In this article, I share my experiences with the cameras on the iPhone 14 Pro Max smartphone and show sample photos. I believe this represents a substantial leap forward for some types of photographer, including landscape and travel photographers. My experiences with the iPhone 14 Pro Max have made me revaluate the value of a smartphone for my own photographic activities. The new 48-megapixel wide-angle camera is the standout performer when images are stored in Apple’s ProRAW format. With good lighting and in the right conditions, this can produce professional-looking images, which get close to those produced by the very best mirrorless cameras and lenses. It is not all good news, however. Results in low-light conditions can be very inconsistent, flare can be annoying and forget trying to photograph long-focal-length subjects such as birds, airplanes and the Moon! With the new Leica Q3 28mm fixed-lens compact camera (priced at over £5000) receiving very positive reviews, surely the iPhone 14 Pro Max represents excellent value for money, even if you only use its 48-megapixel camera?
Before the iPhone 14 Pro Max was launched, I really couldn’t take smartphones that seriously. That’s because images couldn’t compete with those taken with my Sony mirrorless cameras and G Master lenses. While a smartphone can be a lifesaver when you don’t have a ‘proper’ camera with you, I would always regret not taking my camera. With the iPhone 14 Pro Max, this has changed.
Back in October 2022, I wrote an article comparing like-for-like images from the iPhone 14 Pro Max and Sony’s flagship A1 50-megapixel camera, which can be viewed here:
I was seriously impressed with the 48-megapixel wide-angle lens when saving images in Apple’s ProRAW format. In good light, while the Sony A1 paired with the excellent Sony 24-70mm F2.8 II GM lens produced sharper images, the difference with the iPhone 14 Pro Max was not night and day. Here is a device that can potentially take professional-looking wide-angle photos provided that images are saved in Apple’s ProRAW file format. I have continued to hate the look of Apple’s processed HEIC (or JPEG) files, which look over-sharpened and artificially processed to my eyes. 48 megapixels or not, without the ProRAW option the iPhone would never be used by me to take photos.
Since my first article, I’ve continued to use the iPhone 14 Pro Max, and, given good lighting conditions, my positive view has been maintained. It’s certainly not perfect, however, and I still have some issues with it.
Most importantly, there’s the inconsistent performance in low light. The size of the iPhone’s camera sensor is much smaller than the sensor in a full-frame mirrorless camera. This would be expected to produce noisy images in low light. To address this, Apple relies on a range of processing techniques (which it collectively terms its “Photonic Engine”). According to Apple, its Photonic Engine uses machine learning to process photos on a pixel-by-pixel basis, to optimise the texture, details and noise throughout an image. Only Apple knows exactly what is involved in Photonic Engine processing, but experts believe that it involves:
- combining multiple exposures
- sophisticated noise reduction.
While these techniques can make a substantial difference to perceived noise levels, my experience is that you never know quite what you will get in low light conditions. In contrast, a ‘proper’ camera provides much more consistent, and predictable, results. In some cases, I have been very pleased with the low-light images I have taken, for example, the image below of St Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest.
On other occasions, I have been really disappointed with images I have taken. What doesn’t help is that I am particularly sensitive to the waxy, artificial look and loss of detail in an image when too much noise reduction is applied to an image. This is, of course, much more noticeable on an Apple 5k 27-inch display than on a small smartphone display.
In some cases, images have been terrible. For example, I attempted to photograph the Hungarian Parliament building at night from a moving boat on the Danube. The result was a blurry mess. I then took a photograph with my Sony A7R V camera paired with the incredible Sony 50mm F1.2 GM lens at F1.2, and this is shown below. The difference was ‘chalk and cheese’ and demonstrated the risk of solely relying on advanced image processing.
In addition to the inconsistent results with Apple’s Photonic Engine, flaring performance on the iPhone 14 Pro Max is poor, which can limit where it can be used successfully, even in good light.
While the 48-megapixel main camera is definitely the highlight, I am less enamoured with the other cameras. The 12-megapixel ultra-wide-angle camera can be very handy sometimes, but I would love to see more resolution. While I am sure some owners love the portrait camera, I don’t really use it. For portraits, the limited 12-megapixel resolution and the need for software processing to fake the bokeh delivered by a mirrorless camera with a portrait lens mean that I will continue to use my ‘proper’ camera to guarantee great results.
The limited reach of the portrait lens also means that the iPhone 14 Pro Max is utterly unsuitable for taking photographs where lenses with a long focal length would be used. For example, it would be farcical to use the iPhone 14 Pro Max to photograph birds in flight, airshows or the Moon. This is where a ‘proper’ camera that can use long lenses comes into its own. Attaching lenses such as the Sony 70-200mm F2.8 II GM, Sony 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM and Sony 200-800mm F5.6-6.3 G to my Sony A1 mirrorless camera can result in incredibly detailed images that are impossible to rival with the iPhone 14 Pro Max. For example, my photograph, below, of the Moon taken with the Sony 200-800mm F5.6-6.3 G lens aptly demonstrates the limits of smartphone camera technology.
By considering the full breath of photographs that can be taken by a mirrorless camera matched with a portfolio of lenses, it can be very easy to criticise the iPhone 14 Pro Max. However, narrowing down this breadth helps to identify where I think the iPhone 14 Pro Max fits, which is taking photographs that are perfectly matched to that wide-angle 48-megapixel sensor. Landscape and travel photography come to mind immediately, particularly with the benefit of not having to carry a heavy camera and lens(es).
Even if you only take photographs with its one stand-out camera, the iPhone 14 Pro Max easily justifies itself in my opinion.
In May 2023, Leica launched its 60-megapixel Q3 28mm fixed-lens camera to critical acclaim. With a price over £5,000 and a long waiting list, there is clearly an appetite among certain photographers for a compact camera with fixed wide-angle lens. In comparison, the iPhone 14 Pro Max is a fifth of the price, is smaller and lighter, and comes with a huge amount of additional functionality. While I’m not convinced that smartphones will ever replace mirrorless cameras for all types of photography, there is a much more convincing argument for wide-angle shooters in good lighting conditions.
For more sample photos, visit:
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