iPhone 11 and 11 Pro Camera Review

We spent two weeks reviewing the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 pro camera in every possible setting. Here's what we found in a comprehensive iPhone 11 camera review.

Photo Oct 02 3 37 12 PM
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iPhone 11 and 11 Pro Camera Review

Putting the new iPhone 11 camera through its paces in everyday life. 

When the iPhone 11 launched, we all waited to see the updates to the cameras. While the hardware specs looked like subtle upgrades with promising capabilities, you never know what results the phone will generate until you get your hands on it in the real world. When it comes to smartphone photography, software often makes a bigger difference than hardware, which means image output is the result of much more than just the lenses and sensors.

Now that we’ve had our hands on the iPhone 11 Pro for a full week, we can present our findings on the iPhone 11 Pro camera. Spoiler alert: it’s better than the specs would suggest.

Shot on the main lens of the iPhone 11.

Tele Lens.

Ultra Wide Lens.

Software

As we found in comparison with the iPhone XS Max, much of the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro’s camera magic seems to come from the updated software Apple put in the phones. The technical specs of the cameras are marginally better, but there’s no massive boost in ISO (and no increase in megapixels) that would account for the better results in nearly every condition.

The iPhone 11 brings multiple intelligent shooting modes to the native camera app, and there’s a real emphasis on seamless simplicity. Smart HDR and Night Mode buttons are conspicuously absent from the main camera interface, instead popping up only when the phone determines conditions are right for these image-boosting computational photography modes. Night Mode fuses multiple second-long exposures to create incredible long exposure results including the first convincing astrophotography coming out of smartphones. Smart HDR brings more contrast and natural saturation to photos shot in anything less than bright daylight. And no matter the situation, the latest software brings a more pleasing and realistic rendering to most all images, regardless of the megapixel count or stated aperture of the camera. Apple made a big deal out of small changes like font and “improved Smart HDR,” but in this case, it truly adds up to an improved user experience.

ISO, Low Light Sensitivity, and Shutter Speed

Even though the main cameras retain their 12 megapixel count, the sensors behind the cameras are all-new. The standard wide camera’s ISO sensitivity increased by 33% and the tele camera’s aperture and ISO gains bring its light sensitivity up by a remarkable 42%. That means less blurry, less grainy photos with quicker shutter speeds that allow you to get sharp photos indoors and other darker lighting conditions. As with the software improvements, it’s not just that the sensors boast more on-paper light sensitivity, it’s how they use their capabilities to produce better images than ever. The new sensors and software mean there’s less noise in images across the lighting and ISO range, which is an important distinction. Oftentimes more sensitive sensors lead to more grain even in bright conditions; in this case, images are sharp in low light and bright daylight, with less noise than before. Put to the test shooting RAW in the Moment Pro Camera App, the sensors prove that they’re more than just fancy baked-in editing software in the native camera app.

The tele lens in particular demonstrates big advancements. The faster f/2.0 aperture and massively improved light sensitivity mean it’s a more useful lens in more situations than ever. Combined with a Moment Tele lens, the ultra-long optical zoom takes legitimately useable shots in low-light settings like concerts and sunset scenery photos.

All the sensor changes don’t just impact low-light and slow-shutter situations. The main wide angle camera can now capture images at up to 1/125000th of a second, which is faster than most every DSLR and mirrorless camera on the market. It’s also over six times faster than the iPhone XS. It’s hard to say for sure what the possibilities are with such a blazing shutter speed, but we are interested in finding out just what sort of results can be generated by stopping time so aggressively.

With a variety of challenging lighting situations, the iPhone 11 Pro exposed this photo flawlessly--and automatically.

