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Apple iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro review: A tale of two iPhones

By Kenny Yeo - 24 Oct 2020

Photography

Camera systems

The camera systems is where things get a little confusing. I’ve rewritten this section a number of times but I think I finally get it, so let me summarise things for you.

The iPhone 12 has two cameras. The main wide camera has a faster lens with a new 7-element lens construction.

There are effectively three camera systems spread across four models. The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Mini have dual-camera systems. And then there’s the iPhone 12 Pro, which has a triple camera system with a lidar scanner, but its wide and ultra-wide cameras are actually identical to the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Mini.

Finally, we have the iPhone 12 Pro Max, which also has three cameras and a lidar scanner, but then its wide camera has a larger sensor with sensor-shift stabilisation technology and its telephoto camera has a longer 65mm focal length with a slightly slower f/2.2 lens. The front-facing TrueDepth camera for all cameras are unchanged from last year but now supports Night Mode and Deep Fusion.

2020 iPhone camera systems comparison
Model iPhone 12 / iPhone 12 Mini iPhone 12 Pro iPhone 12 Pro Max
Wide
  • 12MP
  • 26mm
  • f/1.6
  • 1.4μm pixels
  • 7-element lens
  • 100% focus pixels
  • OIS
  • Night Mode
  • Deep Fusion
  • 12MP
  • 26mm
  • f/1.6
  • 1.4μm pixels
  • 7-element lens
  • 100% focus pixels
  • OIS
  • Night Mode
  • Deep Fusion
  • 12MP
  • 26mm
  • f/1.6
  • 1.7μm pixels
  • 7-element lens
  • 100% focus pixels
  • Sensor-shift OIS
  • Night Mode
  • Deep Fusion
Ultra wide
  • 12MP
  • 13mm
  • f/2.4
  • 5-element lens
  • Lens correction
  • Night Mode
  • Deep Fusion
  • 12MP
  • 13mm
  • f/2.4
  • 5-element lens
  • Lens correction
  • Night Mode
  • Deep Fusion
  • 12MP
  • 13mm
  • f/2.4
  • 5-element lens
  • Lens correction
  • Night Mode
  • Deep Fusion
Telephoto None
  • 12MP
  • 52mm
  • f/2.0
  • 6-element lens
  • Focus pixels
  • OIS
  • Deep Fusion
  • 12MP
  • 65mm
  • f/2.2
  • 6-element lens
  • Focus pixels
  • OIS
  • Deep Fusion
Front-facing
TrueDepth camera
  • 12MP
  • f/2.2
  • Night Mode
  • Deep Fusion
  • 12MP
  • f/2.2
  • Night Mode
  • Deep Fusion
  • 12MP
  • f/2.2
  • Night Mode
  • Deep Fusion
Lidar No Yes Yes


Alright, the table probably turned out to be a little more confusing than I had expected but the key takeaways are these:

  • All main wide cameras have a faster f/1.6 lens that lets 27% more light in when shooting wide open
  • New 7-element lens for sharper pictures for the wide camera
  • Lens correction for the ultra wide and TrueDepth camera to correct edges
  • The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro have identical wide and ultra wide cameras
  • Deep Fusion now work all cameras
  • Night mode now works on both wide and ultra wide cameras
  • Night mode still doesn’t work on telephoto (iPhone 12 Pro)
  • All front-facing TrueDepth cameras have Night mode and Deep Fusion support
  • Smart HDR 3 for all cameras
  • Lidar for the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max

This review might be of the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro but it would be remiss of me not to mention the extra goodies that the iPhone 12 Pro Max have.

  • 47% larger sensor for the wide camera
  • Wide camera gets sensor-shift optical image stabilisation
  • 65mm or 2.5x optical zoom with telephoto camera, but slower f/2.2 lens
  • 12x digital zoom

For keen photographers, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the clear choice on paper, but we'll have to wait for the phone to drop to be sure. For now, let's take a look at the new phones' imaging performance.

First, let's see how the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro's main wide cameras look versus the iPhone 11 Pro Max's main wide camera.

Shot with the iPhone 11 Pro Max's main wide camera. Click to see full image.

Shot with the iPhone 12 Pro's main wide camera. Click to see full image.

Shot with the iPhone 12's main wide camera. Click to see full image.

Shot with the iPhone 11 Pro Max's main wide camera. Click to see full image.

Shot with the iPhone 12 Pro's main wide camera. Click to see full image.

Shot with the iPhone 12's main wide camera. Click to see full image.

Can you see a difference? If you can, you have sharper eyes than I do. The new phones' main wide cameras continue to be excellent. But in good light, these cameras give just about the same results.

Now on to the ultra wide camera.

Shot with the iPhone 11 Pro Max's ultra wide camera. Click to see full image.

Shot with the iPhone 12 Pro's ultra wide camera. Click to see full image.

Shot with the iPhone 12's ultra wide camera. Click to see full image.

Shot with the iPhone 11 Pro Max's ultra wide camera. Click to see full image.

Shot with the iPhone 12 Pro's ultra wide camera. Click to see full image.

Shot with the iPhone 12's ultra wide camera. Click to see full image.

Thanks to lens correction, the new iPhones' ultra wide cameras capture noticeably sharper images with more details and less warping around the edges. However, this is appreciable when shooting objects up-close. For shots of landscape and scenery, the improvements are still present but less obvious.

Now, let's see the telephoto camera.

Shot with the iPhone 11 Pro Max's telephoto camera. Click to see full image.

Shot with the iPhone 12 Pro's telephoto camera. Click to see full image.

I don't see much difference here either. The two phones' telephoto cameras produced similar results.

Now let's take a look at low-light performance.

