Apple iPhone 11 Pro vs. iPhone XS: Camera and Night Mode comparison
We tested the iPhone 11 Pro's trio of new rear cameras against last year's iPhone XS.
Patrick HollandManaging Editor
Patrick Holland has been a phone reviewer for CNET since 2016. He is a former theater director who occasionally makes short films. Patrick has an eye for photography and a passion for everything mobile. He is a colorful raconteur who will guide you through the ever-changing, fast-paced world of phones, especially the iPhone and iOS. He used to co-host CNET's I'm So Obsessed podcast and interviewed guests like Jeff Goldblum, Alfre Woodard, Stephen Merchant, Sam Jay, Edgar Wright and Roy Wood Jr.
Patrick's play The Cowboy is included in the Best American Short Plays 2011-12 anthology. He co-wrote and starred in the short film Baden Krunk that won the Best Wisconsin Short Film award at the Milwaukee Short Film Festival.
At first glance it would be easy to dismiss the iPhone 11 Pro as an iPhone XS with an extra camera on the back. But on closer inspection Apple actually made tweaks to its photography software chemistry to give photos a more natural look. There is also a Night Mode that completely transforms the iPhone into a low-light picture machine on par with the Pixel 3's Night Sight.
Apple also added a nifty Snapchat-style "hold the shutter button down" to record a video feature, the camera app viewfinder lets you see what's outside your frame (using the ultrawide lens) and Apple changed the font inside the camera app to one aptly enough called SF Camera which you'll notice on the control dials and mode names.
To test all these changes and improvements (large and small), I took the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone XS out and around San Francisco to see just how much better the new phone is. Some things, like the ultrawide-angle camera and Night Mode, were tough to compare because frankly they don't exist on the iPhone XS.
The iPhone 11 Pro's new ultrawide-angle camera is fantastic
The first thing you are going to notice when you pick up the iPhone 11 Pro is that there are three cameras on the back. I like the tight triangle array they're laid out in. It's sure to be a recognizable way to tell the 11 Pro apart from the iPhone XS and its medicine capsule-shape dual-camera array.
The newest camera has an ultrawide 13mm equivalent lens which is just a damn blast to use. If the "tele" lens is the sporty blazer to the wide camera's business suit, the ultrawide is the equivalent of wearing a Hawaiian shirt. It's obviously different and really changes the way you shoot. It won't be your go-to lens in every situation, but it can be equal parts handy, like when shooting in smaller spaces, and artistic, adding drama to a mundane scene.
Apple balanced the distortion so there's a little (which you want for that ultrawide look) but it's not horrible. I immediately found angles on my subjects that made them look larger than life. Best of all you can use the ultrawide lens when shooting video. In fact, during a recording you can switch between lenses. Apple even put a cool zoom effect to transition between lenses. Seriously, try zooming in on the 2x "tele" lens than tap the 0.5x ultrawide angle lens while recording. One thing I should mention is that you need to find a place for your fingers when using the ultrawide camera. Several times my fingers made unexpected cameos along the edges and corners of my photos.
When I tested the iPhone 11 Pro against last year's XS, I kept finding myself wanting to shoot with the ultrawide angle. Obviously the XS doesn't have the new lens so there's nothing to compare it too. If you're using the regular wide-angle lens on the iPhone XS and step back a few feet it might include the same amount of area in the frame, but it will lack that "everything is getting sucked into the center of the frame" look an ultrawide-angle lens provides.
Compared to the wide angle and "tele" lens on the iPhone 11 Pro, the ultrawide is softer and lets in less light. But this is true of an ultrawide angle lens on a DSLR or mirrorless cameras, too.
Check out the gallery below to see even more photos from both the iPhone 11 Pro and XS.
Compare photos from the iPhone 11 Pro against last year's iPhone XS
As strong and versatile as the cameras on iPhones have been for the last few years, one weakness has been low-light photography. Usually when I took a quick snap of friends out for drinks in a cozy warm bar with dim lighting, the iPhone's strong noise reduction helped as much as it hurt. Low-light photos on the XS came out soft and looked like paintings.
Night Mode changes all this. It can brighten photos and reduce image noise and best of all it does all of this automatically. The way it works is when you open up the default camera app up it determines when it's dark enough to go into Night Mode. At this time, there isn't a manual way to trigger Night Mode.
Night Mode uses adaptive bracketing and takes a series of photos some with a longer shutter speed others with a shorter one. The iPhone 11 Pro then fuses all the photos together to reduce motion blur and brighten shadows. When I handheld Night Mode shots the sequence would take about 3-5 seconds. When I put the iPhone on a tripod I got a 10-second time and was even able to manually override that for a 28-second Night Mode shot.
I took a photo of a tree in my backyard that was in complete darkness. Check out the results below.
