Tue. Apr 23rd, 2024

I’ve had the new iPhone 14 Pro Max for almost a week now, but before I publish my full review later this week, I’d like to focus exclusively on the cameras. This is because Apple made some significant improvements to the cameras this year, including the addition of a new 48MP sensor that gives the company much more flexibility when it comes to digital zooms and electronic image stabilisation.

First things first: everything that is discussed here also applies to the smaller iPhone 14 Pro because the camera systems of the 14 Pro Max and 14 Pro are exactly identical.

The images you see in this article are compressed, second. I posted a few full-sized, uncompressed photographs on Flickr.

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What has changed with cameras?

  • 48MP primary camera with a bigger sensor for selfies and ultra-wide angles
  • the same 3x telephoto lens
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The new 48MP wide (main) camera offers a number of advantages. The first and most obvious advantage is that it enables Apple to pixel-bin its images, thereby cramming four pixels’ worth of light information into just one. As a result, low-light performance improves and night mode is not as frequently used.

The second advantage is that we can shoot RAW files with all 48 million pixels, or “shooting in RAW” as photographers prefer to refer to it. RAW files are lossless, uncompressed files that retain every bit of information that a camera sensor is capable of recording. By the way, Apple refers to its RAW files as “ProRaw.”

The third advantage is that Apple can crop into the middle of the sensor to create what it calls a “2x optical telephoto” photograph thanks to the main camera’s increased pixel density.

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Apple produced an advertisement that demonstrates how the “2x optical telephoto” crops into the 48MP sensor.

The first two changes mentioned, 48MP ProRAW and pixel binning, will be covered in more detail later in the post. Examining the new “2x optical zoom” will be our first step.


Three lenses, four focal lengths

The primary camera system of the iPhone 14 Pro Max includes three lenses, including an ultra-wide (13mm), wide (24mm), and 3x telephoto (77mm). Since the iPhone 11, the wide lens has been slightly broader (moving from 26mm to 24mm), but other than that, there are three optical focal lengths.

Apple, however, is promoting a fourth optical focal length, a 2x zoom (48mm) that crops into the primary camera sensor to generate a “lossless optical 2x zoom” photo. This was noted in the previous section. Four photos taken at each of the four focus lengths are shown below.

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Take note of how well Apple maintains consistency in colour science across all three lenses (and four focal lengths) (the exception is the last 3x zoom shot of the neon lights, whose brightness shifted a bit). Compared to Android companies, some of which continue to generate wide and ultra-wide photos with drastically different colour science, Apple has always excelled at this.

Is the 2x zoom really lossless optical quality, is the major concern. The response is mainly. When trimmed to match the true 3x optical zoom lens, 2x zoom images actually appear extremely clear in well-lit conditions, and the quality is close enough that it is a very decent zoom.

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Phone 14 Pro Max, 2x and 3x zooms, trimmed to evenly fill the frame.

We can see the previous iPhone’s 2x zoom is much softer on details if I do the same thing with a 2x and a 3x photo taken by the iPhone 13 Pro Max.

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iPhone 13 Pro Max, 2x and 3x zooms, trimmed to evenly fill the frame.

The iPhone 14 Pro Max’s 2x zoom, however, can only achieve almost lossless quality in ideal lighting conditions. The plant sample seen above was obtained in front of a window under bright sunshine. The restaurant is not even close to being as tidy when I pixel peep the other 2x zoom taken there.

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iPhone 14 Pro Max, 2x and 3x zooms, trimmed to evenly fill the frame.

Remember that the restaurant isn’t even all that dark, so getting that lossless 2x zoom requires shooting in the daytime with access to direct sunlight. It’s just another digital zoom if that’s all.

In case you were wondering, the zoom capabilities of the iPhone 14 Pro Max still lag behind devices with a specific Periscope zoom lens, such as the Pixel 6 Pro’s 4x Periscope.


How much more advanced are the cameras on the iPhone 14 Pro Max than the ones on the iPhone 13 Pro Max?

The superiority of the 14 Pro Max’s 2x zoom over the 13 Pro Max’s 2x zoom has already been established (if the lighting is great). What about other lenses, though?

In daytime scenarios, I don’t notice much of a difference for the main camera. However, the photographic processing of the iPhone 14 Pro Max creates considerably more aesthetically beautiful hues at night.

The nighttime photos taken by the iPhone 13 Pro Max in the aforementioned collection don’t look good; the entire scene has been overly lightened and has little to no contrast. The iPhone 14 Pro Max actually maintains shadows darker and appears to grasp that “brighter isn’t always better.” This is probably Apple’s new “Photonic Engine” in action, a machine learning computational photography algorithm that takes many shots of the same scene while attempting to preserve uncompressed data as early as possible in the pipeline to produce a shot with improved details and colours.

Please note that all of the pictures in this section were taken without using ProRaw; more on that is covered in the next section.

Due to the bigger image sensor and the Photonic Engine, the iPhone 14 Pro Max’s ultra-wide performs better in low light than the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s ultra-wide.

These extremely wide pictures were captured in a very dim alley (see photo below). Both cameras required night mode, although the 14 Pro Max’s required less time (I’d say a third of a second as opposed to a second and a third). The photograph taken by the 14 Pro Max has more organic hues that are more true to life.

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Additionally, pixel-peeping reveals that the photo from the 14 Pro Max has a little less noise.

The iPhone 14 Pro Max didn’t need to use the night mode for as long, its colours are more true, and the shot is somewhat less noisy, all of which may appear trivial separately, but when used together, they represent major advancements.

