Shootouts

Apple iPhone 13 and 13 Pro series review: These are peak iPhones

By Kenny Yeo - 3 Oct 2021

Photography

Updated camera systems

There are significant changes made to the camera systems of the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro. I’ll touch on the former first.

The iPhone 13 has dual 12-megapixel cameras. The camera bump on the back is even larger and keen readers might have noticed that the orientation has changed. The two cameras are now positioned diagonally from each other. This was done because the main wide camera has received significant updates.

The main wide camera of the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini is larger and have sensor-shift image stabilisation technology.

The main wide sensor is larger and it captures up to 47% more light for better performance in low-light environments. This sensor also gets sensor-shift optical image stabilisation, a technology that debuted in last year’s iPhone 12 Pro Max. This image stabilisation technology is most useful in challenging situations and can be really helpful if you have shaky hands. The ultra wide camera also has a new sensor that captures more light. The lenses, however, are unchanged. Also, both the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini have identical camera systems. So yes, even the smallest iPhone has sensor-shift image stabilisation tech on its main wide camera.

All three cameras have either improved sensors or lenses. There's also a lidar scanner.

The iPhone 13 Pro has a triple 12-megapixel camera system and a lidar scanner. However, all cameras have either improved sensors or faster lenses. The main wide camera’s sensor, with its 1.9 µm pixels, is the largest ever in an iPhone. Coupled with sensor-shift image stabilisation technology and fast f/1.5 lens, Apple claims it will offer “massive improvement” in low-light situations. The ultra wide camera has received perhaps the most significant updates. It has a faster sensor, a faster f/1.8 lens, and a new autofocus system that Apple says enables it to capture 92% more light for more detailed photos especially in low-light environments. Finally, the telephoto camera now has a 77mm focal length which translates to 3x optical zoom. And for the first time, the telephoto camera supports Night Mode.

The front-facing TrueDepth cameras for all phones are unchanged but the system has been shrunken so the notch is now 20% smaller. You still have a 12-megapixel camera with an f/2.2 lens with support for Night Mode.

Here’s a handy table to recap. The items in bold are new.

2021 iPhone camera systems comparison
Model iPhone 13 / iPhone 13 Mini iPhone 13 Pro / iPhone 13 Pro Max
Wide
  • 12MP
  • 26mm
  • f/1.6
  • 1.7μm pixels
  • 7-element lens
  • 100% focus pixels
  • Sensor-shift OIS
  • Night Mode
  • Deep Fusion
  • 12MP
  • 26mm
  • f/1.5
  • 1.9μm pixels
  • 7-element lens
  • 100% Focus Pixels
  • Sensor-shift OIS
  • Night Mode
  • Deep Fusion
Ultra wide
  • 12MP
  • New, faster sensor
  • 13mm
  • f/2.4
  • 5-element lens
  • Lens correction
  • Night Mode
  • Deep Fusion
  • 12MP
  • 13mm
  • f/1.8
  • 6-element lens
  • Focus pixels
  • Faster sensor
  • Lens correction
  • Night Mode
  • Deep Fusion
Telephoto None
  • 12MP
  • 77mm
  • f/2.8
  • 6-element lens
  • Focus pixels
  • OIS
  • Deep Fusion
  • Night Mode
Front-facing
TrueDepth camera
  • 12MP
  • f/2.2
  • Night Mode
  • Deep Fusion
  • 12MP
  • f/2.2
  • Night Mode
  • Deep Fusion
Lidar No Yes

In short, there are two distinct camera systems this year as opposed to the three from last year (the iPhone 12 Pro Max's cameras were the most advanced). 

 

New features (Smart HDR 4, Photographic Styles, Macro mode)

Apart from these hardware improvements, there are also numerous other under the hood updates and new features. To start, the A15 Bionic chip has a new image signal processor with Apple’s new Smart HDR 4 technology that has cleverer noise reduction and more natural tone mapping techniques and algorithms. According to Apple, one big improvement to Smart HDR 4 is the ability to recognise individual subjects in the photo and apply separate tone mappings to them. 