Shot with the iPhone 11 Pro Max's main wide camera in Night mode. Click to see full image.

Shot with the iPhone 12 Pro's main wide camera in Night mode. Click to see full image.

Shot with the iPhone 11 Pro Max's main wide camera in Night mode. Click to see full image.

Shot with the iPhone 12 Pro's main wide camera in Night mode. Click to see full image.

Night mode performance with the main wide camera is mostly similar. The only thing I have to note is that in the first pair of images, the iPhone 12 Pro’s rendering of light from the apartment blocks is more accurate. The iPhone 11 Pro Max’s looks much too blue. In the second pair of images, the two are almost indistinguishable from each other. But if you look very closely in the background, again, the apartment block in the back looks a little blue.

The ultra wide camera of this year's phones are able to shoot Night mode so let's see how it fares.

Shot with the iPhone 11 Pro Max's ultra wide camera in Night mode. Click to see full image.

Shot with the iPhone 12 Pro's ultra wide camera in Night mode. Click to see full image.

Shot with the iPhone 11 Pro Max's ultra wide camera in Night mode. Click to see full image.

Shot with the iPhone 12 Pro's ultra wide camera in Night mode. Click to see full image.

The increased sharpness and detail aside, I think Night mode for the ultra wide camera will only really benefit users in very challenging scenes. In the first set of images, there was still ample light coming from the street lamps and so even the iPhone 11 Pro Max could produce a pretty decent and usable shot. In the second set of images, however, which was much darker as the street lamps were much farther away, the iPhone 12 Pro produced a much more usable shot but at the expense of it looking a little artificial.

Does lidar help with night shots? Not really. I never found the old iPhones to have a huge problem focusing in the dark so I didn't feel that lidar made a big difference. There were only a handful of instances where I felt that the iPhone 12 Pro focused faster but those were in extremely dim environments.

 

Closing thoughts on imaging performance

I’m going to start with a complaint because this is one of my pet peeves. One annoying thing that persists from older iPhones is the inability to force the telephoto camera. If lighting isn’t optimal when selecting the telephoto camera, the phone would automatically use the wide lens instead and apply a 2x digital zoom to simulate the telephoto camera. You can try it for yourself, just cover the telephotos lens and select 2x zoom, if you still see an image that means the phone is using the wide camera. As I said before, some form of manual override would be welcomed for advanced users who know what they are doing and want to use the telephoto camera.

The ultra wide cameras of both phones see big improvements in sharpness and capture of details.

Putting aside this niggle, imaging performance is generally very good for both phones. The main wide camera, in particular, is excellent and produces very sharp images with lots of detail and punchy colours. Smart HDR 3 works well too and it gives very nice-looking pictures even in challenging scenarios. I don’t think the two phones are necessarily technically superior to the competition, but I do think the way Apple decides how photos should be processed and rendered often results in more pleasant-looking pictures. Night mode photos, especially, look a lot more natural than the competition’s implementation.

I found that the biggest improvements are with the ultra wide camera. Because of the new lens correction processing, photos taken with the ultra wide camera has a bucketload more detail and look less warped. The improvements are visible throughout the image but they are most noticeable at the edges and when shooting up-close. This matters because ultra wide cameras on phones are notorious for taking poorer images than the main wide cameras. With the new iPhones, the gulf in picture quality between the main wide camera and ultra wide camera has shrunk.

Shot with the iPhone 11 Pro Max's main wide camera. Look at how detail is lost in the foreground and how much noise and artifacts have been introduced. Click to see the full image.

Shot with the iPhone 12 Pro's main wide camera. This is a challenging scene with the sun setting in the background but noticed how highlights and details are preserved in the foreground. Click to see full image.

But even though these new phones take very nice pictures, it’s not a huge step up from last year’s models. Yes, Smart HDR 3 seems to be more intelligent at keeping detail and managing exposure, and photos taken with the ultra wide camera are a lot sharper, but overall, it’s not a huge leap forward in imaging performance. It’s certainly not as big as the jump going from 2018’s iPhones to 2019’s. If you are using an iPhone from last year, there’s no need to upgrade to take nicer pictures. Perhaps my opinion will change with the iPhone 12 Pro Max, we’ll have to see.

 

Why go for Pro?

The Pro models have an extra camera, lidar scanner, and support for the upcoming Apple ProRAW.

So if the iPhone 12 is already such a good shooter, why might one consider the iPhone 12 Pro? Apart from the added telephoto camera, there’s lidar and a new feature called Apple ProRAW.

The first Apple device to have lidar was this year’s iPad Pro. It uses the Time-of-Flight (ToF) principle to understand its surroundings. In the iPad Pro, it was most useful for AR applications as it enables AR apps to build highly accurate depth map of the environment and it’s no different for the iPhone 12 Pro. However, Apple is also using the lidar scanner to improve night photography. With lidar, Apple claims focusing times at night can be reduced by as much as six times. Also, it’s using lidar to scan faces and enable Night mode portrait shots.

Unless you use a lot of AR applications, the lidar is going to be most helpful in the dark, but it seems to be beneficial only in the darkest of environments. The iPhone 12, even without lidar, focuses quite well in the dark and it only had trouble focusing a handful of times and only in very challenging environments.

Apple ProRAW is coming later this year via a software update for the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max. (Image source: Apple)

Apple ProRAW, on the other hand, could be useful. What Apple ProRAW aims to do is give users the flexibility of editing typical RAW images but with Apple’s image processing features baked in. This way you can do stuff like adjust white balance, correct exposure, and recover highlights, while still enjoying the benefits of Apple’s computational photography features like Deep Fusion and Smart HDR. It’s not available now but Apple says it will be coming as a software update later this year.

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