Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max camera first impressions / review

Tristan Zand
Nov 28, 2020 · 13 min read
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iPhone 12 Pro Max out from the box with its primising three optical cameras

The three-eyed monster that is the iPhone 12 Pro Max seems to pack incredible punch power for serious photography. But as usual, we need to go beyond the sole technological specifications and see how it handles real life. Apple boasts about its incredible night shots, so, as a fan of sensor noise and compression patterns (yes, there can be beauty in modern noise and artifacts, like film grain or VHS / NTSC video artifacts).

blackbox: version 2 Saturday 28th of November (will regularly update this article — in a somewhat disorderly order…)

The phone includes three cameras, each with a specific lens coupled to dedicated 12-megapixel sensors. They range from ultra-wide with a 13mm f2.4 full-frame equivalent, wide with a 26mm f1.6 as the primary camera, to a 65mm f2.2 tele-lens. There is optical image stabilization, and focus is supposed to be improved thanks to an integrated LiDAR (an independent depth sensor).

I will use the integrated camera app (for fast response and exposure correction) using by default the HEIF compression mode, Hipstamatic to capture raw files, and my own software apps (Duall Dualphoto and Camare Multi Lens Camera) for the fun of using simultaneous lenses at once and better understanding what lays behind Apple’s image science.

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come on Apple, too raw for you?

Apple still doesn’t propose Raw format capture with its Camera app on the Apple iPhone Pro Max I have (as of the end of November 2020 — iOS software version 14.2.1), only what they call ‘High Efficiency’ (HEIF/HEVC) and ‘Most Compatible’ (JPEG/H.264) formats. In the examples coming up, you will see how this is a terrible lack for us who want to take good pictures fast. Until communicated otherwise, it seems clear Apple wants to preserve the app market. Come on Apple; we’re in 2020; you’ve got great hardware, take responsibility, let app makers find other ways to differentiate and insert that third ‘DNG/Apple ProRaw’ or whatever equivalent format option.

I will compare with different cameras, including my trusty 47Mpx Leica SL2 from 2019 (disclaimer: check my initial test of the pre-production camera on the official Leica blog in German or French)with a 50mm f1.4 and a 19mm f2.5, my subcompact alternative Pentax QS-1 from 2014, and my trusty iPhone X from 2017.

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illustration 1 auto night-shot / image-stacking using the 13mm lens and a 1/4s exposure equivalent but without the blur of usual handheld shots (the case here) — works great but is that the feel you want

The iPhone 12 Pro Max abuses new software and hardware methods to create incredibly noiseless pictures in low-light environments, using long-exposures and image-stacking. The overly-bright results might, however, not be realistic enough as it exceeds Human perception. Do you want AI clean details, or do you want your scene to appear how you experienced it?

Also, Apple’s methods to get to that great noise-to-signal ratio imply a longer exposure time / multi-stacking / artificial intelligence assistance. It will be great for some photos where the scene is static, but for images with movement, you will crave shorter exposure times (you can override that ‘night’ mode on the new Camera app from Apple — which I will in the examples following).

For the sake of experimentation and to try revealing more of what lies in the guts of the iPhone 12 Pro Max image science, I will push it as hard as I can. I took the same picture at 1/15th of a second (disabling the 3s auto proposition for night shot) and got an underexposed photograph that I then tweaked using my desktop software (could have on an iPad).

Trying to rebalance the luminosity levels will increase the low light noise’s visibility and the underlying compression artifacts and image science.

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illustration 2–3–4 (sized down previews) / extreme manual post-production compensation — basic compensation to look like auto - original uncompensated capture at 1/15s
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illustrations 5–6 / (100% zoom in) version 1 reveals little noise but a bit softness both in details and noise — (100% zoom in) of original vetsion 4 (uncorrected underexposure) quite similar but too dark and also softer in details
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illustrations 7–8 / (100% zoom in) of version 3 with basic compensation that reveals an an interesting noise pattern, but some color mosaicism (some chromatic variations linked to underexposure) — (100% zoom in) of the overly compensated version 4 reveals the blocky patterns of HEIF compression format (which discarded the ‘unnecessary’ low-light details

When most photographic devices offer raw image capture, it is surprising that Apple still doesn’t provide this option without using a third-party app. In the meantime, comparing for fun with other devices will make things more interesting.

