iPhone 15 Pro Max Camera Review: Depth and Reach

Apple is in the strange position of having to slowly improve a product while also trying to reinvent it.

Some say their success requires them making small, evolutionary steps seem revolutionary. I don’t quite agree with that.

As iPhones become better and better over the years, small steps eventually bring tip-over points, when technology starts to enable things that we couldn’t imagine years before. These developments enable not mere steps, but leaps forward: the iPhone X’s all-screen form factor and Face ID; iPhone 7’s Portrait mode; last year’s Dynamic Island and 48 megapixel main camera.

So here’s iPhone 15 Pro Max. This year brings a leap in materials and silicon, but marks an evolutionary photography step. Or does it?

Intro note: Why should you believe me? I am the design half of Lux, and we make Halide, the most powerful pro camera for iPhone. I’m also a freelance professional photographer.

iPhone 15 Pro Max

I have to get this out of the way: I find physical camera design important. It seems superficial, but camera design has been a playground and muse for artists and designers through the history of photography. There’s nothing more magical to design than a box that traps light and converts it to creativity.

Few companies appreciate this, but Apple certainly did this year. The new Pro line depart from jewel-like appearance of last year. Gone are the reflective, shiny polished stainless steel rails, replaced with an almost imperceptible brushed finish titanium frame that feels fantastic and grippy thanks to its soft finish. The rounded edges make it comfortable in the hand and contoured to your fingers. It might be an illusion, but even the clearance and contour of the buttons make the entire thing feel more tactile.

The 15 Pro deserves a place next to the inimitable iPhone 4 which Steve Jobs himself described as related to a ‘beautiful old Leica camera’. This iPhone feels like a camera.

I chose the iPhone 15 Pro Max this year, as its optical zoom lens extends to 5× the default camera, or a 120mm focal length equivalent . Its smaller, non-Max sibling maintains its excellent 3× lens.

My previous Large iPhone Experiences— especially iPhone 12 Pro Max— were enough to make me prefer the smaller screen sizes for every subsequent release. Even my standard-sized iPhone 14 Pro felt borderline too large and heavy.

I went into the 15 Pro Max expecting a little discomfort with a giant slab of glass and metal in my hand, but to my surprise, it felt manageable. That titanium frame and rounder edges really make a difference. If next year’s standard size models offer same telephoto lens, I’m not sure if I’ll downsize. It’s that comfortable.

Tactile feedback improves camera usability, and there’s a reason that dedicated cameras still have physical buttons: it’s hard to make tapping glass feel satisfying. This year we gained a button, which we’ll dive into later.

Ultra Wide

We’ll kick off this review looking at the lens that has come standard on every iPhone for the last four years: the ultra wide. Its sensor and lens are unchanged, according to Apple — with the notable exception of the coatings on the lenses, which means fewer flares and reflections when shooting into light sources. Additionally, the ultra wide camera benefits from better processing

Its field of view remains so incredibly wide that if you don’t watch yourself, your body can accidentally end up in your frame. This is a solid, sharp lens that’s always fun, because there’s almost no framing involved.

I noted very clear improvements in its handling of very bright light: while the occasional ghost can glint around the viewfinder, it happens a lot less often. In the dark it does fine, but in daylight, it does great. Shots are incredibly detailed and sharp, and the macro mode is astonishingly close focusing.

One thing that I’d love in a future iPhone: an extra ‘lens’ in between this hyper-ultra wide and the regular camera, offering me a 16/18mm equivalent field of view. It would help keep subjects framed with a bit less distortion near the edges and fewer accidental finger photos. Hopefully this can be achieved similar to 2× mode, using a higher-resolution sensor that creates a virtual lens.

Main

Last year, I waxed poetic about the main (or ‘wide’) camera on iPhone 14 Pro — taking it through Bhutan by motorcycle and Tokyo by foot. Without hyperbole, it was easily the most dramatic shift for my personal photographic process. Not only did the iPhone suddenly take 48 megapixel photos — the camera itself began to render in a way that I could only ineffectively describe as ‘real-camera-like’: I really got shots that were great. Not ‘great for a phone’ — genuinely great photos.

