What is Apple's Photonic Engine?

Photonic engine

Apple is quite creative when it comes to naming boring software functions, so the iPhone doesn't have built-in software for image improvement with moderately good lighting, but instead a "Photonic Engine". Sounds a lot more futuristic.

Incidentally, the Photonic Engine is (for now) only available in the iPhone 14 models and not in older devices – even if they support iOS 16.

Apple itself describes the function with these words:

Through deep hardware and software integration, the Photonic Engine improves medium to low light performance for photos from all cameras: up to 2x on the Ultra Wide camera, 2x on the TrueDepth camera and an impressive 2,5x on the new Main camera. The Photonic Engine enables this dramatic increase in quality by using the computational advantages of Deep Fusion earlier in the imaging process to deliver exceptional detail and preserve subtle textures, deliver better colors and preserve more information in a photo.

The Photonic Engine is a feature introduced at the iPhone 14 keynote. How it works is explained here.
The Photonic Engine is a feature introduced at the iPhone 14 keynote. How it works is explained here.

Is the Photonic Engine the successor to Night Mode?

The Night Mode in the iPhone is already a function that improves recordings in poor light. Looking at Apple's description above, it sounds like the function overlaps with that of the Photonic Engine.

However, this is not the case. While Night Mode focuses solely on photos in dark environments, the Photonic Engine also improves photos in general - but with an emphasis on the less brightly lit areas of the photo.

For this reason, the Night Mode will continue to exist parallel to the Photonic Engine. But while you can turn Night Mode on and off as a user, the Photonic Engine is an integral part of image creation and runs in the background with every photo.

The iPhone 14 has many innovations that advance iPhone photography.
The iPhone 14 has many innovations that advance iPhone photography.

How does the Photonic Engine work?

With Deep Fusion In 2019, Apple made a big step in computer-assisted photography, taking multiple photos instead of one photo, but the user never gets to see them.

This is exactly where the Photonic Engine comes in, because it combines the special hardware of the iPhone 14, iPhone 14 Plus, iPhone 14 Pro and iPhone 14 Pro Max with machine learning iOS 16 and thus reworks every photo on a pixel basis and starts earlier than was the case with previous image optimization. A large number of individual images with different exposures and lidar scans are also taken. From this data, the iPhone then creates a final result within fractions of a second through processing with procedures that use machine learning, which ends up as a photo in the camera roll.

The result is said to be a giant leap in low-light photography. The bottom line is that textures, color differences and details should be preserved much better, while the typical image noise in dark areas of such photos is eliminated.

The Photonic Engine requires the hardware of the iPhone 14, as this includes both the A16 chip and the new camera systems.
The Photonic Engine requires the hardware of the iPhone 14, as this includes both the A16 chip and the new camera systems.

Is the iPhone 14 hardware a requirement for the Photonic Engine?

On this subject, I had an interesting comment from a reader that contradicts my suspicion that the Photonic Engine is not only a software feature, but that you also need the new hardware of the iPhone 14 models. His argument is that the iPhone 14 only has the A15 chip installed and thus uses the same SoC as the iPhone 13 models.

It could therefore be that an iPhone 14 is not necessarily a technical requirement for the feature. However, one can assume that Apple will only release them in the older models after a few months in order to give the iPhone 14 another incentive.

It could also be that the Photonic Engine in the iPhone 14 Pro can get more out of the photos. The sensors and lenses have been significantly improved compared to the iPhone 13 and the 48MP main sensor can of course record much more detail, which improves the results in image optimization in the iPhone - even if you only find a 12MP photo in the photos app .

Will the iPhone 13, 12, 11 or X get the Photonic Engine?

Since this is apparently a software-based function, Apple could actually release it for older iPhone generations. The iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max feature both the A15 chip, like the iPhone 14, and the same camera system. It therefore stands to reason that this function could also be made available for the older models in an upcoming iOS update. However, Apple itself has so far remained silent on this subject and I therefore assume that the function will only be released for the iPhone 14 models for the time being.

I'm very excited to see what the iPhone 14 can do, because my iPhone 13 Pro Max already delivers impressive results in semi-darkness. With the Photonic Engine of the iPhone 14, however, there should still be a noticeable step forward.

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6 Responses to "What is Apple's Photonic Engine?"

  1. “iPhone 14 hardware is required”. This is speculation and probably wrong. Had Apple only introduced the Photonic Engine for the 14 Pro/Max, which has all-new sensors and the A16 SoC, that would have been a logical assumption. But since the regular iPhone 14 that comes with the Photonic Engine still uses the A15 and very similar or even identical cameras to the 13 Pro/Max models, one has to conclude that it's purely software -feature acts. So far, nothing indicates any new hardware needed, but correct me if I'm wrong.

    1. I think you're right that the Photonic Engine could technically also run on an iPhone 13 with A15. But I think it won't run on it (at least not for the first few months) since Apple will only unlock it for iPhone 14. That's their typical approach with features like this. In the past there were some things that first ran on the new iPhones and were later suddenly released on the old models as well.

      1. Exactly, that's what I wanted to say too. It is probably purely a marketing decision on which devices this new pipeline will be used. At least with the 13 Pro, there is nothing wrong with using them as well, since the hardware is almost identical to the 14. Only Apple knows whether the older devices also meet the requirements. I wouldn't necessarily count on an upgrade for older devices, otherwise the differences between the generations would become even smaller (especially 13 and 14), at least not in the coming months.

  2. “Is the Photonic Engine the successor to Night Mode?”
    What does that mean? better than? worse than? Shouldn't it be "predecessor"?

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