I tested the iPhone 15 Pro and the 15 Pro Max cameras and didn’t expect to like them, but I do... for all the wrong photographic reasons. They’re the most fun iPhones yet.
Dawn at Nudgee beach. Panorama on iPhone 15 Pro
I didn’t want to like them because the camera hardware is boringly familiar, with similar cameras to the previous three iPhones. The biggest novelty is a 5x fixed lens on the Pro Max instead of the 3x in the 15 Pro.
The camera hardware might be boring this year, but inside the iPhone 15 Pro models it’s a different story.
Faster processing means lots of little improvements that add up to a delicious experience. You need less brainpower to shoot on an iPhone 15 - just hit the button and pick your settings later. It’s all more fun. I love it. You don’t have to set portrait mode, you get the option after shooting (in fact, it’s better NOT to set portrait mode before you shoot. See below for why). You don’t have to choose between portrait or live photo – get both at once. There’s more detail in the standard pictures – close to the detail from a “proper” camera – plus the option of getting all 48 megapixels it can deliver without the slowdown that last year’s phone had. And noticeably better portrait outlines, better low-light performance before you hit night mode, and marginally better results from night mode when you do. The video improvements are substantial, but only relevant to serious video shooters. Plus USB C is handy for everyone.
Shoot first, choose your settings later
You used to have to set portrait mode before shooting, so I often missed fleeting moments going into the settings. But no more with the iPhone 15 Pro. Portrait mode is now available to apply AFTER you’ve taken a normal picture, even if you didn’t select portrait mode. It shows up whenever you tap to set focus on something more than about 30cm away, or whenever the phone sees a human, dog or cat. A test at the museum showed that – with a flush of national pride – stuffed kangaroos also trigger the portrait treatment, but not wallabies or any other stuffed mammal, reptile, bird or fish that the museum sheltered.
Better yet, you can use Live photo at the same time. This is huge! These three photos of an Inland Bearded Dragon come from ONE press of the shutter button:
iPhone 15 Pro 3x lens
Because I'd tapped to set focus, I could apply portrait mode to the photo AFTER shooting
iPhone 15 Pro 3x lens
Because I used Live Photo on the SAME picture, I could use the time-shift feature to pull out a better angle from a moment before I'd pressed the button
iPhone 15 Pro 3x lens
Or I could choose a different pose with the tongue. Not perfectly sharp, but makes the point
Shoot first, choose your settings later! Now I just leave the phone permanently in Live Photo and shoot away without ever swiping into Portrait, and I still get two options AFTER I’ve taken the photos:
• Hit Edit and apply the portrait effect to the photo, or
• Use Live Photo’s time-shift feature to pick a moment slightly before or after the picture, albeit without the portrait effect available.
This beats any dedicated camera, where I have to set one or the other before I shoot.
iPhone 15 Pro 3x lens. I just missed the tongue of this perentie (goanna), but because I used Live Photo I could rewind time afterwards
iPhone 15 Pro 3x lens
I could apply the portrait-look blurry background after shooting
iPhone 15 Pro 3x lens
Unsurprisingly, the auto-portrait mode didn't engage with this subject. But a tap made it available
Sadly, portrait mode is not yet fast enough to be compatible with burst. If you shoot a burst, the portrait info isn’t recorded at all. But it's still a lot faster than on previous phones - I get 2.7 portrait photos per second. But I prefer Live Photo anyway.
Competes with ‘proper’ cameras – just not in all conditions
In bright light and ideal conditions, the iPhone 15 Pro cameras compete toe-to-toe with normal cameras. They’re good cameras. Not “good for a phone”, but actually good. They just don’t stay competitive across the huge range of conditions that dedicated cameras can shoot in.
The 1x camera is the gem. Its new default of 24 megapixels delivers noticeably more quality than previous iPhones’ 12 megapixels. Not twice as good, but worthwhile. To save space, you can turn the default back to 12 megapixels. But, really… don’t.
15 Pro Max
iPhone 15 Pro Max 1x lens
HEIC 24mp cropped. A slight but worthwhile improvement over the older iPhone 12 Pro
iPhone 12 Pro
iPhone 12 Pro 1x lens
HEIC 12mp cropped. Looks good until you see the 15 Pro
Like the 14 Pro before, the 15 Pro can also go up to pseudo-48 megapixels for astonishing detail that rivals “proper” cameras. But with such a long list of caveats – none of which applies to proper cameras – that it becomes a mode for special photos only: no zooming, no macro, no portrait mode, no night mode, no live photo, no bursts, no jpeg (HEIF and raw only) and a 1 second delay between shots. It’s also not a true 48 megapixels: only grey or pastel-coloured objects use all 48 megapixels. The iPhone’s “quad-Bayer” sensor captures strongly-coloured red and blue subjects with just a quarter of the detail compared to a normal camera, leading to some surprising failures.
These photos show the good and the bad. I’ve compared the iPhone 15 Pro Max to a 26 megapixel normal ‘half-frame’ camera by FujiFilm. For pastel-coloured things like the top photos of the old stone Treasury building, the iPhone shows astonishing detail, beating the Fuji camera. But the Fuji trounces the phone for strongly coloured things. In the second row of photos, see how the iPhone’s blue building loses most of its detail, while the Fuji keeps details despite (on paper) having half the number of megapixels.
iPhone 15 Pro
iPhone 15 Pro 1x lens
Raw 48 megapixel cropped, Lightroom defaults. Arguably beats the 'proper' Fuji camera for this pastel-coloured building
Fuji X-H2s 16mm lens at f/5.6 (equivalent to iPhone 15 Pro 1x lens)
Raw 26 megapixel cropped, Lightroom defaults
iPhone 15 Pro
Raw cropped. Loses details in the blue building compared to the 'proper' camera
Raw cropped. Keeps more detail in the blue building, despite having half the pixels
Turning the camera to black-and-white won’t help: it’s the colour of the subject and the light that count.
