iPhone XS Max camera takes on Fleet Week

We get up close to an amphibious assault ship, grab high-speed shots of the Blue Angels and meet sailors on shore leave.
James Martin/CNET

As a professional photographer, I carry many cameras. On a typical day I'll shoot with a Canon 5D MK IV DSLR, my Light L16, a Google Pixel 2 and an iPhone XS Max. In my job, I regularly shoot portraits, landscapes, products, newsmakers and snapshots of my kids. I currently have 131,365 images in Google Photos.

You might say my camera is my life. 

Earlier this month, I took the new iPhone XS Max out to shoot San Francisco Fleet Week, an annual tradition since 1981 that honors the men and women in the nation's sea services. It felt like a good opportunity to put Apple's iPhone XS Max through its paces and see what it can do. 

A slogan aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard. This was shot with the iPhone XS Max's wide-angle lens.

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Both the iPhone XS and XS Max have two important camera features the iPhone X lacks: a bokeh adjustment slider and an improved HDR mode, called Smart HDR. 

Apple's Smart HDR captures different exposures of more kinds of photo sources, including interframe shots, to produce greater shadow detail and bright highlights. All of this comes with a significant increase in processing power, so that everything happens nearly instantly. 

Another big improvement this year is the size of the iPhone camera's pixels. Ever since the iPhone 6S, camera pixel size has been a constant 1.22 micrometer. Now Apple's newest phones have 1.4-micrometer pixel cameras, just like the cameras on Google's Pixel 2 and Pixel 3 phones. The HTC One has a 2-micrometer pixel camera.

It matters because the bigger the pixels, the more light they can collect -- giving the cameras more information to use to build an image. 

For this assignment, I shot all photos on the iPhone XS Max using Apple's iOS 12 default camera app and default settings, with Smart HDR turned on. No matter what I photographed or where I stood -- whether it was the Blue Angels over the Golden Gate Bridge, or the USS Bonhomme Richard, or sailors on shore leave -- the iPhone XS Max produced great photos, the way I wanted them.  

Background and bokeh

You can see what I mean in the picture below of the two sailors on the flight deck of the Bonhomme Richard, docked at the Embarcadero in San Francisco. The camera's Smart HDR feature captures a wide range of tones, including the darker parts of the uniforms. I also achieved a bokeh effect by dialing down the aperture to f/2.5, blurring the background, and using the Studio Light effect from Portrait Mode to produce what I consider a very strong portrait.

While I found the Smart HDR effect useful in gathering the information from which to build the images, I did feel Apple's HDR effect was a bit heavy-handed. At times the image appeared almost cartoonish, washed out and too saturated. I like to have blacks that are just that -- black. As a result, I often treated images as digital negatives, running them through the camera's Light tool for a bit of post-processing: boosting contrast, for instance, or reducing the exposure right on the phone. 

A Portrait Mode image of two sailors using the Studio Light effect at an aperture of f/2.5 to blur the background.

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Focus on the positive

Look at the images below and notice the left has been edited to a shallow depth at f/1.4, producing a strong and intimate portrait. The middle image was edited to a depth effect of f/5.6, making the ship clearly visible in the background. The one on the right has a full focus at a depth setting of f/16, making the image more like a snapshot -- with background elements competing with the person in the foreground.

I used Portrait Mode for lots of people shots while aboard the Wasp-class helicopter carrier, producing significantly improved edge detection and separation between subject and background over last year's iPhone X. I really like the redesigned bokeh-mimicking effects and the new Depth Control feature that lets me adjust the image after the shot. 

Portrait Mode Depth Control at apertures of f/1.4, f/5.6 and f/16 from left to right.

Now look at the pair of photos below. I completely isolated my subjects from the background by using the Stage Light effect on the image on the left, and Stage Light Mono on the image on the right, using the lighting effects to put all the focus on the subjects. Both effects work wonderfully here, resulting in two visually arresting portraits.

Two photos of individual sailors show off the Portrait Mode Stage Light effect (on the left) and the Stage Light Mono effect.

Portrait Mode Stage Light is used on the image on the left, and Stage Light Mono on the image on the right.

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I really love the image below of a Sikorsky SH-60 Seahawk helicopter on the Bonhomme Richard flight deck. The details in the rivets are astounding, capturing both the varied tones and textures of the metal. The sky, too, is captured in incredible detail, with an array of tones that really show off the Smart HDR qualities. I took the exposure of this image down a tad before shooting the photo to get a slightly moodier feel as well as blacker blacks. 

A Sikorsky SH-60 Seahawk helicopter on the Bonhomme Richard flight deck.

To slightly counter the effects of Smart HDR that can sometimes leave the blacks brighter than I prefer, I reduced the exposure before shooting this image.

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Below are two detail shots in Portrait Mode. To the left is a still life of an American flag shot using the Stage Light effect and adjusted to aperture f/16 during post-production editing on the iPhone. The image on the right is a helicopter wheel shot with the Studio Light effect and a depth of field adjusted to f/4.5, separating the wheel from the background just a bit. 

Two photos: On the left, an American flag shot using the Stage Light effect, and on the right, a helicopter wheel taken with the Portrait Mode Studio Light effect..

An American flag shot using the Stage Light effect and adjusted to aperture f/16 during post production. The photo of the helicopter wheel was taken with the Portrait Mode Studio Light effect and a depth of field adjusted to f/4.5.

James Martin/CNET

The ability of this camera to capture an extraordinary range of light is mind-blowing -- it feels much more like the way my eye sees light -- and not even close to what my high-end DLSR does.

Look again at the large image at the very top of this page. It shows an incredible range of tones in the whites of the contrails while retaining detail in the shadows of the planes. If I'd used my traditional DSLR, I would have had to make either-or choices: either lose some of that shadow detail to keep the sky or blow out the highlights in the sky to keep the darker parts of the FA-18s. 

So what's my conclusion? This year, smartphone cameras practically across the board are all good, each emphasizing something different, but all seem to be moving in the same direction. 

I've not yet had a chance to use Google's new Pixel 3, but my colleague Lynn La calls it "outstanding." "The Pixel 3's truly exceptional cameras and AI-powered call screening give it a slight edge on the other great phones in 2018's crowded winners' circle," she says. 

I suspect new smartphones will continually leapfrog each other as each adds computational power and artificial intelligence working behind the scenes. Think of it as a never-ending race for the best, and the results change every time something new comes along.