As you can see with the previous examples, the HEIF compression Apple uses by default can be a problem if you like to post-produce your images. The JPEG option in the Camera app preferences will provide a more natural alternative, but some JPEG artifacts too (will test later). The overall noise quality of the sensor/software from the iPhone 12 Pro Max seems quite pleasant, more natural in low-lights when you don’t use the ‘night mode’. However, your details will look slightly murky and blocky in intensity and color, which can be stylish but essentially ugly (check full-size version 2, which clearly shows).

Using my sturdy Leica SL2 with an old 19mm f2.8 R Leica lens, I wanted to see how things would compare. It is not the same sensor and lens category, but it is interesting to see how the noise patterns compare when abusing the cameras. I resized the 47Mpx raw photograph from the SL2 to match the iPhone 12 Pro Max output (to less than 12Mpx as I also compensate for the focal length). This comparison reveals how image technologies differ, and it also is fun.

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illustrations 9–10–11 (sized down previews) SL2 overlaid on illustration 1 / extreme compensation of an underexposed image reveals the finer color artefacts with high preservation of details — compensated version closer to reality (you’ll have to trust me) - original underexposed image
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illustrations 12–13 / (100% zoom in) of version 11 (original underexposed) where I tried to keep details in the lit windows — closer to reality version 10 (100% zoom in) where the noise is almost film like but quite present
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illustrations 14–15 / (100% zoom in) of a version ‘auto exposed’ in Adobe Photoshop (too dark but nice details and nice low noise grain) — version 9 (100% zoom in) extreme compensation to reveal the artefacts from the underexposed sensor

For this first part / version of my Apple 12 Pro Max review / first-impressions, we can already see a few of the camera hardware/software limitations. The comparison to the full-frame DSLR with a great lens is quite illustrative. I will add other devices to the comparative test later.

The review will probably not matter to casual users, but for those of us who like to take control over machine only decisions, while the results are fantastic, these low-light shots illustrations show a few interesting things:

  • HEIF compression is not that great for post-production of underexposed images
  • night shot makes for very smooth but ‘uncanny-valley’ looking photos (at least to me)
  • as expected, a small lens and sensor can’t (yet) deliver the definition and quality of a higher grade one

Just a reminder: the above SL2 samples have been resized to better relate to the 12Mpx shots of the iPhone. There are more details on the original SL2 47Mpx raw files.

For a first review and impressions article, I will go with the flow and try to make things fun while staying real. Many review articles focus on technical improvements and theoretical values but don’t stand the test of everyday use.

For this part (update 2), I will compare shots taken at the same place and time but with four different devices.

I used the iPhone 12 Pro Max, an older iPhone X from 2017 (a 12Mpx smartphone camera with two lenses), a Leica M240 from 2012 (a 24Mpx full-frame camera with 50mm and 35mm f2.0 pre aspherical Summicron lenses), and the Pentax QS-1 from 2014 (a 12Mpx interchangeable subcompact DSLR with a smartphone class sensor, paired to the great subcompact 06 f2.8 70–200mm zoom).

Let us start with a bit of fun: 9 100% zoom-in 1000x1000 pixel crops from each shot. No indication of which is which yet.

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illustrations 16 to 24 — a non labeled (100% zoom in) central crop from each device/mode from wider to more tele — please look at them and figure ou the ones you like most, I will go into details below

If you zoom in on each square capture above, you should get a sense of what pleases you most. These photos all look similar, but each has its characteristics and feel. Beyond marketing and peer-pressure from reviewers, I find it interesting to tempt some blindfolding once in a while and follow your feelings. Try to guess which camera and lens were for which. The nine individual descriptions you will find below.