This year’s main sensor and lens combo feels just like one on the iPhone 14 Pro. Zero complaints. It’s a great camera.

Apple’s touting some serious improvements on this camera as a result of an improved imaging pipeline. While not mentioned explicitly during the event, the iPhone camera now combines a 48 megapixel high-resolution frame with a 12 megapixel frame to create a highly detailed, high-resolution-but-manageable 24 MP shot by default.

This is going to be a huge jump for most users, which have previously shot 12 MP shots (even on iPhone 14 Pro, which always shot 12 MP images unless set to ProRAW 48) and it makes absolutely perfect sense.

48 megapixels are far too much for most images, take up a ton of space and are slower to capture. I think I can state without exaggeration that it’ll be a huge upgrade—potentially one of the biggest ever— for the average iPhone user, on par with the introduction of Night mode.

Speaking of Night mode: in some modes, the camera app will output lower resolution images where needed. Night mode, for instance, combines pixels for higher light sensitivity on-sensor and only gets you 12 MP, no matter the capture format. I found it a solid tradeoff in my usage.

Unfortunately, I can’t personally shoot in 24MP, because it isn’t available when shooting ProRAW. Your choices are only 12MP or 48MP. It’s a real bummer because 48MP ProRAW files get absolutely massive.

Even if you’re fine shooting HEICs, native 24MP capture is sadly not available to third-party apps like Halide. Some apps now take 48MP photos and then downscale to 24MP, for the slowest possible experience with none of the processing benefits. We’re here just hoping Apple will roll out genuine 24MP support in an update.

As for the files as they are today, I noticed colors are ever so slightly more pleasant. Maybe it’s software—we’ll dig into that later—but it’s always possible this is due to lens coating changes this year.

Last year’s iPhone pro added an ‘optical’ 50mm (2×) lens, and this year adds 28mm and 35mm equivalents. You can disable or enable any of these, even making, say, the 35mm (1.5×) ‘lens’ your only main camera, comfortably sitting between the extremes of 12 (0.5×) and 120mm (5×).

Last year’s virtual lens was, more or less, a straightforward crop of the higher resolution sensor. Apple says that these new modes use a special capture pipeline to get more detail out of the sensor

I have to say, I love this approach. It’s a great way to add depth and control to the camera. For most users, it’s not more than a stop along their zoom wheel, but for those that care it is a discrete lens. I can’t help but escape the feeling that it’s still kind of a digital zoom. The quality is certainly there, but there’s more freedom in shooting at 24mm and cropping afterwards.

Maybe they were on to something with this being the field of view of the main camera after all.

Revisiting the Virtual Telephoto

I suppose I should really be reviewing both the main camera’s ‘optical’ 2× lens here, and the new telephoto.

For everyday use, the 2× shines, but there are times where you’ll find that it is indeed an extra-crispy, zoomed version of the main camera. Sometimes the depth of field isn’t quite as sharp as you’d expect from a dedicated lens. But as a device with only 3 real lenses, the virtual 2× ‘lens’ holds up surprisingly well:

I am not sure if the 15 Pro is any better, but one year later, it’s clear that the 48 megapixel sensor has enough resolution headroom to make these kind of virtual lenses work quite well. I was a skeptic in last year’s review, and this year I’m a cautious believer.

And now for the main attraction…

The 5× Telephoto

I will not quit until I have shown you an inordinate amount of comparisons between the main camera and its new, long 5× telephoto counterpart. Not because it’s just fun to see how much it zooms, but also to show you how differently you have to look at the world around you.

Previously, you could see a shot that you wanted to capture because it was part of what you were seeing. Now, you have to look for a detail and then capture it. It’s a very different way of composing shots, and kind of tricky.

