Who Needs to Shoot Photos in Low Light Anyway?

Nilay Patel, on Brian X. Chen’s iPhone 13 review for Pravda The New York Times:

The NYT does not believe regular people stand to benefit from better iPhone photos in the dark. I live for this review from another planet every year.

I thought this was a really strange passage too. Quoting from Chen’s review:

So in summary, the iPhone 13 cameras are slightly better than those of last year’s iPhones. Even compared with iPhones from three years ago, the cameras are much better only if you care about taking nice photos in the dark.

Just how important is night photography? I posed the question to Jim Wilson, a longtime staff photographer for The New York Times, as he was taking pictures of the new iPhones for this review. He said it would be a crucial feature for people like him, but not as important for casual shooters.

I enjoy how Chen’s review opens with an egalitarian slam that Apple and Samsung’s annual phone updates are “a mirage of tech innovation” and instead are “a celebration of capitalism”, but when it comes to explaining why typical users shouldn’t care about low-light photography, he basically says “because a professional staff photographer at The New York Times says they shouldn’t care”.

Ben Thompson recalled (as I should have, but did not) that this is something of a recurring theme. From Chen’s review of the iPhones 11 and 11 Pro two years ago:

Photos taken with the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro looked crisp and clear, and their colors were accurate. But after I finished these tests, I looked back at my archived photos taken with an iPhone X.

Those pictures, especially the ones shot with portrait mode, still looked impressive. Some of the low-light ones looked crummy in comparison with the ones taken by the iPhone 11s, but I wouldn’t recommend that you buy a new phone just to get better night photos. You could always just use flash.

You shouldn’t feel the need to buy a new iPhone every year” is a fine sentiment, one that many, if not most, reviewers make each year. Arguing, repeatedly, that your readers should not be concerned at all about taking better photos in low light is bizarre. The single biggest change in consumer photography over the last 3–4 years is the exponential improvement in low light and night mode photography on new mobile phones.

And again, as I mentioned yesterday, Chen’s iPhone 13 review doesn’t even mention battery life, even though almost every other reviewer noted significant improvements across the lineup.

Wednesday, 22 September 2021