iPhone 11 goes Pro with photography


Our phones are increasingly becoming full-powered cameras, and every year, smartphones become a bit better in a few key ways to win over professional photographers. But with the release of the new iPhone 11 on Friday, Apple has made some important transformations to its best-selling mobile devices. After shooting with the high-end Pro model for the past two days, with its three cameras, I can say that this generation is far less a phone and much more a camera. 

And I can also say: If you love taking photos, you’re going to love the iPhone 11 Pro.

The iPhone 11 Pro’s new ultra wide 13mm lens, left, the 26mm wide lens, center, and the 52mm telephoto lens, right.

James Martin/CNET

Right away, a telling change I noticed in the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro from previous models is the rebuilding of the camera user experience. The ease of use in the interaction between the photographer and the camera is beginning to feel more like a “real” camera interface and not just an app on a phone that you use to take photos. Throw in the SF Camera font and three lenses covering a range of perspectives and you really do have a device worthy of the Apple “Pro” moniker.

The San Francisco Bay Bridge at dusk in vibrant, beautiful colors.

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The addition of any new lens to your camera arsenal is a big deal for photographers, and for me this was the biggest “wow” of the iPhone 11 Pro. In addition to the standard wide lens, which has a 26mm equivalent frame, there’s the 52mm telephoto lens, which has been upgraded to a wider f/2.0 effective aperture allowing in 40% more light. But the centerpiece of this phone for me is a spectacular new f/2.4 13mm ultra wide lens with a 120-degree field of view.

As a professional photographer, I know a visual story is told through a series of images. Varied perspectives and angles tell a story far beyond what a single image can do. The iPhone 11 Pro now has the ability to zoom in 2x optically and zoom out 2x optically. It’s quite a range. 

I’m often up close with my subjects, right in the room, in the middle of the action, and my 16-35 f/2.8 is one of my favorite lenses for its ability to take in the entire scene. A wide perspective not only lets me get close to the action, but it does so while still keeping other supporting details and defining characteristics of the story in the frame. 

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

                                                          – Robert Capa

The intimacy of the ultrawide

So that’s why the new ultrawide lens, with its 13mm, 120-degree field of view, is a big deal. It lets you get closer to your subject — without cropping out the surrounding scene — and lets you essentially capture a more complete story. That wide angle allows for both physical and emotional closeness, showing the details that heighten intimacy and that aid the viewer’s understanding of the subject.

This new lens is a step forward for iPhone storytelling that’s going to speak to professional photographers for sure. But I also think the ultrawide lens is going to become a go-to for everyone — this will be your new favorite way to take photos with an iPhone. Often, we shoot what’s in front of us, so I’m pretty confident you’ll love being able to use the ultra wide lens to take in your immediate surroundings in a whole new way.

Even I wasn’t prepared for just how much I love this lens.

The 13mm ultrawide lens on iPhone 11 Pro takes in the immediate foreground subject, but also the surrounding details that support the story.

James Martin/CNET

The more photos I took, the more I defaulted to shooting with the ultrawide lens. Not only do vast, expansive landscapes look great, but you can also use it for tighter, close-up details.

A fisherman catches a crab.

James Martin/CNET

In bright daylight, the ultrawide lens performed very well. The images remained relatively sharp even at the edges, where sometimes high-end DSLR wide angle lenses suffer from a certain amount of softening.

The distortion that one might expect from a wide 13mm lens like this is also minimized by some in-camera software lens correcting that I found to deliver just the right amount of a fix. 

It’s not so corrective that you lose the wide-angle effect, and the edges of the frame aren’t left too distorted either, avoiding outer frame lines that are extraordinarily long (and thus people appearing unflatteringly wider and stretched to absurd distortions).

But you can see below that as the sun set and I lost much of that light, the ultrawide lens images are very soft, even appearing to be out of focus. I found the lens to be almost unusable once the light began to fade.

As the light of the day fades to dusk, the ultrawide-angle lens has some problems taking in the necessary information. This image appears somewhat muddy and soft.

James Martin/CNET

Night Mode

Low-light photography is always a challenge. Photographers often have to deal with shaky images and slow shutter speeds, or high grain in images. When faced with a dimly lit or dark scene, the iPhone 11 Pro automatically goes into Night Mode, a software upgrade that removes all the trouble from the dark. A yellow moon icon simply lets you know the software is going to need you to be a little extra steady for its simulated “long exposure” of one, two or three seconds. 

Two images of the dimly lit Japanese Whisky bar Bar Shiru in Oakland, California. The image on the left was taken on the iPhone 11 Pro without Night Mode, while the image on the right has Night Mode turned on.

James Martin/CNET

Night Mode is is simple and easy, but it doesn’t just brighten the whole scene — it’s more subtle than that. Using information recorded from multiple frames, the end result is a warmer, sharper image that seems to use any available light to cast a vibrance into the shadows and gives a little pop to the darkness that might otherwise appear muddy, grainy and pixelated.

