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iPhone 12 Pro Max review: Extremely overhyped camera

The iPhone 12 Pro Max is an amazing big smartphone. But the camera that Apple is hyping as a big leap forward? Our tests show the differences in image quality are minor compared to the iPhone 12 Pro.

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.

Biggest iPhone ever

The iPhone 12 Pro Max is the largest iPhone Apple has ever made. The 6.7-inch Super Retina XDR display is gargantuan, insanely bright, and high resolution. Design-wise, the 12 Pro Max is simply a blown-up iPhone 12 Pro. Same design, materials, colors, storage capacities, A14 Bionic chip, 5G, 6-meter IP68 water-resistance, and MagSafe wireless charging support. All of these features are terrific.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max is a brick and you're going to feel it.

Small differences

Aside from the camera, which I'll get to in a second, the differences are subtle. The display is obviously bigger and the battery capacity is larger, too. The bigger physical battery means battery life is slightly longer than the iPhone 12 Pro, but it's also shorter than the iPhone 11 Pro Max.

Superior camera?

Now, about the 12 Pro Max's camera. Unlike the iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max, which both had the exact same triple-lens camera system and front-facing selfie cameras, the iPhone 12 Pro Max actually has a slightly different triple-lens camera (the 12 and 12 Pro Max's selfie cameras are the same, though).

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.

87%

The amount of low-light improvement Apple claims the 12 Pro Max has over the 11 Pro Max.

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).

Tiny bit more zoom

The other big difference between the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max's cameras is the telephoto lens. On the iPhone 12, the 2x telephoto is equivalent to a 52mm focal length – exactly double the main camera (26mm equivalent), which is double the ultra-wide lens (13mm equivalent). But on the 12 Pro Max, the telephoto has a 2.5x zoom, which is equivalent to a 65mm focal length.

You get 0.5x more optical zoom, but it's also a major far cry from the 5x, 10x, 30x, and even 100x hybrid optical-digital zoom lenses on Android phones that use a periscope lens to get close-ups from insane distances. Here you can see the Galaxy S20 Ultra's 100x "Space Zoom" is overkill. But the 5x, 10x, and even 30x is still a major leap over the 12 Pro Max's dinky 2.5x zoom.

Is it really that much better?

How much better is the iPhone 12 Pro Max's camera compared to the iPhone 12 Pro (ditto for the 12)? Let's take a look at some photo comparisons!

First, we're going to examine some outdoor photos. I went to the park to take in the fall foliage on a sunny day and here's what we got.

iPhone 12 Pro

iPhone 12 Pro Max

iPhone 11 Pro

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.

iPhone 12 Pro

iPhone 12 Pro Max

iPhone 11 Pro

The same goes for close-ups. I found almost no major leap in colors or clarity between the iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max cameras in good lighting. And as expected, both the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max have wider dynamic range 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?

iPhone 12 Pro

iPhone 12 Pro Max

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.

iPhone 12 Pro

iPhone 12 Pro Max

iPhone 11 Pro

In this set, the scene was almost pitch black. I could barely see the church with my naked eye. Again, Night mode was turned off. It's minor, but you can see the 12 Pro Max photo is slightly brighter. But is it sharper?

iPhone 12 Pro

iPhone 12 Pro Max

iPhone 11 Pro

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.

NurPhoto/NurPhoto/Getty Images

How about a scene that's closer?

Shutterstock

iPhone 12 Pro

iPhone 12 Pro Max

iPhone 11 Pro

Ehh, once again, the iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro pictures both look darn similar. I zoomed in once more to peep the pixels and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

iPhone 12 Pro

iPhone 12 Pro Max

iPhone 11 Pro

And let's take a look at one last set for the main sensor to see how the iPhone 12 Pro Max's larger sensor handles low-light for indoors.

iPhone 12 Pro

iPhone 12 Pro Max

iPhone 11 Pro

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.

iPhone 12 Pro

iPhone 12 Pro Max

iPhone 11 Pro

As for Night mode... again the differences are small on the 12 Pro Max. There's less flaring, HDR 3 does a better job not blowing out the highlights, and there's less image noise.

iPhone 12 Pro

iPhone 12 Pro Max

iPhone 11 Pro

And one more Night mode set just to be sure. I don't know, they look pretty damn close to me...

iPhone 12 Pro

iPhone 12 Pro Max

iPhone 12 Pro

So what have we learned? The iPhone 12 Pro Max camera has a very good triple-camera system. The main wide camera takes as good photos as the 12 Pro outdoors, indoors, and in low-light. But the comparisons photos don't lie: the iPhone 12 Pro Max's larger image sensor is very overhyped. You're really not getting considerably better photos over the 12 Pro. That's a relief if you were worried about FOMO by getting a 12 Pro instead of a 12 Pro Max.

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.

Why buy a 12 Pro Max?

I don't think anyone should buy the iPhone 12 Pro for the camera alone. It's not as big of a leap as Apple makes it seem, which is disappointing because I think everyone's expecting a huge difference in image quality. Buy it for the bigger display and longer battery life. If you want to save some money, but still want the triple-lens camera and LiDAR sensor for Night portraits and faster autofocusing in low-light, just get the 12 Pro.

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