Apple has an iPhone for everyone this year. There's the iPhone 12 mini for people who like small phones. There's the regular iPhone 12 that's the iPhone for most people — the Goldilocks of iPhones if you will. Get the iPhone 12 Pro if you need that 2x telephoto, prefer the matte glass/stainless steel build quality, and want a LiDAR sensor. And then there's the iPhone 12 Pro Max.
The ultra-wide cameras on the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max are identical, but the image sensor size on the main "wide" camera is 47 percent bigger with larger 1.7-micron pixels versus the 12 Pro's 1.4-micron pixels. What this means on paper is that the 12 Pro Max's sensor should be able to collect more light, which translates to better low-light photography. In theory, the larger sensor should produce sharper photos with less image noise without needing to kick into Night mode as often.
The 12 Pro Max's image sensor also uses a different kind of stabilization technology. Whereas the iPhone 12 mini, 12, 12 Pro (and older iPhones) uses optical image stabilization (OIS) to physically stabilize the multi-layer lens element itself, the 12 Pro Max uses a sensor-shift OIS technology to counterbalance the sensor. Apple says the sensor-shift OIS makes 5,000 micro-adjustments per second to combat shakiness during Night mode photos and video recording.
There's a lot of confusion that the 12 Pro Max's camera is 87 percent better at low-light photography compared to the 12 and 12 Pro. That's incorrect. Apple says the 12 Pro Max's camera is 87 percent better than the iPhone 11 Pro Max (and 11 Pro for that matter since they have the same image sensors).
You can save the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max photos and zoom in, but I'll save you a click because the photos are virtually indistinguishable. In outdoor conditions with sunshine, there's almost no noticeable difference in image quality. The ground and leaves might be a hair sharper, but unless you zoom in at 100 percent, you won't see it.
The iPhone 11 Pro has less dynamic range than the 12 Pro/12 Pro Max, but it's not super apparent at first glance. Flip between the photos and you'll see there are more shades of yellow and orange in the leaves in the 12 Pro/12 Pro photos than the 11 Pro.
Everything is as expected so far. I didn't expect to see a big difference for day photography. But what about low-light and night photography? There's supposed to be an 87 percent improvement compared to the iPhone 11 Pro/11 Pro Max and some kind of visible leap in image quality versus the iPhone 12/12 Pro, right?
Both of these were shot with Night mode turned off to get a comparison between the 12 Pro image sensor and the 12 Pro Max's 47 percent larger image sensor.
There are some subtle visible differences. The 12 Pro Max does a better job at reducing lens flare. There's also slightly less image noise in the sky (look at the shadows and blacks are more consistent on the right side of the firehouse). But unless you zoom in, both look good TBH.
I zoomed in to 100 percent crop to examine the sharpness throughout the photo and I can't say the tiny bit of sharpness and reduction in image noise knocked me off my socks. I was expecting a way bigger leap in sharpness between the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max. Compared to the iPhone 11 Pro, you can see that the image is clearer and the details are nowhere near as soft.
This shot is tricky for phones. There's only a dim lamp emitting from about 15 feet from the lower right. The 12 Pro Max photo is tad bit brighter, but not by much. In both the 12 Pro and 12 Pro shot, Deep Fusion kicked in (confirmed using the awesome Metapho app). I thought the iPhone 11 Pro would for sure turn on Deep Fusion, but it didn't. Yet, somehow it still produced the brightest photo of the bunch.
The details tell a different story, though. In the next three cropped shots, you'll see that the text is just a smidge sharper on the 12 Pro Max versus the 12 Pro and significantly clearer than the 11 Pro, which is the grainiest.
I've yet to try Apple ProRAW — a new RAW image format based on DNG — that's supposed to let you edit photos with all of Apple's crazy mind-boggling computational photography wizardry like Smart HDR 3 and Deep Fusion. But that's not coming out until later this year. So I'll be back to test that out when it becomes available. Who knows? Maybe it's a game-changer. That said, it'll also be available on the 12 Pro.
Enjoyed this smartphone deep dive? Read these next: