iPhone 12 Pro Max vs iPhone 12/Pro/Mini: camera comparison

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iPhone 12 Pro Max vs iPhone 12/Pro/Mini
The new iPhone 12 Pro Max has the most advanced cameras system ever used in an iPhone with a nearly 50% bigger sensor for the main camera and a new, 2.5X zoom telephoto lens, but what does that mean for photo and video quality? Also, how much better is the iPhone 12 Pro Max versus the iPhone 12 series, and should you buy the Max over the smaller once just for the camera alone?

This is our iPhone 12 Pro Max camera review where we will look at a bunch of real-world photos, and compare the new 12 Pro Max camera against the other iPhones in Apple's lineup.

First, a quick peek at the specs shows all the little but important differences in the camera hardware...

iPhone 12 Pro Max vs iPhone 12 / Pro / Mini Camera Specs Comparison:

*Also check out a complete iPhone 12 Pro Max vs Note 20 Ultra vs Pixel 5 coming soon! 

Highlighted in bold are the main differences in hardware: 1/ the nearly 50% larger main sensor size, 2/ the use of the new sensor-shift stabilization system that moves the whole sensor to compensate for vibrations (instead of just the lens as in traditional OIS systems), 3/ the longer, 2.5X zoom lens compared to a 2X zoom on the iPhone 12 Pro and earlier iPhones.

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All of this makes the Pro Max especially capable in low-light, but let's start this off by a look at some daylight photos to see if the new sensor brings some noticeable improvements.

iPhone 12 Pro Max vs 12 series: Does the bigger main sensor make a difference during the day?

We were curious to see whether the bigger sensor on the main camera of the iPhone 12 Pro Max actually makes a differences for your average landscape shot during the day, and the answer seems to be that the difference is tiny, if any. The iPhone 12 Pro, the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Mini captured an identical-looking image so for brevity sake we have included the photo from just one of them so you don't have to look through many identical images.

Scene 2: The new 2.5X zoom camera

Another change in the Pro Max is that it comes with a slightly longer, 2.5X telephoto zoom lens. The 12 Pro features a 2X telephoto zoom, while the 12 and the 12 Mini don't have a telephoto lens on board. So how does this reflect on the photos? We start slowly ramping up the zoom, and first, we capture a 1X photo with the main camera.

Next up, we shoot a 2X zoom photo. Interestingly, the Pro Max has to use digital zoom from the main camera, and the 12 Pro actually has the sharper and better photo here because of its 2X lens. You can see that the photo from the 12 and the Mini looks about the same as from the 12 Pro Max at 2X zoom level.

Next up, we go to 5X zoom. That is the maximum zoom level you can reach with the iPhone 12 and the iPhone 12 Mini, and for a good reason: you can see the quality really deteriorate on those two phones, while the Pro Max and the Pro capture a more detailed shot. Is there a difference between them, though? It's really hard for us to see much of it, it's very small if any. 

The iPhone 12 Pro can go up to 10X zoom, and here you notice that it's not quite as detailed as the 12 Pro Max.

Finally, the 12 Pro Max can go all the way up to 12X zoom, and that's what that image looks like, so it's clearly a tiny bit better than the Pro for zooming, and a lot better than the 12 and the 12 Mini.

Scene 3: What about the Ultra-wide Camera?

Apple has added a very useful distortion correction while using the ultra-wide camera on all of the iPhone 12 series of phones, but is there any difference between the 12 Pro Max and the other three? Well, it turns out there isn't any, these are the same cameras.

Scene 4: Daylight Portrait 1

The zoom camera has one more important function on the 12 Pro Max: it's used in portrait mode. It makes for a tighter portrait shot, compare it to the 2X portrait on the iPhone 12 Pro captured from the same distance. We do prefer the closer look a bit more for portraits, it's a small thing but one worth knowing for portrait shooters.

All four new iPhones also can capture portraits at 1X with the main camera. There is no perceptible difference in quality here, they all look pretty much the same in decent lighting.

Scene 5: Low-light Portrait

But what about portraits in low light? Well, that's more interesting: the 12 Pro Max and the 12 Pro both come with a LiDAR sensor that shoots light towards your subject and tracks its reflections to create a better estimation of depth and to help iPhones focus faster in low light. And it makes a big difference in low light! Check out the noisy, grainy pictures from the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Mini versus the clean and much better shots from the Pros. 

Scene 6: Low-light with Auto Night Mode

While usually the iPhone 12 captures a more contrasted photo, this one turned out a bit different. You can still notice the brighter exposure on the iPhone 12 as well as the less saturated skin tones, but the slightly darker picture on the iPhone 11 Pro might actually look a bit better in this case.

When you manually turn Night Mode off, you notice that there is a very subtle difference between the Pro Max and the rest of the iPhones, but it's so small that it's barely noticeable.

Final Words

At the end of the day, the iPhone 12 Pro Max does feel like a slightly better camera, but in a very subtle way. The larger sensor on the main camera helps for slightly sharper photos than the other iPhones in low light, but the difference is quite subtle. And during the day, images from the 12 Pro Max look basically just as good as on the other three new iPhones.

There 12 Pro Max and its telephoto camera make for a very slight improvement in zoom quality over the Pro, but again the focus is on very slight here. The zoom quality difference is way bigger if you compare the two Pros against the 12 and the Mini.

So... should you get the 12 Pro Max over the other three just for the cameras? In our opinion, the answer is no. The improvements that it brings are there, but they are very subtle, and often times it just takes the same looking images as the other iPhones. If you prefer the smaller sizes, we definitely would not recommend you suffer the inconvenience of the extra large 12 Pro Max size for those tiny camera improvements.

We are curious to also hear your thoughts about these differences you see above: are they enough for you to upgrade to the iPhone 12 Pro Max?

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