October 10, 2023

The iPhone 15 Pro Max Camera and iOS 17 Photos app upgrades for photographers.

If you’re wondering if it’s worth the upgrade to iPhone 15 Pro. As someone who depends heavily on my iPhone camera, I can only give you my personal perspective. Each new iPhone has been worth the upgrade for me with Apple doing a lot of small improvements that adds up to a better overall photography experience. Starting with the introduction of the Pro models in the iPhone 11, the difference between cameras in the regular/Plus models vs Pro models in terms of practical use and performance—gets greater. This year, even the distance between the 15 Pro and the 15 Pro Max cameras is notable. With each new model, more-and-more photographers and videographers leave the DSLRs and prosumer video cams behind for the iPhone Pro Max in their pocket. And for them, this year’s phone has features that add up to an another worthwhile upgrade. Here’s some of what’s new.

Shot with iPhone 15 Pro Max 5x camera.

5x optical iPhone 15 Pro Max Tele camera.

The big distinction of the iPhone 15 Pro Max over the 15 Pro is a tetraprism Tele lens. It stretches the optical length out to 5x or 120mm⇔. By using a prism, the image gets bounced off of surfaces 4 times between the outer lens and sensor. It’s an ingenious system that adds more focal length while keeping the Tele lens bump manageable. The smaller 15 Pro keeps the 77mm, 3x camera.

It still keeps your stills still.

As a rule in photography, the longer the lens, the more likely you’ll get camera shake. The leap from a 77m⇔ Tele on the iPhone 14 Pro Max to a 120mm ⇔ Tele on the 15 Pro Max presented challenges that were overcome by improved optical image stabilization and faster shutter speeds when the Tele camera is engaged. Physics dictate that the 5x camera would require a shutter speed of 1/125sec in order to be stable. So far I’ve seen shutter speeds as slow as 1/99sec that yield solid photos. Most image exposure times seem to be in the 1/500—1/1000 range. I would have to assume that there’s also more shutter speed compensation when the iPhone detects that hands are shaky.

Despite the fast ƒ︎2.8 lens, these faster shutter speeds yield more sensor noise. The iPhone compensates with more noise reduction, but this doesn’t seem obvious with the 5X shots taken so far. The above image of the Amish family was shot through a dirty car windshield and the iPhone even seemed to have compensated for that.

How close can it focus?

What’s interesting about the Tele lens is that it’s not always used, even though you’re on the 5x setting. When the scene is too dark or the subject is too close, the iPhone shifts to the 1x sensor and uses digital zoom. You can physically see the shift and it appears to happen at about 12 inches from the subject. This may be another plus of using the tetraprism design, since the 3x Tele only focuses as close as 18 inches.

New 48mp sensor in the 1x camera.

While the sensor appears to be the same size as the iPhone 14 Pro models, it’s the next gen with better performance. You can shoot 48mp images in HEIF format now in addition to ProRAW format. The default image size from the 1x camera is now 24mp, up from 12mp. With computational magic, at least two images are used: the 48mp for detail and a 12mp for exposure. Side note: A 48mp sensor was also added to the 1x camera on all iPhone 15 models.

7 prime focal lengths.

All 7 lengths, but 1, are optical. They’re:

  • Macro-mode (interpolated from 2x blowup of .5x camera) 12mp
  • .5x (optical) 12mp
  • 1x (optical) 12mp, 24mp or 48mp
  • 1.2x (optical) 12mp or 24mp
  • 1.5x (optical) 12mp or 24mp
  • 2x (optical) 12mp
  • 5x (optical) 12mp

The 1.2x and 1.5x are available as notches on the dial or by tapping the 1x button. These rely on cropping the 48 mp sensor image and modifying perspective to mimic physical lenses. You can set which camera is your main camera: 1x, 1.2x or 1.5x. So if you like a tighter 35mm view, you can have it show up first and tap the 1.5x button to get to 1x or 1.2x. To set:

Settings > Camera > Main Camera > Default to XX.

Why optical prime?

