Redefining a Professional Camera

Review by Steve Baczewski

On January 9, 2007, Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone. It included a 2-megapixel camera that was barely mentioned. Now, 15 years later, Apple’s new iPhone 13 Pro Max 12-megapixel camera is arguably its centerpiece. The camera’s sophisticated new features, in effect, narrow the distinction between it and regular digital cameras. In the case of computational photography, smartphone cameras own the market and, bewilderingly, this hasn’t yet been adopted by regular digital camera manufacturers. 

I’ve been taking pictures with the 13 Pro Max for more than a month in varying light situations, and then going home to see if I could make quality A2 size prints from its 35-MB (on average) ProRAW and 3-MB (on average) JPEG files. Yes, I can! Along with an improved Night mode capability, the iPhone 13 Pro Max broadens our options with new macro capabilities; faster, wider, longer lenses; and the much-advertised Cinematic mode. The use of computational photography is in evidence everywhere. It’s used in Night mode, Cinematic mode, and the effective new Photographic Styles (HEIC/JPEG format only) that lets you create a customizable “look” on capture by dialing in tone and warmth. The Photographic Styles feature has a unique dimensionality that avoids a formulaic, broad, preset, coverage look by using “semantic” recognition that selectively targets values such as skin tone to be left alone. 

The Pro Max weighs 8.46 oz. and, without a case, it can feel like a bar of soap. The aluminum body is covered with a protective ceramic shield in front, and with matted glass on the back. The battery lasts approximately 12 hours. At the phone’s center is the new A15 Bionic processor and a new option for up to 1 TB storage. The 6×7″, 2778×1284-pixel screen now has a variable refresh rate (ProMotion) of 10–120Hz, and it adjusts according to activity from reading to playing fast motion games. The screen also has a new 1,000 nits of brightness, which makes viewing and composing noticeably easier in bright outdoor light, especially when compared to a traditional digital camera’s rear 3.5″ LCD with its tendency to wash out in bright light. 

The iPhone 13 Pro Max camera has larger sensors that use a combination of contrast and fast-phase, detection-focusing technology. It has three relatively fast new lenses including an impressive ultrawide 13mm f/1.8, a wide 26mm f/1.5, and a telephoto 77mm f/2.8. The modest 3X telephoto upgrade is a disappointment but, if we consider the inclusion of the new macro capabilities within the 13mm lens, the range then becomes 2 cm–77mm, not too shabby.

The phone’s powerful A15 Bionic processor pushes the development of computational software into video photography with its new Cinematic mode, which essentially is “rack focus,” drawing a viewer’s attention by shifting focus from one object (typically faces) to another, leaving a bokeh to fill the rest of the frame. On the iPhone 13 Pro Max, this is accomplished by simply tapping on the face or other object. Miraculously, computational algorithms allow us to shift the focus in either capture or posts; however, Cinematic mode can leave soft halo edges that can be remedied with the use of a virtual f-stop slider that can adjust the edges. 

Night mode has advanced, combining faster lenses, sensor stabilization, and computational photography to selectively take and combine multiple exposures and deliver amazingly low-noise files with a good dynamic range. Like macro, Night mode is a luxury of convenience opening up less explored realms, because both usually meant lugging around attention-getting heavy equipment. 

Macro mode automatically switches on as you move into your subject with the 13mm lens revealing textures and detail of bugs, flowers, etc., from as close as 2 cm away, and works in both still or video. It’s impressive. Stack focusing would be a great addition. 

Much of the iPhone 13 Pro Mac camera is automated and overrides our choices. For instance when I move in to about 2′ from my subject using the 77mm lens, the iPhone, without indicating it, automatically shifts to either the 26mm or 13mm lens. This lens switch appears in the image’s metadata. In addition, capturing still HDRs can no longer be turned on and off by users. Apple lets AI decide when HDR is necessary. I hope this isn’t a precedent.

The Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max camera experience boggles my mind and has me wondering what’s next. ■