it comes to the iPhone’s photographic capabilities…


A holiday to Buenos Aires to dance the Argentine tango in its spiritual home has become an annual pilgrimage for me.

I don’t attempt any real photography on these trips – you spend almost every minute dancing or sleeping – but of course I like to get a few shots to look at. Specifically, I’ve created a video montage of trips to really bring back memories.

The dancing generally takes place in dimly lit rooms, and goes on into the wee hours, so even walking home tends to be filmed at night. It’s this experience that really highlighted the difference in its low-light capabilities when shooting photos and videos. This is most exciting with the 3x telephoto lens on the iPhone 14 Pro Max.

The challenge of low-light photography

Since the early days of film, low light photography has always been a challenge. Films then, and today’s digital sensors, perform better when exposed to plenty of light. That’s why even an inexpensive camera can take great photos outdoors on a sunny day, but can struggle when it comes to indoor photos on a gloomy day.

Specifically, grain or noise increases as light levels decrease. For example, look at this photo taken with an iPhone 6:

A closer look reveals grainy and muddy colors:

Apple has made huge progress with low-light photos

For still photos, Apple has made great progress since then. Compare the low light 2014 iPhone image above with some example shots taken with the 2022 iPhone (iPhone 14 Pro Max).

Low-light video is no match for still image quality

You can click/tap on any of them to view the full size, which of course reveals that there are still limits to what can be achieved today – but the difference is huge.

But low-light video compares poorly

However, low-light video performance is a different matter. I’ve said before that low-light video quality is good enough for memories, and the phone does just fine with video when light levels hit a certain threshold. In one video I was careful to make sure my subject was lit even if the background was dark.

One thing the photos from this trip have shown me, however, is that video quality lags significantly behind that of still photos. For example, here’s a still shot taken inside the ballroom at La Nacional:

Here is a frame from a video taken in the same place, on the same night, with the same light:

Both are straight from the camera except for the crop. (And yes, the frame is different, but that was supposed to increase the exposure instead of underexposing it.)

The 3x telephoto lens is a camcorder for video

But while I can live with that difference in video footage, the 3x telephoto lens is basically useless in low light. Again, same place, same night, same light:

Low light video with 3x lens

The 3x lens can’t match the performance of the main lens, even for stills. But again, here’s a low-light still image from the 3x lens:

Here’s a frame grab from a video shot just seconds later in the same spot and with the same lighting (again, view full size to see the differences):

Capture low-light video frame

Motion blur can be a factor of course, but this was a carefully chosen frame when there was no motion to speak of.

Low light video is a much bigger challenge

I appreciate, of course, that video quality is a much greater challenge than still images.

With still photos, Apple relies a lot on exposure and computational photography. It actually starts taking pictures before we hit the shutter button, and will either choose the best frame, or it will combine multiple frames to combine elements from different shots into the same photo.

An example of this is shooting against a brightly lit background, when the iPhone uses a high exposure to capture the subject (for example, a face) and a much underexposed background (for example, the sky).

iPhone uses a wide range of computational imaging technologies to perfect that one shot.

The video is more difficult. Instead of being able to take a second or more to take multiple photos and optimize them, the iPhone has to take anything from 24fps to 240. It can’t bracket, and it doesn’t have the same ability to optimize every frame because it can’t keep up.

But video has become as important as still images

But as difficult as the job is, I think it needs to be Apple’s next big priority with the iPhone.

From a personal perspective, I still shoot a lot more stills than videos. But the proportion of videos is steadily increasing, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.

Whether it’s travel, kids, family get-togethers, nights out with friends, or just the everyday things people like to share on social media, people are increasingly turning to video rather than still images.

The phone has always been probably the least important function of the iPhone. I bet the average iPhone user has long taken more photos than he does on phone calls. Today, I suspect we’re quickly getting to the point where the same will be true for videos. Of all the things Apple could choose as a priority for iPhone development, I’d put low-light video quality at the top of the list.

Do you share my point of view? Or is low-light video not very important to you? Please share your thoughts via your comments.

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