Key Camera Specifications and Uber-G Camera HW Score
- Rear Camera System (4 cameras)
- Primary: 26mm 12-MP f/1.8 wide (Primary) +OIS
- Zoom: 51mm 12-MP f/2.0 zoom +OIS
- Ultrawide: 13 mm 12-MP f/2.4 ultrawide
On paper, the iPhone camera hardware isn’t impressive. In fact, it features regular-size sensors and relatively small apertures when compared with competitors. Yet, Apple has worked hard to make the best of it, and the result is very good, as you’re about to see.
The main change that explains the better low-light performance and lower average noise is the higher Maximum ISO (from 2304 to 3072) of the primary camera. The telephoto camera benefits from the same kind of improvements, along with a larger aperture.
Image Quality Analysis
Important: let’s clarify some terminology we’ll be using:
- “image processing”: software work that improves the image data quality
- “image filtering”: software work that changes the style (aesthetic) of the photo.
- “context photo”: a great approximation of what we see
- Including how dark the scene actually is
- Only to provide the context of the shot.
A note about the Uber-G Camera IQ Score: our camera scoring system is based on four “Pillars” or sub-scores that provides much-needed nuance: day, night, zoom and ultrawide photography.
In daylight photography, iPhone users will find a typical Apple tuning style with a slight HDR exaggeration and an emphasis on Texture over low noise levels.
Last year’s iPhone Xs was one of the best daylight cameras, and the iPhone 11 Pro pushes things a little bit farther, despite having a nearly identical primary camera as the Xs based on the specs, which don’t describe things like lens quality or sensor sensitivity.
In the first scene below, the iPhone 11 behaves almost exactly like iPhone Xs and the only difference is the slightly higher degree of artificial contrast that’s been added to the tuning. Compared to the competition, the image-filtering remains very mild.
Above: when comparing with the reference image, you’ll see that the iPhone 11 Pro has a stronger sharpening filter, visible in the lower-left grass. Other than that, differences with the iPhone Xs are minimal, in this scene.
Below, the Galaxy Note 10 is slightly over-exposing the houses far away and uses a lot of sharpening. It’s quite visible in the trees that get noticeably brighter, partially due to ringing artifacts.
Below, the Huawei P30 captures a very good photo, with great exposure as well, but the cropped view will show that upon closer inspection, the iPhone 11 Pro has better texture and detail retention.
OEMs are often under pressure to make things “better” and in the absence of new hardware, increasing image-filtering is an inexpensive option that refreshes the looks a bit.
Below: a cropped view shows that iPhone 11 Pro has stronger sharpening filtering going on, visible on the tree trunk to the lower-right, the curtains to the upper-right, for example.
Below: the slightly lower resolution of the P30 Pro (in auto mode) yields a blurrier image, that could be visible as you attempt to crop pictures to smaller sizes (for framing).
The scene below is an excellent example of increased artificial sharpening image-filter as you can see the Ringing around the satellite dish and the electric wires. To Apple’s credit, the effect is not applied indiscriminately: the roof texture is left untouched.
In the next scene below, we stress the daylight photo capabilities with extreme dynamic range differences and tons of fine details. As usual, the context photo shows what your eyes would see.
Most top cameras will do well here, but even though there’s plenty of light, differences emerge. For example, the Google Pixel 3 is struggling a bit to capture the scene “as we see it” with our eyes. There are plenty of places that are too dark, and the level of noise is relatively high.
The Huawei P30 Pro does a great job with details and noise levels, but the colors are a bit off (below).
The Galaxy Note 10 (and S10) capture better color hues out of the box and is low-noise, but the tree leaf detail isn’t great, probably because of the noise-reduction algorithm, which has issues with organic shapes.
The iPhone 11 PRo’s color hues are very close, the tree leaves details is well preserved (except for the top red leaves that are lost on iPhone), but the noise level is noticeably high and the only weak point is the noise level, which remains relatively high.
As expected, all the top phones are doing very well in broad daylight, with some strengths and weaknesses, but overall things remain very tight. The advances made by the iPhone 11 Pro make it the overall daylight photography winner as its performance is stable is all the shots. If the noise level is too high for your taste, you can opt for one of the competitors.
In low-light mode, the iPhone 11 Pro shows genuine progress from the iPhone Xs, even without the new Night Mode.
For our tests, we disabled the Night Mode for all phones, which is a long-exposure mode that takes between 2 to 6 seconds to capture a low-light photo. Many competing phones had this feature for more than a year.
We disable it for two reasons: First, to establish the true low-light capabilities of the camera, not the image filtering aesthetics. Secondly, because most people don’t want to wait several seconds for their low-light shots. Night Mode is a “nice to have,” but it should be a last resort option, not something that is turned on by default.
Unsurprisingly, iPhone 11 Pro captures better night photos than iPhone Xs and that’s a great relief. Generally speaking, the colors are more on-point than iPhone Xs, and the exposure is excellent. With a bit of added saturation, the colors would be great, but you can easily add that manually.
Above: the iPhone 11 Pro does a slightly better job than iPhone Xs with the color hue capture and the detail/texture on the road. The HDR style of the iPhone makes the image appear slightly dull out of the box as some contrast has been removed (sorry, we didn’t notice the left house’s light was ON and OFF between photos).
Below, the Galaxy Note 10 has a new tuning-style that is more aggressive with the brightening of the image, including a slight over-exposition of the light sources. The orange hue is captured better and the contrast is higher, even though the whole scene is brighter.
Technically, brighter isn’t always better in low-light photography, but the contrast preservation might be more agreeable to the user and may make it a bit faster to photo-edit.
Below, the Huawei P30 Pro almost turns it into a daylight photo. As you can see, the exposure levels, details and texture are good but using HDR, a lot of contrast has been removed from the scene and a lot of the volume has been lost. Some people will love this style, while others will dislike it.
Also, note that both the iPhone 11 Pro and the Galaxy Note 10 use exposure times of ~1/4 (ISO ~1200) sec while the Huawei P30 Pro exposes for ~1/20 sec with a 3200 ISO. This means that Huawei is less likely to have issues with moving objects.
Below, the iPhone 11 Pro also does well in the Cityscape test, which is challenging for any camera because of the extreme differences in brightness and tones.
It does a bit better than last year’s Xs with better color capture, like the orange-tone light coming from the right. However, it has added an overall yellow tint to the image. The lower contrast makes the skyline appear a bit hazy, which it was not.
The Galaxy Note 10 doesn’t have the yellow tint but is a bit too much on the blue side this time. The city itself is slightly over-exposed, but the extra contrast makes it less hazy as it should be.
Below, the Huawei P30 Pro artificially alters the colors and contrast to give a very brightened version of the original scene, perhaps even revealing/highlighting details of the scene that there secondary to the shot, because normally invisible.
A closer look reveals the different noise and details profiles, with the Galaxy Note 10 and the iPhone 11 Pro having a good tradeoff between noise, brightness, and scene mood preservation.
Huawei goes all-in on the brightness but reveals a fairly blocky noise pattern because of it. Huawei can use higher ISO in some areas to reveal things not even visible to the naked eye. However, volumes may be lost and the mood of the scene is very much altered.
Below, the comparison with the iPhone Xs shows sharp progress with the iPhone 11 Pro, enough to (finally) catch up with Samsung S10/Note 10.
In low-light situations without extreme brightness differences (see the cropped Bottles photo below), the iPhone 11 Pro fares just a little bit better than the iPhone Xs, but nowhere near the P30 Pro.
What about Night mode?
iPhone 11 gets Night Mode for the first time, a feature that was introduced last year by Huawei, then quickly adopted by Google, Samsung and pretty much everyone that makes a camera worth talking about.
Night Mode is a long exposure mode originally aimed at making low-light photos brighter, even if brighter is not always better for night photos. Note that Night Mode does not act like a classic long exposure, but has HDR and other effects/technique applied to the final image.
The iPhone Night Mode pictures are exposed between 2 to 6 sec according to the camera user interface and time will vary depending on the scene. As we said previously, we consider night mode to be a filter that is a great tool, but not representative of the true quality of the camera.
Additionally, Night Mode has become a lot less relevant months after it was popularized by Huawei, when the same company introduced the P30 Pro, a high-ISO camera that makes Night Mode irrelevant. Consider these two pictures, the iPhone 11 Pro shot with Night Mode for ~3 to 6 seconds. The other taken by the Huawei P30 Pro shot in 0.05 sec.
Is waiting 120X longer worth the difference in quality? That’s up to you to decide, but we think that Night Mode is an amazing tool that should be optional. Unfortunately, the iPhone 11 Pro enables Night Mode by default and you have to disable it manually for each photo.
The addition of Ultrawide photography is a significant contributor to a higher iPhone Camera IQ score, as it opens a vast array of new possibilities often used by real-world users.
The iPhone 11 Pro ultrawide camera module isn’t technologically on-par with its primary camera, but that’s true for every other competitor as well. As such, it captures details that aren’t as sharp, and photos have higher noise.
The iPhone does a very good job with daylight ultrawide photography and is generally better than the Huawei P30 Pro’s ultrawide camera for color-capture, but the P30 Pro is a bit better with HDR and levels of details if you crop often.
However, the Galaxy Note 10 captures even better daylight shots, with colors hues are closer to what your eyes see. That’s particularly visible in the tree colors in the example below:
At night, the difference is even greater, with the Galaxy Note 10 pulling far ahead in terms of color and light capture, leaving close competitors behind. As it stands, the Note 10 remains the recipient of our “Best Ultrawide Camera” Award for now.
When it comes to zoom performance, our tests show that the iPhone 11 Pro 51mm optics does perform noticeably better than pixel 3 (26mm+digital zoom) and just little better than iPhone Xs and Galaxy Note 10 (52mm optical).
However, iPhone 11 Pro is in no position to outperform better optical zoom lenses such as the 130mm found on the Huawei P30 Pro. The same is true to a lesser degree with 80mm zoom camera modules on the market.
Conclusion and Camera IQ Score
|Uber-G Camera IQ||Sub-scores|
With the iPhone 11 Pro camera, Apple becomes competitive again and catches up to a full year of Ultrawide camera ubiquity at the Android high-end market.
Each camera platform retains specific “signature” elements such as the HDR tuning on the iPhone that makes images slightly duller but with excellent exposure, or the Samsung tuning that captures excellent colors, but use sharpening a bit excessively. Huawei’s tuning changes colors the most but has exceptionally low-noise in low-light photos.
“BEST DAYLIGHT MOBILE CAMERA”
One of the strong points of the iPhone camera is that its output is very predictable, without huge color or image-filtering surprises after the fact. When the scene is brightly lit, the iPhone doesn’t need cutting edge optics and sensors to become today’s best Daylight mobile camera.
With the iPhone 11 Pro camera, Apple should be able to keep users content enough that they might not consider a flight to a competitor (and the hassle that goes with changing habits).
You can read full reviews of the iPhone Xs Camera, Google Pixel 3 Camera, Galaxy Note 10 Camera, Galaxy S10 Camera and Huawei P30 Pro Camera.
Filed in. Read more about Apple, Apple Reviews, Editorspick, iPhone 11 Pro and Mobile Camera Reviews.