Updated on Jan-2020:
Looking back to the smartphone market in 2019, it’s safe to say that the biggest surprise came from Apple's iPhone 11 series mobile phones.
Hardware: we got more lenses than iPhone XS Max and XS. Software: we got a triple-lens recording system demonstrated by FilMic Pro.
So, when our small team got our hands on the new iPhone 11 Pro, we wanted to answer one question: How does the iPhone 11 Pro new camera system perform in the real world?
We spent 1 month shooting 1500 photos and over 100 videos in Shanghai, in different time and space. Now we believe we have a basic understanding of this new image system. This is a long review, so we try to use the Q&A form in case you need to find a relevant answer to a question quickly.
What exactly is the iPhone 11 Pro triple-camera system and why it’s important?
Here are the camera details in one photo:
Apple is not the first to stack three cameras into a smartphone.HUAWEI, Samsung, and One Plus all have superb triple-lens cameras, though Apple uses a triangle-array while other cameras are aligned vertically. So what’s the fuss? Well, Apple is the only phone maker that allows you to record videos with two cameras at the same time ( MultiCam Capture ), and deliver an image quality from all the cameras with a consistent look as if from a single camera. Till now, no Android phones are capable of that. But note this: Only FilMic Pro, instead of Apple’s own native Camera app, is capable of MultiCam. From their latest new release, this function is still in development and will be available by the end of 2019.
What could iPhone 11 Pro’s triple camera system perform in the real-world?
Apple showed us a brief example of using FilMic Pro to record by two cameras simultaneously in the event. But has anyone ever explored this ground-breaking function with an actual video? Not yet, not from the iPhone. However, we do have a cinematography example from the classic comic movie 300 in the First Battle Scene that perfectly demonstrates what a triple-lens multi-cam system can do:
We see the focus constantly moving from Leonidas’ upper body to his head-> body in the environment -> close up on the head. You won’t be able to do that by using just one camera to zoom in and out. Larry Fong, the cinematographer of 300, explained in an interview that the video team just jammed three ARIAL cameras close together — Wide, Medium and a Telephoto lens all in one head and shot simultaneously. Later in post-processing, they edited the speeds as well as digital zooms.
Regrettably, iOS 13 only supports recording by 2 lenses at the same time. We believe it could be a game-changer in the mobile industry if in the future OS updates Apple could support 3 lenses recording at the same time.
Do the cameras of the iPhone 11 Pro work seamlessly as one?
The short answer is Yes. By “seamlessly”, we mean basically the same hue/white balance/saturation on all lenses. Here we give iPhone a score of 85 out of 100, better than any other Android phone.
Where did the iPhone lose the rest 15 ? Well, the ultra-wide doesn’t let in enough light. The image quality of the 13MM ultra-wide camera downgraded noticeably in low light scenes. That doesn’t meet our criteria of “all cameras perform at the same level and deliver the same image quality under the same lighting conditions.” The good news is that although the image quality lags under low light, the ultra-wide still delivers the same colors and skin tone as the other cameras. In most scenarios, they perform consistently.
After taking more than 1000 shots and 25 video clips, here is our final verdict: the triple-camera system does live up to its hype.
What’s more important and more complicated than the camera performance is live view. Apple has been known for delivering shots as seen in the viewfinder. When you press the shutter button, you get what you see. This is actually one of the most important reasons that I use iPhone for my professional work. The NO.1 step of taking a great photo, according to Ansel Adams, is to visualize your picture before clicking the shutter. Your composition and choice of shutter/aperture depend on what you see from the viewfinder. Apple excels here.
What is the iPhone 11 night mode and how does it perform?
In low light scenes, iPhone automatically activates night mode: it takes a bunch of photos with different exposure times, long and short, then picks up the best parts and blends them into one single photo. Since it’s not shooting a continuous long exposure, you can hand-hold the phone, even for 3 seconds exposure without blurring.
You might have read many reviews about how the city nights look so gorgeous in the night mode photos. Well, we are not particularly interested in “landscape/city views in night mode,” which isn’t really what this lens is good at. You need a standard 135 format camera (full format DSLR or mirrorless systems from SONY ) to shoot a decent night landscape. Smartphones, with such small sensors, are better off with narrow space and close up shots like portraits. When we got our new phone, the first experiment we did was portrait shot under low light:
At first glance, we’ll notice the iPhone 11 shot is much brighter. However, we know the real challenge of shooting portraits in low light is not about getting a bright photo, which you could easily achieve by either longer exposure time or higher ISO. The most difficult and most important task is to “render colors and skin tone accurately.” Try using a DSLR to shoot this scene by JPG. You might still find the colors in your photos not matching what you see in the real world. However, the iPhone 11 does an immaculate job here. We consider the night mode the most significant improvement compared to the XS and XR.
So, the true value of this new night mode is not about making low-light scenes brighter. Only when in an almost completely dark environment will night mode brighten up the scene dramatically. As long as there is just a small amount of light, your iPhone will try to keep that brightness and only focus on delivering accurate colors and skin tone.
If you are interested in the technology that works behind this, Renowned photographer Austin Man explained this most accurately in his review:
“From what I understand, the way Night mode actually works is the camera captures a bunch of short exposures and slightly longer exposures, checks them for sharpness, throws out the bad ones and blends the good ones. On a traditional DSLR/mirrorless camera, a 5-second exposure is one single, continuous recording of the light throughout the duration of the shutter so any movement (of subject or camera) is recorded.
