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iPhone 11 Pro Max: Taking the camera skateboarding

An iPhone video stabilization test that hits the streets.

For years, folks have been saying phone cameras will eventually make professional cameras irrelevant. As a professional videographer, this scares (and offends) me quite a bit. I make a living by knowing my way around camera settings a lot of people find confusing. So when new iPhones arrived with the name "Pro" tacked onto the end, it felt like a challenge. 

Lucky for me, instead of being made irrelevant immediately, my bosses asked me to go outside with the iPhone 11 Pro Max and combine two of my biggest passions: making videos and skateboarding. And while I usually prefer a healthy, expensive camera rig, I've always welcomed my iPhone's portability and "good-enough-for-Instagram" quality to shoot skating with my friends.

I was excited to take to the streets. Specifically, I wanted to see if the new 13mm Ultra-Wide lens could replace my bag of add-on iPhone lenses. I hoped the stabilization would be good enough that I could throw away my plastic grip mounts. Finally, I was curious if this "Pro" phone would actually come anywhere near the capabilities of a professional piece of equipment.

I skated for almost 7 miles with the iPhone 11 Pro Max, bouncing between Brooklyn and Manhattan. The results? 

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The iPhone 11 Pro Max taken on a skateboard ride.

Marta Franco/CNET

For starters, the ultrawide-angle lens is perfect for filming skating on your iPhone. It lets you get superclose to your subject without a ton of distortion around the edges. I also loved the ability to shoot entire buildings while standing just across the street. The building. The clouds. The man peeing on the piece of graffiti. Everything. It's something I didn't know I needed on my phone's camera until now. 

The video stabilization has also taken a few nice steps forward from previous iPhones. It came as no surprise that everything shot using my "skateboard as a dolly" looked great. There was little to no rolling shutter or any sort of digital warping. But even walking down stairs, with my skateboard in one hand and phone in the other, the footage just floats. On top of that, it balances images quite nicely when dealing with harsh lighting situations. When I descended from the sunny sidewalk into the dim subway station, it was able to provide enough light and details in the shadows without overexposing the highlights.

As for complaints, they mostly had to do with the video quality's nosedive that happened just as the sun was going down. Without a large light source like a baseball field or a flood light, all of my nighttime footage came out grainy and lacking detail. Side note: I did enjoy using Night Mode on the still camera, but for video, there is still much to be desired.

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I also have to shout out how difficult and annoying it is to transfer uncompressed 4K footage from your iPhone to your iMac. While AirDrop and the Photos app maintain "4K resolution," a form of compression happens during file transfer. Image Capture is my usual fallback, but for whatever reason it had a hard time on multiple machines that I tried, serving up errors every few clips. Google Drive is a workaround but feels like a silly step that requires a ton of extra time for uploading and downloading. And if you think I'm opening up iTunes for the first time since 2013 to complete this task, you're crazy. Why can't iPhones work just like hard drives?

In the end, I had a great day at work. I got to push around the city and try my best to make pretty pictures. And I did make some. That being said, the lackluster performance in low light and need for more robust camera controls, it's definitely nowhere near replacing my everyday professional rig. Which hopefully means it's nowhere near replacing my line of work.

So I suppose my time as the commander of the f-stops, the arbiter of ISO, and the sultan of shutter angle hasn't quite come to an end yet. But with all that said, I think the new iPhone cameras are nice tools to keep in your pocket. If you're ever in a pinch, and know what you're doing, you can come out with something that isn't fertilizer. 

For many more details and to see how the iPhone stood up to my skateboard filming, check out the YouTube video at the top of the post.