iPhone 11 Pro Max vs iPhone XS Max | Camera Shootout

We spent a week comparing the iPhone 11 Pro Max vs the iPhone XS Max to see which phone is better for photos and videos. iPhone 11 vs iPhone XS camera comparo

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iPhone 11 Pro Max vs iPhone XS Max | Camera Shootout

Is the iPhone 11 worth the upgrade? We put the phones to the test. 

It seems like the time between each Apple keynote gets shorter every year, or maybe time just flies when we’re having fun. Either way, it wasn’t long ago that we were celebrating the incredible upgrades to the iPhone XS and XS Max. Now, the iPhone 11 lineup has arrived and we couldn’t wait to get ours and start comparing the new flagship to its predecessor. Like all of you, we were wondering how much different it is—and more importantly, if the upgrade is worth it. We spent all week comparing the two devices in a variety of situations. Read on to learn more.

What’s Different?

The most obvious things that affect photo output between the iPhone XS and iPhone 11 are the improved technical specs of the cameras. The most obvious change is the addition of a third ultra-wide camera on the 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max, while the updates to the standard wide lens and telephoto lens are small but meaningful.

A few of the most important updates:

  • The standard/wide angle camera retains the same basic specs but gains 33% more ISO sensitivity.
  • The telephoto camera jumps from f/2.4 to f/2.0 and its maximum shutter speed advances from ⅓ second to 1 second. Combined with sensor upgrades, its ISO sensitivity jumps 42%.
  • The ultra-wide camera on the 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max is all-new. It’s a 13mm equivalent lens with an f/2.4 aperture.

While the actual hardware changes appear more evolutionary than revolutionary, we’ve learned that there’s lots more than megapixels and aperture that go into the final results of smartphone photos. Since these devices are miniature computers with tiny cameras, much of their photo magic occurs in the software that captures the images and the invisible processing that occurs behind-the-scenes.

Software Changes Yield Photo and Video Magic

As always, the iPhone 11 Pro is more than the sum of its parts. While 12 megapixels is no longer a revolutionary number (Apple has offered this resolution for years and some flagship Android devices now feature a 48 megapixel primary camera chip), Apple continues to refine exactly how those megapixels process inside the cameras. That means the images coming out of the iPhone 11 are dramatically better than, say, the iPhone 6S with the same megapixel count.

It goes without saying that the changes are more dramatic the larger the generation gap between devices you’re comparing, but since we’re comparing the XS and the 11 Pro, we can say this: even a year and a generation removed, there are noticeable differences in images and video output. The software in the 11 Pro is powerful and smart; Portrait Mode now offers 1x and 2x options, combining the single-lens Portrait Mode of the XR and the 2x Telephoto Portrait Mode of the XS models. This makes Portrait mode more flexible and more powerful, both because of the two bokeh-licious focal lengths and the way the software can yield ever more convincing results out of two distinct cameras on the same device.

Extra-intriguing: the ability to shoot Portrait Mode with Moment lenses a la iPhone XR and Google Pixel.

iPhone 11 Pro Max

iPhone XS Max

Portrait Mode

The iPhone 11 Pro not only offers two different Portrait Mode focal lengths, it also delivers cleaner, sharper images in Portrait Mode. For apples-to-apples comparison (sorry, had to), we used the 2x Portrait Mode on the 11 Pro and the only Portrait Mode option on the XS Max, and the better aperture of the telephoto lens on the 11 Pro is quite noticeable on the 11 Pro’s Portrait Mode rendering. Combined with other software tweaks, this feature only continues to improve.

iPhone 11Pro Max Portrait Mode

iPhone XS Max Portrait Mode

Timelapse Shows Big Improvements

While some may consider Timelapse to be a niche feature, it is an important aspect of smartphone photography. Not only are phones ideally suited for shooting timelapse with their built-in settings, timelapse photos are a true test of a phone’s overall capabilities. With constantly changing lighting and scenes, a phone’s ability to make the most of the entire duration of the timelapse says a lot about its camera hardware and software. In the challenging, cloudy mountain scene we shot, the iPhone 11 Pro was significantly better at handling the variable lighting and shadows while shooting into the sun, maintaining constant exposure across frame. This demonstrates the 11 Pro camera’s improved dynamic range and processing software in a starkly obvious way.

