There are a zillion reasons so many people, including myself, are hooked on our iPhones.
Must-have apps like iMessage, industry-leading privacy features, and blistering performance are some of the reasons. But most people will probably tell you that they’re on Team iPhone because they have the best cameras, even if they are not technically the most advanced with, for example, the most powerful zoom or the most megapixels. iPhone cameras are reliable and responsive; the image processing for photos and videos is best in class. Apple’s proven this year after year and its track record speaks for itself.
In 11 years of owning iPhones, I have never once worried about the camera. I’ve always had full confidence Apple would deliver a better iPhone camera experience year-over-year. This year, that streak came to a grinding halt. Apple has upgraded the cameras — one on the front and three on the back — on the iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max and they take spectacular photos in almost every condition. Similarly, the new Cinematic mode furthers the iPhone’s lead in video capture.
But there’s been one thing that has been bothering me in the week I’ve been testing the iPhone 13 Pros’ cameras. Something so frustrating that, for the first time in a decade, I’m not upgrading to the best iPhone camera that Apple has to offer… at launch. Not until Apple fixes it, at least. And a fix is coming, Apple confirmed to Input.
Update 10/25/21: Apple has released iOS 15.1 with a setting to turn off the automatic macro mode / camera switching that we felt ruined the iPhone 13 Pro / 13 Pro Max camera shooting experience. All is now well with the iPhone 13 Pros once you turn the setting off. Go ahead and buy the iPhone 13 Pro / Pro Max — they’re now perfect. The original review follows below.
Before we get into the iPhone 13 Pros’ cameras, I do want to talk about the hardware because it is as good as it gets when you’re paying $1,000+ for a phone.
Apart from display and battery capacity sizes, the two iPhones have identical features. It’s exactly how the iPhone 13 Pros should be: regular and really big. Just pick your screen size. (On the 12 Pros, the 12 Pro Max had a larger image sensor, longer optical zoom, and a sensor-shift stabilization system.)
The iPhone 13 Pros are bricks — a few hairs thicker and a few grams heavier than the iPhone 12 Pros — but they are beautiful shiny metal-and-glass bricks. The 13 Pro Max is gargantuan. Their stainless steel frames pick up as many fingerprints as before and their Ceramic Shield glass displays are as durable as well. There’s a new Sierra Blue that shimmers between a sky blue and light gray at different angles, but it’s not my vibe. Pacific Blue is superior in my opinion and I wish Apple offered a couple more new colors than the usual graphite, gold, and silver. Why does the iPhone 13/13 mini get all the fun colors?
One change you’ll notice instantly: The notch has shrunken by 20 percent, which means you get a bunch of pixels back for content (though nobody should buy an iPhone 13 Pro for a smaller notch) and the receiver has been pushed up to the top edge. The Super Retina XDR displays on both iPhone 13 Pro models are brighter: 1,000 nits of max brightness outdoors versus 800 nits on the iPhone 12 Pros. I guess it’s nice if you’ve ever looked at your iPhone screen and wished it was even brighter.
The iPhone 13 Pros finally get ProMotion aka 120Hz refresh rate displays — many years after the iPad Pros first got them — and it is sublime. ProMotion makes everything feel smoother. Animations and scrolling are more responsive, but also games and movies that can support higher framerates run and display more fluidly. 120Hz refresh rate is not new — Android phones have touted it as a selling point for years — but in Apple fashion, the feature is late but better implemented. There’s no drop in resolution like there is on some Android phones when iPhone 13 Pros ratchet to 120Hz; in low-power mode, though, the refresh rate is dialed down to 60Hz. ProMotion is a luxury feature and you pay more to get it on the 13 Pros. Once you get used to it, it’s tough to go back to anything with lower refresh rates. It’s one of those you-gotta-try-it-yourself features that you won’t understand until you do.
Inside, the A15 Bionic chip driving everything is raw power. In my Geekbench 5 tests, the A15 Bionic CPU in the iPhone 13 Pros scored 10 percent faster on single-core and 40 percent faster on multi-core versus the A14 Bionic in the iPhone 12 Pros, and 64 percent faster than the Galaxy S21 Ultra on single-core and 40 percent faster on multi-core.