But with iPhone 11 Pro, the rules are different… it’s not capturing one single continuous frame but blending a whole bunch of shots with variable lengths (some shorter exposures to freeze motion and longer shots to expose the shadows.) This means the subject can actually move during your exposure but still remain sharp.”
Eventually, we set out to shoot some city night scenes, and here comes the surprise:
When the highlights and shadows are evenly distributed, photos using night mode got almost the same brightness as those without. In the below scenes, it doesn’t make much difference with night mode on or off:
Only when the whole scene is extremely dark will the night mode pull up brightness dramatically, and while doing so, clarity and colors basically stay true to the environment.
The only complaint we got is that we can’t turn it on manually. It’s automatically on when the algorithm sees fit. Sometimes in pretty weak lighting scenes when we want it turned on automatically, it doesn’t.
Is there any way we can turn on the night mode manually?
Apple doesn’t offer this option yet, but we found a workaround: tap the dark part of the scene to trick the algorithm into thinking that you want more exposure. The night mode icon should appear by then. We would suggest Apple leave the choice to users in future OS updates. This is such a fantastic feature that we want full control by ourselves.
Two more details worth mentioning:
1. Night mode allows for 30 seconds maximum exposure time. To play with that, you need a tripod, and the environment must be dark enough. When the night sky is clean clear, you might be able to see the stars:
Although maximum exposure time is 30s, the real continuous exposure time for one shot is 1 second. So, that maximum 30 seconds are 30 exposures each 1 second, instead of 1 single exposure. The number from the last generation XS/X/XR is only 1/4s. A decent improvement.
How does the iPhone 11 ultra-wide camera perform?
It’s excellent, but not perfect. Compared to the other two extradentary lenses on the new iPhone, the ultra-wide delivers just fairly good quality. But, this is still the best ultra-wide lens now available on any smartphone.
The key parameters to assess an ultra-wide lens are edge clarity, dispersion and distortion. iPhone 11 performs surprisingly well here. The one complaint we got is its small f/2.4 aperture. Take a look at the Halide Technical Readout that lists the apertures of all three lenses, and you will discover that ultra-wide has the smallest aperture:
In the photography tradition, ultra-wide is a challenging focal length. Many Magnum photographers only carry 50mm, 35mm and 28mm lens. Even for landscape photographers, 13mm is a wildly wide-angle that demands discipline to master. But it does hold its own unique charm:
How does the new Telephoto lens perform?
The new telephone is exceptional, at the same level as the primary f/1.8 wide camera.
Compared to the last generation, the new Telephoto has a large f/2.0 aperture while iPhone XS Max Telephoto is f/2.4. Not a ground-breaking update, but nice to have.
How does the Capture Outside The Frame work?
When you are shooting by the 26mm wide camera, your iPhone automatically sets the 13mm wide lens working at the same time. You can decide later in post-processing if you want to keep the extra content. In the viewfinder, you can actually see what’s outside of the 26mm wide lens frame.
Apple might have drawn inspiration from rangefinder viewfinder design: Rangefinder cameras show you action outside the actual frame. See the scene unfold, set the shot, and when a subject is about to enter, press your shutter.
By default, Apple has this function disabled. We recommend turning it on. Just go to Setting- Camera-Composition and turn on Photos Capture Outside the Frame and Videos Capture Outside the Frame. The extra content will be kept for 30 days and then deleted automatically if you don’t use it within this period.
Are the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max good enough to do “Pro” work?
NO — if you are shooting commercials or in the Pro line of ads and filmmaking businesses.
But we would give it a big “Yes!” if what you want is to make videos for fun, create them by a meticulous process like a “Pro,” and publish the content on social media like Youtube or IGTV. In that sense, iPhone 11 is definitely the best vlogging camera, with stunning video quality and a full eco-system.
Note that all iPhone 11 cameras, including the TrueDepth on the front, are capable of 4K 60FPS. Last generation iPhone XS and XS Max also supports 4K 60 FPS on the rear cameras, but they don’t support smart HDR.
The new iPhone 11 series brings in HDR to video. For content creators, this is another significant improvement. How good is it? Well, below is a screenshot of the video we shot at sunset :
The highlights and shadows are natural, the transitions are smooth, and the colors are accurate. What’s most important, at this moment, no other cameras allow you to record simultaneously by multiple lenses. That is a unique competitive edge.
How does the battery hold for video recording?
iPhone 11 battery life has been much improved compared to XS Max and XS. But if you use your iPhone as a creativity tool like doing 4K video recording and editing it on the go, we still recommend using a well-designed battery case. Plus, You don’t want to drop your 1000USD tool by accident and break its glass by accident during work. Here, our team made Zencase iPhone 11 wireless battery case for content creators, with big embedded battery, slim body, anti-slippery linen back and essential protections ready.
In the past ten years, iPhone and other smartphones have changed photography fundamentally. Now, with the ever-evolving sensor and camera systems, phone makers aim to make a difference in the filmmaking industry. As content creators, we’d be more than excited to try out these new tools and find a better way to express ourselves.
「Give People Wonderful tools，And They’ll do Wonderful Things.」
Photos by Derrick.Zhang/Jamie Hua/Felix Fan