Is the new iPhone 13 Pro Max worth the upgrade for a photographer? How are the new lenses? With the long lens getting extra reach, does it make a difference? How’s the new macro feature? Will I be able to use the resulting files as part of my overall photo project workflow?
These are some of the questions I had when I’ve learned about the new capabilities of this year’s iPhones. So I ended up ordering the iPhone Pro Max, and as it arrived last week, I’ve found some time for two photo walks to test the new camera system thoroughly.
Note that all photos below were edited in Lightroom, using LuminarAI and Perfectly Clear plugins to punch up colors and make some quick styling to taste.
Scene 1 - Daylight photos in Nim Shue Wan
Just before sunset, I’ve walked through this tiny rural village here on Lantau Island. As expected, the camera performed just as well as the iPhone 12 Pro Max I had before, nothing new to report on bright light photos. When I got home, looking at this set, I realized I should have used ProRAW for the pictures. For normal HEIC photos, even in good light, the sharpening/contour effect makes it impossible to use them alongside my regular digital photography. I wish I have taken these photos with the RAW setting. I strongly prefer a more subtle, realistic look and less artificial sharpening. Still, colors look nice, and detail is suitable enough for larger screen viewing or prints.
As expected, the macro feature is a lot of fun. It’s such an excellent tool to add detail and explore tiny elements, textures in a scene. However, when the subject is less than 15 cm from the lens, the automatic switch to macro is jarring. Apple is already fixing this inconvenience in an iOS update. Since the macro feature is for the ultra-wide lens on the camera, you have to put the phone very close to the subject. But it’s fantastic and worth playing with it to bring this new perspective into our photosets.
Scene 2 - Monastery in gold light
Continuing down the path from Nim Shue Wan, a small hike takes me to a beautiful little monastery on a hill. As the sun was starting to set, I’ve started to shoot the buildings and nature around it. One thing started to bug me very much at this point. Multiple times I’ve looked at a scene, found the standard 1x lens too wide, and wanted to zoom in a bit, but jumping to 3x was way too much, excluding many elements from the frame. I think it will just take time for me to get used to this new focal length, as I used the previous 2.5x so much on the iPhone 12. But it is a jarring difference for sure. I wish I shot more in RAW, but I am happy with detail, sharpness, colors, and light again.
Scene 3 - Lookout Point Sunset
The hiking path leads up to a hill with some beautiful views. With the sun setting, the low light necessitates RAW shooting. The regular, processed photos look super artificial when looking at them on a larger screen. But there is a lot of usable detail and sharpness in the RAWs, and I am impressed with what I could get from these small sensors in the phone. RAW processing took me a lot of effort, but it looks like I will have to experiment and learn this workflow, as it is worth it.
I wanted to crop these photos for compositional reasons, which sounds a bit hair raising with the 12-megapixel files, but I have been working with 5-megapixel scanned film photography before, and I am OK with the results here.
Scene 4 - Night photography
Once the sun fully set, I’ve made my way down the hill and started to play with handheld slow shutter night photography. I am happy with the results. Yes, there is a lot of noise, but it’s not ugly, and there’s a lot of color and contrast to experiment with. For best results, I have used my headlamp to light the foreground for some scenes. My new motto is - everything is better with a headlamp!
I’ve made a couple of night shots near the monastery, and I love the colors and the mood of these photographs. I think there is a lot of potential in the iPhone for Todd Hido followers.
Scene 5 - Sun Yat-Sen Park at Sunset
For my second photo walk, I took a detour on the way home from work on Hong Kong Island and made a couple of city shots to see how the camera performs in this urban environment with interesting lights. Again, my experience mirrored the findings of the rural setting - I wish I would have shot more in RAW, as the extra processing impacts the photos on the large screen. But I am pretty happy with the detail, color, and lights I was able to get from RAW.
Some HEIC files, with too much sharpening/contouring going on:
Processed RAW, I think the sharpness, colors, overall tone is impressive at this low light:
For these final shots, I’ve used RAW to capture some evening sports activities at the park. I am impressed with the level of detail from such a small sensor/camera in this low light. Unfortunately, for the Tai Chi shots, the terrible yellow light at the venue drowned out all the color, and even in RAW, I had to pretty much hand-adjust a lot of color by hand in local edits. But still - this is pretty damn good for a phone camera!
Overall I am happy with my purchase. I can see myself playing a lot with macro. I will have to get used to the new, longer 3x zoom, and I will definitely switch to RAW shooting whenever I am not just doing a snapshot or selfie that I’d only send over in phone chats. And in a pinch, I think I will be able to make a good shot using the phone and integrate the results into my photography projects.