The A15 Bionic’s 5-core GPU is a monster, too: 32 percent faster than the iPhone 13 and 13 mini, which has a 4-core GPU; 57 percent faster than the iPhone 12 Pros; and 210 percent faster than the S21 Ultra. The only Apple chip that beats the A15 is the M1 in the iPad Pros, which has basically the same single-core and 55 percent faster multi-core CPU scores; the M1 GPU is also 50 percent more powerful than the iPhone 13 Pros GPU.
In short: No Android phone comes close to the iPhone when it comes to sheer performance. iPhone dominates again. And true to Apple’s claims, the iPhone 13 Pros last longer. Compared to my iPhone 12 Pro, the iPhone 13 Pro lasted around 1-2 hours longer and the iPhone 13 Pro Max could go another 2-3 hours versus the 12 Pro Max.
All of these features and others like a 1TB storage option, the usual IP68 water and dust resistance, MagSafe wireless charging, and 5G make the iPhone 13 Pros quite the powerhouses. iOS 15 and its Focus modes and Live Text and Notifications summaries is basically the cherry on top: familiar and sweet.
However, it’s the upgraded cameras that I was most excited to test. It’s always the cameras that have me on the edge of my seat and it’s always fascinating to see how big of a leap Apple’s incredible imaging team has made to the image and video processing pipeline year-over-year.
Once again, Apple has forgone adding more megapixels to its cameras. All four cameras have 12 megapixels. That also means, no 8K recording on the iPhone 13 Pros. Instead of upping the resolution, Apple has again focused on image quality and capture modes — features that push creative expression as opposed to simply more pixels. Better low-light performance and more accurate Smart HDR 4 for stuff like skin tones and lighting. A new automatic macro mode that kicks in whenever subjects are within 14 centimeters of the triple-lens camera. Night mode on all three cameras. Increased 3x optical zoom. Cinematic mode aka Portrait mode-style video for video (more on that later). Photographic Styles so you can dial in the exact look (tone and warmth) you want your photos to look. And ProRes capture (I couldn’t test this since it’s not available until later this year.)
I have reviewed a lot of Android phones — the best of the best every year. The Galaxy S21 Ultra and its 108 megapixels, 8K video recording, and 100x zoom, and the OnePlus 9 Pro’s Hasselblad camera system are two flagship Android phones with spec-packed checklists that would make any camera nerd drool. But what these cameras get wrong is that they don’t push creativity forward in the same way that iPhone cameras do. Android cameras are engineered to operate more like work tools compared to iPhone cameras that are designed to offer new ways of expressing a mood or a feeling. There’s more of a humanities element when Apple introduces a new iPhone camera feature.
Take the Smart HDR 4 and Photographic Styles. The improvements to Smart HDR are in service to people and pets first — the warmth or coldness they radiate — with attention to more accurate and representative skin tones or lighting. With Photographic Styles, which is far more than just filters and more like shooting presets you’d find on a DSLR/mirrorless camera, you can customize the iPhone 13 Pros’ camera to shoot with an aesthetic you want. You know how iPhone photos have a certain look (realistic colors and muted shadows) and so do Pixels (rich contrast) and Samsung Galaxies (saturated and vibrant)? Photographic Styles is like having both a Pixel and a Samsung Galaxy inside of your iPhone camera — accessible when you want them. It’s maybe the most underrated camera feature in the iPhone 13 Pros (and the iPhone 13/13 mini).
Cinematic mode is another feature that I think really sums up how Apple approaches new camera features for the iPhone. It’s not just Portrait mode for video to segment the foreground and blur the background, which is what you get with a feature like a Samsung phone’s Live Focus Video mode or on Zoom. Cinematic mode is actually performing a ton of machine learning to identify and collect depth information to let you “rack focus” between a subject in the foreground and the background. And then you can even edit the point of focus after capture. While the results are not perfect all the time — neither are regular still Portrait photos — Cinematic mode worked a lot better than I expected.