Smart HDR 4 sample image. See how each person's face is adjusted differently? (Image source: Apple)

Since large group gatherings are not possible, you’ll just have to make do with this sample image above from Apple. Notice how the lighting on each person’s face is slightly adjusted differently to account for the differences in their skin tones?

From left to right: Original, Rich Contrast, and Warm. (Image source: Apple)

One exciting new feature is Photographic Styles. Think of it as a more advanced version of photo filters. Instead of applying the changes wholesale in post-capture, Photographic Styles applies your custom tone and warmth settings in real-time and mixes it into the A15 Bionic’s image signal processing pipeline. This means your adjustments are applied intelligently to the right areas and important aspects like skin tones don’t get messed up. There are four preset settings to choose from but they can be customised to your preference.

Look at the sample photo from Apple above. It shows the original photo on the left, Rich Contrast settings applied to the one middle, and Warm settings applied to the one on the right. The differences look more obvious in Apple's sample here but I found them to be more subtle in the photos that I've took thus far. Maybe it's just Cartman?

Original on left, Rich Contrast on the right.

While Photographic Styles is available to all the new iPhones, only the iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max will be able to take macro photos. Using the new improved ultra wide camera, the macro mode will let users take photos from as close as 2cm. There’s no need for activation, you just bring the phone close to your subject and it will automatically switch to the ultra wide camera. Presumably, it works by making use of the lidar sensor to detect focus distance. And like any kind of macro photography, you need your subject to stay still otherwise the phone move in and out of macro mode – you can tell it is doing that when the preview changes and your perspective slightly shifts which indicates the phone has switched from the ultra wide to wide camera.

Take a look at the sample images below of a vintage watch. Look at how much details is captured is the logo, print, and hands. You can easily make out blemishes on the dial and hands. Click on the images to see the full original image.

This was taken at a distance of about 3cm. The in focus areas are pin sharp which suggests the ultra wide sensor has been vastly improved.

This was taken at the minimum distance of about 2cm. Look at the amount of details captured in the text. You can just about make out the layer of paint and you can see the blemishes on the applied logo.

 

Sample images

Let’s start by taking a look at the photos from all the wide cameras of the phone. Remember, the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini’s wide cameras are similar to last year’s iPhone 12 Pro Max. The iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max’s wide cameras are even larger this year. In situations where there’s sufficient light, I’m not sure users will be able to see an appreciable difference in picture quality. Even at closer ranges, there is little perceptible difference in picture quality. They look identical to my eyes. Click on the images to see them in their original sizes.

Taken with iPhone 13 Mini main wide camera.

Taken with iPhone 13 main wide camera.

Taken with iPhone 13 Pro main wide camera.

Taken with iPhone 13 Pro Max main wide camera.

Taken with iPhone 13's main wide camera.

Taken with iPhone 13 Pro Max's main wide camera.

Now let’s take a look at their ultra wide cameras. Both the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini have faster sensors while the iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max have faster sensors and faster lenses. Again, in situations where there’s sufficient light, I’m not sure there’s a discernible difference in picture quality. Like last year’s phones, photos taken with the ultra wide camera are noticeably less sharp and detailed than those taken with the wide. Compared to last year’s ultra wide cameras, this year's produces slightly sharper and more detailed images. But again, this is only immediately apparent when you view them in their original sizes. Click on the images to see them in their original sizes.

Taken with iPhone 13 Mini ultra wide.

Taken with iPhone 13 ultra wide.

Taken with iPhone 13 Pro ultra wide.

Taken with iPhone 13 Pro Max ultra wide.

Finally, let’s take a look at the telephoto cameras of the iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max. The focal length has changed from 65mm to 77mm. It’s not quite the periscope lens with 10x optical zoom that some were hoping for but I think moving from to 77mm is the right choice as it provides the look that is closer to the 85mm focal length used by professionals for portrait photography. It can be handy also in instances where you can’t get any closer to your subject. It also helps that the telephoto takes noticeably sharper images. Of all the cameras, I think the telephoto delivers the biggest step up in picture quality. Click on the images to see them in their original sizes.