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figure 25 (sized down preview) — 2020 iPhone 12 Pro Max 13mm (12 Mpx)

Illustration 16 is the iPhone 12 Pro Max 13mm camera (the first 100% crop). This super wide-angle lens is pretty good in resolution and definition. It is a very potent camera if you need that ultra-wide view. It is a class of its own simply because 13mm isn’t a commonly found field-of-view option.

As we’ve seen in the first part of the article, you shouldn’t expect much precision in the details in low light on this device until we get the raw file format option. Let us be hopeful.

There are some color artifacts and a ‘rainbowy’ effect on low contrast cloud transitions. The artifacts probably originate from the color rendering science of the iPhone. Contrasty parts of the scene also feel a little ‘blocky’ (check out the trees on the jetee), probably because of the default noise reduction.

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figure 26 (sized down preview) — 2020 iPhone 12 Pro Max 26mm (12 Mpx)

The second photograph (illustration 17) is from the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s medium focal length.

The 26mm is supposed to be its primary lens. It is the traditional wide-angle field-of-view, and it offers more definition and contrast than the 13mm. The color science and overall treatment feels still a bit ‘blocky’ and retains the ‘rainbowy’ effects in the clouds, but overall everything looks better.

Apple has done marvels here; there is excellent geometry preservation for such a small device. Perhaps their team could revise some image science here, and it still feels a bit fake. The raw format might or might not resolve this. While very good, it still looks like what you’d get from a smartphone (spoiler: it is).

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figure 27 (sized down preview) — 2017 iPhone X 28mm (12 Mpx)

The fourth image is from the 28mm wide-angle lens on the iPhone X (illustration 19).

Compared to the previous images from the 26mm on the iPhone 12 Pro Max, the resulting image feels slightly more grainy and loses precision.

The improvements in the iPhone 12 Pro Max aren’t that impressive in these conditions. 26mm is quite comparable to 28mm, and the overall feel between the two cameras makes it feel like they are from the same family of devices.

I did find it hard to see a difference in these reasonable lighting conditions.

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figure 28 (sized down preview) — 2012 Leica M240 with Summicron 35mm f2.0 pre-ASPH (24 Mpx)

I took the sixth image using a Leica Summicron 35mm f2.0 pre-aspherical (figure 21) lens on the 24 Mpx full-frame Leica M240. Focusing is telemetric and manual on this camera. The sensor is a known workhorse, and its character is quite recognizable if you’ve already used it before. The lens is a classic item for street photography.

It is a soft-looking lens, but the raw file coming out from the sensor offers likable grain, and while noise levels seem high, the rendering from this 2012 camera feels pretty natural and homogeneous. In my opinion, the previous iPhone shots did not provide that quality.

While the lens feels soft, you still see the branches in the trees, which looked ‘blocky’ in all the previous iPhone pictures, including the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

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figure 29 (sized down preview) –2012 Leica M240 with Summicron 50mm f2.0 pre-ASPH (24 Mpx)

The seventh lens is an upgrade to the previous one. It is the Summicron 50mm f2.0 pre-aspherical (figure 22) on the same Leica M240 body.

This robust combination offers great optical precision (the lens is a 1979 design), and noise from the sensor is the same harmonious one as before with overall superb rendering.

Look at the sailboat or the passers-by on the jetty, and you will see that the lens definition lets us get accurate details on all parts of the image.

These results remind us of the inherent physical limitations of smaller lenses. They still can’t compete even when the lens is 41 years old on an almost ten-year-old camera.

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figure 30 (sized down preview) –2017 iPhone X 56mm (12 Mpx)

This next photograph brings us back to the iPhone X and is from the 56mm lens (figure 20).

The lens — sensor combination offers decent results. The scene feels pretty crisp with low noise and without the ‘blockiness’ we found earlier on the other iPhone captures.

You can see the excellent geometry and definition in the details from the tree branches.

This setup indeed represents the flagship camera for this older phone (e.g., great for portraits). The smallest details are there, and the slight graininess does not dominate and feels natural, almost analog.