If it helps, I have overlaid our ‘director’s viewfinder’ framelines on a regular image here so you can see just how much tighter of a shot you are lining up.

This has a funny psychological effect: once I shoot at 5× for a while, the Main lens feels… wider somehow. I’ve had to double-check a few times if I am not accidentally shooting at 0.5×. I suspect that this is what led to Apple adding the 28- and 35mm ‘lenses’ to the camera — once you are going between such extreme ranges, the change is just a bit jarring.

Is it a great lens?

It is, hands down, the sharpest telephoto lens Apple has ever shipped. “Of course!”, you could argue. “Why wouldn’t it be? It’s 2023 and technology gets better. Why wouldn’t it be sharper than the last one?”

Well, it’s a long lens. It is truly remarkable how nicely this new lens captures detail despite that length.

The challenge here is serious: the longer the lens, the harder it is to keep it steady from your shaky, pathetically unstable human hands. Most people do not take photos the way a tripod does — which means the iPhone camera has to do several things:

  • Take a stream of photos from the telephoto lens and stabilize them in space to offer a less shaky viewfinder;
  • Take said stream of photos and manage to capture enough photos from them for their multi-frame Smart HDR process despite the large amount of shake potentially misaligning them;
  • Take photos preferably with a higher shutter speed than 1/focal length, which is 1/120th of a second without too much noise despite using a significantly smaller sensor than the main camera.

It does all that splendidly.

It’s very fun to play with the first point. Simply open the camera app and move around at telephoto zoom range to see how there is some ‘inertia’ to the movement. The heavier, slower movement of the viewfinder is a result of keeping that image somewhat stable instead of a trembling mess that is your minuscule (or large) amount of hand shake magnified by ten.

The more fun experiment, however, is taking a photo. For someone who has always loved taking photos at night, it was kind of mind blowing:

Getting a handheld shot, at night, without a tripod, or really too much effort on my part on a 120mm-equivalent lens is magic. There’s no other word for that, because there’s such complicated technology involved on a hardware and software level that it makes my head spin.

This is a cool thing, because whether or not you’re a photography nerd or an absolutely average iPhone user, the lens will impress. It’s just really neat.

That random shot out of an airplane window? You can count trees on a mountain now.

Out near a popular bridge? Take a closer look and count the rivets.

All in, it leaves one difficult photography problem that you have to solve that the stack of machine learning and three-axis optical image stabilizer cannot: framing.

Whether it’s an iPhone or DSLR, it’s tricky to take great photos at this focal length. You’re left with details, closeups and portraits — even the latter perhaps a bit too long. It’s worth returning to iPhone portraiture in another post, but suffice to say, this is a challenging focal length to get fantastic shots, despite its excellent execution.

This is perhaps personal, but I’ll go back to what I said about the ultra wide camera: you essentially don’t have to think about framing with a field of view that wide. With the old, shorter telephoto lenses on iPhone, I enjoyed the creative challenge. I had to think a lot more: one has to be very intentional with what you frame, and how you capture it.

A 5× lens requires a lot more planning and thought. It feels at least twice as challenging.

While uncomfortable at first, it isn’t bad. If you stick through it, you can get much more original and interesting perspectives— ones we’ve never seen taken on iPhones.

Does It Really Have 7 Lenses?

It seems that a lot of people in the photography world are a bit hung up on the idea of claiming that this phone packs 7 lenses. For what it’s worth, if you rewatch the Apple Event, it seems nobody says that exactly. It’s phrased as being like having seven lenses.

Is it like having seven lenses? For me, I wouldn’t say so. I would not mind seven actual lenses, but I suspect most people would find that cumbersome and borderline insane. For most people, the iPhone 15 Pro feels like it has a bunch of extra lenses. It even managed to make me a pretty happy user of a virtual 2× lens.

For most intents and purposes, what Apple really succeeds in with this major camera update is to bring much-needed depth to the photographic experience for average users — not just pros.

