The promise of true “point-and-shoot” photography with the iPhone has always eluded me. Each year, more advanced camera hardware and new iOS features have improved my photos. Yet, when it comes time to capture a scene, I’m temporarily removed from the moment.

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Is my exposure balanced? How is the depth of field? Where is my light source? No, don’t stand in that shadow. Let’s move over a little bit, there’s something distracting in the background. These inconveniences – no matter how minor – can ruin the energy of a scene or cause me to miss a critical moment.

With a library of photos growing by hundreds every month, any breakthroughs that reduce this friction can significantly change how I take photos. That’s why I was excited to hear about the camera improvements on the iPhone XS and XS Max. Depth Control allows you to change the depth of field on photos taken in Portrait mode after shooting. Smart HDR improves shadow and highlight detail. Larger pixels allow for improved low light photography. Apple calls this year’s camera system the dawn of “a new era of photography.” But what does that mean?

To put the cameras in my iPhone XS Max to the test, I visited Milwaukee’s Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, famous for its domes replicating three unique climates. With tiny, delicate plant life and bright sunlight streaming in, I reasoned it would be the perfect place to push the limits of the iPhone’s improved depth capabilities and Smart HDR. Unless noted, every photo you see in this review was shot on an iPhone XS Max in Portrait mode with minimal edits in Apple’s Photos app.

I’ve been using Portrait mode since it debuted with the iPhone 7 Plus, but never to its full potential. The initial varying quality and accuracy of the blur lost my trust. When I took portrait shots, I always followed them up with a normal photo – just in case. With the iPhone XS Max, I can point, tap, snap, and get a beautiful photo with almost no effort. The results were stunning nearly every time.

When photographing small details in nature, the right depth of field is critical for separating your subject from distractions in the background. These organic edges and unpredictable outlines are where Portrait mode has struggled in the past, often clipping corners or aggressively smoothing details.

While iOS 12 and the iPhone XS don’t eliminate this problem altogether, the hardware and software combination makes a great stride in the right direction. Compared to an identical photo taken with my iPhone X (below), you can see how much more detail the XS Max preserved when applying the bokeh effect on the background.

Left: iPhone XS Max. Right: iPhone X.

In the most trying conditions, Portrait mode can still struggle. Razor thin spines on the cactus below were lost in the background, and a small area was excluded from the background blur. The image is otherwise fine, but unfortunately unusable as it stands. This is where Depth Control can help out.

Depth Control allows me to make creative decisions about my photos after I’ve taken them. This means I can remain fully present in the moment. I only had about two hours to take photos in the domes. I didn’t have time to spend tweaking my scenes while the morning light disappeared. It wasn’t until I returned home that I reviewed my photos and made adjustments as I saw fit. Being able to focus on my edits in a relaxed environment led to better results.

For some photos, Depth Control is all about creative expression. I found that in the right scenario, depth of field adjustments combined with Portrait Lighting effects – even on photos without a person in them – created an interesting composition.

Experimenting with Depth Control and Portrait Lighting.

For other photos without perfect masks, adjusting bokeh saved images I would’ve previously thrown away. At f/3.2 the edges of this flower were smoothed away. At f/16 the photo became perfectly usable.

I found that as I shot, I quickly became a better judge of what the iPhone XS camera was capable of handling and what it would struggle with. If you’re upgrading from an iPhone X, you’ll probably be surprised with the results. If you’re coming from any older iPhone, the difference is truly shocking. In fact, I’d say that Portrait mode is quickly approaching a level of accuracy that would allow it to be the default for all shots taken with the telephoto lens.

There are still a few caveats. Portrait mode photos aren’t Live Photos. The increased flexibility of Depth Control is a reasonable tradeoff in most scenarios, but you might miss not having a Live Photo of that great portrait of your child.

Additionally, there is a discrepancy between the live preview for portrait photos and the final images the cameras produce. In more than one case I thought I’d end up with an inaccurately blurred image. If you find yourself thinking the same, trust the camera and take the photo anyway. You’ll often be pleasantly surprised.

Portrait mode camera preview vs. captured image.

“Trust the camera” quickly became a common theme during my photography. On previous iPhones, I was accustomed to compensating for the sensor. On the iPhone XS Max, the camera does the heavy lifting. The freedom to snap photos without worrying about the technical details extends to exposure as well. Side by side with the same photo from an iPhone X, the XS Max preserves color and highlights that were simply lost before.

Left: iPhone XS Max. Right: iPhone X.

When I compose a shot, I typically tap to focus and instinctively slide down the exposure control to correct washed out highlights. This is no longer necessary, and it required me to retrain my muscle memory. The power of Smart HDR is creatively liberating.

Even with my phone pointed directly into the sun, I found it difficult to ruin an image. As photographer Austin Mann noted in his own review, this can make it difficult to create silhouette images. It can also create wonderfully subtle scenes.

Drag down the exposure slider on an iPhone XS and you’ll enter a whole new world of dynamic range. I can’t pinpoint exactly what’s changed, but exposure control feels fundamentally different. Contrast softens and highlights become even. Some photos take on a dream-like quality.

In low light, the camera still produces beautiful images without the need for a tripod. A side effect of low light photography is sensor noise on your photos. With all previous iPhones and most digital cameras, low light noise is undesirable and leaves your images looking blotchy and speckled with digital artifacts. On the iPhone XS, low light noise looks natural in most scenarios – even filmic. I didn’t feel the need to crush shadow detail in an attempt to hide it because the grain is pleasing to the eye.

Sensors, processors, algorithms, and coffee beans. The perfect match.

I upgrade to the newest iPhone every year to get the best camera available, so it didn’t take much convincing for me to move to the XS Max. If photos are deeply to important to you as well, I’d strongly consider making the jump – even from an iPhone X. This year’s additions are difficult to plot on a graph. It’s hard to assign a percentage of improvement to how true to life a photo is. These are differences you really need to see to understand.

Enjoy a few more photos taken in Portrait mode below, and be sure to check out our previous iPhone XS camera coverage.

(Click any image for a larger version.)


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