review

iPhone XS/XS Max Camera Review: The best cameras ever on iPhones? Yus!

What you see is (mostly) what you get...thank god!

For the longest time in the smartphone world, the camera on the iPhone was undoubtedly the best camera on a smartphone. Yes, there were competing devices but a new iPhone’s biggest competitor when it came to them cameras, mostly used to be the previous generation’s iPhone. Over the course of time, this has changed. Now the Android fraternity has caught up and devices like Samsung Galaxy S9+, Galaxy Note 9, the Huawei P20 Pro and of course, the Pixel 2XL (the Pixel 3XL is just out, too) are giving the camera of the iPhone some major headaches. That said, whenever a new iPhone is launched, cameras still remain one of the biggest USPs of the device (something which we are glad has not changed). And it is no different this year with the launch of the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max. But just how improved are the cameras on these new iPhones?

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Scratching beneath that similar spec surface

A casual glance at the spec sheet of the new iPhones would seem to indicate that the cameras of the XS and the XS Max are basically a photocopy of the iPhone X’s cameras – and this is also a good time to point out that for the first time in iPhone history, both the standard and larger variants of a device have exactly the same set of cameras (in the past, the larger Plus variant of has generally had better cameras). The numbers and the arrangement of the cameras on the three devices are exactly the same. The iPhone XS and XS Max, just like its predecessor come with a dual-lens camera set up on the back comprising 12-megapixel shooters — one wide-angle lens with f/1.8, and one telephoto lens (2X optical zoom) with f/2.4 aperture paired with the True Tone flash. The two sensors come with optical image stabilization and can shoot 4K videos at up to 60 fps and slow-mo 1080p video at up to 240 fps.

But there is more to these cameras than those numbers.

The cameras on the iPhone XS (and Max) come with bigger sensors as compared to the iPhone X. The iPhone X had a 1.22µm sensor while the new iPhones have a 1.4µm sensor, which means the cameras will be able to collect more detail and reproduce colors more accurately as compared to the iPhone X. On the front, there is a 7 megapixel front-facing camera that not only takes selfies and can be used for video calling but also works for FaceID on the smartphone. These three lenses are paired with Apple’s A12 Bionic chipset, which Apple claims makes them faster and deliver better output than the cameras on the iPhone X – executing dozens of tasks in those fractions of seconds that elapse between hitting the shutter and seeing the result (evidently a truckload of analysis is carried out in this extremely slim slice of time).

Speedy, and better (but not perfect) in low light

If you have been an iPhone camera fan, the cameras on iPhone Xs are not going to disappoint you. The primary cameras of the smartphone are very fast – they launch in an instant, and focus so speedily that in most cases you would not even have to touch the screen to focus on the subject (unless you have to focus on something specific, which is off center). After you hit the shutter button, the smartphone processes pictures almost instantly in most cases. Just like the iPhone X, the camera on the new iPhones also takes time to process images taken in Portrait Mode, but even there, it is definitely much faster than the iPhone X.

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Now that we have focused, hit the shutter button and taken some pictures, it is time to get to the detail. The primary camera on the new iPhones takes great pictures in most scenarios. The photographs taken in well-lit environments or during daytime turn out to be very well detailed and the colors reproduced are extremely close to the real settings. We also loved how easily the camera could transition from macros to landscapes and everything in between without any hiccups. The macro shots especially were impressive as the camera created deep bokeh, beautifully highlighted the edges and excelled in the detail and color zones. And because the camera is faster and more stable, it also takes better images of moving objects – very few cases of blurry motion.

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The low light photography capabilities of the smartphone are also better than that of its predecessor, thanks to the increased size of the pixels which make the camera more sensitive to the light. This helps the cameras to collect more light and detail, which means the results are less grainy and a little more lit as compared to the iPhone X. We also felt that even in moderately lit conditions, we were getting much better colors and detail than in the past. That said, we were expecting some significant improvement when in this department, considering the benchmarks set by the likes of the Pixel 2 – the results may come as an improvement over the X, but can still seem grainy. We also think that because the camera is always trying to collect more light and more sensitive to it, it sometimes loses out on the reality factor a little – and you often get a pale bright end result in low light even when you are trying to capture darkness. We also feel that Apple has not really been able to solve the glare problem that has existed for a long time now – the cameras had major glare issues at night.

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A word about the telephoto lens. We have seen our share of dual camera arrangements and we still think that while 2X might not sound like a lot, but it does end up making a difference when you use it – I moved back to the iPhone 8 for a short while and found myself having to take a step forward, again and again, to get closer to my subject. Yes, a step is not a lot, but not taking it can make a difference and also not disturb your subject (especially if it happens to be a playful pet).

Portrait Mode – Sliding into Bokeh but still “edgy”

Apple introduced Portrait Mode (in which the subject is in sharp focus and the background is blurred out) with iPhone 7 Plus and the feature became a rage instantly. Bokeh had been around before, but the iPhone 7 and its successors made it a household phrase, so of course, we had high expectations of it in the new iPhones. Now, the Portrait Mode on the new iPhones actually looks pretty similar to the one on iPhone X, which means it remains a little hit and miss. While it sometimes created stunning pictures with sharp edges and perfectly bokeh-ed background, there were times when it missed the mark. There are changes, though. The new iPhones produced deeper bokeh and more detail as compared to the X, but just like it, they often either blurred the edges of the subject with the background or left part of the background un-bokeh-ed. We often found the hair of our subject or the edges of their shirt blurring in with the background or a part of the background was sometimes left in focus. Apple had said that both lenses would come into more effective play in Portrait Mode this time around with the wide angle lens studying the background and the telephoto lens focusing on the subject’s features – it does sound great on paper, and it is an improvement over the iPhone X, but it is still not really as good as what we have seen even on the Pixel 2 XL.

