I’ve been reviewing iPhones for seven years now, and I start every story with a similar disclaimer: if you want a professional camera system that you can use to land the cover of Outside, don’t spend your money on the newest iPhone. Keep your old phone and invest in a full-frame mirrorless camera instead.
However, if you like the way an iPhone fits snugly in your pocket, and you mostly use its camera for Instagram snaps, then the new 13 Pro (starting at $999) is a worthy investment. Apple let me test the phone in mid-September—right after the company’s annual keynote address and before the phone went on sale—and I’ve been shooting with it nonstop to get a feel for the improved camera features. Below are some pictures I shot with the phone, as well as a breakdown of the upgrades I’m most excited about.
If you were shooting with a normal camera and wanted to pack wide, superwide, and portrait lenses, you would easily fill a camera backpack. Apple, however, has managed to add all of those lenses to the back of a phone, and this year it added a macro lens to the mix. The macro doesn’t show up as its own lens on the back of the phone, though; it works through the ultrawide lens and automatically turns on when you place the phone close to an object. Apple says you can get within two centimeters of anything—a flower, a bug, tree bark—to snap a pic. After testing this mode, I found that the phone shoots crisp, vibrant photos that bring a whole new perspective to what’s deemed photographable around us. Macro photography is not something I use every day, but it was fun knowing that I have a macro lens in my pocket to pull out on occasion.
A Longer Telephoto Lens
When Apple launched its 56-millimeter zoom lens on the iPhone 7 Plus, I was excited to have a longer lens on my phone. That said, I also balked at the words telephoto or zoom, because a 56-millimeter lens is not a true lens of that type by traditional photo standards. Luckily, the brand found ways to pack longer lenses in subsequent phones. Last year it gave us a 65-millimeter lens on the 12 Pro Max, and now the 13 Pro comes with a 77-millimeter lens, which is pretty close to 85 millimeters, or the gold standard for a telephoto portrait lens. I loved having a 77-millimeter lens, because it makes your subject look more natural (there’s no wide-angle distortion of their face or body), creates a tighter composure so your subject fills more of the frame, and does a great job of creating bokeh. With a true portrait lens in my pocket, it was fun to push myself to really work on this type of photography. My kids, wife, and dogs got sick of me telling them to stop for a portrait, but I’ve always found that portraits of my family are my most cherished photos.
The Right Balance Between Software and Hardware
Apple uses a lot of smart software to enhance the iPhone camera. Night Mode, for example, is an automatic bracketing feature that helps you nail low-light images. Smart HDR (high dynamic range) is another bracketing feature that uses machine learning to teach the camera how to take different exposures for different parts of each photo, ensuring you get a well-balanced shot in tricky light.
But software is just half the equation. As I hammered home on my iPhone 12 Pro review, you also need high-quality hardware, like lenses and sensors, to make great photos. Those components drink in the light and allow the software to perform its magic. The Apple lenses are sharp and fast, and the brand has been steadily making sensor upgrades, too. A pro-quality, full-frame sensor hasn’t been squeezed into an iPhone—yet—but the sensor behind the Pro 13’s 26-millimeter wide camera is the company’s largest sensor to date, and it makes a difference. Paired with a faster f/1.5 aperture, that sensor allows the wide camera lens to take in 2.2 times more light than the 12 Pro’s wide camera, and nearly 1.5 times more light than the 12 Pro Max’s wide camera. More light equals more data, which results in improved overall image quality, more detail, less grain in low-light photos, and the ability to print bigger and better photos off your phone. A larger sensor also allows for faster shutter speeds across various light settings for sharper images. Thanks to a new sensor and faster aperture, Apple also says the ultrawide camera takes in 92 percent more light.
Photographic Styles, or Filters
Filters, like the ones you can apply with Instagram, seem to fade in and out of fashion. They were all the rage five years ago, but then photographers started to lean more toward natural-looking photos. Now, filters are making a comeback, and Apple is paying attention. With the introduction of Photographic Styles, the Pro 13 can automatically apply one of four filters to every photo you shoot—there’s no need to go back and apply them manually.
Each filter (vibrant, rich contrast, rich warm, and cool) can be manually controlled for intensity, and Apple’s suggested settings ensure that the photos don’t look overdone. Apple also designed the filters to enhance a photo without messing with the skin tone of your subject—a smart new addition.
Other Things You Should Know
On the video side, the biggest upgrade is something called Cinematic Mode, which allows you to add bokeh to your footage. In this mode, the camera will lock onto the faces in your frame and choose which subject to focus on, based on who’s looking toward the camera. (You can also control where the camera focuses by tapping the screen.) Meanwhile, everyone else in the frame gets blurred out, using a low depth of field. It’s a cool feature that can enhance your storytelling, and it’s a style of shooting that’s long been used by professional cinematographers.
Apple says the 13 Pro features up to 90 minutes more battery life compared to the 12 Pro, which is great if you’re out all day shooting photos. The brand is also offering a one-terabyte storage option, so you’re almost guaranteed to have enough space on your phone—unless you’re constantly shooting long clips of high-res video. And unlike the 12 Pro Max, which had a faster wide camera lens, the cameras on the 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max are identical. I like this mirroring, because I prefer to carry the smaller Pro instead of the Pro Max, as it takes up less room in my pocket and is much easier to use with one hand.