Taken with iPhone 13 Pro telephoto camera.

Taken with iPhone 13 Pro Max telephoto camera.

 

Night Mode performance

Now let’s take a look at the Night Mode photos. Apple’s implementation of Night Mode has typically resulted in photos that look rather natural and this year’s iPhones continue this tradition. And thanks to sensor-shift image stabilisation technology, it’s easier to get a good shot, especially in very poorly-lit situations when you are using the main wide camera.

Taken with the iPhone 13 Mini's main wide camera in Night Mode.

Taken with the iPhone 13 Pro's main wide camera in Night Mode.

When taking photos of wide scenes, at first glance, it looks like there are few differences between the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini and the iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max. But if you click on the images and see them in their original sizes, the Pro iPhones’ photo is slightly less noisy. Also, in the areas where there’s light, the contrast appears to be greater and the light sources seem brighter.

Taken with the iPhone 13 main wide camera in Night Mode.

Taken with the iPhone 13 Pro Max's main wide camera in Night Mode.

The differences are more apparent when taking photos of objects close up. The photos of the maneki-neko were taken in a dark room and the only light sources were street lamps coming from outside the windows and a small table lamp about three metres away. And despite these challenging conditions, the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini both took great photos. The maneki-neko looks sharp and you can clearly make out the Japanese text on the body. But the Pro iPhones produced an even sharper and more detailed image. The outline is more defined, the text on the body is cleaner, and you can even make out the dust that’s been captured on the fabric base.

 

Closing thoughts on imaging performance

As you would expect, these new iPhones have solid cameras and take fantastic photos. But Apple’s issue of automatically switching cameras continues to frustrate. For example, selecting the telephoto camera doesn’t actually mean you’ll use it. If lighting isn’t optimal, the phone might instead opt to use the wide lens instead and apply a digital zoom. The issue arises with the new macro photography mode too. Having the phone automatically switch to the ultra wide camera for macro photography is undoubtedly convenient but it is a double-edged sword because the phone can be too eager to activate the ultra wide camera when it should have stuck with the main wide camera. 

The cameras on the new phones might not offer pronounced improvements but they are solid, reliable, and take better photos in challenging situations.

For example, in the close-up photos of the maneki-neko shots in the Night Mode section above, the phone would switch to macro mode and the ultra wide camera even though I was at a range where the main wide camera would still work. The result is very noisy and grainy photos. I ended up with the photos I took by using my finger to block off the ultra wide camera and force the phone to rely on the main wide camera. Fortunately, Apple said that a new setting will be added in a software update later this year that turns off automatic camera switching so users can have more control when taking close-ups and macro shots.

At any rate, the crucial thing is that the main wide cameras take excellent photos that are pin-sharp with high levels of detail, and accurate punchy colours. But they aren’t a huge step up from last year’s iPhones unless the situations are dire. The photos these phones take are good but they aren't significantly better than the competition either. However, like I said in last year’s review, and this is subjective I know, the way iPhones render photos often results in more natural-looking and life-like photos. Unless I’m trying to go for an exaggerated stylistic look, I don’t feel like I need to do much, if any, editing before I can share them with friends or online. That's a commendable thing.

The increments are small but the iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max have the best cameras in any iPhone ever.

Still, the larger sensors and faster lenses of the Pro iPhones allow them to deliver higher sharpness and level of details when the going gets tough. In poorly-lit conditions, I found the Pro iPhones to deliver photos that are crisper and have more information in them. Admittedly, these are only very apparent when you pixel peep but that’s the whole point of these phones – they are for enthusiasts who care about the little things. 

With all that said, the new iPhones have very competent camera systems that are easily some of the best in the business. There’s no doubt that they will be front runners for the Best Camera Smartphone award in next year’s Tech Awards.

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