Hardware: The Cameras

We’ve already covered the many cameras on the new iPhone 11 lineup, but it’s worth reiterating the specs for those who are interested in the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro for its cameras. The phones feature three or four cameras, all of which deliver 12 megapixels:

  • 12-megapixel wide camera (26-mm, f1.8, 6-element)
  • 12-megapixel ultra-wide camera (13-mm, f2.4, 5-element, 120-degree view)
  • 12-megapixel telephoto (52-mm, f2.0, 6-element) (Pro and Pro Max only)
  • 12-megapixel front-facing TrueDepth camera with 4K video support and slo-mo selfies

Below, we will review our shooting experience with each camera and how it fits into the smartphone photographer’s workflow.

Everyday snapshots are ridiculously good.

Standard (Wide) Camera

This is the bread-and-butter of the iPhone 11 lineup. The standard camera is what most of us use in the most settings. As with all flagship smartphones, the iPhone 11 lineup still features the highest specs on its main camera, from shutter speed to aperture to ISO. The 26mm field-of-view is what we are accustomed to seeing from today’s smartphones, an incremental increase from the first-wave smartphone focal length of 28mm.


This camera is remarkably sharp and responsive across shooting conditions, colors in the scene, and complex photo subjects like a dog running one way while people turn their heads a different direction. The native camera app in the 1x standard camera is remarkably fast at identifying faces and other major photo subjects, wrapping them in different sized squares or rectangles that demonstrate they are in-focus and have been identified as subjects. The camera is also smarter than ever at exposing for the widest variety of the scene. A coffee in front of a brightly backlit window or a person in front of a sunset that will get blown out without proper exposure are more immediately and appropriately exposed than ever before.

Apple spent a lot of time telling us that the latest updates to the iPhone were designed to make the camera Pro-level without requiring pro-level inputs. In testing, we found this to be true--with one major caveat: you don’t have to buy the iPhone 11 Pro to get the best camera. The main camera is still the one to use whenever conditions allow, and it’s the same camera across the iPhone 11 range.

Standard camera with Moment Tele.

Ultra Wide

The ultra wide is the new lens in the iPhone lineup, and it’s present on the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro. With a 13mm field-of-view, it is effectively half the zoom of the main camera, which is why Apple gave the camera interface a “.5x” button to instantly zoom out with. It’s actually stunning to see just how much more appears in the frame when you zoom out using the ultra-wide. For quick environmental captures and other situations that dictate capturing more in the frame without backing up, the ultra wide is a great option.

However, making such a wide lens in such a compact form factor comes with its own drawbacks. For one, the minimum focus distance is about three-and-a-half feet, which means you can’t actually use the wide for bringing lots into the frame when you’re up close. The ultra wide also distorts images to nearly superfish levels, which makes it less useful as a serious camera. Similarly, the f/2.4 aperture and simpler sensor lead to softness and low-light struggles that make the camera’s performance feel dated even though built in ultra wide lenses are a recent trend.

Tele

The Tele is unique to the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max, and it’s part of what led Apple to refer to this model as “Pro” for photographers. While this nomenclature is a bit misleading, we can confidently say that the tele lens on the iPhone 11 Pro is much better than the previous tele on the iPhone XS. The wider f/2.0 aperture and other improved sensor specs make for a dramatically upgraded camera experience and allow you to take “2x” zoom photos in a much wider variety of conditions without the dramatic degradation in image quality that often accompanied zoomed-in photos on earlier iPhone models.

Standard wide lens.

Tele lens.

Ultra wide.

Shooting With the iPhone 11 Pro

Technical specs and software changes all promise big improvements in photo output and device performance, but neither tells the whole story. Apple is notorious for its “subtle” updates, some of which wow and some of which don’t seem to make much difference at all. In the case of the camera output and interface on the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro, the subtle changes conspire to make for a camera that performs dramatically better in a far wider variety of conditions. Even though there are very few manual controls in the native camera app, the iPhone 11 does a remarkable job of “reading” the situation and yielding a photo output that is the most pleasing for the widest variety of people. Increasingly, you don’t even have to tap a subject to focus or expose the before shooting. Those magic squares and rectangles identify the subject(s), lock on, focus, and expose while you tap away on the shutter button. It’s almost too easy.

