iPhone 12 Pro Max Camera Review: The world has a new phone camera champ

Big sensor, big performance

by: - Last updated on: December 4th, 2020

Key Takeaways

  • The iPhone 12 Pro Max comes with the best camera set up of all the new iPhones, most notably a larger sensor, sensor-shift stabilization, and a bigger zoom.
  • Our look at perhaps the best phone cameras in the world to say cheese to at the time of writing!
  • If you missed reading our first impressions of the iPhone 12 Pro Max, here is the link for a quick refresh.
  • Check all the coverage regarding Apple and iPhones in our Apple hub.

It might look like a stretched-out version of its plain Pro sibling, but there is more to the iPhone 12 Pro Max than just a bigger display and a bigger battery. Unlike the 11 Pro Max, which had come with the same camera system as the 11 Pro, the iPhone 12 Pro Max comes with a different setup. Yes, on paper, it seems similar – three cameras at the back, each of 12 megapixels, one being the main sensor, one an ultrawide, and one a telephoto. But beneath those numbers and words lie the changes – the 12 Pro Max has a 47 percent bigger main sensor, has sensor-shift stabilization (seen in DSLRs) rather than optical image stabilization, and a telephoto sensor with 2.5x optical zoom and 12x digital zoom rather than 2x and 10x seen on the 12 Pro.

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More detail than ever and the zoom makes a difference

And these are not just paper tigers. The performance of the iPhone 12 Pro Max backs up those numbers superbly. There are some who have said that its performance is not noticeably different from that of the iPhone 12 (main sensor) and 12 Pro. We are not among them. In our book, the 12 Pro Max definitely raises the bar for phone photography. Yes, at first glance and in broad daylight or good lighting conditions, the difference between the 12 Pro and Pro Max might not be that obvious. You get what seems to be the same level of clarity and realistic colors (no heavy saturation here) and a very good capture of even objects in motion.

However, start getting a little closer to your subjects or strep further away from them and the differences start jumping out at you. The 0.5x zoom does not seem like a lot on paper but definitely makes a big difference, especially if you (like us) are fond of snapping animals and birds without disturbing them. It also lets you get an amazingly good close up shots of objects without having to actually get very close to them. And that digital zoom of 12x might not sound a lot when you compare it to the 50x and larger digital zooms that some Android phones deliver, but well, the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s zoom is good enough to deliver some very decent shots of the moon – and that is certainly a first. Another point worth noting is that even at maxed out zoom, one gets results that are very social media-friendly – yes, zooming into the shot will show up noise, especially in low light conditions, but we were nevertheless very impressed by the snaps we got even at 12x zoom. This does get close to the very handy point and shoot territory – and we think not many phone cameras are out there.

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Low light is NOT lit up…thank God!

The difference between the cameras of the Max and the other 12 series devices really comes to the fore as night falls. Yes, the 12 Pro Max might struggle with the odd very bright light, and we have seen some instances of lens flare (a tiny green dot appearing when we get too close to a light source), but by and large, the iPhone 12 Pro Max delivers low light photography the way it is supposed to be – with some objects being visible in the dark. Even the Night Mode refrains from going crazy trying to brighten up the night. Is this because of the larger sensor (with a rather big f/1.6 aperture as well) and/or new sensor-shift? We do not know, but we like the results a lot more than the artificially brightened night shots that are becoming the rage these days.

Another place where we found a clear difference was in portrait shots. The iPhone 12 Pro Max seemed to be able to identify edges a bit more clearly than the 12 Pro. That said, perhaps because its telephoto comes with a smaller aperture (f/2.2 as compared to f/2.0 on the Pro), some of the portrait shots seemed to come out a tad darker. But then you do not always need portrait mode for great bokeh – you can also take some very good snaps with bokeh even in normal mode, provided you are the right distance from the subject. Incidentally, sometimes the bokeh in portrait mode was a little on the aggressive side yielding results that seemed a little too unreal for comfort.

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Video is the iPhone’s own zone and the 12 Pro Max continues its hegemony there. For all the specs the competition boasts of, there is nothing that is quite as simple to use and get amazing results from. With better and still simpler video editing options on the Photos app itself in iOS 14, you can do a whole lot more with videos on the iPhone. In videos too, you could see the 12 Pro Max’s edge over the other 12 series devices mainly in low light, although careful watching did hint at slightly more detail in normal light too. The selfie camera is, however, very similar to the one on the 12 Pro – a 12-megapixel affair capable of some very good, realistic shots. Do not expect your skin to be smoothened and your bad save to be disguised here. Portrait mode works fine, although we did find it a little overdone at times (just like on the rear cameras). This is not a selfie champ, but is nevertheless a very good option for the times when you want to shoot yourself – the results will NOT want you to shoot yourself with something else!

And of course, with its big, impressive display and the A14 Bionic chip, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the best suited of all iPhones for heavy-duty image and video editing on the device itself.

Much better than the best…and consistency remains key!

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The big question of course is: how does all this compare with the competition, which comprises the Samsung flagships, the Pixels, and the Mi 10 range (which has been one of the dark horses in photography this year)? Well, we have to say the iPhone 12 Pro Max is in a different zone. It is not always going to serve up super pleasant shots, but it will give you snaps that are very similar to what you actually saw and will actually more often than not deliver enough detail for you to make very effective edits. We even like the size of the phone, because you get to see so much of the scene on that massive, yet outstanding display, especially while shooting videos.

And of course, the real secret weapon of the iPhone camera remains in place – the legendary consistency. It will not give you a 108-megapixel snap, or one overrun with detail or daubed with colors that seem fresh off a palette, or even shots that light up the night making it feel more like twilight (a flaw that ironically the iPhone 12 shares). No, the iPhone 12 Pro Max will simply deliver consistent quality again and again and again with the same realistic colors and now more detail than ever before. With a very handy zoom and staggeringly good main sensor, the iPhone 12 Pro Max pretty much puts the iPhone right back on top of the photography heap. In terms of sheer consistent quality, whether it is color or detail.

And this is when we have not even seen the ProRaw format.

[Click here for full resolution images + additional samples]

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