I found it pleasantly surprising that Apple chose to maintain real photographic verbiage and iconography throughout all this, too. Field of view is expressed as a focal length — 24mm, 28mm, 35mm and so on. F-stops are used for Portrait mode’s depth of field, even down to the icon of an ƒ.

This matters, because it helps expose and teach average users to photography’s essentials. It’d be easy to toss in a slider that goes from 1 to 100 for portrait blur.

Anyone can design an interface that just dumbs things down. Great interface design, on the other hand is easy to use — while helping you learn. Great interfaces make users smarter.

Becca Farsace of the Verge has an excellent video review of the iPhone camera in which she said it best when talking about the new virtual lenses: it’s accessible.

Where Are You Coming From?

Just a quick check here: not many people should really be upgrading their phone every year. iPhones get excellent, long term software update support and can easily last you a few years. I tested the iPhone 15 Pro against my iPhone 11 Pro, iPhone 12 mini and iPhone 14 Pro, and for each you’ve got a pretty nice set of upgrades:

Coming from iPhone 11 Pro:

  • Higher Resolution: The iPhone 15 Pro Max packs a 48-megapixel main camera which is a significant upgrade in resolution compared to the iPhone 11 Pro’s 12-megapixels.
  • Sensor-Shift Image Stabilization on the Telephoto lens: This feature, which stabilizes the sensor instead of the lens, helps in capturing sharper images and smoother videos, especially in low-light conditions.
  • Enhanced Zoom Capabilities: 3× or 5× optical zoom options vs 2×.
  • Photography Modes: Features such as Action mode, Macro mode, Cinematic mode, ProRAW photos, ProRes video, Night mode portraits, Photographic Styles and a whole lot more has been added.
  • Upgraded Front Camera with Autofocus: Improves the clarity and focus of selfies and video calls — a big one.
  • Much better Low-light performance: Night mode and sensor-shift stabilization are one thing, but with larger sensors and faster lenses the iPhone 15 Pro Max performs better in low-light conditions on all of its cameras.
  • Ultra Wide Upgrades: Very significant upgrades to the ultra wide camera in recent years enable it to shoot much sharper shots.
  • Next Generation Portrait Mode: Portrait mode is now automatic and does not require switching into a discrete mode anymore, with the Camera app capturing depth data when it detects a person, cat, or dog.

Coming from iPhone 12 mini:

  • Higher Resolution: The iPhone 15 Pro Max packs a 48-megapixel main camera which is a significant upgrade in resolution compared to the iPhone 12’s 12-megapixels.
  • Telephoto: Having a telephoto lens is one thing, but you’ll be upgrading to a 3× or 5× optical zoom. That’s a lot of reach.
  • Advanced Photography Modes: Including Action mode, Macro mode, Cinematic mode for video, ProRAW for photos, and ProRes video, among others.
  • Upgraded Front Camera with Autofocus: Improves the clarity and focus of selfies and video calls — a big one.
  • Much better Low-light performance: With larger sensors and better processing, plus faster lenses the iPhone 15 Pro Max performs better in low-light conditions on all of its cameras than the mini.
  • Next Generation Portrait Mode: Portrait mode is now automatic and does not require switching into a discrete mode anymore, with the Camera app capturing depth data when it detects a person, cat, or dog.

Coming from iPhone 14 Pro:

  • 120mm 5x Telephoto Lens: The iPhone 15 Pro Max features a 5x 120mm telephoto lens, providing more reach and creative photography options.
  • Improved Night Mode: The Night mode feature has been enhanced for better low-light photography.
  • Next Generation Portrait Mode: Portrait mode is now automatic and does not require switching into a discrete mode anymore, with the Camera app capturing depth data when it detects a person, cat, or dog.
  • Lens Coatings: Updated lens coatings result in fewer lens flares when shooting into light sources.
  • Pro Video: Recording to external media and ProRes Log capture.

Apple is in the strange position of having to slowly improve a product while also trying to reinvent it.

