The iPhone 12 Pro Max, tested by a pro photographer

The tech reviewers have spoken: the iPhone 12 Pro Max is another superb iPhone camera. But just how ‘pro’ is it? We asked photographer Rebecca Scheinberg to spend a day shooting with the new flagship iPhone, focusing on what it can actually do. Here’s the verdict.
The setup
For my day-to-day work, I shoot on a Phase One P65 Digital Back which is attached to a large format 5×4 camera. It’s quite a complicated setup but the reason I have that is the quality of the Digiback and the flexibility I can have with focusing, particularly for my still life work. I also shoot on a range of film cameras, including a Mamiya and sometimes on a Hasselblad.

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For this test, I didn’t attempt to take beautiful images, using the camera to create flattering imagery and video, but rather I aimed to test the range and limits of how the camera system on the iPhone 12 Pro Max works.

Rebecca Scheinberg

Portraits and aperture

It’s great for portraits and, generally, that’s what iPhone cameras are built for. They are very flattering images for people, so I do think that portrait photography is still their strength as opposed to other smartphone brands. The fact that there is now a telephoto lens means you do tend to get better portraits, as a telephoto lens will be less distorted for portraiture. It’s a combination of choosing to have that lens in the camera and the processing.

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I like that you can shift the f-stop after you have taken the photo. This meant I could focus on capturing a good expression and lighting, rather than the technical settings. The range of depth of field is quite impressive. It works nicely against a white wall with golden afternoon light.

Rebecca Scheinberg

That said, the adjustment does struggle against a textured background at the larger aperture (F/1.4), particularly with fine detail such as the blond curls of my (very patient) partner. So the low f-stop, where it’s trying to create this shallow depth-of-field effect, does still feel like a digital alteration. It has always been that way, and it bothers me, so if Apple can get that right, and I know it’s really tricky, that would be amazing.
I also tried a selfie with the front-facing camera versus a photo of myself with the main rear camera. They are very similar in terms of colour accuracy and detail.

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Rebecca Scheinberg

Focal lengths

I was impressed by the detail in all three images: 13mm, 26mm and 66mm, left to right. The 26mm came up quite contrasty, with the edges overly defined. Meanwhile the 66mm was impressive. At 100 per cent there is a lot of detail in the fur and the fabric of the cushion.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max: Camera specs
Wide: 12MP, f/1.6 aperture, dual OISUltra Wide: 12MP, f/2.4 aperture, 120 degree field of viewTelephoto: 12MP, f/2.2 aperture, dual OISOptical zoom: 2.5x zoom in, 2x out, 5x ‘optical zoom range’Digital zoom: Up to 12x digital zoomNight mode: Wide, Ultra wideFeatures and modes: Portrait mode, Night mode, LiDAR scanner, Smart HDR 3, Deep Fusion processing, Panorama, Dolby Vision, Apple ProRAW (‘coming soon’)

Rebecca Scheinberg

Light, colour and detail
The camera handles well lit scenes and I noticed the detail in these images in both the highlights and the lowlights. The colours look quite true to life.
The iPhone holds up for still life as well. This is the same still-life subject shot at three different focal lengths. Even with this setup of different objects that have different textures, translucence and colours, the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s camera held up. The fluorescent pink maintains its colours, and the detail in the wooden objects is clearly defined.

Rebecca Scheinberg

Flash Portrait and Night mode
The flash at night setting was excellent on Portrait mode. The flash wasn’t too harsh and combining with Portrait mode meant that it had the potential to be flattering.
Autofocus in low light is very fast [via the new LiDAR sensor], however I don’t feel like this was a feature I was missing. Low-light indoors performed well, though.

Rebecca Scheinberg

These photos, taken on each of the focal lengths, were shot in absolute darkness. I had to use the torch on the iPhone to see the path ahead of us. So it is incredible that anything was captured, though the quality is low. If you added a tripod in order to take photographs of landscapes, this could be a really fun feature.
Controls
In terms of operating, it was great in terms of the ease of switching between lenses, and you could shift the range easily. It wasn’t a button with one option, another option, another option – you could go through the full range from the wide angle to the telephoto.
In the preview, you could see the potential for if you wanted to go wider or crop in. I liked that, I found it really helpful because it works in a similar way to how I would shoot. Usually I crop in a little bit on an image, because my camera is very high resolution.

Rebecca Scheinberg

Editing

As with iPhones, editing is very user friendly. I did find that a lot of detail was lost if I made more than slight adjustments to the image, though. I enjoyed editing on the screen itself, however. This is where the screen size [6.7inch] comes in handy.
I know from comparing the iPhone 11 Pro to other smartphone cameras last year that the iPhone tends to do a lot more to the images, whereas, on the Pixel series, the base image was a very high quality that I could then shift the colour palette and contrast however I wanted.
The Apple ProRAW [‘coming soon’] I’m really interested in; it would give me more control over editing my personal photos, which I would enjoy. So that’s definitely a plus for me.

Rebecca Scheinberg

Video

I don’t do loads of film, but if I did I don’t think I’d be using a camera on a phone, so I still feel the uses here would be personal, not professional.
For this test, I filmed my dog playing fetch on a sunny day, at both frame rates available. I was not particularly careful to maintain a level camera and swung it round sharply to follow him. The iPhone’s optical image stabilisation handled those adjustments extremely well with almost no shake. It wasn’t blown out with the different light changes, it adjusted smoothly. Colour and detail was terrific throughout, too, and there were some nice lens flares, which were lovely.

Rebecca Scheinberg

The ‘pro’ verdict
I found it quite impressive, the wide range of light conditions that a beautiful photo can be taken in. Some images I took with the iPhone 12 Pro Max were in very dark rooms or as the sun was going down, and the images held up superbly.
The iPhone also managed to assess the lighting situation well and [via Smart HDR 3] produce the optimal settings, which were not too under- or overexposed. It also handled very bright conditions impressively, maintaining detail in both the shadow and the highlights.
I love the portability of it and that it gets to a relatively high quality image, but it’s just a question of increasing the quality of the image.
While I still wouldn’t use the iPhone to capture professional photographs, I think it takes wonderful personal images and video for home footage.
I actually have an iPhone 8, so it’s quite old. I made that choice because, for my day-to-day, I have better cameras and I was trying to get off my phone a little bit. I found I really enjoyed testing this iPhone with a different camera. It was miles apart. It makes it tempting for me to upgrade.

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