Remember, I want to really test my cameras, therefore I often shoot them in difficult lighting situations (such as intense backlight or dim alleys). There isn’t much use taking test photographs of a single object in a white room with ideal lighting.


Shooting in ProRAW

ProRAW has been supported by the iPhone since the iPhone 12 series, but the 14 Pro phones have the ability to shoot in full 48MP resolution, allowing for closer cropping without losing details. As was already mentioned, ProRAW also retains all of the image data, at least as much as the iPhone camera sensor can handle.

Considering you use a smartphone for casual photography, you might be asking why not all smartphones always shoot in RAW if RAW files include more image information. The reason is that shooting RAW is incompatible with smartphone computational photography techniques like HDR, pixel-binning, and the Photonic Engine because RAW files are much, much larger in size.

Shooting in RAW is done so that the photographer can adjust the image’s colours and lighting using a photo-editing programme, which is why it’s so important that the image retain as much information as possible. Only serious photographers typically have the knowledge (or would want to invest the time) to do this. The vast majority of consumers prefer it if a smartphone’s computational photography abilities simply process and generate a great snap. Although shooting in RAW is a fantastic option, most smartphone users won’t want to or understand how to use it.

For instance, when I opened the photograph on my Mac, it opened by default in Adobe Lightroom rather than the typical Mac photo viewer. In Hong Kong, these compact minivans with red roofs are known as red minibuses, a type of public transportation.

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When I fiddle with the image tuning sliders, I discover that although the image is by default dimly illuminated, I can increase exposure considerably higher without blowing out lights. This photograph is a RAW file, so there is more dynamic range for me to play with. In comparison to a usual 12MP image, I can zoom in far further.

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I was able to achieve two shots with quite distinct lighting and moods with just a few little adjustments.


Excellent portraits

The iPhone has had a great portrait mode for years, with a more natural approach to skin tone and artificial bokeh that looks realistic and can be adjusted after the image (unlike Asian brands, which try to whiten or smooth out skin). The default portrait focal length is now 2x on the iPhone 14 Pro Max, down from 3x on the 13 Pro Max. According to Apple, the 3x zoom is occasionally a little too close in, therefore the 2x focal length is preferable for portrait shots. In general, I concur. This makes use of the digital crop 2x zoom, which has already been shown to be excellent in well-lit conditions but a little less detailed in dimly lit conditions.

You can always go back to shooting with the 3x optical telephoto zoom lens if you want consistent portrait quality and do not want to worry about what would happen if there is not enough light.

After the photo is taken, you can edit the pictures by changing the lighting and artificial bokeh. Since you can accomplish all of this on an iPhone, it’s nothing new, but it’s still worth quickly mentioning.


Action Mode enhances the already world-class stability of the iPhone

Video capturing is another area where the iPhone has always excelled, especially in terms of video stabilisation and agility when changing lenses. The zooming in and out between three lenses (and using digital zoom up to 9x) while I’m in a moving car is amazingly stable in the video clip below. I was especially taken aback by how steady the video was even at a 9x zoom.

Apple has included a new EIS (electronic image stabilisation) mode called “Action Mode” if this industry-best level of stabilisation isn’t sufficient for you. To be clear, older iPhones featured EIS, but action mode is a more sophisticated version that applies advanced roll correction while cutting into the primary sensor more than usual. The drawback is that video resolution only goes up to 2.8K (no 4K recording), but even with these limitations and the requirement for decent lighting, I was still able to utilise action mode at night and it performed admirably, as can be seen at the 30-second mark of the video below. More impressive to me is the fact that the footage stays steady even when I run at full speed (as seen in the video below).

Apple increases its advantage once more just as Android flagship phones begin to overtake the iPhone in terms of video performance.


Selfies are natural

The selfie camera on the iPhone 14 Pro Max has moved to an island, but it still outperforms earlier iPhone models thanks to a faster aperture (f/1.9) and the addition of autofocus.

Although I don’t do selfies, I believe the iPhone’s front-facing camera system has always been able to capture candid selfies with excellent portrait lighting thanks to the TrueDepth sensors. Additionally, portraits can be modified later.

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In my work on XDA or on social media, I have been outspoken about how the iPhone 12 and 13 series cameras are decent but not the greatest in the smartphone market. This was mostly caused by the usage of main cameras with far larger image sensors and specialised technology, like a periscope zoom lens, by prominent Android brands.

The iPhone 14 Pro Max doesn’t fully rewrite the rules; I still favour the cooler cyberpunk tones of a Google Pixel 6 Pro or the eerie HDR of the Vivo X80 Pro for capturing night city photos of Asian towns bathed in neon lights. When photographing objects up close, I like the Xiaomi 12S Ultra’s natural depth of field and more authentic appearance (see sample below; Xiaomi’s image is less overexposed and has a stronger depth of field). In terms of zoom power, Samsung’s 10x Periscope zoom lens continues to be far and away the greatest in the business.

But take note that each of those scenes is captured in a still image, primarily using the primary camera. The finest Android OEMs have created fantastic primary cameras for taking pictures, but other features like video recording and camera synergy still need refinement. For instance, switching lenses while recording video would still cause noticeable jerkiness in the majority of Android video clips. Such concerns don’t exist with the iPhone.

Whether the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max have the finest primary camera for taking pictures is hotly contested (I’d say no), but there is no denying that the iPhone 14 Pro phones feature the most refined and comprehensive camera setup. Additionally, the principal camera on the iPhone 14 Pro has a greater ceiling than in previous years, when iPhones were constrained by tiny sensors or a lack of pixels. It opens the door for another year of continuing to serve as a decent benchmark when combined with the consistency we’ve come to expect from iPhones.

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