October 10, 2019

iPhone 11 Camera Impressions

As I settle into life with the iPhone 11, I’m beginning to understand the capabilities of its standout feature—the camera system—better and better.

As promised in my initial impressions, I’ve been using the iPhone as a camera more instead of always relying on my bigger cameras.

While the results still don’t compare with my other cameras when looked at on a larger screen1 or pulled into the edit room, most of the casual shots I take are just being seen on my iPhone and iPad, on social media, and maybe in the Photos app on my Mac.

At a friend’s wedding this weekend, I took my iPhone and relied on it as my main imaging tool. I came away with a better understanding of its strengths and weaknesses, and an appreciation for the three main areas where it’s improved over previous generations of iPhone.

Ultrawide = Ultrafun

Like most people, my first experience with an ultrawide lens was daunting and frustrating. It’s very difficult to shoot effective ultrawide shots at first.

Nowadays, I adore wide angles, so I was eager to put the iPhone’s ultrawide to work.

This might be the most important change simply because it opens up a whole new perspective.

The lens itself isn’t great—weak edges and corners, strong chromatic aberrations—but it’s not particularly visible in good light, and placing your subjects in the centre of the frame where the optics are best means that no one will notice what’s happening at the periphery anyway.

In combination with the revised Smart HDR algorithm, the iPhone 11’s ultrawide lens is a formidable travel/landscape shooter, offering wider-than-expected dynamic range through its computational tricks ,and the kind of expansive view that we don’t typically associate with smartphone imagery.

Detail is retained in highlights and shadows, but it isn’t flattened out to the point where it looks fake or unconvincing. The dynamics of light and shadow are respected, they’re just nudged around a bit to make sure the photo better represents the way our eyes see the scene. Similarly, contrast and colour are improved over my iPhone X and look more pleasing to my eye than the examples I’ve seen from the iPhone XS generation I skipped. I think Apple has hit a sweet spot with its processing this generation.

The ultrawide lens is very fun for video too. This is just a random clip that I grabbed last week in the city, but it shows off the camera’s ability to keep the sky from blowing out even on a bright day, while also keeping the subjects properly exposed. The audio isn’t half bad either!

Portrait Mode Improvements

My iPhone X was capable of some solid portrait mode shots, but you really had to work at it. Ideal light, ideal distance, ideal backdrop, and then it was a matter of taking a bunch of frames to get one that was convincing.

With the iPhone 11, I’m noticing a huge improvement in the hit rate and a notable decrease in the amount of preparatory work I have to do to get a reasonable portrait mode shot.

Backgrounds—even busy ones—are much more likely to be correctly recognized, foreground textures are rendered in a way that makes more sense (clothes no longer get blurred even if they’re in the same focal plane as the face), and so on.

It’s still not perfect, but the iPhone 11 is at the point where I’m really happy with portrait mode, especially as a quick way to get impressive shots of people.

It copes well with groups too, correctly identifying people and keeping the depth of field believable.

Even more complicated scenes with multiple layers are depicted convincingly.

Sadly, portrait mode still can’t handle things with complicated details, like this standing stump, seen here with and without portrait mode engaged:

Still, that’s a torture test and not something I’m going to hold against it.

Better Detail

I’m running the latest beta, so Deep Fusion is active on my phone, but I’m not ready to draw any conclusions yet as I’m still testing that.

Instead, I wanted to make a more general comment about the level of detail being captured. The iPhone 11’s main lens in particular feels like it’s pulling in significantly more detail in normal images than my iPhone X did, even without Deep Fusion’s intervention. This isn’t just a matter of more sophisticated sharpening either—it’s real detail.

I love this because it means I can have fun with close-up nature shots and get decent results, whereas with my iPhone X I would always be disappointed by the outcome.

You can even combine the lens’ sharpness with portrait mode for some cool detail shots of flowers and other non-human things.

My New Casual Camera

Taken together, these improvements—combined with the amazing convenience of being able to shoot, edit, and share on the same device—have made the iPhone 11 my new daily camera for casual shooting.

With the announcement of the GoPro Hero 8 and my recent access to Sony’s latest RX100 VII, I’m compelled to pit all three against each other to see which I think comes out as the best casual travel camera for most people. Not only do I think the iPhone is a contender, I actually think it stands a good chance of winning a comparison like that.

I guess we’ll see on my next trip!


  1. By the way, if you’ve been impressed by the spat of recent iPhone vs. $10,000 Camera!” comparisons that have been appearing, bear in mind that there’s a reason those comparisons only provide small thumbnails or video examples. When examined at full scale, the differences become immediately evident, mostly in terms of detail, gradients, and tonality. That’s not to say the iPhone camera isn’t great, it’s just a reminder that those comparisons reveal more about the way most people look at photos than about the cameras that took them. Good enough truly is good enough for most people, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Folks shooting the $10,000 camera wouldn’t be doing it if they could get away with an iPhone for their work, but they can’t, because their output and viewing needs are very different from the average person’s.


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