Back in June of 2013, I published my first piece on The Verge. Titled “Post Processing, why the smartphone camera changed photography forever,“ I argued that the launch of the iPhone in 2007 made as great an impact on the world of photography as the launch of the first Leica 35mm camera back in 1913. Clearly not everyone agreed, but let’s not reopen that can of worms.
Instead, let’s talk about just how terrible that first iPhone camera was! I mean really, while historically monumental, the camera itself was total garbage. By now you are probably wondering why on earth I’m writing about the camera on a smartphone that will be 10 years old next year? The reason, dear reader, is that until a couple of days ago, I’d completely forgotten just how bad it was.
Yesterday we posted Nilay’s review of the brand-new iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. From the moment we first saw the new phones, it was clear that the cameras would once again be a huge factor. So we decided to compare the camera in the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus with (no surprise here) the iPhone 6S Plus; the Galaxy Note 7 (no surprise here either); The Fuji X-T10 (somewhat of a surprise but okay, let’s go with it); the Canon 5D Mark III (okay, I see where you’re going with this); and the original iPhone 2G (err… now you’ve lost me).
I’d forgotten just what a hunk of junk the original camera was
I thought that it would be fun, okay? I thought that it would be ironic, cool, and interestingly nerdy to shoot pictures on the first iPhone to compare them with the latest iPhone. But having not used an iPhone 2G to shoot any pictures since I bought an iPhone 3G, I’d forgotten just what a hunk of junk the original camera was. Opening the camera app is so slow it’s mildly amusing, like a joke that goes on so long that it becomes funny again. The appalling resolution of a 2-megapixel camera is less funny, and the nonexistent low-light capabilities are positively irritating. All of which means comparing the camera in the iPhone 2G against the brand-new iPhone 7 and 7 Plus is totally pointless, unfair, and in some small fashion, a lot of fun.
It was fascinating to shoot pictures on this iconic phone for the first time in years. It made me realize just how far cameras in iPhones (and most other smartphones for that matter) have progressed over the decade. The iPhone 2G was a revolutionary smartphone which also had a camera; the iPhone 7 is truly remarkable camera that you can also use to call your mother on a Sunday.
While these noisy, dark, blurry pictures have little to offer as part of a competitive performance analysis with Apple’s new flagship devices, they do represent a fascinating historical snapshot (pun intended). We’ve clearly come a long way. And this doesn’t even take into consideration the postage-stamp-quality photos of the pre-iPhone era.
So the next time you read a deep dive lab test of the latest smartphone camera, complete with analysis of the tonal variation of the image, the color gamut, shadow detail, chromatic aberration etc., just remember that there was a time not so long ago when we were beyond excited just to be able to have a camera always waiting in our pockets. The fact that those pictures looked as though they’d be shot through an old sock before being dipped in cold tea? We cared not a jot.
Slider photographs: left: iPhone 2G, right: iPhone 7 Plus. Lead photo shot on iPhone 7 Plus.