Juha Saarinen: iPhone 12 Pro Max — pretty flash after dark

OPINION:

It’s easy to overlook the difficulties smartphone camera designers have to deal with: everything has to be smalland light, leaving no or little space for standard camera features like irises to control light and sharpness, and optical zooms.

Taking the above into consideration, you can’t help but be in awe at how good smartphone cameras are now, whether built into Androids or Apple devices like the latest iPhone 12 Pro Max.

This 5G ready top-end device retails for $2699 for the 512 gigabyte storage model which buys you a fast A14 Bionic six-core processor and a four-core graphics unit, and a 16-core neural engine chip.

The A14 and its support chips are plenty fast. Much of the computing power goes into working with images and video from the three-camera system that has a light detection and ranging (LiDAR) sensor for distance detection as well.

You get an ultra-wide camera with 1.54mm actual focal length and a bright f/2.4 aperture but no autofocus. The wide camera is 5.1mm focal length and f/1.6 aperture, and has a new,extremely good sensor shift image stabilisation feature that can do up to 5000 micro adjustments per second to mitigate against hand-shake.

Finally, there’s the short tele at 7.5mm and f/2.2 which is a bit longer than the camera in the iPhone 12 Pro but also notquite as bright in aperture as the f/2.0 in the cheaper model. All in all, you get a camera system that covers 14, 26, and 65mm as per the venerable 35mm film format.

That’s a useful range which gives a 2.5 times optical zoom from wide-angle to tele for example. These are fixed focal-length lenses though, so you don’t get the stepless zoom in dedicated camera lenses: between the abovementioned lengths the zoom’s digital.

While the digital zoom at up to 12 times is pretty good, for best results you should stick to the 0.5x, 1x and 2.5x buttons in the iOS 14 camera app. I wish Apple would make it possible to lock those steps for when you don’t want digital zoom.

I noticed that the third-party camera apps I use have yet to be updated with a 2.5X button and only have 2X defaults, so you have to manually move a dial forward. For the tele lens, leaving it at 2.5X which is 65mm equivalent instead of using digital produced noticeably better results.

The camera apps allowed me to set the shutter speed from 1/49999th of a second to 1s; with a tripod, the iPhone 12 Pro Max can do up to 30-second exposures for fun pics like nightsky star trails.

And yes, slo-mo fans rejoice: that mode is zoomable, up to 3x. Time-lapse pics can be taken at 1080p and 120/240 frames per second with very good quality. It is, though,not as extreme as the 480/960 fps in Samsung smartphones.

Apple has not gone down the route of pixel binning like Oppo and Samsung which use 48 million pixel and 108 Mpixel sensors respectively, and then scale the images down to more manageable 12 Mpixel sizes.

Instead, Apple’s wide camera (this is the one with all the goodies and which you’ll use most of the time) has “only” 12 Mpixel resolution with large-ish 1.7 um photo sensors.

Both approaches have merit, and it’s a balancing act as having more pixels on a small sensor generates image noise which detracts from the high resolution. Bigger photo sensors are good for low-light shots, and Apple said its new sensor is about 47 per cent bigger than in the iPhone 11 Pro Max.

Necessary geeky specs aside, the iPhone 12 Pro Max produces great pics in good light, but so do the earlier Apple phones. When the sun goes down though, the new iPhone camera system is a marked improvement on its predecessors.

Take a look at the sample pictures and video (online only) that were taken handheld in an admittedly ridiculously beautiful part of Aotearoa. The iPhone 12 Pro Max flash is pretty good with long reach, but did I need to use it? Nah. Night Mode and all the other tech in the phone produced great evening and night time shots, with the LiDAR doing well for short-range focusing.

If there’s one thing I’d love to have fixed, it’s the lens flare that has plagued Apple cameras for several iterations now. On the video, you can see a bright spot dancing around at the bottom, which I believe is the sensor stabilisation working hard to keep the handheld shot steady.

Other than that, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the one I’d sell my left kidney for if iOS photography was my shtick. Which it is, so there goes the kidney.

PS: you can get the excellent wide camera with most of the features above in the cheaper iPhone 12s as well. Just saying.

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