Is the iPhone 15 Pro Max camera as good as Apple says? I found out

The Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max and iPhone 14 Pro seen from the back.
Apple iPhone 14 Pro (left) and iPhone 15 Pro Max Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

The iPhone 15 Pro Max has the best camera on an iPhone ever. At least, that’s how Apple made it sound during the launch event, so is it true? To rightfully claim this title, it doesn’t need to beat the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra or any other Android phone; it needs to beat the iPhone 14 Pro. Until very recently, it had the best camera on an iPhone ever.

To find out if it can take the win, I’ve had a lot of fun taking photos with the iPhone 15 Pro Max and the iPhone 14 Pro. The conclusion? Well, I’m not going to give the game away just yet, but there are some significant improvements here. You’re just going to have to know where to look.

Comparing the camera specs

The iPhone 15 Pro Max's camera module.
Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

What makes the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s camera special? The 15 Pro models have 48-megapixel main cameras, 12MP wide-angle cameras, and 12MP telephoto cameras. Both have a 24MP default image size, plus a new Smart HDR feature. The Photonic Engine returns to add detail, plus it now works in Night mode too. Choose the iPhone 15 Pro Max, and you get a 120mm or 5x optical telephoto zoom and a new optical image stabilization system made specially for it, and the main camera can switch from 1x to 1.2x and 1.5x zoom too. Plus, Apple’s new A17 Pro chipset is working away behind the scenes.

The iPhone 14 Pro also has a 48MP main camera, but the default image size is lower at 12MP. This means there are fewer pixels on display in your photos, with the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s standard images coming in at 5712 x 4284 pixels, compared to the iPhone 14 Pro’s 4032 x 3024 pixels. The wide-angle and telephoto cameras have 12 megapixels. The iPhone 14 Pro and iPhone 14 Pro Max had a maximum of 3x telephoto zoom and the last generation of Apple’s Smart HDR technology.

The Apple iPhone 14 Pro's camera module
Apple iPhone 14 Pro Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

There are some alterations for video — such as the iPhone 15 Pro models being able to record ProRes video at 4K and 60 frames-per-second, and in LOG format too — but we haven’t tested video here. The TrueDepth selfie cameras all have 12 megapixels and an f/1.9 aperture. The iPhone 14 Pro models both use the A16 Bionic processor, now found in the iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Plus. On paper like this, there isn’t much to choose between them, but as you’ll see in some of the examples, the little changes can make a big difference.

Main camera

Our first photo is a great example of these little differences. The colors are stronger and more vivid in the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s photo, but they’re also smoother and less noisy. See the black car, in particular, and how there’s less noise in the windscreen and on the gold wheels. The gravel on the ground is less harshly realized, and the contrast levels are more favorable in general, particularly when you look in the background. This is a great example of the improvements you’ll see in most “normal” photos you take.

You can see more of these changes in the second photo, where the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s camera takes sharper, less noisy images than the iPhone 14 Pro. You can also spot fewer jagged edges along straight lines — see the shut lines on the green Porsche Cayman’s hood and on the roof of the building — in the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s photo, but also how it deals with white balance too. It’s different to the 14 Pro, with less harshness.

Spotting the differences can be quite difficult in more general photos, and this countryside scene needs to be examined closely. The trees on the horizon are sharper and more defined in the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s photo (helped by the additional pixels), and the long grass has a softer texture to it, with less noise. When you study the two for a moment, the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s photo sets a more natural, pleasing scene than the iPhone 14 Pro.

The iPhone 15 Pro Max doesn’t go as bokeh-mad as the iPhone 14 Pro, and it makes for a more realistic photo in this situation. The coffee and the muffin are the subject, and such a heavy depth of field isn’t required. The contrast and exposure are preferable in the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s photo too.

Our last photo is an important one, as it shows off the improvements made to the Smart HDR feature. Just look at the sky through the gap in the trees. Well, you can’t in the iPhone 14 Pro’s photo as it’s an over-exposed mess, but there’s cloud and blue sky peaking through in the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s photo. It makes a difference to the entire image, which has more balanced detail and pleasing colors.

Winner: iPhone 15 Pro Max

Wide-angle camera

The wide-angle camera has also been improved on the iPhone 15 Pro Max, but not as dramatically as the main camera. In the first photo of the church, you can see how the colors pop more, but not to an unrealistic level, compared to the iPhone 14 Pro’s photo. There’s less edge distortion, and there’s more detail in the stonework when you zoom in. The iPhone 14 Pro’s photo isn’t terrible, but its shortcomings are highlighted when you put it alongside the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s photo.