Some say their success requires them making small, evolutionary steps seem revolutionary. I don’t quite agree with that.

As iPhones become better and better over the years, small steps eventually bring tip-over points, when technology starts to enable things that we couldn’t imagine years before. These developments enable not mere steps, but leaps forward: the iPhone X’s all-screen form factor and Face ID; iPhone 7’s Portrait mode; last year’s Dynamic Island and 48 megapixel main camera.

So here’s iPhone 15 Pro Max. This year brings a leap in materials and silicon, but marks an evolutionary photography step. Or does it?

Intro note: Why should you believe me? I am the design half of Lux, and we make Halide, the most powerful pro camera for iPhone. I’m also a freelance professional photographer.

iPhone 15 Pro Max

I have to get this out of the way: I find physical camera design important. It seems superficial, but camera design has been a playground and muse for artists and designers through the history of photography. There’s nothing more magical to design than a box that traps light and converts it to creativity.

Few companies appreciate this, but Apple certainly did this year. The new Pro line depart from jewel-like appearance of last year. Gone are the reflective, shiny polished stainless steel rails, replaced with an almost imperceptible brushed finish titanium frame that feels fantastic and grippy thanks to its soft finish. The rounded edges make it comfortable in the hand and contoured to your fingers. It might be an illusion, but even the clearance and contour of the buttons make the entire thing feel more tactile.

For the first time, I actually shot the new iPhone on the old one. This product shot was captured with the iPhone 14 Pro.

The 15 Pro deserves a place next to the inimitable iPhone 4 which Steve Jobs himself described as related to a ‘beautiful old Leica camera’. This iPhone feels like a camera.

I chose the iPhone 15 Pro Max this year, as its optical zoom lens extends to 5× the default camera, or a 120mm focal length equivalent . Its smaller, non-Max sibling maintains its excellent 3× lens.

My previous Large iPhone Experiences— especially iPhone 12 Pro Max— were enough to make me prefer the smaller screen sizes for every subsequent release. Even my standard-sized iPhone 14 Pro felt borderline too large and heavy.

I went into the 15 Pro Max expecting a little discomfort with a giant slab of glass and metal in my hand, but to my surprise, it felt manageable. That titanium frame and rounder edges really make a difference. If next year’s standard size models offer same telephoto lens, I’m not sure if I’ll downsize. It’s that comfortable.

Tactile feedback improves camera usability, and there’s a reason that dedicated cameras still have physical buttons: it’s hard to make tapping glass feel satisfying. This year we gained a button, which we’ll dive into later.

Ultra Wide

We’ll kick off this review looking at the lens that has come standard on every iPhone for the last four years: the ultra wide. Its sensor and lens are unchanged, according to Apple — with the notable exception of the coatings on the lenses, which means fewer flares and reflections when shooting into light sources. Additionally, the ultra wide camera benefits from better processing.

Its field of view remains so incredibly wide that if you don’t watch yourself, your body can accidentally end up in your frame. This is a solid, sharp lens that’s always fun, because there’s almost no framing involved.

I noted very clear improvements in its handling of very bright light: while the occasional ghost can glint around the viewfinder, it happens a lot less often. In the dark it does fine, but in daylight, it does great. Shots are incredibly detailed and sharp, and the macro mode is astonishingly close focusing.

One thing that I’d love in a future iPhone: an extra ‘lens’ in between this hyper-ultra wide and the regular camera, offering me a 16/18mm equivalent field of view. It would help keep subjects framed with a bit less distortion near the edges and fewer accidental finger photos. Hopefully this can be achieved similar to 2× mode, using a higher-resolution sensor that creates a virtual lens.

Main

Last year, I waxed poetic about the main (or ‘wide’) camera on iPhone 14 Pro — taking it through Bhutan by motorcycle and Tokyo by foot. Without hyperbole, it was easily the most dramatic shift for my personal photographic process. Not only did the iPhone suddenly take 48 megapixel photos — the camera itself began to render in a way that I could only ineffectively describe as ‘real-camera-like’: I really got shots that were great. Not ‘great for a phone’ — genuinely great photos.