In a single iPhone launch, Apple has just distilled what is essentially a technical filmmaker technique into an automatic mode. It’s like how Portrait mode brought the “DSLR photo look” to the iPhone all over again.
But Ray, how do the pictures look? Just show us the damn picture comparisons. As you can see for yourself, the leap in image quality between the iPhone 13 Pro vs. the iPhone 12 Pro is not very dramatic. If you zoom in you can see some small differences, but the pictures largely look very similar. Colors are slightly more refined and Apple seems to have allowed just a little more contrast.
I did a three-way shootout between the iPhone 13 Pro, iPhone 12 Pro, Galaxy S21 Ultra. See for yourself which camera you prefer.
Everything looks good. I’m digging the slightly boosted contrast. Sometimes the images from the iPhone 13 Pro’s main wide camera aren’t as sharp compared to the iPhone 12 Pro around the edges, but that’s to be expected since the aperture is now faster (f/1.5 versus f/1.6) and produces shallower depth of field.
The improved ultra-wide on the iPhone 13 Pro gets a much faster aperture, too: f/1.8 versus f/2.4. Corner-to-corner sharpness has improved.
Apple says the wide lens on the iPhone 13 Pro lets in 49 percent more light versus the iPhone 12 Pro Max. There’s more clarity in the details (i.e. the concrete) but my iPhone 12 Pro still holds up pretty damn well despite it collecting 2.2x less light than the iPhone 13 Pro.
These low-light ultrawide comparisons are interesting. The iPhone 13 Pro’s f/1.8 ultrawide didn’t need to turn on Night mode, shooting the photo at 1/30s and ISO 1600. My iPhone 12 Pro’s f/2.4 ultrawide automatically turned on Night mode for a 3-second exposure, shooting at 1/12s and ISO 1250. Meanwhile, the Galaxy S22’s f/2.2 ultrawide took this same photo with a 2-second exposure at 1/25s and ISO 2000. The iPhone 13 Pro preserves more of the scene’s darkness, which is more true to life, but it also makes the image darker than the others. Nothing that a little brightening in post can’t touch up, though.
I used this set of comparisons for sharpness and color tests. Definitely a shallower depth of field around the edges of the frame compared to the iPhone 12 Pro and S21 Ultra.
It was impossible to get a fair comparison of Portrait modes on all three phones since they all use different focal lengths. The iPhone 13 Pro uses its 3x optical zoom (77mm equivalent), iPhone 12 Pro uses a 2x (52mm equivalent), and the Galaxy S21 Ultra uses its wide camera by default (24mm equivalent). Not to mention the apertures are all different, which directly affects how much background blur is produced. The 77mm equivalent portrait is closer to a standard portrait lens that you’d use on a DSLR. The look, as you can see, is more flattering on the face and body. However, segmentation around hair still needs some work after all these years.
The ultrawide is equipped with an automatic macro photography mode. You can get in as close as 2 centimeters, but you need ample light to get the best shots. Macro shots taken outdoors will look better than indoors.
While I was strolling along New York City’s High Line park, this tiny fly landed on my bag and I was able to capture it in macro mode. Look at all the detail on its wings.
Let me wrap up these camera comparisons with the selfie. It’s plain as day the iPhone 13 Pro processes selfies better. Better HDR (sky) and improved highlights on the face.
Okay, I’ve shown you the photos and you’ve probably zoomed in to scrutinize the details. What’s the annoying camera feature that has upset me so much?
It has nothing to do with image or video quality and everything with the shooting experience. With the addition of the new f/1.8 ultrawide lens and its macro lens, Apple has fundamentally changed how the triple-lens camera experience works.
Unlike on the regular iPhone 13/13 mini (and all iPhones before it), which uses each individual camera to autofocus, which itself limits its close-range focusing distance, the iPhone 13 Pros’ 1x and 3x cameras actually get an assist from the 0.5x ultrawide and its macro capabilities.
