iPhone 12 Pro Max Camera: Reality Bites

If you’re looking for spectacular images shot on the new iPhone 12 Pro Max then you’re in the wrong place. This article examines the harsh realities of mobile photography. No sunny Californian boulevards. No tripods. No ideal lighting conditions. Instead I wanted to take the phone to a really harsh setting to show the warts, the pain points, the worst case scenario. Because the truth is, most people that buy an iPhone, aren’t professional photographers.

Apple and Google and all the usual suspects can do lots of clever things with neural engines, computational photography and add more lenses. But the simple truth is, most people have no idea this stuff is going on in the background. They just point and shoot. They don’t spend more than a few moments to compose their shots. They aren’t using the rule of thirds or golden ratios. They take the shot and they share it with their friends and family.

I’m going to highlight the iPhone 12 Pro Max camera’s weaknesses. Not because it isn’t a great camera system (it’s excellent) but because it’s important to understand that actual real world results aren’t the same as those published by the bigger tech journals. This is going to feel harsh, but I promise you by the end of this article, you’ll probably have more of an appreciation for the iPhone 12 camera than you did previously. So lets get to it.

Setting the scene

The setting I chose for this shoot was one of the toughest, most tricky environments for a camera. Not just a phone, but any camera. I chose to shoot at night by a water front marina with a ton of surrounding artificial light sources of different colour temperatures. The lighting creates reflections on the water, casts unnatural shadows, causes variables to automatic white balance and throws exposure all over the place. And to top it all off it was a rainy, cloudy, bitterly cold day to throw in tricky shooting conditions for me as the photographer. None of the shots you’re about to see have been edited or retouched in any way save for some cropping to highlight certain features.

Rear Facing Portrait Mode

One of the headlining features of the iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max is the addition of a LiDAR scanner. The depth data it gathers enables portrait mode to work at night so I decided this would be a great place to start. The first image was shot using Portrait Mode and no flash. The second was using portrait mode with a flash. And as night mode isn’t compatible with portrait mode, the third is just a regular shot but with night mode on for comparison.

Personally I really like the first shot. It looks more true to life. It sacrifices a little bit of detail but crucially there is very little noise. The second shot just looks over exposed and ghostly and is what we came to expect from photos at night before the addition of night mode. There is also more noise in the sky. Portrait mode crops in on the image so the first two shots have a tighter crop.

The third image with night mode really show cases details. You can see a spider web revealed between the pot and the head of the statue. The cloudy sky was picked out by Smart HDR 3 and the white balance is much warmer. I have a real appreciation here for what Apple’s software is doing but the image looks unnatural. The sky looks way brighter than it really was and my eyes couldn’t have spotted the spider web in person.

This example is actually quite important because in my opinion the first of the three images without night mode, actually looks the best and that’s thanks to the larger image sensor and wider aperture. Night mode created a dramatic look but it wasn’t natural or true to life.

Front Facing Portrait Mode

Both of these shots were taken using the front facing camera with portrait mode enabled. Two quite different ambient lighting conditions. the first was shot landscape and lit by huge overhead floodlights, with light bouncing off the tarmac. The second second was shot in portrait orientation and my face was lit by strings of fairy lights across the marina.

The first image is a bit noisier than the second but I actually quite like it in this case. It has a more cinematic feel to it. Crucially the cutout of the subject (yours truly) is spot on. The fall off looks natural and the depth of field works well. The second image is less noisy and the bokeh looks really quite beautiful. I have to say this category was probably the area that I was expecting the worst results from but in my testing it might have been one of the stronger areas.

Front Facing Video

Video doesn’t have the benefit of being able to activate night mode but in this example where sufficient ambient light was available, the result actually looks pretty decent. My skin looks natural without being overly smoothed and the phone did a good job of capturing my skin tone accurately. Noise is minimal and while the video isn’t the sharpest, that’s more a reflection of the hardware itself rather than the software. Front facing cameras don’t tend to enjoy the same innovation or engineering budget that the rear camera on most phones do. None the less, the video is perfectly usable and the audio sounds pretty clear, even taking into consideration my face covering.

Rear Facing Video

This short video comprises three clips. I chose to shoot it in 4K and at 24 frames per second as lots of people use iPhones for vlogging and YouTube. And if you plan to make a film or a short on an iPhone you should probably be shooting in 24 frames per second as it is the closest to what the human eye sees in real life. 30fps or above tends to looks more like a soap opera. I also had Dolby Vision enabled for all three clips.

