iPhone Camera Evolution: how iPhone cameras changed from iPhone 6 to iPhone 11 Pro Max

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You hear this all the time: "smartphone cameras are improving!"

But what does this even mean? Is it more megapixels? And who cares about numbers if the images don't look better?

We were especially curious to see all of these improvements with the launch of the new iPhone 11 Pro Max, so that is why we put all numbers aside for a different time, and just took pictures. And we mean a lot of pictures with a bunch of iPhones. We dug up an old iPhone 6, added an iPhone 6s, then an iPhone 7, the newer iPhone 7 Plus, and of course, the more recent iPhone 8 Plus, iPhone XS Max and the latest iPhone 11 Pro Max.

Let's see if all this talk about improvements is something that real users can see right away. This is the way iPhone cameras have evolved from the iPhone 6 way back in 2014 to the iPhone 11 Pro Max in 2019.

Scene 1

The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s series look really quite similar: photos are noticeably darker than the rest and you lost a lot of detail in the shadows. Those are decent photos, but by no means great. The iPhone 7 captures a brighter and more cheerful photo that looks better, and then the iPhone 8 Plus does something interesting as it switches colors and has a very distinct yellow tone (not a great thing!). The iPhone XS is the first image that we really like. The XS and XR series were the first to feature Apple's new Smart HDR features that increases the dynamic range in a huge way. The iPhone 11 Pro Max is further improvement: you get even better dynamics, but the big change is that the photo is just a lot sharper and has better detail.

Scene 2

Here, images from the iPhone 6 and 6s series appear way blurrier and lose a ton of detail in the shadows. The iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 series are a definite improvement, but notice the HDR halo around the trees that looks very unnatural. The XS series finally gets rid of that and captures a truly great-looking photo, and the 11 Pro Max does even better with sharpness and dynamic range.

Scene 3

In this challenging scene you have the bright shoreline in the back and up front the entrance, and the iPhone 6, 6s and 7 have trouble capturing the full dynamics. The iPhone 8 Plus improves slightly, but only the XS and 11 Pro series capture an image that we would consider looking great.

Scene 4

We see the same evolution from iPhone 6 to iPhone 11 Pro Max: the poor dynamic range of the 6 is replaced with a bright image with detail in the shadows, and a great amount of detail. The improvement is really very noticeable. 

Scene 5

The same observations apply to these few scenes. Notice here with the sun how the iPhone improve: it's so hard to shoot against the sun and get a decent photo, but the latest XS Max and 11 Pro Max do a very good job.

Scene 6

It's really quite obvious how much brighter and better looking the photos on the latest iPhones look when you have earlier iPhones for contrast.

Scene 7

What's striking about this photo is the way that halo around the trees resolves in the latest iPhones, so you get a very smooth transition from the blue color of the skies to the trees.

Scene 8

In this scene, the differences are far less subtle as you have less dynamics, but you can still see how the latest iPhones stand out.

Scene 9

The first night shot is really a shock: from a blurry dark mess on the iPhone 6 through 7 to an image that one could actually share on social media with Night Mode on the 11 Pro.

Scene 10

Nothing speaks better about good times than good company, but if you relied on those earlier iPhones you would not be able to get a usable image in this bar unless you use the flash. Night Mode truly makes a massive difference and elevates iPhone photography to the next level. One interesting detail that we noticed is that if your subjects move, the iPhone would be smart enough to notice that and you will NOT get a blurry photo.

Scene 11

From the dark images on iPhones 6, 6s and 7, to the incredibly yellow-ish photo from the iPhone 8 Plus that just looks wrong to the again dark photo on the XS Max, and finally, the radical change that comes with Night Mode and the iPhone 11 Pro Max.

Scene 12

We can only think about so many good words to say about the new Night Mode. It really is a game-changer.

Scene 13

The sign here only looks great on the last picture, but you may argue that the others despite being darker were a bit more realistic. Still, it's hard to argue that the last picture is the one that one would want to share on social media.

Scene 14

Neon signs were a huge challenge for iPhones until the XS Max came along, and the 11 Pro Max increases the quality with better dynamics and sharpness.

Scene 15

Finally, in this last shot, notice the feather at the top center and how it's burned out on earlier iPhones. It's a small detail, but one that only the last two iPhones get right and the advantage in sharpness and detail you get on the 11 Pro Max is noticeable.

Final Words

We can discuss megapixels and sensor sizes all day, but at the end of the day, it is the actual pictures that you have and you want them to look great.

In this camera comparison, we can thankfully see one thing: evolution and improvement is alive and well. The iPhone 11 Pro Max is leaps and bounds ahead of iPhones even two years ago, and while the difference from the XS Max is not that huge, it's still there and we did not even touch on that game-changing ultra-wide camera. Night Mode is such a huge feature and Apple has implemented it the right way: you don't have to remember to turn it on and deal with all sorts of complications, it just works. Shutter-bugs like myself were impressed with the 11 Pro Max, it really takes things to the next level for iPhones and puts them at the forefront of the camera game.

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