Does the iPhone 12 Dream of Rendered Moments?

The way one is enticed to review the images of the iPhone 12 Pro Max is in a comparison of details. And it’s practically begging you to do it. Because it already knows how well it’s going to do there. So well practiced for that round of the fight is the new iPhone, it’s like it’s backing into an alley way, hoping you’ll come try to mug just so it can impress you with its judo. The images are designed to stun you. To flip your mind.

I showed this photo of an old 35mm Nikkor lens to my partner and she was duly impressed. I tried to point out some of the nuanced flaws — the muddled rendering of the fabric in areas, the overly uniform out-of-focus areas, and that esoteric, overwrought hardness of local contrast but it was lost on her. “But that detail… is amazing,” she said. She was right. The detail is nothing short of spectacular in the iPhone 12, which finds detail like a hunting dog, flushing it out of hiding and bringing it back to its owner, proud, satisfied and ready to go out again. Do it! Send me! Let’s go get it!

But there is another way to review the images of an iPhone 12 Pro Max. We still can compare images, but we might need to ask more delving questions.

The Voight-Kampff Test

In the movie Blade Runner, replicants are bio-engineered beings nearly indistinguishable from humans, created by the Terrell Corporation. Replicants are imbued with memories that aren’t their own. Replicants themselves don’t know they are replicants. You could be a replicant, so long as you don’t imagine too much more than what you already know. It’s an esoteric, philosophical discussion, but ultimately necessary to our survival. Because if all we’re talking about is how good replicant skin feels, well, then the Terrell Corporation succeeds and humanity is lost.

How The iPhone 12 Thinks For You

In the iPhone, there is no shutter. You don’t take a photograph, the iPhone does. Imagery is being collected in a buffer from the moment you open up the “camera” app. You don’t take it, you stop it. You don’t capture a moment, you gesture vaguely at the territory of a moment.

In the iPhone, what you get is not a photograph, not honestly. What you receive is a composite image of numerous parts, individually considered. Here, artificial intelligence is working to weave together an image for you, or to you. It knows when you’re shooting people, skies, probably food, fabric, hair and all kinds of other things. It knows day from night. From this knowledge decisions are made, product delivered.

A film camera and a digital camera have a lot in common. More in common, in fact, than either of them have with the iPhone 12. They expose the same way, across the whole scene. They use the same lenses and formal methodology. The camera is built on a premise of it as a tool at the service of the human. It thinks, sure, but only about how to do its own job better. The iPhone thinks about how you can do your job better.

And its criteria is detail.

What Do You Mean I’m Not Helping!?!

In Blade Runner, to determine whether Leon was a human or a replicant, he became subject to a test. It was called the Voight-Kampff Test, borrowed conceptually from the Turing Test. How does a moderator determine, simply through the asking of questions, whether something is human or not human? There’s little to reveal exactly what the science of consciousness was in the movie, but you can sense it on the moderator’s face when he suggests that Leon isn’t helping an overturned tortoise, to which Leon responds, angrily, “What do you mean I’m not helping!?!” And in that moment, he reveals himself a replicant. How do you know? By everything other than the detail of the tortoise.

You can tell a non-human from a human because the non-human is trying to be human, whereas a human is just being human. And imitation will always feel slightly cartoonish to anyone who has studied emotion deeply. But this works in reverse, too. Life and simulated life are indistinguishable to those who have not connected deeply with nature or humanity. And an image created from an iPhone 12 will feel like photography to anyone who has merely sipped from the Pierian Spring of the medium.

There is a difference between an image you get with a camera and an image you get with the iPhone 12 Pro Max. It’s the difference between something trying to be a photograph and something that is just being a photograph.

Seeing it means letting go of the detail.

The Difference

The iPhone 12’s images are often indistinguishable from those taken by a camera. The way a replicant is often indistinguishable from a human — when you touch it, watch it sleep, or even cuddle up with it. But it is garishly distinguishable from a photograph when dealing with intricacy, deeper conversation and the ten thousand tiny little sparkles that make up how we feel about a scene. It is the equivalent of very good plastic surgery. In certain light, yes, everything looks amazing. But just as often, it can look off, for reasons too many to name simply.

What’s the difference between a photograph and an iPhone 12 image? Look how dark the ridges are in silver ring of the iPhone image, on the right — as though someone — someone adept — had been hired to quickly accentuate them for you. Look at the reflection in the glass and the iPhone’s choice to render it as scalloped potatoes rather than a translucent object with a mysterious world beneath it. Look at how the edges of the lens itself behave differently in different areas, sometimes clean and crisp, sometimes with a ham-fisted attempt at blur. Notice the lack of romance on the right in its photo-realistic attempt at forcing edges to be more edgy. There’s more, but none of these things are individually important. It is only the way you take it all in, together, that matters.

The brain craves detail, because in the detail lies the safety of knowing. We better distinguish plant from predator, through detail. We better understand life by seeing it clearly. And that is deeply gratifying. An image from the iPhone 12 can be deeply gratifying. But life is more than safety and knowledge. It is also love and loss, sadness, and imperfection, infinity, darkness, difficult honesty and beyond. Without it all, without the camera in service of human photography, but rather as a thing impersonating human photography, it will, as in plastic surgery, trade beauty for range of emotion.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max is an incredibly intelligent, image-creation simulation, uniquely adept at finding, maybe even creating, detail. And if detail and moment are your need, your grail, it might just be the most advanced tool in your bag. And what it lacks might only be in the imaginations of those who dare to dream of something more.

Thank you for reading The Art of Photography. More articles here.

A deep dive into photography, with professional photographer, artist and director, Josh S. Rose. Top Writer: Photography and Creativity.

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