iPhone XS camera review for the Lite traveler

There are a lot of well written reviews that come out on the interwebs every time a new iPhone is released, and over the last few years as smartphone technology has reached somewhat of a plateau, the camera is often touted as one of the best reasons to upgrade.

This review is going to focus on only one aspect of the most recent batch of iPhones:  how the camera has improved compared to prior generations in terms of practical, real-world observable changes, and how these changes are relevant to someone like me who likes to take lots of pictures while traveling light.  Since the iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR share the exact same main wide-angle camera lens & sensor combo, this review applies to all 3 models.  The one that I actually own is the XS since I don’t like humongous phones.  If you’re looking for a more technical review of the iPhone XS, here is the most comprehensive one I’ve found so far.

The last 4 generations of iPhones (the 6, 6S, 7, and 8/X) have had a subtle camera problem that none of the major review sites seem to ever bring up, and since most normal folks never noticed, Apple never bothered to change anything.  What I’m referring to is the over-aggressive noise reduction that results in photographs that – even in good light – look like blotchy watercolor paintings.

Here’s an example.  The photo below was shot with my iPhone 6S on my recent Egypt vacation.

Shot with iPhone 6S native camera app.

Looks pretty good when viewed at a small size on a computer screen.  If you never make prints, then this probably looks more than acceptable to you.

Here’s what it looks like at full size:

100% crop.  You may need to zoom in on your browser a little to see it properly.

There’s very little detail in the trees – all the leaves are kinda smudged together.  Same with the sand.  Even the camels and the pyramid in the back have a painterly look to them.

This wouldn’t be a big deal for me if it didn’t show up in prints, but it does.  Even when making smallish medium prints like an 8×10, the problem is apparent.  When looking at prints of various photos I’ve shot in good lighting conditions, the pictures from my iPhone 4S frequently look better than the ones shot on my iPhone 6S.  That shouldn’t be the case for technology that is 4 years older.  The frustrating thing is that this isn’t a hardware issue; shooting in RAW with a 3rd party app like Lightroom demonstrates this.  The detail is in the original information, but Apple’s software is programmed to process the photo into an inferior version that is less than optimal.

For comparison, here’s an old photograph from my iPhone 4:

Shot with iPhone 4
Same photo zoomed all the way in.

See how much more detail there is?  Look at the trees.  Compare that to the iPhone 6S picture further above.  Yes, the iPhone 4 picture looks grainier from the digital noise, but I’ll take a grainy photo over one with all the details blotted out any day of the week.

In non-technical terms, what Apple essentially did over the years was sacrifice fine detail for smoothness.

This issue applies to everything made from the iPhone 6 going forward.  The iPhone 5S isn’t quite so bad, but you can tell that that model is where they started tweaking their processing formula.  Two areas where this is the most noticeable are 1) people’s faces, and 2) objects in nature with repeating patterns (tree leaves, blades of grass, sand, etc).  Unfortunately, these elements are very common and found in a large portion of my own photos, so I notice the problem all the time.


Well, it seems that with the latest iteration, Apple finally addressed the issue.  No longer do iPhone photographs look like an impromptu finger painting project when inspected closely.  The amount of detail present at the pixel level has improved noticeably without the smudging that plagued the previous 4 models.

Here’s a comparison between a picture I took this summer at a music festival with my 6S and one that I took this weekend at a friend’s wedding with my new XS.  Full photos first followed by a side by side comparison zoomed in:

Firefly music festival. iPhone 6S.
Wedding at the barn. iPhone XS.
Side by side comparison at 100% zoom

Both these photos were shot at base ISO.  Like in the other examples, you can’t really see much difference until you blow the pictures up some.  The disparity in the amount of detail present in the shrubbery should be apparent.  I don’t want to put up pictures of my friends all over the internet (those are the only people pictures I have at the moment since I just got this phone), but I’ve noticed that people’s faces also look consistently better with the XS camera and no longer have the blotchy weird skin tones illustrated in the 6S example on the right.

I never personally owned an iPhone 7, 8, or X, but they all share the same issue as my 6S.  If you want to verify, go to Flickr, use the camera finder to search for any iPhone of your choice, and see for yourself.


Why have I spent so much of this review discussing this noise reduction problem?  Because this was the one major shortcoming that always made me hesitant to use my iPhone as my only camera; everything else about it from portability to usability to battery life was fine.

Now that this deficiency is no longer, the iPhone XS in my opinion has an ideal combination of nice colors (a strength of the more recent iPhones) and level of detail (a strength of the older iPhones 4, 4S, and 5).  It has finally reached the level where it can serve as a competent point & shoot camera with minimal compromises.

Shot with iPhone XS

Some other positives:

I like the easier access to the camera from the lock screen.  All you have to do now is push the camera icon in the bottom right of the screen, and the camera instantly opens.  I prefer this to the swipe left motion required to open the camera in the pre-X models (the phones with traditional home buttons); sometimes the swipe wouldn’t register and I’d miss the shot.  I’ve found the new method of quick access more reliable.

As with all iPhones, the camera is super easy to use.  It’s minimalism at its best with intuitive controls and everything right where it needs to be.  In addition to the aforementioned improvement in detail retention – which honestly, most average Joes probably won’t notice or care – the other major upgrade to the XS camera is Smart HDR which automatically blends several frames of varying exposures to give you a better looking balanced picture.  iPhones have had HDR (high dynamic range) going back several years, but you had to manually take the time to change the setting which would reset itself after a short while, and the pictures frequently looked underexposed compared to the non-HDR original.  Now it’s automatic on every photo and the results look significantly better.  I’ll still need to shoot with my new phone for a while before deciding, but Smart HDR may produce an even better overall result than shooting RAW and processing the photo afterward.  I don’t particularly enjoy processing photos, so this is potentially a huge benefit.