iPhone 11 Pro Max

iPhone XS Max

Sharpness, Saturation, Shadows

The 11 Pro demonstrates superior sharpness, saturation, and better shadow detail in side-by-side photos across a wide variety of landscapes and settings. While we are often leery of phones that lean too heavily on built-in processing to artificially “boost” the results by cranking up contrast and saturation to the point of looking “too digital,” Apple managed to make the iPhone 11 camera sharper and more saturated without bringing in the funky harshness associated with many of today’s smartphone cameras.

iPhone 11 Pro Max

iPhone XS Max

Funky Flares

The raised triple-lens housing on the iPhone 11 Pro generated some controversy (and hilarious memes) upon launch, but in addition to housing some great camera features, it does have one legitimate functional drawback. The camera bump tends to capture strange lens flares because of the new protruding lens setup. There is minimal control over how you generate flares because the device’s propensity to flare is so much greater than in previous generations, which makes this a bet less of an artistic tool and more of a potential nuisance.

No flare here, but plenty of iPhone 11 goodness.

Low Light Performance

Apple heavily touted the low-light performance of the iPhone 11 Pro, bringing the first official Night Mode to the camera. The longer shutter time and image blending techniques of Night Mode bring light trails, sky details (including stars!) and well-rendered highlights to nighttime images. Interestingly, the iPhone 11 doesn’t offer Night Mode unless the phone detects the conditions dictate it. Even then, the phone insists on choosing for you what the minimum shutter speed is. In this case, we strongly prefer third-party apps that provide for manual shutter control in conjunction with a tripod for proper long exposure. However, when the stars align just right (sorry again), Night Mode is downright incredible. For the first time, we are seeing legitimate astrophotography results on smartphones.

iPhone 11 Pro Max

iPhone XS Max

Video Performance

The 11 Pro selfie camera is the most dramatically improved camera on the new iPhone. The overall colors and skintones on the 11 Pro are more natural and peachy, which is a big improvement in straight-out-of-camera color rendering. These small details are what matter most to us as filmmakers and photographers. The better overall camera of the iPhone 11 Pro’s Tele lens with 4k 60fps makes it a viable focal length for capturing high-quality video. However, we found the iPhone XS Max to be plenty powerful for video at most common framerates and resolutions in good lighting.

Slow-motion recording at 1080p 240fps still renders quite poorly on a bigger screen like a laptop or tablet. Color and resolution diminish dramatically, which makes it only useful in short bursts as a bit of a gimmick or last resort. However, slow motion skate clips for Instagram or Twitter are totally serviceable, as is the case with the XS Max.

iPhone 11 Pro Max selfie

iPhone XS Max selfie

iPhone 11 Pro vs. XS Max: Worth the Upgrade?

The iPhone 11 Pro brought subtle but comprehensive updates, including many that make a tangible difference for those of us who use our phones heavily for creative work. The improved battery life, much brighter and crisper screen, and improved camera hardware and software make for a device that does everything the iPhone has always done well, even better.

If you use your phone as your primary filmmaking or photography tool, the updates to the iPhone 11 Pro are comprehensive and worth the upgrade, especially if you hadn’t yet made the move to the XS series. For the more casual user, we will always caution against Gear Acquisition Syndrome, but the iPhone 11 is the most impressive iPhone yet. In fact, real-world testing has made the device grow on us more than expected after the launch event. Stay tuned for more reviews of the iPhone 11 as a standalone device and with Moment gear.

iPhone 11 Pro Max

iPhone XS Max

All the gear you need to start shooting with the iPhone 11.

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