Optical prime shots are sharper. Apple made zooming from .5x to 5x in the iPhone 15 Pro Max seamless by using the three cameras and digital zoom (interpolation) in between. At 4.9x the 1x camera depends heavily on digital zoom and images can get gritty and fuzzy as the iPhone guesses at how to fill in missing pixels on a larger canvas. Though computational photography has greatly improved interpolation, critical shots made with the optical prime lengths will look better than zoomed distances in between.


You can now save images from any Pro camera in JPG, ProRaw or HEIF. But there’s a twist: 24mp HEIF images will look nicer than ProRAW in 12mp or 48mp and nicer than HEIF in 48mp. How? When photo capture is set to 24mp HEIF, the 1x camera combines exposure from two images: one exposed for highlights and the other exposed for shadows. It blends the best-exposed pixels from each for an image that’s crisper with less editing required. ProRAW only shoots one image, and that requires editing to get the most out of it.

A nice plus is that you can now jump between 24mp HEIF and 48mp ProRAW settings when you tap the RAW button. This lets you shoot 1x, 1.2x or 1.5x images in 24mp for solid images without editing, but gives you quick access to the full sensor in hefty ProRAW format (75mb per image) for maximum detail that will require editing later. Here’s how you set that up in Settings > Camera:

  • Formats > High Efficiency >
    • Photo Mode > 24mp
    • ProRAW & Resolution Control > On
    • ProRAW Default > ProRAW Max
  • Preserve Settings > Camera Mode > Off

When the line is through the RAW MAX button, you’ll be shooting 24mp HEIF images with the 1x camera. For me, this is best of both worlds.

Improved lens coatings.

Great looking images can depend as much on superior lens coatings as on lens optics. Coatings keep light from bouncing around inside the lenses, so they reduce flare, improve contrast and increase sharpness. I think this is most noticeable in the 5x shots that look crisp and clear despite the noise processing required.

Auto bokeh.

With added bokeh at ƒ︎2.8.
Without bokeh

Portrait mode continues to evolve. Chris Niccolls of Peta Pixel feels the generated bokeh in the iPhone 15 Pro is the best available in a phone camera. Portrait mode can now be automatic in all three cameras. Whenever iPhone detects a person, dog or cat, it saves a depth map and will show the Portrait badge. Bokeh can be added later when editing these images in the Photos app. Images shot with the 1x lens that I’ve added bokeh to have looked extremely natural, as seen above. To turn on auto-portraits:

  • Settings > Camera > Portraits in Photo Mode > On

I’ve noticed that a depth map is saved for most images shot with the 1x camera. If you intentionally engage Portrait mode you can now turn off the bokeh in the Photos app: No more images ruined by an aggressive softening. Note that ProRAW images do not have a depth map.

Other camera upgrades.

  • Faster orientation shift. You’ll now get fewer sideways images.
  • Leveler appears in horizontal orientation.
  • Night mode gets 16-bit color space for more accurate color and tones.
  • Action Button can be set to call up the Camera app more quickly by holding it for a second.
  • In the Photos App, when you zoom you can crop with the crop button at the top right with one tap.
  • Faster USB-C 3.0 transfer speeds with a USB-C/Thunderbolt cable.

There are also many video upgrades to the Camera app as well.

Visual Look Up takes a leap.

Apple seldom mentions the term AI. But machine learning has been part of the iPhone photos for years. This year, iOS 17 has greatly improved Visual Look Up. In addition to understanding that people or pets are in a scene, your iPhone now recognizes food and can suggest recipes. It can recognize international symbols and tell you what they mean. (Try the symbols on a laundry tag.) If your phone recognizes plants, birds, art, popular landmarks, statues, and other objects, stars will show on the i button.

My take.

With a 5x Tele, my iPhone feels complete. It’s a whole photo kit in my pocket.

Get the definitive book for mastering your iPhone camera: The Crap-Free Guide to iPhone Photography Updated for iPhone 15 Pro, Pro Max and iOS 17.

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