The iPhone, via its many models, is pretty much the most popular phone in the world. So any change in iPhone cameras gets way more attention, and scrutiny, than other smartphone cameras. So as the new iPhones — the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro Max — were launched last week, the focus was on how the phones had new camera systems.
The iPhone 11 has a dual-camera setup, with a 12MP wide and a 12MP ultra-wide lens. The iPhone 11 Pro Max, meanwhile, offers three 12MP cameras — a wide, telephoto and an ultrawide. Since the ultra-wide is the common factor, also the new one, this time, most of the user attention is on this specific aspect of the two phones. Interestingly, this is not really a new feature as Android flagships have had this in some phones over the past year.
As we review the new iPhones, we thought it would be good to start with just a deep dive camera review, given this is what most people want to check out first.
The iPhone camera primer
Here are some unique aspects of the new iPhone cameras
- There is a new night mode. However, this is activated by default as soon as the phone senses that the light is below normal. This means the camera takes a series of photos and uses the A13 Bionic’s processing power to patch them together. The shot takes between 1 and 3 seconds depending on the conditions. Unlike other phones offering a night mode, the iPhones have a timer showing how long the shot with take. There is the option to switch night mode off by taking the counter to zero.
- All shots are by default shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, even the ultra-wide angle shots. There is an option to pull up a settings just under where you are framing the shot to change the aspect ratio to 16:9 or 1:1. However, even these are crops of a 4:3 shot.
- Video can be captured at up to 4K @60FPS with cinematic video stabilisation. Slow motion is at 1080p, but the option to choose 120 fps or 240 fps. However, it is best to shoot at 120 fps.
iPhone 11 camera setup
The iPhone 11 has a dual-camera setup. The two lenses have been fit into a square bump at the back. Both lenses look the same at first look, but on closer inspection, you can see that the difference in apertures — the ultra-wide has an ƒ/2.4 aperture, while the wide is ƒ/1.8. The true tone flash is also inside this slot along with a microphone.
iPhone 11 Pro Max camera setup
The iPhone 11 Pro Max has a triple camera setup. The three lenses have been fit into the square bump, giving it a very distinct look. The Ultra Wide has an ƒ/2.4 aperture, wide ƒ/1.8 and telephoto ƒ/2.0 aperture. The true tone flash and mic are also in the same slot, like in the iPhone 11.
iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro Max ultra-wide
This has to be the best feature of two phones. Despite the different camera setups, the ultra-wide feature is the same, offering the same experience and results. On both the phones, the camera app opens with wide in default. On the app this shows up at 1x. For ultra-wide you have to switch to 0.5x. On the iPhone 11 Pro Max, you switch to 2X for telephoto.
The idea of the ultra-wide is to take in more than what your regular camera lens can.
While this means photos that can capture wide expansive landscapes, it can also mean very creative shots that emphasise the subject. Apple’s ultra-wide is unique because it captures in a 4:3 aspect ratio. However, the photos still look very natural and don’t have a lot of fish eye effect that is seen in some of the other ultra-wide shots we have seen.
iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro Max night shot
Apple has finally introduced a night shot in its phones. This is where the company is using its powerful A13 Bionic processor to get computational photography to show things the human eye cannot.
While the night shot in camera is traditionally used to brighten up the image. Apple is adding some extra emphasis on ensuring the details and colours are retained in such shots. We tested with a subjected sitting in a pitch dark room with just one, weak, light source.
The results were impressive, not just because the face of the subject was clear, but also because we could make out the colours of the flowers behind her.
The night shot switches on automatically, as Apple believed the user should not have to think when to do this. But for people like me who want to experiment with low-light photography, there is the option to switch this off. However, a simple switch off option would have been easier. Now, you have to bring the dial timer of the night shot to zero to do this.
Both iPhones now comes with a 12MP front camera. They both have a TrueDepth with ƒ/2.2 aperture. The one new aspect is the option to take a wide-angle selfie, bringing in more people if needed. This is not default, but can be switched to with just one tap. Apple is also starting the concept of slow motion with the new selfie cameras, calling it the slowfie. This is a fun feature to have, but I doubt someone as boring as me will use it much. The selfie cameras can also shoot in 4K at up to 60FPS, though I found the quality of this a little below par compared to the other cameras on the rear.
I have always preferred the iPhone camera over others that might have more numbers when it comes to megapixels or even brighter photos. That is because iPhone photos, at least to me, are more natural in their colours. With the iPhone 11 cameras, Apple has maintained this and added a bit more complexity. Compared to other cameras, the iPhone 11 can do a better job when it comes to handling frames that offer a range of colours with shadows and bright spots.
Again, you don’t have to think much, other than maybe deciding where you want to focus on the frame. But I could not resist playing with the exposure a bit to see what all could be done.
iPhone 11 video quality
There are enough phones in the market now that can put a handycam to shame and still fits in your pocket in more ways than one. So it is no surprise then that the iPhone 11 can manage video very well. The 4K video on the iPhone (see the test videos above) are much smoother than on some other phones and have a stable frame rate. Again, the best thing about the iPhone 11, especially the iPhone 11 Pro Max, is the ability to shoot video on any of the three lenses.
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Even slow-motion video can be shot on all three lenses.
iPhone 11 camera issues
The iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro Max cameras are clearly the best Apple has offered so far. However, I did notice a few bugs. To start with, I almost did not find the option to change settings like aspect ration, or switch off the live photo option. This is now a swipe up from the panel that shows modes. Since the camera shoots even ultra-wide in 4:3 ratio, you need to go here to change to a 16:9 aspect ratio. But if this is your preferred mode, you will need to make this change every time you open the app as it does not retain this setting.
Will the night mode is really good, be prepared for some grainy photos at times. Despite all the developments with lowlight photography, this is still an issue, though maybe less of an issue now. The digital zoom also throws some grains into the frame.
iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro Max camera review: The verdict
The iPhone 11 series, with its wide-angle camera, gives a completely new take on what smartphone photography can achieve. Even as its cameras in general get better, it seems to be way ahead of competition when it comes to how the camera fuses with the powerful processor to do what other phones cannot. Some of this is magic, and hence is not really in the realm of realism, as we see with night mode where the images are way better than what the human eye can see. As this union of sensor and processor progresses and as the AI learns more about the kind of photos that are being clicked we will see the results get better, with more details and subtleties which are otherwise smudged on smartphone cameras.
For now, this is the best camera Apple has ever made and among the best smartphone cameras you can buy at the moment. Will this be good enough to get iPhone users to think of an upgrade is something we will have to wait and see.