The first clip does a good job of showing how clean the images the phone can capture with little light. There isn’t much grain and the microphone picked up the sound of the rain beautifully.

The second clip highlights the excellent sensor shift stabilisation of the iPhone 12 Pro Max. I was walking down a flight of stairs and I wasn’t trying to be careful or overly steady. The phone just did a good job without help. On the downside though, this clip shines a spotlight quite literally on one of the weaknesses of the phone. Notice all of the light artefacts and lens flare that was picked up? I think this was partially a consequence of Dolby Vision. HDR tends to double down on brightness and the luminance of a light source and the artefacts seem to be an unfortunate consequence in this harsh shooting condition.

The third clip looks really natural and felt very close to how it looked to my eye. There was still a bit of lens flare and a few light artefacts but the consistency in how well the phone handles exposure in low light video remains intact. Again this was a really challenging place and set of conditions to shoot for any camera, never mind a phone.

Ultra Wide, Wide, Telephoto Side by Side

All three of these shots have night mode enabled. The first shot taken with the ultra wide is just a mess. Blurry, out of focus and over exposed. The wide shot is much better! The sky looks more natural, the signage looks nice and details without being over sharpened and we get some nice reflections on the water. The telephoto shot exposes another weakness of this camera system. The iPhone 12 Pro Max trades low light sensitivity for it’s longer range, 2.5x optical zoom. It has a higher aperture than the standard 12 Pro or even last years 11 Pro Max. The problem with this is that in low light situations, the 12 Pro Max will ignore the telephoto lens completely and instead snaps a 2.5x digital crop. An easy way to check if the phone is doing that is to try covering the telephoto lens up. If you can still see an image in the view finder then you’ve caught the phone out! That isn’t to say that this doesn’t happen on the 12 Pro or 11 Pro Max (it does) but their telephoto lens has a wider aperture that lets more light in. That means this digital crop trickery is used less often when compared to the 12 Pro Max.

Another example that highlights the same strengths and weaknesses of each lens. The ultra wide in low light with night mode is once again blurry, unnatural and over exposed. The wide is actually very pleasant, more natural and more detailed. Slightly over exposed due to the more proximal light source but this could be corrected in post. Finally in the case of the telephoto, the digital crop mischief ‘crops up’ again…..

This last side by side comparison is much more favourable to the Ultra Wide and Telephoto lens. The Ultra Wide does a pretty decent job of not falling foul by creating a sort of fish eye look. The sky is a bit noisy but the colour is natural. This shot is usable where as the first two examples were anything but. The wide angle lens consistently presents the best result which with its wider aperture, bigger sensor and bigger pixels is hardly surprising. What was a nice surprise however, is that here the phone didn’t do it’s cheeky 2.5x digital crop and actually used the telephoto lens. The result is much cleaner and sharper than the first two ‘telephoto’ examples and helps justify the trade off in light sensitivity for a longer focal length.

A Few More Shots

No additional commentary but I’ve included a few more shots and side by side comparisons. Much of what was discussed in this article rings true in these examples.

Summary

In conclusion I learned an awful lot about the strengths and limitations of the camera system in the iPhone 12 Pro Max. But I think I can distill it down to a few key points.

  • Portrait mode has improved significantly year on year and is now surprisingly effective at night for both the front and rear camera. The addition of LiDAR makes night time portraits on the 12 Pro Max particularly good
  • Night mode can be really useful for certain situations but sometimes at the cost of a less natural image
  • The Ultra Wide camera should still be avoided at night, even with night mode enabled
  • The 2.5x optical zoom range of the Telephoto lens comes with trade-offs to light sensitivity. This often results in the phone using the wide camera instead with a 2.5x digital crop
  • Dolby Vision and Smart HDR 3 pick up a lot of light artefacts in low light situations so you may want to disable these features at night depending on the ambient conditions
  • Stabilisation in video is incredibly impressive

Hopefully this hasn’t put you off buying an iPhone 12 Pro Max (or other iPhone 12 model) but has given you an honest overview of what you can expect in a really tricky set of shooting and lighting conditions. The phone still delivers some pretty decent shots in some of these examples and compared to the results we would have gotten even from last years iPhone 11 Pro Max, the improvements are notable.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments and if you found this useful, please share this article to your social feeds. Thanks!

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