I finally discovered why the cameras on iPhone form a triangle: Pixel 6 Pro helped me do it

We’ve all seen an iPhone, and if the notch has become Apple’s most recognizable design trait in the past few years, the camera array on the back of the iPhone is most certainly the second most striking thing about the phone’s aesthetic design.

However, looks aren’t everything. Functional design is arguably even more important. An attractive piece of hardware will draw your attention initially, but a well-functioning product is what will help retain your attention and keep you engaged - coming back for more. That’s a functional design.

iPhone 12 and iPhone 13: Why some iPhones have their main camera on the top and some on the bottom?

We’ve discussed the topic of why the cameras on the iPhone are positioned the way they are a bunch of times. On one occasion, we talked about why the iPhone 12 Pro’s primary camera was placed on the top of the triangle, while the remaining iPhone 12 series had their primary cameras placed on the bottom.

The other occasion was when I wrote about Flaregate, and guessed that the new diagonal camera arrangement on the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini might tackle the lens flare issue that’s been troubling iPhones for years.

I was wrong. The iPhone 13 and 13 Mini cameras are positioned diagonally simply because the sensors are much bigger than before. They use the same cameras as Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro Max with sensor-shift stabilization and physically larger sensors. More importantly, Flaregate wasn't solved, but it has gotten better.

The genius behind Apple’s triangular iPhone camera design

The question we didn’t have an answer to is “why the cameras on the iPhone form a triangle”. And here, the “lack of space” factor wouldn’t play as big of a role, since back in 2019, when Apple introduced the first triple-camera iPhone, the 11 Pro, they could have positioned the cameras vertically, like on a Huawei P30 Pro, or horizontally, like on a Galaxy S10. 

Technically the remaining space in the chassis would have been the same - they simply would’ve needed to choose a different component arrangement. But no! Apple went for a triangle. And as it turns out, the reason for that is so logical and straightforward that it ironically made it so hard to see.

Have you noticed how the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro have this magical ability to smoothly switch between different lenses? Well, this wouldn’t have been possible if the camera arrangement on the iPhone didn’t form a triangle.

I’m really bad at maths and geometry, but it doesn’t take a genius to know that the sides of an equilateral triangle are the same length. Therefore, the distance between the angles (iPhone cameras) is the same - or roughly the same. I didn't quite nerd out enough to measure it.

Why a triangular camera orientation can help when switching between lenses

Well, no matter which camera you switch to, you’ll get the smallest shift in composition possible. Again - the distance between the cameras is reduced to a minimum, and it's all the same, no matter which lens you're switching to or from.

Therefore you’ll get smoother transitions both in photo and video mode. Of course, Apple’s also worked some software magic into this hardware trick - otherwise, the transition wouldn’t be as good as it is.

Discovering why the cameras on iPhone form a triangle: Pixel 6 Pro helped me do it

But what I haven’t told you yet is how I came to the conclusion about the iPhone’s triangular camera. Ironically, it happened while I was playing with Google’s brand new Pixel 6 Pro. 

See - the camera bar on the back of the Pixel 6 Pro looks absolutely unique. It’s an attractive-looking phone in general - especially in that Sorta Sunny color. But what becomes very apparent when you get to snap some photos with the Pixel 6 Pro is that, unlike Apple, Google doesn’t seem to have put enough thought into the Pixel’s functional design.

Pixel 6 Pro camera lens switching

The camera on the far left of the Pixel 6 Pro is the main one. Then we have the ultra-wide-angle shooter in the middle and the 4X periscope zoom lens on the far right. As you’ll be able to tell by the screen recordings we’ve grabbed, this leads to a noticeable change in the image composition when switching between lenses.

Why? Well, the camera launches with the primary shooter by default, but because of the horizontal arrangement of the lenses, and Google’s decision to place the primary camera on the far left, and the zoom one on the far right, when going from 1X to 4X, you get this subtle but noticeable image shift from left to right or vice versa.

And, of course, because we have a third camera on board, the inconsistency and abrupt lens-switching become even more exaggerated when the ultra-wide-angle lens gets involved.

Galaxy S21 Ultra camera arrangement: Copying Huawei pays off

You might be wondering, how do you handle the lens switching issue on a phone with even more cameras and more focal lengths to play with. Fortunately, Samsung has the perfect example for us in the face of the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which comes with ultra-wide, primary, 3X, and 10X cameras.

If Samsung went down the Pixel 6 Pro route, this would've created even bigger disparities than on Google’s phone, since now when switching from the ultra-wide-angle camera to the 3X or 10X one, this would have shifted your field of view to the far, far left, or right.

Obviously, you can’t form a triangle with four angles or cameras, so Samsung couldn’t borrow Apple’s idea. But what you can do is position them in a way that makes lens switching as seamless as possible. And that's where Samsung's borrowed the camera arrangement from Huawei's P40 Pro+ - the first phone to feature a 10X periscope zoom lens and a 3x zoom camera.

Samsung found a middle ground by placing the 3X camera off-axis, next to the main shooter, which sits between the ultra-wide and 10X periscope camera. This way, the cameras create an uneven shape, but if you were to take the Galaxy apart, you’d realize Samsung’s managed to form two smaller triangles.

Moreover, the lenses are logically positioned, so when you go from 0.5x to 1x and then 3x and 10x, they travel roughly the same distance as if you were to go from 0.5x to 3x, or 1x to 10x. The only noticeable shift in spacing is between the ultra-wide and 10x cameras, but that’s absolutely fine. If you’ve got the chance of using a phone with multiple cameras, you’d know that going from 0.5x to 10x, especially for photos, is rare. Samsung knows that.

In the end...

So, the takeaway here is actually quite simple. In case you ever had any doubts about how product decisions at Apple are made, wonder no more! And also, if you ever wondered how Google went about the Pixel 6's design, the company clearly chose looks over function. Well, at least in the case of the Pixel 6 series.

Is that wrong? Not necessarily. As mentioned in the beginning, looks will draw you towards a certain product, and if Google wanted you to buy the Pixel 6 Pro because the back design looks unique and attractive, this is exactly the sacrifice that the company had to make in order to reach its goal.

But Apple is a company that puts functional design on top, or at least on par with aesthetics. The iPhone’s always had the reputation of “the easiest” phone to use. Now, for one reason or another, I don’t think that’s necessarily true for everyone, but I can’t deny that the iPhone was built to make complicated tasks feel simple.

Here are some examples:

  • The way Night Mode kicks in automatically without you having to think about it
  • How Face ID unlocks your phone without you having to do anything

And yes, even when it seems like Apple makes some (controversial) decisions, instead of you, like choosing to slow down your phone so your battery can last longer - there’s a reason behind that decision. Apple tried to fix one thing, but broke another. Do I approve of Batterygate? Of course, I don’t. It only shows that even Apple can make mistakes in the search for balance.

Where aesthetic and functional design meet and come together - that’s where the end-user experience feels complete. And for that reason, as much as I love the Pixel 6 Pro, I’ll have to admit that Google’s made a compromise. Is it a deal-breaker? Definitely not. The Pixel 6 Pro might not switch smoothly between lenses, but it has a stellar camera system, which will dominate the iPhone in a few key areas.

If you want to find out more, check out our Pixel 6 Pro vs iPhone 13 Pro Max vs Galaxy S21 Ultra camera comparison. Spoiler: It’s a close call.
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