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Here's what iPhone 12 Pro cameras can do: Incredible Night Mode photos and more

Sunsets, sunrises, wide vistas and aquamarine waters give ample evidence of another leap forward in mobile photography.

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Shooting with the iPhone 12 Pro above Emerald Bay in Lake Tahoe, California.

James Martin/CNET

For photographers, almost every new iPhone has a little something special, and one of Apple's newest devices, the iPhone 12 Pro, is no exception. It brings a few seemingly simple, but entirely effective, upgrades that I think shutterbugs are going to love. 

This week, I took the iPhone 12 Pro on a short trip to a beautiful place, Lake Tahoe, and found that the Night Mode software and ultrawide lens upgrades are pretty exciting. Let's dive into some of these updates that make the iPhone so great and gauge how it compares with Apple's previous phone, the iPhone 11 Pro.

Though Apple's most recent family of iPhones -- the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro, iPhone 12 Pro Max and iPhone 12 Mini -- deliver a wild amount of camera tech, it's spread across all four models. How much you want to pay will determine what kind of camera system you'll get. 

Read more: iPhone 12 drop test result are in: Ceramic shield is as tough as it sounds

Loving lidar

The iPhone 12 Pro has a triple-lens rear camera setup that's common on most current high-end phones, and it adds a depth-sensing imaging technology called lidar (it's on the Pro Max as well).  

Lidar, which stands for light detection and ranging, uses lasers to survey the environment you're shooting. By measuring how long it takes for light to bounce off objects and come back, the sensor creates a field of points that map out distances. It's not too different from how Apple's Face ID works.

Read more: iPhone 12 review: One of our highest-rated phones of all time

The technology promises to help capture image data in low-light situations by better reading the landscape and augmenting the visual data from the camera lenses. Apple says lidar also will improve low-light shots by allowing the camera to focus up to six times faster in darker conditions.

I noticed a huge difference from the improved focusing. It happened so fast and accurately while I was shooting, I quickly learned not to even worry about whether the shot was going to turn out well.

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Sunrise at Emerald Bay on Lake Tahoe, shot on the iPhone 12 Pro with the telephoto lens at 7:07.

James Martin/CNET

As with many of Apple's incremental upgrades over the past few years, lidar takes the iPhone another step closer to having shooting abilities comparable to those of a high-end professional DSLR. Fast focus just makes it feel like a "real" camera setup. And for sure, the iPhone 12 Pro is a very real camera setup. I loved using the new focus feature and the ultrawide Night Mode -- they made for excellent and instantaneous in-focus photos. 

Read more: The best phone to buy for 2020

What else will make my photos better?

Software also makes a big difference. Though the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro have the same selfie, wide and ultrawide cameras, the real photographic monster will be the coming iPhone 12 Pro Max with ProRaw enabled. 

The iPhone 12 Pro's standard 26mm lens, dubbed wide, has now been upgraded from an f/1.8 to a wider f/1.6 aperture. That'll mean marginally better low-light performance on the same 12-megapixel sensor as the previous iPhone. Then the new seven-element lens, which Apple says allows 27% more light into the sensor, has been shown to dramatically improve the clarity and sharpness around a picture's edges. Across my photos taken with the wide lens, there's a shockingly low amount of noise in the shadows, even in the smallest of details.

In these images shot with the wide lens, notice how the underwater rocks in the foreground are properly exposed and show virtually no noise, but at the same time we still haven't lost any detail in the bright sky and the distant mountain range. 

Kayakers paddle out to Bonsai Rock on Lake Tahoe's eastern shore in Nevada, shot on the iPhone 12 Pro with the new f/1.6 wide (26mm) lens.

James Martin/CNET

In the below image, shot in the clear emerald waters of Sand Harbor along Lake Tahoe's eastern shore in Nevada, the f/1.6 wide (26mm) lens captures varied tones, ranging from the shadows of the rocks underwater to the bright white splash of the paddle and the bright yellow kayak.

The clear emerald waters of Sand Harbor on Lake Tahoe's eastern shore in Nevada, shot on the iPhone 12 Pro with the new f/1.6 wide (26mm) lens.

James Martin/CNET

Low-light photos with Night Mode

Night mode is a low-light assist capture feature that's now available on the selfie, wide and ultrawide iPhone 12 Pro lenses, (on previous iPhones it was only on the standard wide lens). The feature will activate automatically when the camera detects a dark scene. When it's on, the Night Mode icon at the top of the display turns yellow. 