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This is a bit of a disappointment because we were expecting the XS to fix this issue, especially when we have seen comparable (and sometimes even better) “Portrait Mode” in many other smartphones, some even in the mid-range segment. On the flip side, Apple has thrown a new feature to the Portrait Mode mix. The Portrait Mode earlier came with just Portrait Lighting which allowed you to alter the light conditions in your portraits (like in a studio) and it is present here as well, but along with it now you can also customize the depth of field in your portraits. The function allows you to change the depth of field which means you can increase or decrease the intensity of the bokeh in your photograph. After you have taken a portrait snap, you can head to edit mode where you will find a slider which offers aperture value from f/1.4 to f/16 (f/1.4 being the deepest bokeh, f/16 being lightest) – you just have to slide your finger on this scale and chose the intensity which suits your photograph. Yes, it works and yes, it is impressive. We just wish the edges of the subject were captured more consistently.

Just how smart is this HDR?

One of the highlights of the iPhone XS’ camera is a new feature called “Smart HDR,” part of what many are referring to as “computational photography.” Apple seems to have been a little inspired by Google Pixel 2XL’s HDR+ mode and has given the iPhone something similar. In this mode, the camera takes a number of photos when you hit the shutter button and combines them to create the best photo. Sounds like usual HDR? Well, along with taking a number of shots, Smart HDR takes photos at three different exposures to give you a result which not only creates better contrast between light and shadow but also enhances depth in the picture. The feature works pretty and the difference between regular picture and picture with Smart HDR does pop up when compared – the feature is a great one when you are struggling with very bright or dark conditions, but we would recommend turning it off if you are seeking realistic snaps, as it will try to light up darker corners, which you might, well, want to remain dark even in the pictures.

In the video department, the iPhone XS impressed us. It captured detail and color really well. And also having OIS in two lenses helped us in taking steady videos even when our hands were shaking. Slow motion remains consistent too, and time lapses work a treat. This is one of the best devices for anyone looking to shoot a lot of videos.

Beautygate, what Beautygate?

Moving on to the 7-megapixel front-facing sensor, we always appreciated how iPhone did not smoothen out our skin and just how it captured detail because no matter how brilliant the primary camera, it is the secondary camera where all other brands throw the detail and color measures out of the window, bringing in digital makeup by the sackful. This time around, it would seem that Apple has taken a few steps on the beautification path when it comes to selfies. We could see the front-facing camera smoothening the outlines and marks on our faces just a little. No, it is not as spectacular as those effects we get on other smartphones, but it is definitely akin to a very mild touch up. We are not going to get into the whole debate about why this is happening, suffice to admit that it is. But on the flip side, there are more details and better clarity on selfies – definitely a step up from the X. We would think the whole Beautygate controversy is a little over the top, given that what the new iPhones are doing is absolutely minimal compared to what we have seen from other brands – those who like their pictures with a bit of tweaking will appreciate the change (we did not, to be honest, so call us old-fashioned!) Still it does show Apple taking a gentle step away from reality. but for us, it did not really help in any way. The Portrait Mode in selfies too suffered from the rear cameras’ penchant of messing up edges. Portrait Lighting is spectacular when it works, but it definitely needs to understand how to not make our head look like weirdly shaped balloons (those edges again)!

Better than X, but what about the rest?

All said and done, the iPhone XS and XS Max deliver significantly better results than its predecessor. It might not hit you at first glance, but a closer look will reveal better colors and more details. The most discernible change is in terms of sheer speed – we cannot stress how much faster Portrait Mode is than in the iPhone X (where it was no slouch either), and how amazingly stable the video is. The cameras on the new iPhones are easily the best we have seen on any iPhone, but then the iPhone XS and XS Max are not going up against the X, but some very serious competition from Android, particularly from Samsung and Google. While the new iPhones can hold their own against the competition easily, they do not quite outclass them in the manner in which some of their predecessors did. We can see the likes of the Galaxy Note 9, the P20 pro and the Pixel tribe at times bettering the results of Cupertino’s newest camera fruit.

That said, there can be no doubt that these cameras are among the best in phoneland in best iPhone tradition, and perhaps the best reason for anyone on an older iPhone to upgrade. Most significantly, however, the new iPhone cameras continue to largely stick to the virtues that made the iPhone perhaps the most used camera in the world: they are simple to use (the UI remains as uncluttered as ever), they work fast, and their results – for all the talk of smart HDR and Beautygate – are closer to what one sees rather than what would please one. Good old WYSWYG – no cameras bite reality quite as well as these ones do, in spite of all the computational magic and the mild enhancements on the selfie front.

And in a word that insists on viewing everything through a software-enhanced haze, that surely counts for something.