This year’s main sensor and lens combo feels just like one on the iPhone 14 Pro. Zero complaints. It’s a great camera.

Apple’s touting some serious improvements on this camera as a result of an improved imaging pipeline. While not mentioned explicitly during the event, the iPhone camera now combines a 48 megapixel high-resolution frame with a 12 megapixel frame to create a highly detailed, high-resolution-but-manageable 24 MP shot by default.

This is going to be a huge jump for most users, which have previously shot 12 MP shots (even on iPhone 14 Pro, which always shot 12 MP images unless set to ProRAW 48) and it makes absolutely perfect sense.

48 megapixels are far too much for most images, take up a ton of space and are slower to capture. I think I can state without exaggeration that it’ll be a huge upgrade—potentially one of the biggest ever— for the average iPhone user, on par with the introduction of Night mode.

Speaking of Night mode: in some modes, the camera app will output lower resolution images where needed. Night mode, for instance, combines pixels for higher light sensitivity on-sensor and only gets you 12 MP, no matter the capture format. I found it a solid tradeoff in my usage.

Unfortunately, I can’t personally shoot in 24MP, because it isn’t available when shooting ProRAW. Your choices are only 12MP or 48MP. It’s a real bummer because 48MP ProRAW files get absolutely massive.

Even if you’re fine shooting HEICs, native 24MP capture is sadly not available to third-party apps like Halide. Some apps now take 48MP photos and then downscale to 24MP, for the slowest possible experience with none of the processing benefits. We’re here just hoping Apple will roll out genuine 24MP support in an update.

As for the files as they are today, I noticed colors are ever so slightly more pleasant. Maybe it’s software—we’ll dig into that later—but it’s always possible this is due to lens coating changes this year.

Last year’s iPhone pro added an ‘optical’ 50mm (2×) lens, and this year adds 28mm and 35mm equivalents. You can disable or enable any of these, even making, say, the 35mm (1.5×) ‘lens’ your only main camera, comfortably sitting between the extremes of 12 (0.5×) and 120mm (5×).

Last year’s virtual lens was, more or less, a straightforward crop of the higher resolution sensor. Apple says that these new modes use a special capture pipeline to get more detail out of the sensor.

I have to say, I love this approach. It’s a great way to add depth and control to the camera. For most users, it’s not more than a stop along their zoom wheel, but for those that care it is a discrete lens. I can’t help but escape the feeling that it’s still kind of a digital zoom. The quality is certainly there, but there’s more freedom in shooting at 24mm and cropping afterwards.

Maybe they were on to something with this being the field of view of the main camera after all.

Revisiting the Virtual Telephoto

I suppose I should really be reviewing both the main camera’s ‘optical’ 2× lens here, and the new telephoto.

For everyday use, the 2× shines, but there are times where you’ll find that it is indeed an extra-crispy, zoomed version of the main camera. Sometimes the depth of field isn’t quite as sharp as you’d expect from a dedicated lens. But as a device with only 3 real lenses, the virtual 2× ‘lens’ holds up surprisingly well:

I am not sure if the 15 Pro is any better, but one year later, it’s clear that the 48 megapixel sensor has enough resolution headroom to make these kind of virtual lenses work quite well. I was a skeptic in last year’s review, and this year I’m a cautious believer.

And now for the main attraction…

The 5× Telephoto

I will not quit until I have shown you an inordinate amount of comparisons between the main camera and its new, long 5× telephoto counterpart. Not because it’s just fun to see how much it zooms, but also to show you how differently you have to look at the world around you.

Previously, you could see a shot that you wanted to capture because it was part of what you were seeing. Now, you have to look for a detail and then capture it. It’s a very different way of composing shots, and kind of tricky.

