iPhone XS and 11: getting the best out of the camera

The primary reason why I take pictures is to document the people and experiences in my life. Like a visual journal, I enjoy going through these periodically and re-living good moments of the past. It’s amazing how many memories can be connected to a single photograph.

I recently looked at some old film pictures from my very first international vacation to Europe back at the turn of the century. Those photos are some of my most valuable possessions, and even though they were taken with a cheap point & shoot camera on bargain bin Kodak Gold film and several of them are either blurry or out of focus, the content of the photos far outweighs any technical inferiority attributed to the camera gear I was using and my lack of knowledge at the time on how to take a good photograph.

Back then, I would have killed for any of the iPhone (or Pixel) cameras that have come out in the last few years. Something small & light that fits in my front pocket, has a battery that lasts all day, and contains so much idiot-proof technology that works behind the scenes that it takes effort to make a bad photo. Lately, digital imaging has gotten so good that it’s easy to find fault with the small sensor cameras found in cell phones, but truth be told, one of these devices would have been so much better and easier than anything I used back in the early 2000s, or even in the early 2010s.

As I’ve come to appreciate convenience and lightness more and more, I’ve been using my iPhone more than ever to document my travels. I’m still using a year old iPhone XS, but Mrs. Lite recently got the latest iPhone 11 Pro, so I’ve been able to test it out some as well.

I’ve gone online and looked up some iPhone camera tips, but all the websites seem to rehash the same exact generic information that is borderline useless. Here are a few things I’ve discovered through my own trial and error that hopefully you’ll find helpful.

All these tips are specific to the iPhone XS, XR, and 11 series.

1) If you’re using the timer function, turn on Live Photos and you’ll get a better quality image. If you open the camera app, Live Photos is the icon at the very top of the screen just to the left of center, and it looks like 3 concentric circles.

If you use the timer without turning on Live Photos, the camera will shoot 10 quick frames in burst mode. I can see why Apple programmed it this way, so that if someone accidentally blinks, there’s several other photos to choose from. But any picture shot in burst mode has noticeably lower quality since burst mode does not take advantage of the Smart HDR feature found in the last 2 generations of iPhones.

Try it for yourself. Take a photo the normal way, then compare it to another one shot with burst mode. You’ll see the difference: one has detail, the other looks smudged like a watercolor painting.

2) Speaking of Burst mode, it is a great tool for getting hard-to-capture action, but the quality of the photo will not be as good as described above, and burst photos do not save as HEIC files. Apple cameras can be set up to save photos as either the classic JPEG format, or the newer more efficient HEIC format (also called HEIF). HEIC is more or less that same quality, but in a much smaller file size and it has several other tech-nerd advantages as well that I won’t go into here.

The only time I ever use burst is for things like jump shots where it’s extremely difficult to time the photo exactly so that it captures a person at the highest point of jumping in the air. In a situation like that, sacrificing some photo quality for a better composition is a worthy tradeoff.

3) Hold the phone steady for a second before & after taking the picture if possible. This gives the camera time for Smart HDR (and Deep Fusion on the 11 & 11 pro) to work. Both of these technologies take several exposures before you press the shutter button and blends them all together so you get a more detailed picture. The phone can’t do this if the composition is constantly changing.

4) In low light situations, use a 3rd party app to use the 2x Tele lens. For some reason, when light levels get dim and you try to use the zoomed-in lens, Apple’s native camera app automatically switches over to the wide angle lens & crops it down, resulting in loss of pixels and detail retention. There’s no way to control this.

The 3rd party app I use in this situation is Halide, which forces the camera to use the lens you manually select. There are many other apps out there that will do the same thing. Make sure you find one that supports optical image stabilization.

5) RAW no longer seems to have much advantage. I rarely shoot in RAW format now. When I had my iPhone 6S, there was a significant quality difference between an out of camera JPEG and a processed RAW file. On the iPhone XS and 11 Pro, Smart HDR processing has made the HEIC files so good that I don’t find RAW has much of a benefit anymore. The files that come straight from the camera have a good balance of detail & noise reduction unlike previous generation iPhones.

Since many of you readers probably don’t even own a standalone camera anymore, I hope you find the above iPhone photography tips helpful. I’ll add more thoughts if I discover anything new & useful on a future vacation.


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