San Francisco’s F Castro streetcar shot with the ultra wide lens with Portrait Mode Studio Light effect.

James Martin/CNET

The end result is an image that preserves the night and just cleans it up a bit.

Night Mode seemed to be outsmarted a few times, when I tried to use it with a single light in the scene. In an otherwise dark room, a tiny white light wasn’t enough to trigger the Auto Night Mode. But at the same time, that light wasn’t enough to allow for a good photo. There were times I wanted to be able to choose to turn Night Mode on, but that isn’t possible. 

What that means is that though ultrawide is my now-favorite lens, it’s unfortunately limited in these dark settings as Night Mode isn’t available for the ultra wide 11 Pro lens . Apple says the ultra wide lens doesn’t have “focus pixels” like the other two lenses do.

Humans also need to hold still when using Night Mode, otherwise their hand gestures and other movements would be blurred. Those little blurs however are a reasonable trade off for the otherwise sublime abilities to brighten the image in a way that’s both natural and honest in terms of color balance compared to what your eyes see.

Portrait Mode for the pros

Portrait Mode overall doesn’t appear to have any significant performance upgrades. The bokeh effect, which separates your subject from the background, still doesn’t work totally perfectly on some tricky edges. Even so, it’s still a great effect. On the iPhone 11 Pro, you now have a choice of shooting Portrait Mode with the wide or telephoto lenses.

Three images taken with the new High-Key Light Mono Portrait Lighting effect on the iPhone 11 Pro.

James Martin/CNET

The best of Portrait Mode is the new High Key Lighting Mode, which replaces the background with a bright white and lights the subject in a high contrast way that mimics bright, enveloping studio lighting. In my opinion, the High Key Portrait Mode is a more studio-realistic looking lighting feature than the previous black-backgrounded Stage Light Mono.

While shooting in High Key Portrait Mode, it was sometimes hard to judge how well the effect was performing, as my subject’s arms, legs and head bounced in and out of sight in a glitchy ghostly apparition. This appears to have largely been an artifact of the image preview, as often times the resulting image after pressing the shutter button was quite nice. 

Capture Outside the Frame uses the next widest camera to capture additional image information which allows for edits and reframing in post production.

James Martin/CNET

The power of multiple lenses

One of the new features with the iPhone 11 camera update is a method of capture called “Capture Outside the Frame,” which works with both photo and videos. Essentially, when shooting with the wide 26mm lens, information is also recorded with the ultra wide lens 13mm lens, allowing you to make image edits like framing and cropping decisions later. 

Lombard Street stretches out to the horizon, with the Bay Bridge, left, and Coit Tower, right.

James Martin/CNET

Likewise, an image shot with the telephoto lens also captures the data from the wide lens. Turning this feature on for Photos or Video in the Camera settings (it’s an option, off by default) means the blacked border of the frame when you’re taking a photo or video become semitransparent.

When you’re ready to edit a photo, occasionally the Camera software will automatically make suggestions for cropping, indicated by a yellow “auto” icon at the top of the image. This means that simple edits, such as fixing a crooked horizon, can simply and automatically be done in postproduction. In one case, too, the feature offered to widen the frame to include a person hidden at the edge of my original frame. 

Although I appreciate the idea of making edits with this extra image data after the fact, it was a bit distracting to have the transparent edges show that lens image when I was taking pictures. It might be useful to save that extra data, but I don’t necessarily need to see it live in the in-camera preview. Apple told me this extra lens capture data enabled with the Capture Outside the Frame setting is saved for 30 days before being deleted.

All three lenses, the wide, ultra wide and telephoto are all available to use in time-lapse, video and pano options as well. 

All three lenses on the iPhone 11 Pro are able to be used with the Pano feature, allowing for panorama images that aren’t just sweeping vistas. The panorama view from my treehouse shot with the iPhone 11 Pro ultra wide lens.

James Martin/CNET

Sure, there’s a few small tweaks I don’t like, including Burst Mode being moved from the volume rockers to a left swiping of the on-screen shutter button. The former volume rocker burst ability (although known to frequently be the result of an accident for many users) was an easy, one-handed move when you wanted to quickly capture a fast moving or fleeting subject. The new left on-screen swipe most definitely feels like a two-handed operation: One hand to hold the phone while the other hand thumb swipes. Not as easy to burst.

In short, the iPhone 11 Pro is all about adding full-featured photography tools. This camera is one step closer to amazing, and Apple now is moving beyond the simple metric of image quality toward functions that really set the phone’s camera apart as a tool for professionals. But like I said, even amateur iPhone photographers will have a lot of fun too.

This article was originally published on Sept. 20 and has since been updated. 

An up-close ultra wide lens image of a roller skater in San Francisco shot on iPhone 11 Pro.

James Martin/CNET


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