Plus the FujiFilm camera can zoom, shoot bursts, shoot at night, shoot macro and even do live photos while keeping every scrap of its quality. Camera's aren't dead yet.
The 5x lens is better and worse
The new 5x lens on the iPhone 15 Pro Max improves photos when you zoom beyond 5x, but the 3x lens on the smaller iPhone 15 Pro’s gives crisper results in the zoom range that I more commonly use between 3x and 4.9x. I bought both phones and despite preferring the size of the bigger 15 Pro Max, I chose the smaller 15 Pro as my phone. Its 3x lens gives me better results for the types of photos that I prefer to take. I just don’t zoom a phone above 5x enough for the tradeoff to be worthwhile.
iPhone 15 Pro
iPhone 15 Pro 3x lens, HEIC. Cropped
When its 3x zoom kicks in, the cheaper 15 Pro trounces the 15 Pro Max
15 Pro Max
iPhone 15 Pro Max 3x HEIC. Cropped
The 3x on the 15 Pro Max is just a crop, so can't compete with the 15 Pro's 3x lens
iPhone 15 Pro 4.5x HEIC. Cropped
By 4.5x zoom, the cheaper 15 Pro is still far better than the 15 Pro Max
iPhone 15 Pro Max 4.5x HEIC. Cropped
This heavy crop of the 15 Pro Max shows how the picture has turned to mush by 4.5x
iPhone 15 Pro 8.5x HEIC. Cropped
At 5x zoom and above, the tables turn and the 15 Pro lags the 15 Pro Max
iPhone 15 Pro Max 8.5x HEIC. Cropped
The 15 Pro Max has a clear advantage at 5x zoom and above
Fuji X-H2s 140mm (8.5x in iPhone terms) raw Cropped
A proper camera with a proper lens still soundly beats the phones when zooming this far
The chart below shows why. It shows how the quality of the photos theoretically changes as you zoom on each phone (higher is better). It mirrors exactly what I found in practice when I tested it.
The iPhone 15 Pro should take better photos than the more expensive 15 Pro Max between 3x zoom and 4.9x zoom, but the Max should be better at 5x zoom and above. And that's exactly what I found when I tested it.
This chart is the best-case scenario: photographing things without much colour in them. If you shoot coloured objects then the iPhone 15 Pro Max loses out even more to the 15 Pro in the range 3x to 4.9x. So it’s the 15 Pro for me.
USB C is a big deal
USB-C lets me do lots more with the phone. With a USB-C cable, I can:
• Shoot my professional cameras tethered straight to the phone with the Capture One app
• Shoot video on the phone directly to a portable hard drive or computer, although only when using super-quality ProRes format
• Charge other phones, airpods, watch and more from the iPhone 15 Pro battery, albeit slowly.
• Transfer photos and videos off the phone 20 times faster than the old lightning connector. 20. Times. Faster. But it’s still a pain to get photos off the phone to a Mac unless you use the horrible Photos app – connect with cable and try “Photo capture” for a quick download, and 15 minutes later I was still watching the computer spin its spinner.
How real are the details in the photos?
Both iPhone 15 Pro models show astonishing details in their photos. But how real and accurate are those details? Could you rely on them in court? This is just a preliminary conclusion, but after limited testing, I’m not 100% confident to rely on the iPhone 15 Pro to capture real rich detail in a scene.
Apple uses what it calls “computational photography mad science” with machine learning (AI) to enhance iPhone photos “optimizing for texture, details and noise”. Rather than showing all the inevitable noise, wobble and softness that characterise unprocessed photos, machine learning interprets the image to make a highly educated guess of what the details probably looked like. Apple says that the “Neural Engine” on the iPhone 15 Pro takes it to a new level. But how far can you take it and still be certain that it shows what was really there?
I found that if I photographed the same static scene several times, the details changed between the shots. They danced around to such a degree that I found myself not fully trusting the detail in the photos. I didn’t know which of the photos, if any, was real. I wouldn’t want to depend on details as evidence in court. It would be too easy to sow doubt: “That feature was never there. It never existed. It was invented by the phone”, and arduous to prove otherwise.
These animated GIFs show the result of photographing a picture of a fingrprint repeatedly on an iPhone 15 Pro (left) and a normal, full-frame camera (right)
iPhone 15 Pro 1x lens, HEIC
Three successive photos overlaid. I see wiggling patterns in this fingerprint on the iPhone 15 Pro - it changes between photos
Nikon D750, Tamron 24-70 f/2.8 lens, 1/200th sec at f/5.6, ISO 1000
Four successive photos overlaid. This is what I expect for a normal camera - the fingerprint stays almost the same, and the veil of noise changes between pictures
I currently consider this a preliminary finding (as at 14th December 2023). It only seems to apply to the finest details right on the edge of what the phone can resolve. And there are other potential explanations centred around the way the phone "De-Bayers" its images. All cameras show this to some degree, but it appears qualitatively different on the iPhone 15 Pro.
I'm investigating this further as a lot of our clients use phones and iPads to take photos for evidence for safety reporting or other legal purposes. In the meantime, you CAN turn off Apples "computational photography mad science" by shooting photos as bursts, and burst photos don't show the dancing details that I see here.
Fingerprint photo credit: Immo Wegmann on Unsplash
If you shoot action, and especially if you photograph children, the iPhone 15 Pro is far above previous phones. The ability to be able to shoot portraits and live photos at the same time is - for me - worth it by itself. If you shoot landscapes, you'd barely notice any difference from the iPhone 14 Pro.