Perhaps the most important feature of the modern era of the smartphone is the camera. The operating systems are mature, the processors and data connections are fast, the apps are plentiful, and the high-resolution screens are large and brilliant. Having a camera with us wherever we go has changed how we view the world and share our lives with others, and the thin shell of a smartphone puts some pretty severe limitations on photography.

Compared to a decade ago, of course, today’s smartphone cameras offer eye-poppingly good image quality. But if you’re shopping for a new smartphone, the camera matters—and the competition is fierce. For years, Apple has promoted the iPhone as offering a high-quality camera, even if it didn’t always match up to competitors with more raw megapixels. But if Apple did possess the smartphone camera throne, it feels like it’s lost it in the last year or two.

pixel 3 xl camera fullChristopher Hebert/IDG
The consensus is that the Google Pixel 3 has the best smartphone camera right now.

Google’s Pixel 3 is generally considered to be the best overall smartphone camera, and its Night Sight feature offers the ability to shoot low-light images that blow away those on the iPhone. It offers deep-focus effects with a single camera that seem to beat the dual-camera setup on the iPhone XS and XS Max. And it’s got a wide-angle selfie camera to make capturing large groups easier.

What can Apple do to counter Google in 2019? There are a few different answers—including one that could require Apple to re-think its classic approach to iPhone upgrades.

The hardware should always get better

Of course, Apple will continue to work on making the iPhone camera better—regardless of the presence of strong competition in the market. It’s been a while since Apple released an iPhone and declared that the camera wasn’t any better than last year’s model. Apple is always pushing the iPhone cameras forward.

iphone xi three cameraDigit and Steve Hemmerstoffer
A render of what a three-lens camera on the 2019 iPhone could look like.

There’s already a rumor out there that the 2019 revision to the iPhone will include a three-camera successor of the iPhone XS Max. It’s unclear just why an iPhone would need three cameras, though it’s possible that the additional lens will offer more levels of zoom. I’m sure Apple will build some clever software that will allow it to capture images even better with three cameras than it does with two.

It does feel like maybe Google’s on to something with the wide-angle selfie camera. The notch on the front of the iPhone X series devices is already pretty large, but I wonder if Apple might consider making room for a second lens in order to let users upgrade their selfie game just that much more.

The magic’s in the software

The real arms race in smartphone photography, though, seems to be on the software side. Apple has been driving the iPhone camera with smart software for a long time, most recently with Smart HDR, a feature that has no user interface but dramatically improves the dynamic range of images. But in the last couple of years Google has been aggressive in adding new features of its own.

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