iPhone 15 Pro Max photo samples: Seven cameras for the price of three - enough to beat Android?

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iPhone 15 Pro Max photo samples: Seven cameras for the price of three - enough to beat Android?
The iPhone 15 series is finally official, which means it’s time to talk about the second most exciting new iPhone feature (because the USB-C port stole the show) - the upgraded camera system on the iPhone 15 Pro and (mostly) the iPhone 15 Pro Max.

Without a doubt, the stronger camera system found in Apple’s Pro iPhones is the biggest reason users choose the Pro models over the vanilla ones, and this year Apple’s making sure different iPhone models are even more different when it comes to their camera systems.

The quote from Apple’s iPhone 15 Pro presentation that really stood out to me was this one:

So, what Apple’s saying is that despite having only three actual cameras on the back, the iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max, they can utilize those cameras in a way that makes it seem like you have a whopping seven cameras you can use, which sounds impressive. But is it actually true?

And is this the most impressive part of the new camera system on the iPhone 15 Pro series, or is it actually the seemingly smaller upgrades that will end up making all the difference?

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This is why Apple says iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max have “seven camera lenses” but is it actually true?

If I had to summarize the camera situation on the new iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max, I’d tell you that the much anticipated 5x zoom camera found in the iPhone 15 Pro Max might be the last reason to upgrade this year.

However, this might not necessarily be a bad thing, because Apple “brought it” in different ways that might make a bigger real-world difference to how you take photos and how good they look. But more about that in a minute…

The big news around the camera on the new Pro iPhones is that (in a clear push for users to buy the most expensive model), Apple’s Pro iPhones no longer share the same camera system. The 6.7-inch iPhone 15 Pro Max now has a new, exclusive 5x optical zoom camera, while the 6.1-inch iPhone 15 Pro settles for a 3x optical zoom lens - just like last year.

iPhone 15 Pro optical/lossless zoom range (according to Apple):

  • Macro-mode
  • 0.5x (13mm)
  • 1x (24mm)
  • 1.2x (28mm)
  • 1.5x (35mm)
  • 2x (48mm)
  • 3x (77mm)
  • 15x maximum digital zoom

iPhone 15 Pro Max optical/lossless zoom range (according to Apple):

  • Macro-mode
  • 0.5x (13mm)
  • 1x (24mm)
  • 1.2x (28mm)
  • 1.5x (35mm)
  • 2x (48mm)
  • 5x (120mm)
  • 25x maximum digital zoom

Why Apple says iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max have “seven camera lenses”

As you can see by the “lens breakdown”, Apple’s seemingly ridiculous claim that having iPhone 15 Pro/Max is like “having seven pro lenses in your pocket” is technically… true. But don’t be fooled, because Apple likes to use fancy terms and expressions to wow consumers, and this is certainly another piece of great marketing by Tim Cook & Co.

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Of course, the iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max still have only three physical cameras to work with. That being said, Apple’s 2x sensor-crop zoom is perhaps the best on the market and it does deliver on the promise of “optical quality”. More importantly, the lossless 2x zoom also works in video, which isn’t the case with any other 2x sensor-crop zoom on the market (sorry, Android). Is Macro mode another “focal length”? I guess it is - if you’re really into macro photography.

Where things get more interesting is with the new 28 and 35mm focal lengths offered by the main camera of the iPhone 15 Pro. While Apple didn’t make it clear if they are too “optical quality” sensor crops, the fact that they will also come out as 24MP shots (which is the new default primary camera resolution across the entire iPhone 15 lineup), makes me believe they aren’t simply digitally zoomed images from the 1x/24mm mode.

But evne if Apple has somehow managed to pull out lossless quality zoom at 28/35mm, saying the new 1.2x and 1.5x zoom options (which barely offer any magnification) are two extra focal lengths might be a bit too pretentious even for Tim Cook & Co.

In a nutshell, it looks like Apple isn’t lying about the whole “seven lenses” thing. How useful those “seven lenses” are is a different story though, so I’ll let you decide whether you care or not.

The 5x zoom camera in iPhone 15 Pro Max is like nothing we’ve seen before but is it special only on the inside?

When talking about the focal lengths in the new iPhone 15 Pro camera system, it’s only fair to take a moment and focus on the biggest camera difference between the iPhone 15 Pro Max and the smaller iPhone 15 Pro model, which is Apple’s new 5x zoom camera.