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figure 31 (sized down preview) —2020 iPhone 12 Pro Max 65mm (12 Mpx)

The flagship camera on the iPhone 12 Pro Max (figure 18) simply shines compared to the other iPhone options. Its unique focal lens of 65mm (the 12 Pro has a 52mm lens) finally reaches the telelens world (sorry, but I’m not sure I would consider 52mm or 56mm to be tele).

The results are superb both in the rendition of details and colors. Noise levels are at a minimum and almost invisible. While image details still feel a bit ‘blocky,’ this is probably because of a bit too much noise reduction on the image science side. However, the image feels overall on par with figure 29 (Leica M + 50mm), but of a different style because of the quasi absence of noise.

Apple should have offered Raw since the first iPhones. Maybe it can be unflattering, but having to rely on slow to start third-party apps to get to these incredible cameras’ full potential seems a bit thoughtless. I will update this review as soon as we have public access to Apple Raw.

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figure 32 (sized down preview) –2014 Pentax QS1 70mm f2.8 (12 Mpx)

The last two pictures (figures 23 and 24) illustrate what is achievable using smartphone-like sensors. These are from a 2014 sensor (the same year that the iPhone 6 came out).

Made by Ricoh under the Pentax brand, the Q interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras are tiny and have superb lenses to play. While they sort of went under the radar, to me (and to many others), they still are a reference in terms of super-compact digital camera setups.

Illustration 32 is from the 06 zoom-lens (a linear f2.8 piece of glass that offers a 70mm to 200mm range in a tiny package).

While the sensor is old, its definition is excellent. Compared to the 65mm lens of the iPhone 12 Pro Max, the image feels more precise regardless of the more visible noise. The noise’s grain quality is quite photogenic, and merely looking at the sailboat aptly illustrates it.

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figure 33 (sized down preview) –2014 Pentax QS1 200mm f2.8 (12 Mpx)

These two examples also remind you that you should consider it before believing the hype of a keynote presentation or advertisement.

We got used to every new smartphone announced as incredible and revolutionary, but let’s keep our judgments coherent. These devices offer great cameras but are not dedicated to picture taking. These devices are outstanding subcompact multimedia and communication machines. Most of their magic comes from having so much computer power per centimeter cube available for image taking. The lens and sensor are incredible feats if you look at the size, but they still compromise.

Yes, the QS1 camera from 2014 seems to be noisier. But look at the details, at the camera size and lens options. Think of a Q camera with a newer generation sensor like the one of the iPhone 12 Pro Max. What are you planning to do with your portable camera, and how do you intend to use it?

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left is the Leica M (240) with the Summicron lenses — right is the Pentax QS1 with the 70–200mm equivalent zoom lens

These examples do highlight the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s awe-inspiring results. But what is more important is that it offers so many more possibilities in a subcompact device. If your goal is comparing cameras, older specialized tools might still look better, and then it also is a question of how much it matters to you having everything in a single device.

I will continue editing this article and adding new content to understand better and review the iPhone 12 Pro Max cameras and potential.

Don’t hesitate to agree/disagree, ask questions, offer insights in the comments below. I will update this article with more shots and experiments soon.

The article version/updates will be indicated in the ‘blackbox’ subtitle of this article.

The Raw Camera — Von Cam

A raw review of diverse photography techniques, cameras and lenses, with a focus on practice.

Tristan Zand

Written by

I like to hide behind sunglasses/music/photo/tech/arts/politics/whatever/oh and bass... Experimental photography and conceptual media. http://zand.net

The Raw Camera — Von Cam

A raw review of diverse techniques, cameras and lenses. More on how things might be done, or on how the equipment feels than sole objective technical data. Hopefully useful and enjoyable.

Tristan Zand

Written by

I like to hide behind sunglasses/music/photo/tech/arts/politics/whatever/oh and bass... Experimental photography and conceptual media. http://zand.net

The Raw Camera — Von Cam

A raw review of diverse techniques, cameras and lenses. More on how things might be done, or on how the equipment feels than sole objective technical data. Hopefully useful and enjoyable.

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