If it helps, I have overlaid our ‘director’s viewfinder’ framelines on a regular image here so you can see just how much tighter of a shot you are lining up.

This has a funny psychological effect: once I shoot at 5× for a while, the Main lens feels… wider somehow. I’ve had to double-check a few times if I am not accidentally shooting at 0.5×. I suspect that this is what led to Apple adding the 28- and 35mm ‘lenses’ to the camera — once you are going between such extreme ranges, the change is just a bit jarring.

Is it a great lens?

It is, hands down, the sharpest telephoto lens Apple has ever shipped. “Of course!”, you could argue. “Why wouldn’t it be? It’s 2023 and technology gets better. Why wouldn’t it be sharper than the last one?”

Well, it’s a long lens. It is truly remarkable how nicely this new lens captures detail despite that length.

The challenge here is serious: the longer the lens, the harder it is to keep it steady from your shaky, pathetically unstable human hands. Most people do not take photos the way a tripod does — which means the iPhone camera has to do several things:

  • Take a stream of photos from the telephoto lens and stabilize them in space to offer a less shaky viewfinder;
  • Take said stream of photos and manage to capture enough photos from them for their multi-frame Smart HDR process despite the large amount of shake potentially misaligning them;
  • Take photos preferably with a higher shutter speed than 1/focal length, which is 1/120th of a second without too much noise despite using a significantly smaller sensor than the main camera.

It does all that splendidly.

It’s very fun to play with the first point. Simply open the camera app and move around at telephoto zoom range to see how there is some ‘inertia’ to the movement. The heavier, slower movement of the viewfinder is a result of keeping that image somewhat stable instead of a trembling mess that is your minuscule (or large) amount of hand shake magnified by ten.

The more fun experiment, however, is taking a photo. For someone who has always loved taking photos at night, it was kind of mind blowing

Getting a handheld shot, at night, without a tripod, or really too much effort on my part on a 120mm-equivalent lens is magic. There’s no other word for that, because there’s such complicated technology involved on a hardware and software level that it makes my head spin.

This is a cool thing, because whether or not you’re a photography nerd or an absolutely average iPhone user, the lens will impress. It’s just really neat.

That random shot out of an airplane window? You can count trees on a mountain now.

Out near a popular bridge? Take a closer look and count the rivets.

All in, it leaves one difficult photography problem that you have to solve that the stack of machine learning and three-axis optical image stabilizer cannot: framing.

Whether it’s an iPhone or DSLR, it’s tricky to take great photos at this focal length. You’re left with details, closeups and portraits — even the latter perhaps a bit too long. It’s worth returning to iPhone portraiture in another post, but suffice to say, this is a challenging focal length to get fantastic shots, despite its excellent execution.

This is perhaps personal, but I’ll go back to what I said about the ultra wide camera: you essentially don’t have to think about framing with a field of view that wide. With the old, shorter telephoto lenses on iPhone, I enjoyed the creative challenge. I had to think a lot more: one has to be very intentional with what you frame, and how you capture it.

A 5× lens requires a lot more planning and thought. It feels at least twice as challenging.

While uncomfortable at first, it isn’t bad. If you stick through it, you can get much more original and interesting perspectives— ones we’ve never seen taken on iPhones.

Does It Really Have 7 Lenses?

It seems that a lot of people in the photography world are a bit hung up on the idea of claiming that this phone packs 7 lenses. For what it’s worth, if you rewatch the Apple Event, it seems nobody says that exactly. It’s phrased as being like having seven lenses.

Is it like having seven lenses? For me, I wouldn’t say so. I would not mind seven actual lenses, but I suspect most people would find that cumbersome and borderline insane. For most people, the iPhone 15 Pro feels like it has a bunch of extra lenses. It even managed to make me a pretty happy user of a virtual 2× lens.

For most intents and purposes, what Apple really succeeds in with this major camera update is to bring much-needed depth to the photographic experience for average users — not just pros.