Tybee Lighthouse. Shot with iPhone XS.

Portrait mode works surprisingly well, though it’s still not the same as getting a real shallow depth of field effect (with a sharp foreground subject and blurry background) as using a bigger camera with a fat, high quality lens.  But for fun, quick snapshots it works better than I expected.  After the shot is taken, you can edit the photo and adjust the amount of background blur with a dial that mimics changes in f-stop ranging from 1.4 (really blurry background) to f16 (sharp background).  I’ve found in my own use, setting the f-stop number to a higher setting – like around 8 to 11 – makes the resulting photo look less fake but still with enough subtle background blur to make it look nice.

Portrait Mode example with one of my favorite photographic subjects

Portrait mode isn’t something I plan to rely on frequently, as it still feels kinda gimmicky, but it’s nice to have for certain situations.

If you like to make prints like I do, then the iPhone XS is a competent enough tool to produce good quality prints if the picture was shot in good light with proper technique.  Even though it has 12 megapixels, the individual pixels are tiny and you’ll be less disappointed if you think of the main camera as having a 6-8 megapixel sensor.  This should be sufficient for a nice looking 11×14 print, but I wouldn’t print any larger than that.  The 2nd telephoto lens has an even smaller sized 12 megapixel sensor that looks significantly worse than the main lens when you pixel peep.  That 2nd camera has nowhere near the true resolution of 12 megapixels, and I’d estimate that it shoots more like a solid 3 megapixel device.  I wouldn’t make anything but small prints with the telephoto module, even if the photo was shot in good light.

And now some negatives:

It’s too expensive.  Apparently the people agree.  I’m not surprised that this phone hasn’t sold in big numbers, as the cost is a significant percentage of the average American’s income.  Make no mistake:  this is a luxury item.

If you don’t mind a huge phone, I’d recommend the iPhone XR and save a few hundred dollars.  You won’t get the 2nd telephoto lens, but the main lens – which is by far the more important one – is exactly the same.  There are other differences like a lower resolution LCD screen, but when I played with the different models I thought the quality of the XR screen was still great.  If Apple had made the XR smaller like the size of the iPhone 8 or even the excellent ideally sized iPhone SE, then I would have bought that model instead.  But I have no interest in hauling around a massive glass slab in my pocket, so I paid more for the smallest option available.

To be perfectly honest, if you’re looking for a new iPhone and don’t care about any of the camera nuances I just blabbered on and on about, then consider getting an iPhone 8.  It’s only a year older than the XS, has a processor that’s almost as fast, houses a camera that is good enough for most people, and it’s significantly less expensive.  If I were wanting an 8, I’d buy a refurbished model directly from Apple (starting at $499 as of late 2018).  I’ve bought refurbished stuff from Apple’s website in the past and have yet to be disappointed.

Ignoring price, the one thing I would change about this phone is its size.  I wish it were just a little smaller.  The same design in the dimensions of an iPhone SE would be perfect.  I’m in the camp that hates big phones, and unfortunately it seems that every major manufacturer has all but given up on smaller sized devices.  It’s too bad, because I bet Apple could sell a ton of these if they came in a miniature version that started in the $650 range.


What about Android?  If you like Android, then go for it.  I’d get a Pixel 3, which has arguably the best smartphone camera in the game.  It’s got some serious bugs at the moment, like photos not saving and text messages randomly getting deleted, but I’m sure they’ll provide a software update for that soon.  I’ve owned an Android phone in the past and strongly prefer iOS.  Try both like I did and get whichever one you like best.

There are several requirements that I have for my primary camera:  the ability to make a good 11×14 print, low light photos that look decent at small sizes (since I generally don’t print these), quick to turn on and fire so I don’t miss shots, and good out of camera jpegs or RAW files that don’t require much processing.  Having optical image stabilization is a nice plus.  The iPhone has finally reached the level where I would feel confident taking it as my only camera.  For my fancy once-in-a-lifetime vacations, I still plan on bringing one of my big guns, but if I were to drop my Ricoh GR or Sony RX1 to an early death on a concrete slab, I’d be okay as long as my iPhone XS was still in my pocket & wouldn’t feel the need to go on an impromptu camera shopping expedition.  I’ll be going to Cuba for the first time in about a month with Mrs Lite and one of my best friends, and I’m contemplating taking just the iPhone as my only picture taking gadget.  To be able to have a camera this good with me all the time is huge, and my luggage may be getting even more trim than it already is.

If you’re picky about taking pictures and can afford it, the iPhone XS is a good buy.

If you like bigger phones, the iPhone XR is more or less the same thing for less money.

If all you want is a good, fast phone and you don’t necessarily need all the fancy camera upgrades, then the year old iPhone 8 at half the price of the XS is your best bet.

Update 1-7-19:  Here’s a link to some photos from a recent trip to Havana where I took my iPhone XS as my only camera.

2 thoughts on “iPhone XS camera review for the Lite traveler

  1. I appreciate your in-depth review of iPhone XS. This gives me an idea of what phone to get whenever I need to replace my current phone. I would liketo use my iPhone 6 for 3-4 years since I just got a Sony a6000. And would definitely try buying refurbished gadgets from Apple. I would save a lot if I bring my own phone (BYOP) and get a cheaper plan. 2GB of data is more than enough for me. Learning a lot about photography on your blog and hope more people can do the same. 🙂

    Like

    1. Thanks for reading! After a year or two, every iPhone that they sell should hopefully share the same characteristics. It’s amazing how good these tiny cell phone cameras have gotten in the last few years.

      Like

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