So for example, if you have your iPhone 13 Pro camera set to the 1x wide camera and place an object or a subject within 14 centimeters (5.5 inches) of it, the viewfinder will maintain the 1x framing/composition but use the ultrawide’s close-range autofocusing in tandem. You can literally see the viewfinder flicker/pop and “switch” to this hybrid viewfinder. The same applies to the 3x telephoto camera; the viewfinder maintains the 3x framing, but uses the ultrawide for autofocus of subjects within 14 centimeters.
Apple says this automatic camera switching is intentionally designed to help capture better close-up details for all three rear cameras on the iPhone 13 Pros.
I don’t agree with this.
I’ll tell you why: Because the framing automatically changes from what you — the person taking the shot or recording the video — might intend to capture. I welcome greater detail for close-ups and it’s clever that Apple is using the ultrawide to augment the 1x wide and 3x telephoto at short distances, but the transitioning of cameras is disorienting. Apple makes no mention of this camera switching/augmenting on its iPhone 13 Pro website. I get that it’s supposed to be one of those “it just works” features. At least that was Apple’s intention I’m told, but it just doesn’t.
Here’s a screen recording of the automatic camera switching in action. In this shot, I was trying to frame these delicious soup dumplings using the grid. Holding the iPhone 13 Pro still, you can see the 1x wide switching to another slightly different FOV that’s using the ultrawide autofocusing. The viewfinder keeps jittering as it tries to choose between a regular wide or wide-macro shot. A regular person wouldn’t look at this and think to themselves, this is normal. They’d look at the jittering and think something is broken with their iPhone camera. The framing should never change from what you compose and never automatically.
The iPhone 13 Pro wide camera automatically switching cameras and reframing the shot at close-range distances.
Another example of the auto camera switching that’s so disorienting.
The camera switching is even more egregious when it comes to recording video. In the below video, I’ve got the iPhone 13 Pro on a tripod. As I move the tiny little Game Boy around the frame, you can see how the automatic camera switching reframes the shot, completely altering the original composition. What you’re seeing is one continuous video clip, not jump cuts edited in post. This is not how a camera should work, ever. As a subject gets closer or farther away from a camera, it should come into focus or out of focus not bounce around the frame. Again, the framing should never change from what you set it to.
These are not jump cuts edited in post. This is one continuous video where the iPhone 13 Pro camera is automatically reframing subjects within 14 centimeters during a video recording.
The fact that there is a “Lock Camera” setting under the Camera section within the Setting app, which disables the automatic camera switching for video recording is proof enough that Apple knows people wouldn’t want this. To my disappointment, there is no setting to turn off the camera switching for still photos. Not yet at least.
When I first pressed Apple and made them aware of the jarring camera switching, I was told it’s how the camera system works. On the eve of this review, Apple changed course and said it’s going to release a software update to let users disable the camera switching. According to Apple:
A new setting will be added in a software update this fall to turn off automatic camera switching when shooting at close distances for macro photography and video.
That is good to know and whenever that arrives, I’d be more than happy to recommend the iPhone 13 Pro assuming it fixes this very annoying camera user experience. At launch, though, the iPhone 13 Pro camera is broken in my opinion. I was never sure whether I got the shot with the proper selected camera lens or the shot with the ultrawide autofocus assist, which could sometimes be very different with just the wrong framing. Sometimes I got a blurry photo that snapped just as the camera was switching.
“This fall” is vague. It could mean next week. Or it could mean December 21, when fall ends. I want to recommend the iPhone 13 Pros. The phones are more than just an “S” update to the iPhone 12 Pros. Apple has really packed in a wealth of new impactful features that do not feel like gimmicks. More power. Longer battery life. More camera features. These are all really good things!
But the camera shooting experience... it needs to be fixed and fast. It’s such a step back from previous iPhones that I’m baffled that Apple didn’t include in iOS a Lock Camera setting feature for stills the way they did for video.
I trust Apple will right this mistake. Samsung moved quickly to issue a software update to fix the fatally flawed autofocusing system that I discovered when I reviewed the S20 Ultra last year. And when Apple’s software update comes and I’ve tested that it does what it should do, then, I’ll buy the new iPhone 13 Pro and tell my friends they can upgrade or switch over. Until the update arrives, I suggest waiting.
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