Indoors and Up Close

I’ve always found that smartphone cameras have their situations where they perform amazingly well, and plenty of situations where they don’t perform so well at all. The iPhone 11 camera system has increased the amount of situations where smartphone cameras perform admirably by quite a lot. Natural focus falloff and bokeh is improved even without resorting to Portrait Mode. As always with small sensors and prime lenses, subject-background separation is key. Coffee portraits and other closeups with environmental context look great. I pushed the limits of the phone by exposing for background highlights while shooting a cappuccino in the near foreground and managed to get tons of latitude out of the shot. Whether I tried to confuse the camera or settled for simple tap to focus/expose and shoot, the results are truly impressive. Even seemingly well-lit coffee shops are often quite dark by camera standards, and I’ve yet to find a situation that flummoxes the iPhone 11 camera. And more than with any previous smartphone, I feel that many of these simple daily life snapshots are truly not compromised in comparison to an everyday carry sized camera.

Outdoors and Varied Conditions

The photos I shoot are most often outdoors and in varying conditions. Mountains and forests present a number of challenges for camera sensors, from dappled lighting to extreme contrast and foreground-background separation. Landscape photos are one of those things that can either work so well for smartphones or leave so much to be desired. The resolving power of the iPhone 11 Pro means that things like fall foliage is now less of an impressionistic swirl of color and more of a convincing replacement for many digital cameras in many situations.

Portrait Mode

Portrait Mode is one of those features that straddles the line between completely obliterating the average user’s need for a DSLR and coming across as a bit of a glitchy gimmick. The latest iteration is better than ever, combining the single-lens Portrait Mode magic of the iPhone XR with the multiple focal lengths of the iPhone 11 Pro to offer a 1x and 2x Portrait Mode on the three-lens cameras. Across the iPhone model range and focal lengths, the software behind portrait mode is better than ever. It remains frustratingly fickle to activate, often prompting you to “place the subject within 8 feet” without advising whether it thinks the subject is too close or too far away. Sometimes, simply changing the angle of the phone activates or deactivates the background blur. And I managed to trick it a few times photographing my dog against complicated backgrounds. But overall, it’s faster, more intelligent, and more useful than ever. I often find that the additional computation that seems to go into Portrait Mode photos yields better results even when you don’t want much background blur. I often go into the post-processing and “increase the aperture” to make the blur more subtle, just because I like the way the phone seems to stack images and provide a bit more richness and depth.

The iPhone 11 Pro Portrait Mode does a remarkable job of resolving complex subjects against rich backgrounds.

The 1x Portrait Mode makes for much more interesting atmospheric portraits, even of things like bikes.

About Those Flares

We mentioned the somewhat excessive propensity to flare with the new triple-lens protruding housing on the 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max, and it remains true in more extensive testing. However, as with artfully flaring lenses (like our own Wide lens!), you can use this characteristic to your advantage in the right conditions. Using your hand as a makeshift lens hood, you can get the flaring under control and take portraits that are just uncannily good. Even with furry Hank against a leafy background, 1x Portrait Mode and a touch of lens flare makes for a ridiculously artistic image coming out of a smartphone.

Conclusion

Technical specs tell half the story, but as with any camera from professional-level DSLRs to entry-level smartphones, the image output and user experience matter more than numbers on a piece of paper. The iPhone 11 offers tangible improvements to the camera experience across situations and users, from the casual native camera app snapshot to RAW images with manual settings in Moment Pro Camera.

After spending a couple of weeks with the iPhone 11 and relying on it as our primary camera across a variety of conditions, we can confidently say that it’s the best overall smartphone camera yet. What it lacks in megapixels, it makes up for in sophistication and image output. If you view your phone as a photographic tool, the camera, screen, battery life, and speed of processing are impossible to beat. Stay tuned for the review of Moment lenses on the iPhone 11.

Gear to make the most of the best smartphone camera ever.

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