Apple has announced its iPhone 12 lineup, and as ever, the phones’ camera systems were the focus of much of the company’s presentation. This year, though, there’s more to differentiate each model than ever before. The iPhone range is getting improvements across the board, but Apple appears to be reserving the biggest advances for its biggest phone. The 6.7-inch iPhone 12 Pro Max has some serious hardware improvements that set its camera apart from every other iPhone.
Hardware-wise, there doesn’t appear to be much difference between the iPhone 12, 12 mini, and 12 Pro when compared to the 11 and 11 Pro. All of these phones use the same-sized 12 megapixel sensors for wide, ultrawide, and the Pro model’s telephoto cameras, and the shape and size of the camera bump remains essentially the same.
The biggest hardware change is a new seven-element f/1.6 lens for the primary wide camera. That’s a modest aperture increase on the iPhone 11’s six-element f/1.8 lens; Apple says it improves the lens’ light-gathering ability by 27 percent, which should enable slightly faster shutter speeds or less grainy ISO settings in low light. There are often compromises to sharpness and performance when designing lenses with larger apertures, but the new seven-element structure will “maintain sharp detail in your photo from edge to edge,” according to Apple.
New glass is always nice, but the bigger improvements are likely to be in how Apple’s software makes use of the new A14 Bionic processor. The iPhone 12 cameras use Smart HDR 3, the latest generation of Apple’s computational photography pipeline; it’s previously identified and optimized for people’s faces, but now it uses machine learning to apply adjustments to a wider variety of elements in a scene. Apple is also claiming improved performance in night mode, which can now be used on the ultrawide and selfie cameras as well.
The iPhone 12 Pro camera isn’t all that different to the regular 12’s, beyond the same 52mm-equivalent f/2.0 telephoto lens that the 11 Pro got last year. The biggest still photography feature in the Pro is the ability to take portraits in night mode, which makes use of the Pro-only LIDAR sensor.
Apple also announced ProRAW, a new image format that retains more data from its image processing pipeline for greater flexibility in editing, but it won’t be shipping on the iPhones at launch. It’s also not clear why it won’t be coming to the non-Pro iPhone 12 — it doesn’t seem like there’d be a technical reason to limit its availability, given the A14 processor is shared across the iPhone 12 line, unless it’s particularly demanding on RAM. Apple is releasing an SDK to let third-party developers integrate ProRaw into their apps, so maybe some of those will work on the iPhone 12.
The first cameras ever to capture Dolby Vision video
As for video, all the new iPhones still top out at 4K/60 for conventional footage, with Apple saying the faster-aperture wide lens will help produce cleaner footage in low light. The big new video feature is the ability to capture Dolby Vision footage in real time, which does sound impressive. Dolby Vision is an HDR format that uses dynamic metadata to map accurate color and brightness levels onto each scene; it requires extensive editing in order to accurately grade footage with complex light sources. We’ll have to wait to find out how good the results are, but processing this in-camera while recording the footage is nothing if not ambitious — in fact, Apple claims it’s the first camera ever to do it. The 12 Pro can handle it at 4K/60 fps, while the 12 is limited to 4K/30.
All of this sounds like a perfectly solid, if iterative, set of year-on-year upgrades. Last year the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro made even fewer hardware tweaks to their predecessors, but instantly catapulted Apple back into phone camera relevance due to the quality of their image processing. We can’t know yet how well the company has performed in that regard, of course, but the 12 and 12 Pro should still be very competitive.
That’s only half the story, though, because Apple did make major hardware changes this year — it just saved them for its biggest and most expensive model. The 6.7-inch, $1,099 iPhone 12 Pro Max might not fit easily into your pocket, but if you want the best possible iPhone camera, you may well be tempted to find a way to fit it into your life.
The most fundamental change is that it has a completely different, much larger primary sensor. It’s 47 percent bigger and uses 1.7-micron pixels, the largest Apple has ever used on an iPhone. While the sensor is still 12 megapixels in resolution, the larger pixels and surface area mean it’ll capture much more light and should turn out cleaner results. Together with the new f/1.6 lens, Apple is claiming an 87-percent improvement in low-light performance over the 11 Pro Max. That’s huge.
The 12 Pro Max also uses a different type of image stabilization technology called sensor shift, which moves the sensor around multiple axes in response to external motion. It’s commonly found in DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, whose makers then benefit from not having to build OIS into lenses. Apple says this adds a full stop of stabilization — in other words, letting you use twice as long a shutter speed, all things being equal. That takes the 12 Pro Max up to two-second handheld exposures in regular shooting, which could reduce the need for night mode in all but the darkest conditions.
Finally, the 12 Pro Max has a longer (and slightly slower) telephoto lens than the 12 Pro, at 65mm-equivalent f/2.2 versus 52mm-equivalent f/2.0. Apple says that this “allows for longer framing in the classic portrait style,” and while 65mm isn’t a common portrait photo length at all, it’s true that it’s more conventionally appropriate than 52mm. It also expands the 12 Pro Max’s optical “zoom” reach from 2x to 2.5x; Apple markets this as a 5x zoom range, but that’s including the 13mm-equivalent ultrawide lens. (Phone makers that tout their 5x periscope zoom lenses are counting from the regular wide lens; the Huawei P40 Pro’s 5x lens is 125mm-equivalent, for example, meaning the total zoom range of the phone is more like 7x.)
This isn’t the first time Apple has boosted the camera capabilities of its biggest phone — in fact, it used to be the norm. The iPhone 6 Plus and 6S Plus had OIS while the standard models didn’t, while the 7 and 8 Plus added telephoto lenses as the smaller phones stuck to a single lens. But the advantages have never been as potentially consequential as including a much bigger sensor for the main camera, let alone in tandem with a new stabilization system and a longer telephoto lens.
Why would Apple do this? In its presentation, the company says “the larger size of the iPhone 12 Pro Max provided us with an opportunity to do even more with our pro camera system.” It’s true that a larger sensor that needs to move laterally on multiple axes is going to take up more space, although the 12 Pro Max’s camera module doesn’t appear physically outlandish. Still, everything’s a tradeoff, and the regular 12 Pro isn’t going to have acres of free space inside. It also probably doesn’t hurt that these features could convince people to buy the most expensive iPhone possible.
Expectations for the iPhone 12 series’ cameras should be high, all the way down to the iPhone 12 mini at the bottom of the range. Like Google’s Pixel phones, the 11 and 11 Pro are still competitive despite their comparatively weak hardware. The iPhone 12 cameras will similarly be judged on Apple’s algorithms and image processing. But the 12 Pro Max is something else altogether: an attempt from Apple to compete by pushing its hardware forward as well. It should be the best iPhone camera to date — we’re looking forward to finding out just how much better.