I found it pleasantly surprising that Apple chose to maintain real photographic verbiage and iconography throughout all this, too. Field of view is expressed as a focal length — 24mm, 28mm, 35mm and so on. F-stops are used for Portrait mode’s depth of field, even down to the icon of an ƒ.

This matters, because it helps expose and teach average users to photography’s essentials. It’d be easy to toss in a slider that goes from 1 to 100 for portrait blur.

Anyone can design an interface that just dumbs things down. Great interface design, on the other hand is easy to use — while helping you learn. Great interfaces make users smarter.

Becca Farsace of the Verge has an excellent video review of the iPhone camera in which she said it best when talking about the new virtual lenses: it’s accessible.

Where Are You Coming From?

Just a quick check here: not many people should really be upgrading their phone every year. iPhones get excellent, long term software update support and can easily last you a few years. I tested the iPhone 15 Pro against my iPhone 11 Pro, iPhone 12 mini and iPhone 14 Pro, and for each you’ve got a pretty nice set of upgrades:

Coming from iPhone 11 Pro:

  • Higher Resolution: The iPhone 15 Pro Max packs a 48-megapixel main camera which is a significant upgrade in resolution compared to the iPhone 11 Pro’s 12-megapixels.
  • Sensor-Shift Image Stabilization on the Telephoto lens: This feature, which stabilizes the sensor instead of the lens, helps in capturing sharper images and smoother videos, especially in low-light conditions.
  • Enhanced Zoom Capabilities: 3× or 5× optical zoom options vs 2×.
  • Photography Modes: Features such as Action mode, Macro mode, Cinematic mode, ProRAW photos, ProRes video, Night mode portraits, Photographic Styles and a whole lot more has been added.
  • Upgraded Front Camera with Autofocus: Improves the clarity and focus of selfies and video calls — a big one.
  • Much better Low-light performance: Night mode and sensor-shift stabilization are one thing, but with larger sensors and faster lenses the iPhone 15 Pro Max performs better in low-light conditions on all of its cameras.
  • Ultra Wide Upgrades: Very significant upgrades to the ultra wide camera in recent years enable it to shoot much sharper shots.
  • Next Generation Portrait Mode: Portrait mode is now automatic and does not require switching into a discrete mode anymore, with the Camera app capturing depth data when it detects a person, cat, or dog.

Coming from iPhone 12 mini:

  • Higher Resolution: The iPhone 15 Pro Max packs a 48-megapixel main camera which is a significant upgrade in resolution compared to the iPhone 12’s 12-megapixels.
  • Telephoto: Having a telephoto lens is one thing, but you’ll be upgrading to a 3× or 5× optical zoom. That’s a lot of reach.
  • Advanced Photography Modes: Including Action mode, Macro mode, Cinematic mode for video, ProRAW for photos, and ProRes video, among others.
  • Upgraded Front Camera with Autofocus: Improves the clarity and focus of selfies and video calls — a big one.
  • Much better Low-light performance: With larger sensors and better processing, plus faster lenses the iPhone 15 Pro Max performs better in low-light conditions on all of its cameras than the mini.
  • Next Generation Portrait Mode: Portrait mode is now automatic and does not require switching into a discrete mode anymore, with the Camera app capturing depth data when it detects a person, cat, or dog.

Coming from iPhone 14 Pro:

  • 120mm 5x Telephoto Lens: The iPhone 15 Pro Max features a 5x 120mm telephoto lens, providing more reach and creative photography options.
  • Improved Night Mode: The Night mode feature has been enhanced for better low-light photography.
  • Next Generation Portrait Mode: Portrait mode is now automatic and does not require switching into a discrete mode anymore, with the Camera app capturing depth data when it detects a person, cat, or dog.
  • Lens Coatings: Updated lens coatings result in fewer lens flares when shooting into light sources.
  • Pro Video: Recording to external media and ProRes Log capture.
iPhone 15 Pro Max Camera Review: Depth and Reach

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