These two sunset photos are both attractive, but the Smart HDR has worked more effectively in the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s photo, avoiding blowing it out and retaining more of the golden colors. The treatment of the water is totally different, with less reflection and more texture from the iPhone 15 Pro Max but more detail and depth from the iPhone 14 Pro. Levels of detail and noise are similar. It’s not entirely an improvement, but I do think there’s more emotion in the 15 Pro’s photo, and it’s less clinical than the iPhone 14 Pro’s shot.

On an overcast day, both cameras performed similarly, and there’s just as much noise in the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s photo as there is in the iPhone 14 Pro’s. The big difference is in edge distortion, with the 15 Pro Max’s photo keeping slightly more realistic shapes in the left corners of the image than the 14 Pro. The sky has been better exposed, while the iPhone 14 Pro has some odd coloring in the top left.

Winner: iPhone 15 Pro Max

5x zoom

How about the 5x optical zoom? After all, it’s the big difference between the iPhone 15 Pro Max and the iPhone 15 Pro. It’s good, but it’s not infinitely better than the iPhone 14 Pro’s digital 5x zoom. Controversial, I know, but take a look at these two examples. The first photo is the kind of chance capture where a 5x zoom is essential, and while the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s shot is obviously sharper and more detailed, the iPhone 14 Pro’s digital zoom isn’t terrible at all.

The second photo of the hovering hawk is similar, and to highlight the differences, the image here has been cropped from the original. The bird’s feathers, coloring, and features are more defined in the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s photo, but the iPhone 14 Pro’s photo probably isn’t as bad as you’d expect it to be. Considering this is cropped down from a photo that had to be taken quickly and with the camera pointed up over my head, both do a decent job.

The 5x zoom is a big benefit and is clearly better than any digital zoom, so the iPhone 15 Pro Max has to take the win here. That said, I’m pretty sure more than a few people will be fine with the iPhone 15 Pro’s 3x optical zoom and be pleased with the results when the 5x digital zoom is required. If you have an iPhone 14 Pro, its performance may mean you don’t rush to upgrade unless you plan to use the 5x all the time.

Winner: iPhone 15 Pro Max

Night mode

There is one big change between these two phones when taking photos in low light. The iPhone 15 Pro Max takes less noisy photos than the iPhone 14 Pro, something we’ve seen from the main and wide-angle camera too. It’s immediately obvious in the photo of the white car, where there’s less noise in the sky too. But the background varies, as it is sharper in some areas in the iPhone 14 Pro’s photo.

It doesn’t always work out in the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s favor though. The sign on the pub is better exposed and has a more realistic color in the iPhone 14 Pro’s photo, but the grass is better defined in the 15 Pro Max’s photo. The level of noise is higher too, and there’s less edge enhancement from the newest iPhone. This trend continued during my lowlight test, with positives and negatives from both, making a winner hard to choose.

Winner: Draw

Portrait mode

Taking photos of people with the rear cameras using Portrait mode shows a similar result to the Night mode shots. The iPhone 15 Pro Max doesn’t dramatically improve over the iPhone 14 Pro and instead shows some deeper colors and slightly better exposure, but the color accuracy and edge recognition are basically the same. In some situations, I’ve preferred the iPhone 14 Pro’s portrait shots.

Winner: Draw

Which iPhone camera is the best?

The Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max and iPhone 14 Pro seen from the back.
Apple iPhone 14 Pro (left) and iPhone 15 Pro Max Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

What’s the conclusion after all this? The iPhone 15 Pro Max has won three categories, while the remaining two resulted in a draw, making the latest iPhone 15 Pro Max Apple’s best camera ever. When the photos are compared to each other like this, the improvements are easy to spot — from the benefit of multiple focal lengths and zoom modes to the hugely improved Smart HDR — ensuring it is a genuine upgrade from the iPhone 14 Pro.

However, the two cameras are quite evenly matched in some circumstances, although, for the most part, I haven’t preferred any of the iPhone 14 Pro’s shots outside of some portrait photos. It says a lot about how the small alterations have added up to a far greater, better photographic experience on the latest iPhone.

That said, the iPhone 14 Pro still has an excellent camera, and in the right hands, it can take some astonishing shots. If you’re about to pick a new iPhone, the iPhone 15 Pro or iPhone 15 Pro Max will absolutely satisfy the keen photographer.

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