The iPhone XS Camera — Good, Bad, or Ugly?

From the first moment I picked up the 1st generation iPhone I knew I was holding the future. But what I did not know at the time was how influential the iPhone would become in the world of photography. Flash forward ten years and we now take for granted just how good the iPhone (and many other smartphones) have become at taking photos and video. It’s way beyond just soccer moms taking pictures of their kids, these devices are now regarded as essential photographic tools. We have professional photographers shooting with just their iPhones, taking photos at major events, and even making the covers of major magazines. Smartphones are huge in the world of photography and the iPhone is the most popular one of the bunch due to Apple’s strong reputation for minding the details. So, after picking up my new iPhone XS Max the first question on my mind was….is the camera any better than my iPhone X?

Shot on iPhone XS Max — Check out that shadow from the tree.

Massive Upgrade or Minor Refresh?

On paper, the changes from the iPhone X to the XS don’t appear to be all that major. Sure, they improved the wide-angle lens optics along with a new sensor, and there’s that new-fangled Smart HDR, but other than those two changes, no other optical hardware upgrades have been made to the XS over the X. Don’t be fooled, Apple has made major upgrades to the entire process of how the iPhone actually takes photos. Everything, and I really mean everything, has changed on the iPhone XS when it comes to taking photos. Apple revamped the entire image processing pipeline with both the above-mentioned hardware upgrades, the inclusion of a new neural processor, and also massive upgrades to the software carefully hidden away under the Smart-HDR moniker. These upgrades bring the iPhone much closer to that coveted close-enough designation when compared to dedicated camera hardware such as a DSLR or mirrorless system. It’s that good. At least when you use the wide-angle lens anyway.

The Good News

Smartphone image quality is always massively subjective in that some folks will prefer more vibrant colors, others more neutral, and even more will want true-to-life colors while everyone wants sharp, noise-free photos. The iPhone does an amazing job at producing beautiful, well exposed, sharp, colorful, and almost completely noise-free photos in typical daytime lighting conditions. Even during the middle of the day it’s easy to see improvements in both general exposure and dynamic range.

Even in challenging lighting conditions the iPhone XS preserves shadow details very well.

In fact, this might be the first iPhone I have owned where the dynamic range is enough that I feel confident in taking the shot using default settings because I know I can adjust as-needed later using Snapseed or another of the many photo-editing apps available on the app store. Something I noticed that I think is really worth taking a closer look (pun intended) at is the per-pixel sharpness. In the past, it was always easy to zoom in 100% on an iPhone photo and find yourself looking at mushy details and blotchy colors. Not any more, the iPhone XS has as good sharpness and detail at 100% as some of the older DSLR cameras I have owned. After close examination of some old photos I have from a Canon Rebel DSLR I’d give the image quality crown over to the iPhone for sure, and that’s seriously amazing!

Smart, Wicked Smart

Let’s be honest, it’s easy for any camera to produce outstanding results in perfect lighting conditions. When the sun begins to go down and the lighting conditions become much more challenging we begin to separate the best from the rest. My iPhone X was never a slouch at your typical indoor low-light shots so long as I was careful in manually selecting the right exposure. If I was really pushing it, I would even under-expose the image slightly to help reduce noise. With the new iPhone XS, I only need to frame my shot and the phone does all the rest. Image noise is way down, and the detail captured, even in the shadows is significantly greater than the iPhone X.

Portrait mode is now much more usable in poor lighting conditions than before.

Even portrait mode, something I would avoid using at all in poor lighting conditions, seems to work great now. Apple has clearly worked especially hard to close these gaps and create an experience where the photographer only needs to worry about replicating the look they are trying to get. Which brings me to something about the iPhone XS I only noticed after taking photos with it for a while. Unlike 90% of cameras, the iPhone really does show you exactly how your photo will look before you tap the shutter button. The image you see on the screen is super-accurate, even when using portrait mode, something I did not expect as that was always missing on the iPhone X.

The Bad News

Ok, so we know the image quality of the newer wide-angle lens and sensor is awesome, but what about the 2x zoom lens and sensor? Well, let’s just say the news is not as good. To be fair, I never complained about the image quality using the zoom lens on my iPhone X and it appears that the same setup on the iPhone XS is identical hardware. Unfortunately, that’s the problem. Image quality between the two phones using the zoom lens is nearly identical as well.

Smart-HDR does a great job at improving dynamic range but per-pixel sharpness and detail is more-or-less the same. Knowing Apple, this will be corrected/upgraded in the next iPhone but it’s something that would have been really nice to see on the XS. There is such a noticeable image quality difference between the two lenses that I will likely avoid using the zoom whenever possible.

iPhone XS wide-angle on the left, zoom lens on the right.
Zoomed-in crop of the above images. Again, the wide-angle lens on the left, the zoom lens on the right. Notice the much greater amount of noise with the zoom lens.

Bonus Points

I’m not a huge video guy but let’s talk about video anyway. The difference between the iPhone X and the XS for video is huge. Image stabilization is amazing, Smart-HDR applied to video is cinematic and IMHO a total game changer. I don’t usually shoot video much beyond personal vacation stuff but that might change thanks to the major quality improvements on the XS. Others have dug into this far more than I could ever hope to so please check this awesome video out if you want to see just how good the iPhone XS is for video. Once I get some more time shooting video on the XS I will likely post my thoughts.

Conclusion

After my horrible experience several years back with my iPhone 6 to 6S upgrade, where Apple really let photographers down with worse image quality, I had serious concerns about plunking down the cost of the iPhone XS. With a big sigh of relief, I can say that this time around you won’t be disappointed. In fact, if you are photographer I would highly recommend you take a hard look at the iPhone XS (or XS Max) even if you currently are rocking the one-year-old iPhone X. It’s that good.