Last month, Apple unveiled the iPhone XS, the latest version of its high-end smartphone.
The phone is beautiful – have you seen that new gold colour? – and packs new features like Apple’s A12 Bionic chip, more storage, and better battery life than last year’s model. Plus, the new, larger model, the XS Max, has the largest display of any iPhone, ever.
Of course, since it’s a new iPhone, Apple had to include a few camera upgrades. It’s not a complete overhaul to the camera, since the XS and XS Max share nearly identical specs to 2017’s iPhone X. But Apple made a few improvements to the front and rear cameras, mostly on the artificial intelligence side, that it says will usher in “a new era of photography.”
We decided to put those new features to the test on the iPhone XS Max, the larger model (it has the exact same camera as the smaller XS) to see whether they made a major difference for users.
Here’s what we found:
1. Enhanced portrait mode selfies
Apple says it improved portrait mode selfies on the iPhone XS Max, and after taking several selfies, I can tell.
One of the main failings of portrait mode so far – on any smartphone – is it struggles with outlining the object or person you’re trying to photograph. Oftentimes, the edges of hair are blurred or cut off entirely, rendering the image a lot less believable than if it was shot on a DSLR camera.
But with portrait mode selfies on the XS Max, I noticed an improvement. While a few strands of my hair were cut off (and flyaways were eliminated completely), the overall effect is believable. I would use this photo on social media feeds if I were the selfie-posting type, and it looks nice enough that I’d consider using portrait mode selfies if I needed a professional headshot.
2. Adjustable depth of field
One other improvement to portrait mode, both on the front and rear camera, is the ability to control the depth of field – or the amount of background blur – after you’ve taken the photo.
Sometimes, the camera can go a bit overboard on the blur, obscuring bits of the foreground you want kept in focus. Other times, the background could be so beautiful or visually interesting that you don’t want it totally blurred out – that’s where the new feature comes in handy.
I’ve played with it quite a bit already, and I’ve been impressed. Not only does it actually work, it provides a feeling like you have more control over your photos.
You can find this feature by clicking on the edit button. That’s where you’ll also find the ability to add portrait lighting, but I wouldn’t recommend that – Apple added that feature last year, and it still doesn’t work very well. In my tests of adding stage lighting to images, it looked more like someone had coloured over the background with black Magic Marker.
3. Better low-light photos
On its own, this photo isn’t anything special – I quickly captured it on my walk home the other night.
But what impressed me about it was that I captured it at 6:19 p.m., about 30 minutes after the sun had set. Yep, this photo was captured when it was fully nighttime outside.
Of course, it never gets fully dark in New York City. There’s light pollution, plus there was a streetlight not far from the spot I was standing. Still, the amount of detail you can make out in this image really surprised me, like the stone on the buildings in the background.
What most impressed me, though, were the colours. The leaves on the tree are incredibly vibrant and rich, despite it being dark out. I usually can’t get that kind of colour with my current phone’s camera, even when it’s brighter outside.
4. Smart HDR
Apple added a new feature to the iPhone XS known as Smart HDR, which automatically blends together the best parts of separate exposures into one photo. The feature is intended to provide more detailed shadows and highlights in your images.
To be totally honest, I didn’t notice a major difference with Smart HDR switched on (you can toggle it on and off in your settings). When Smart HDR is switched on, your phone will automatically use the feature when it thinks it’s needed, so perhaps none of my photos really warranted it.
However, I did notice an improvement when it came to highlights, and whether that’s from Smart HDR or other camera improvements, I’m not sure. In the image above, the sky has more detail than I would have expected on an extremely overcast day in New York, without sacrificing brightness in the rest of the image. And not only is it easy to make out the clouds despite how grey the sky was, but the shadowy areas of the photo are detailed, too.
5. Better bokeh
Apple says the iPhone XS Max provides better bokeh on portrait mode photos, meaning the background blur is somehow improved and better-looking than before.
I couldn’t see a noticeable improvement in the portrait mode images I captured. However, I do think portrait mode in general is better than on previous phones. In the images above, the XS Max did a really nice job of not only creating clean edges around the flowers, but artfully blurring the background. Rather than just creating a uniform blur, the camera kept more of the foreground in focus.
I do think portrait mode photos look more natural and realistic than in the past, but I’m not sure if the “beautiful bokeh” is the reason.
Portrait mode works better on humans, not objects
I do have one caveat to the improvements to portrait mode, however: I found that the XS Max seemed to have a hard time capturing portrait mode images of objects. I tried on a few different subjects (a rubber ducky, a box of raisins) and had a really difficult time.
It was harder for the camera to find the sweet spot – it kept telling me to back up, and when I would, it immediately went out of focus – and the photos it was able to capture weren’t sharp, and often had missing edges or strange cut-outs.
This makes sense, to a point, since portrait mode is intended for human faces, not inanimate objects. And while Apple hasn’t specifically said anything about portrait mode on the XS, it has said that portrait mode will only work on the iPhone XR when you’re taking a photo of a face. Seriously – the feature won’t even be enabled until the phone senses a face.
And while the photos of the flowers turned out great, I seem to remember portrait mode working a bit better on objects on phones like the iPhone 8 Plus than it does now.
One more thing …
There is one more new feature that I wasn’t able to test, and that’s action shots. Apple says action shots on the iPhone XS are better than they were on past phones, thanks to faster sensors, Smart HDR, and zero shutter lag. Now, action photos should be sharper and have better shadow and highlight detail.
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