Overall, Night Mode is going to be one of the most aggressively awesome new features on iPhones, because it's now available on every camera in the iPhone 12 line. 

In default mode the camera will decide how long of a capture to make, but you can manually adjust the Night Mode exposure time by tapping the Night Mode icon and using the slider above the shutter button to choose a longer duration. Choosing Max will extend the capture time to its longest duration, thus letting in more light to the darker scene. For all of these images, I selected the maximum of 30 seconds.

For really the most stellar results, stabilize your phone by setting it on a surface or, even better, a tripod. I used a tripod to shoot these images. 

Night Mode images on the iPhone 12 Pro are nothing short of amazing. I found the sweet spot for taking night photos to be during the 20- to 40-minute period of twilight just after sunset or just before sunrise. Photographers call these times the "blue hour," when the sun is below the horizon and the indirect light is a beautiful soft-glowing blue. 

Emerald Bay State Park shot on the iPhone 12 Pro with a 30 second Night Mode exposure using the wide lens at 7:13, one hour after the sun had set.  

James Martin/CNET

This image is a 30-second exposure shot using my Peak Design tripod in almost total darkness. The quality is really incredible. I shot one of the images you'll see below at Sand Point, also along the Nevada shore, on the iPhone 12 Pro using a 30-second Night Mode exposure and the ultrawide lens. It was minutes before 7 p.m. PT, or about 45 minutes after sunset. 

For getting the best results using Night Mode, though, you do need some light. As the postsunset light began to fade to the dark of night, even my long exposure Night Mode images began to worsen significantly. I'd say that about an hour after sunset, things weren't looking very good anymore.

For comparison, here's a 30-second iPhone 12 Pro Night Mode shot on the left and an iPhone 11 Pro photo without Night Mode on the right. As you can see, the iPhone 11 Pro renders an almost a completely black image, with almost zero detail. Even in the blackest of the iPhone 12 Pro's tones, there's hardly any noise visible. 

An iPhone 12 Pro 30 second Night Mode exposure on the left, and the iPhone 11 Pro without Night Mode on the right.

James Martin/CNET

In addition to making basic saturation and contrast image edits in Apple's Photos mobile app, here below, I used the "Long Exposure" feature in the app to blur the choppy waters on the lake. The result is a smooth and milky nighttime image. 

Sand Point in Nevada along Lake Tahoe's east shore, shot on the iPhone 12 Pro with a 30 second Night Mode exposure using the ultrawide lens at 6:57, about 45 minutes after the sun had set. Basic edits were made in the Apple Photos mobile app.

James Martin/CNET

A half hour before sunrise, while it's still quite dark, the iPhone 12 Pro's wide lens delivered significant detail in the foreground rocks, the trees on Fannette Island, and the water in Emerald Bay.

James Martin/CNET
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The ultrawide lens on the iPhone 12 Pro was used to take this image before sunrise, at 7:03.

James Martin/CNET

Better, smarter HDR and Deep Fusion

Apple's new Smart HDR 3 and its Deep Fusion processing technology, which are on all three rear cameras and the front-facing camera, are upgrades to the iPhone 12 Pro that feel like a significant part of Apple's camera success puzzle. 

Deep Fusion's advanced machine learning enables some pretty noticeable pixel-by-pixel manipulation of photos. I noticed enhancements in the ultrafine details of photos and a huge step forward in noise reduction. As you can see below, the shadows of the rocks and trees are crisp and detailed. 

With the new "sky segmentation" feature, the tones in the bright California sky are rendered differently from the rest of the shot, giving the image more detail. Though the camera is looking directly toward the sun in an extremely bright scene, the iPhone 12 Pro still manages to balance everything out, and expose the varied tonal regions in a way that renders a real true-to-the-eye image. 

The brightest light of all, the sun, doesn't overpower the exposure or the tones through the rest of the image. The white highlights from the sun are limited to the sun itself, while the forest just below also manages to be properly exposed, with visible detail in the trees.

At the same time, the extreme brightness didn't wash out the image. The contrast remains solid, with the beautiful blues of the sky, the emerald waters of Lake Tahoe, and the yellow of the Aspens in the foreground all rendered in a way that really reflects what my eye saw.

A beautiful Wednesday morning hike to Secret Cove along Lake Tahoe. 

James Martin/CNET

In another image from Secret Cove, we see a really magnificent exposure balance between the bright sky and the reflective sparkle of the sun off the lake. But still we get well-preserved shadow detail with the foreground rocks and the tree trunk.

