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iPhone 12 Pro Max Camera Review

Is this the best camera you can get on a smartphone?

A little later than usual this year, Apple showed off its iPhone 12 range. Unlike previous years, Apple released a total of four iPhone 12 devices. And they weren’t released at the same time.

First, we saw the iPhone 12 and the iPhone 12 Pro, then came the iPhone 12 mini and the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

There’s no doubt that Apple really stepped things up in 2020. New designs, new features, new camera - the iPhone 12 range has been a hit.

The two Pro models are at the top line of the range. And while they differ in size, (the Pro Max is the considerably bigger bro) specs-wise they are pretty similar. However, there’s one feature where the iPhone 12 Pro Max steps things up a notch, and that is the camera.

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On paper, you won’t see much difference when looking at the standard camera specs. Both the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max have a three camera 12MP setup on the back which includes wide, ultrawide, and telephoto zoom lenses.

There’s a LIDAR sensor that helps you take portrait shots on the wide lens and don’t forget Apple’s excellent Night mode is back and better than before. You can even use it across all the zoom levels.

The ultrawide camera has been improved since Apple introduced it on the iPhone 11, but you won't see a difference between this lens on the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max.

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However, the telephoto lens goes further on the Pro Max, and this is where the differences start. You get 2.5x optical zoom and 12x digital zoom on the Pro Max compared to 12 Pro’s 2x optical and 10x digital zoom.

The main wide camera and the telephoto lens are the departments where the 12 Pro Max starts to show its chops. The wide lens may have the same f/1.6 lens as the 12 Pro, but its sensor is actually 47% bigger than the 12 Pro.

This means it captures more light and you get less noise on your photos - leading to clearer images. It also has a larger physical sensor that can capture more light with less noise - that grainy effect you sometimes get in photos.

This larger sensor also has a bigger ISO rating. An ISO rating measures how sensitive a camera is to light - the higher the rating, the greater sensitivity to light. The iPhone 12 Pro Max has a maximum ISO of 7,616 compared to the 12 Pro’s 5,808 so that means less grainy ‘noise’ on your photos.

The Pro Max also has sensor-shift stabilisation - a feature usually found in DSLR cameras - as opposed to the Pro’s optical image stabilisation. As the name suggests, this feature moves the sensor around to limit vibrations which leads to better pics.

These little improvements help to make the iPhone 12 Pro Max camera one of the best camera systems ever found on a smartphone. And this translates to excellent photographs for the everyday user.

When comparing the two flagship iPhones, you don’t always see a big difference. In bright daylight and other well lit areas, pictures on both smartphones look the same.

But when things get dark, the iPhone 12 Pro Max leads you into the light, Apple’s Night Mode has lit up the faces of smartphone photography fans since its debut on last year’s iPhone 11 range. It consistently delivers exceptional results in low light conditions. The iPhone 12 range improves Night Mode, and the Pro Max boasts the best low light capabilities of them all.

Photos taken with Night Mode on the iPhone 12 Pro Max 2 are more detailed, more colourful and less noisy than those taken on the 12 Pro.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max also waits till it gets really dark to shift into Night Mode, where the iPhone 12 moves to Night Mode in slight darkness.

And when it does move to Night Mode,you can take clear photos with less faff. Situations where the iPhone 12 Pro had to be held in place for three seconds needed only one second on the Pro Max.

Night mode portraits are much sharper and clearer on the 12 Pro Max than the Pro, thanks to the LIDAR sensor. Overall, low light photography is an area where the 12 Pro Max really puts the 12 Pro in the shade - and most other smartphones too.

The telephoto zoom lens is another area where the Pro Max does better than the Pro. You get a longer reach with 2.5x zoom and a f/2.2 lens as opposed to the 12 Pro’s 2x f/2.0 lens. So you can get that little bit closer when shooting from afar. The 12x digital zoom performs surprisingly well even at full stretch.

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The iPhone 12 Pro Max also does better with portraits than any other iPhone we’ve tested. You get clearer definition and can even get a decent bokeh - that fancy blurred background effect that makes portraits pop with life - without even going into Portrait Mode.

The selfie camera is the same on both phones, and at a standard 12MP it’s not the most impressive out there. That said, you do get good, clear selfies and with Night Mode on the front camera too. Again, the camera does very well in low light.

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Switch to video mode (which is as simple as a swipe) and it’s a similar story to the main camera. The iPhone 12 Pro Max records sharper and clearer video in low light than its Pro counterpart. Videos are a lot of fun on the iPhone 12 Pro Max. You have all sorts of options including slo-mo and time lapse, as well as editing options even just in the camera app.

You can, of course, shoot in 4K too. You might think shooting in 4K Ultra HD is a bit unnecessary for your everyday clips of family and friends, but when you think you might be watching these memories for years to come you see the worth. Capturing moments in 4K future proofs clips so they’ll be top quality - you can even watch them on the TV. So it might not be a feature you use all the time but when you have an important moment that you’re going to want to share and watch again and again, it’s definitely worth recording in the best possible resolution.

All in all video is another area where the iPhone 12 Pro gives exceptional results for everyday users.

So with a bigger sensor, fast lens, better stabilisation, LIDAR, and Apple’s processing muscles, the iPhone 12 Pro Max stands out in the camera roll as one of the best smartphone cameras ever released. Sure, other options may dazzle with eye-watering MP counts and zooms that go to outer space (almost). But in terms of everyday use, the 12 Pro Max can’t be beaten.

Apple always stands out for its simplicity. And with the iPhone 12 Pro Max you can take really, really nice photographs with zero fuss. Open your camera app, snap a photo, swipe for a new setting, swipe to switch to video, edit right away - it’s all just so easy.

And if you do want to take things a bit further into the ‘Advanced’ world - Apple has covered you on that front too. The latest iOS update has seen the introduction of the new ProRAW format.

ProRAW puts Apple’s fancy image processing features like Smart HDR and Deep Fusion into the flexibility of editing RAW images.

What is a RAW image? Well, When shooting in RAW, your camera records a number of settings that can be adjusted later, such as exposure, contrast and white balance. This makes it much easier and more accurate to edit your photos in apps like Lightroom and Photoshop.

Previously, RAW images taken on an iPhone (using a third party app) would come out grainy as they wouldn't have any tech wizardry applied and would use small smartphone sensors. Now, on ProRaw, (which can be activated in Settings and used directly in the camera) you get better photos that you can edit in great detail. You can control white balance, adjust exposure, change the sharpness sharpness, edit the dynamic range and much more. This will make a portrait look truly perfect or bring the best out of a natural landscape shot.

You won’t want to use ProRAW for all your photos. It’ll fill up your camera rolls with huge files for a start. But if you want to learn more about editing images or have a special photo you want to upload on social media, it’s a great way to get the ultimate image. If you do want to upload a ProRAW pic somewhere, it’s worth remembering you’ll probably have to convert it to a jpeg or other standard file or risk getting an error message.

All in all, Apple has done it again. The iPhone 12 Pro Max camera is a joy to use. It's simple enough to get the most amateur of photographers taking nice pics, and it’s got the tech and editing abilities behind the lens to excite people with loftier imagery ambitions too.

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