In other news, the zoom measuring contest in the smartphone industry continues, and Apple has finally joined the race with its own long-range zoom camera solution. And in true Apple fashion, Cupertino had to do things slightly differently…

For the nerds in our audience, Apple’s unorthodox 5x optical zoom solution also explains the circular appearance of the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s 5x zoom camera. Traditional periscope cameras look squarish on the outside.

What stands out about the new 5x optical zoom camera in iPhone 15 Pro Max:

Apple tricked everyone (again) and despite the rumors, the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s 5x optical zoom camera doesn’t appear to use a traditional periscope zoom design like the ones we’ve been seeing for years in phones like the Huawei P30 Pro (the first modern phone with a periscope zoom camera), Galaxy S23 Ultra, or Pixel 7 Pro.

As it turns out, Apple has developed a unique-looking, “Tetraprism” mirror, which (unlike a traditional periscope solution) seems to be far more compact, allowing the camera to utilize a noticeably larger image sensor (25% larger than the 3x sensor of the iPhone 15 Pro), and take in more light.

  • The iPhone 15 Pro Max’s 5x zoom camera is the brightest 5x zoom camera on any phone (f/2.8), though not by a long margin (Xiaomi 13 Ultra’s 5x periscope camera has an f/3.0 aperture)

  • Because long-range zoom cameras can be very shaky, Apple promises iPhone 15 Pro Max’s 5x zoom shooter has “ the most advanced stabilization yet” where 3D sensor‑shift OIS and an autofocus module that moves in all three directions deliver twice as many micro-adjustments as before While the lingo Apple’s using is a bit vague, this is the first time we’ve seen a zoom camera with sensor-shift OIS, which could indeed help make taking photos and videos with the 5x zoom camera on iPhone 15 Pro Max much easier

  • It’s important to note that we’re still talking about a 12MP camera here, meaning you can forget about any sensor-cropping magic that gives you 10x lossless zoom photos like with the 48MP 5x zoom camera of the Pixel 7 Pro; while this seems like a missed opportunity on Apple’s side, don’t be surprised if Cupertino is saving this upgrade for the coming years (iPhone 16 Pro Max, iPhone 17 Pro Max, etc.)

Despite the iPhone 15 Pro’s “seven-lens camera system”, Pixel and Galaxy might still get the edge in zoom: Did Apple miss a great opportunity to challenge Samsung and Google, or is 5x zoom enough for most people?

In the end, although Apple worked very hard to make it seem like the iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max offer far greater flexibility when it comes to cameras, the truth is that the camera system in the smaller iPhone 15 Pro is pretty much unchanged compared to last year. You get a 12MP ultra-wide, 48MP wide, and a 12MP 3x zoom camera, just like on iPhone 14 Pro. And that’s… disappointing.

On the other hand, as impressive as the tech behind the 5x zoom camera in the iPhone 15 Pro Max seems, this is still “only” a 5x zoom camera. We’ve been seeing those for years now (Huawei did it in 2019).

So, it looks like Android flagships like the Pixel 7 Pro, Pixel 8 Pro and Xiaomi 13 Ultra might still have the edge over iPhone when it comes to focal length selection this year, without having to claim their phones come with “seven cameras”. Not to mention the Galaxy S23 Ultra will almost definitely remain the long-range zoom king thanks to the impressive 10-20x zoom photos and videos it takes.

5x optical zoom is enough for most people and iPhone 15 Pro Max users will be happy with that

To end on a higher note, I totally understand Apple’s decision to go with an advanced 5x zoom camera instead of a less capable 10x zoom sensor, or Sony’s wonky 3-5x variable zoom system, for example.

Most people stick to using the primary camera on their phone the majority of the time they are taking photos, and when zooming in, they rarely need 10-20x magnification (unless they are trying to read a sign, or spy on someone). In other words, 5x is a very practical optical zoom to have, which should also be enough to get you some pretty good 10x zoom photos and videos, even if they aren’t 100% “optical”, and I think 97% of the people will be happy with that. Don’t ask me how I did the math.

Anyway, believe it or not (and you better believe it), I’m actually not as interested in the 5x zoom camera of the iPhone 15 Pro Max as I am in the rest of the camera features coming to the iPhone 15 series. I have a feeling they might make a much bigger difference to the average user, but I’ll discuss those in a separate story here on PhoneArena.

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