Apple’s Opening up the iPhone to a New World of Camera Accessories

iPhone 11 Pro Rose Gold Credit: Daniel Romero
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Apple’s iPhones continue to live on the bleeding edge of smartphone camera technology. The iPhone 11 Pro takes pictures that are absolutely stunning thanks to its three-lens system and A13-powered computational photography features like Deep Fusion, and while not everybody agrees that the iPhone is necessarily the best smartphone camera out there, it’s hard to argue that it produces amazing results.

However, there’s still one area in which the iPhone — and really all smartphone cameras — lag behind their larger DSLR brethren, and that’s support for more advanced lighting accessories. The iPhone 11 of course still leads the pack among smartphones thanks to its True Tone LED flash, Night Mode, and Portrait Lightning, but none of this is quite the same as the lighting quality that actual external flashes, strobes, and video lights can provide.

Some companies like Lume Cube have developed pretty cool accessories to fill this gap, but unfortunately these have never been officially supported by the iPhone (despite being sold in Apple Stores) and require the use of a proprietary app and either a Bluetooth connection or slave flash mode in order to synchronize the lighting with the shutter button.

It looks like Apple may soon embrace advanced lighting accessories fully, however, according to a report from 9to5Mac. Citing sources briefed on Apple’s latest Made-for-iPhone (MFI) licensing program updates, Apple appears to be adding specifications to support new strobe and flash accessories for photography directly over the iPhone’s Lightning port.

This would not only open up the door to a much wider variety of accessories, but would allow manufacturers to develop even more creative solutions, such as battery cases with built-in flashes. Most importantly, however, they would allow strobes, flashes, and lights to sync with the ingrates iPhone flash and relay the signal to other accessories. It’s also possible the Lightning port could even be used to provide power to these external accessories, eliminating the need for separate batteries.

It’s not yet clear whether this new spec would include compatibility with the built-in iOS Camera app, but it’s definitely a very real possibility. Since the release of the iPhone 11 this year, it already appears that Apple has been taking external photography accessories much more seriously, debuting its iPhone 11 Smart Battery case with an dedicated camera button that can not only be used to trigger the shutter, but even opens up the Camera app directly, making it easier than ever to take quick photos from an iPhone.

The new button works via a connection to the iPhone Lightning port, suggesting that Apple may have added new camera control features to the iPhone 11 specifically for this purpose, and while the MFi specs only seem to include lighting accessories right now, it’s conceivably possible that Apple could expand it to allow other cases and accessories to take advantage of external camera controls. Like Lume Cube, we’ve seen other accessories like the Pictar Smart Grip attempt to fill this gap, but again require the use of their own specific apps using either Bluetooth or high-frequency audio signalling to communicate with the iPhone. Direct Lightning connectivity would be a huge boon, for accessories like these, especially if they could control the built-in Camera app or any other complaint third-party camera app.

At this point, the support for lighting accessories in only available via an MFi developer preview, meaning that manufacturers can try it out with prototypes, but aren’t yet permitted to release any actually licensed MFi products. The specifications haven’t been finalized, but a draft has been provided so that companies can start designing products to the new spec. It also supports only the new iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone 11 Pro Max, for now at least.

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