The emerald waters of Secret Cove in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

James Martin/CNET

Ultrawide, ultragood

Wide angle photos are some of my favorite images to shoot with any camera. Up close and personal, they put the viewer right at the center of the action. Since the ultrawide lens debuted on the iPhone 11 Pro last year, I use it all the time to capture the full scene in front of me, whether it's taking in a smaller indoor space or capturing wide landscape vistas of the American West. Ultrawide lenses are always great for stunning landscape photography. 

This year, Apple had made some pretty great software enhancements to the ultrawide lens that have me loving it even more than I did before. The sharpness issues that plagued iPhone 11 Pro images anywhere outside the center of the frame are now gone with the iPhone 12 Pro software upgrades. Far less distortion and more crisp details from edge to edge really drew me in. 

You can see improvements in the below image I took from a lookout above California's Emerald Bay State Park. The edges of the iPhone 12 Pro photo, on the left, have a significant amount of additional information over the iPhone 11 Pro photo (on the right), and far, far less noise. The iPhone 11 Pro wide image on the right looks extremely muddy and lacks any definition at all.

Emerald Bay State Park in California, shot with the iPhone 12 Pro, left, and last year's iPhone 11 Pro, right

James Martin/CNET

The new iPhone 12 Pro has identical ultrawide angle hardware to last year's iPhone 11 and 11 Pro. But upgraded software on both it and the iPhone 12 Pro will now correct the lens distortion that shooting with a wider angle lens can bring. That distortion could lead to warped images at the edges and a loss of sharp detail at the fringes. 

The iPhone 12 Pro is rated for underwater, so I jumped into the (cold!) mountain waters of Lake Tahoe. Rated IP68 for water and dust-resistance, it can withstand being submerged to a depth of six meters for 30 minutes. Below, in this ultrawide lens photo taken at Sand Harbor, you can see how well the new software has corrected the distortion.

There's almost no distortion across the middle third of the image and really great detail from edge to edge. Look closely at the detail in the rocks and the trees. There are fine details without any of the muddiness we saw with the previous ultrawide lens. 

It's only at the far four corners of the image where we start to see some minor warping and softening of the details. In the upper left, you can see the details at the top of the mountain begin to fall just a little bit, losing some of their clarity. 

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Swimming with the iPhone 12 Pro at Sand Harbor in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

James Martin/CNET

I took this ultrawide lens kayaking in Lake Tahoe's crystal clear blue waters off Sand Harbor. Notice the sharp details in the ripple of the waters across the image, and the details in the distant mountains. Only at the bottom left corner can you see some detail lost due to smoothing of the image.

Kayaking Lake Tahoe's crystal clear blue waters off Sand Harbor.

James Martin/CNET

Here's another stunningly blue ultrawide lens image taken with the iPhone 12 Pro. I edited the image using the "Long Exposure" feature inside Apple's Photos app, which smooths the motion of the photo (in this case the waters of the lake) to a silky sheen.

An image taken with the iPhone 12 Pro's ultrawide lens, with editing done in Apple's Photos app using the Long Exposure feature.

James Martin/CNET

Video gets better

The iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Mini, iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max can now also use the Night Mode with the time-lapse feature. Using longer interval frames, more light is collected, resulting in dramatically better low-light performance. Unlike Night Mode when shooting a photo, video Night Mode is baked in to the feature and turns on automatically, without the designated icon being shown. 

Take a look below at the sun rising over Lake Tahoe from Emerald Bay State Park in California. The dark rocks in the foreground have visible detail, and the bright skies also still have beautiful well-rendered tones. I shot this video in extremely low light about 45 minutes after sunset.

In the time-lapse below, taken during the twilight period more than half an hour after the sun had set, you can see some pretty great detail in the waters of Lake Tahoe in Nevada.

A photographic feast, with more to come

These have been some pretty significant upgrades for photography software on the iPhone 12 Pro. Though there still are a number of other phones that offer much longer zoom ranges, the iPhone 12 Pro remains one of the best phones for taking amazing pictures.

In its increasingly refined camera array, Apple continues to concoct a delectable recipe for photographic success. Rather than a single great bump in megapixels, or a massive sensor boost, this iPhone camera system is really the sum of many parts. A little Deep Fusion here, a faster processor there, some Smart HDR 3, sensor-shift stabilization and just a dash of magic make for a pretty sensational photographic feast. 

And just around the corner, we'll see the iPhone 12 Pro Max monster...

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