The lines you see on the bottom right side are airplanes that flew over during the capture process. Also, while the phone is taking photos, the viewfinder dims and slowly brightens as the capture sequence goes on. The final photo always looked better than the live preview.
When I tried taking similar photos on the iPhone XS they came out pretty bad. As you can see in the photo below it's way too dark to see anything. Even when I cranked the exposure compensation as high as it would go, low-light photos came out overly noisy and blurry.
I'm excited to try out Night Mode against the Pixel 3 and Huawei P30 Pro.
iPhone 11 Pro next gen Smart HDR
Smart HDR is probably the thing that will affect your photos more than Night Mode or the ultrawide-angle lens. The iPhone XS uses Smart HDR to make photos look better by adjusting colors and exposure. In many situations, however, colors and white balance look off to me. Also, it seems like Smart HDR on the XS reduced the contrast giving photos a weird flat look. These changes are not as obvious, but the adjustments Apple made to Smart HDR for the 11 Pro are appreciated.
The iPhone 11 Pro has a new version that pulls back the aggressiveness of Smart HDR. Overall photos looked more natural. Highlights in particular looked more true to life. In the pictures below, notice the difference in the yellow paint on the Willys Jeep. The photo from the iPhone XS reduces the highlights on the truck and makes the yellow paint look almost like a matte finish.
In the photos of the doughnut below you can see how the XS image looks a little flat. The iPhone 11 Pro has a bit more pop. Also, notice the natural bokeh of each of the lenses on the wide cameras. The bokeh (blurred-out background) on the iPhone 11 Pro is buttery and smooth, while the bokeh on the XS is a bit more crunchy.
The iPhone 11 Pro's 52mm "telephoto" camera has a faster f/2 aperture speed. Like the changes to Smart HDR, these are not always the most obvious, but take a look below at pictures of the Women's Building in the Mission in San Francisco. There are a couple things to notice. First, look at the shadows on the picture from the iPhone XS and notice how they're darker than those from the 11 Pro. Next, look at the colors of the sky. The Smart HDR of the iPhone XS makes the sky this weird shade of blue that's flat, whereas the Smart HDR on the iPhone 11 Pro renders the sky more true to life.
The iPhone XS shoots all photos in Smart HDR. The iPhone 11 Pro on the other hand shoots in one of three modes (all of which are decided by the phone). There's Smart HDR, Night Mode and a third mode called Deep Fusion, which is a brand-new image processing technique. Currently, Deep Fusion is available in the public beta of iOS 13.2.
Deep Fusion automatically takes nine images: eight before you press the shutter button (four that have fast shutter speed and four with longer shutter speed) and the ninth photo when you press the shutter. Then the iPhone 11 Pro analyses each on a pixel level to create an optimized single photo with greater detail and less image noise. I'm excited to try this out when it's released. It sounds similar to the computational photography Google uses on the Pixel 3 and 3A.
Portrait Mode comes in wide and adds High Key Mono
In terms of portrait mode, both
seem pretty equal. In the portrait photos below, the one from the iPhone XS seem to pull off the cutout and edge blending better than the iPhone 11 Pro. By the way, there was a skylight above me when I took the shots, hence the difference in color temperature. Also, the 11 Pro lets you take photos either at 2x or a wider 1x.
But a new feature I am already enamored with is High Key Mono, which simulates a black and white studio photo taken against a white background. What's crazy is how you'd never know I was in a living room when I took the photos below.
Enhanced dynamic range comes to 4K 60fps video on the 11 Pro
I really like the video quality from the iPhone XS. The iPhone 11 Pro's video doesn't look drastically different. If anything the colors look less punchy than those from the XS.
The iPhone XS had extended dynamic range, which helped keep highlights from blowing out to white and shadows from turning black. It worked on all resolutions and frame rates except 4K 60fps. The 11 Pro now includes extended dynamic range for 4K 60fps. I shot two videos at that frame rate and resolution with both phones on a sunny day. In the video from the XS the sun is blown out to a soft white blob. The iPhone 11 Pro's video handled the sun better and kept it looking like a circle.
Like photos, my favorite new thing is that you can shoot video with the ultrawide lens. Movements become much more dramatic when you pan across a bunch of trees in the Presidio or walk under branches.
The selfie camera is ready for the back of the phone
The iPhone 11 Pro marks the first time on any Apple phone where all of the cameras on the front and back are at the same level. They all have 12-megapixel sensors and can record 4K video and slow motion.
Check out the selfies below. The one from the iPhone 11 Pro has better colors that are more true to life while the one from the iPhone XS looks a bit dull. Especially take a close look at my shirt.
Selfie video is improved, too. The video from the iPhone 11 Pro's selfie camera is sharper with better colors than the iPhone XS. I can't wait to try a FaceTime call with the 11 Pro's selfie camera. And yes, I did try the horribly named slofie slow-motion feature. The results were fun, but I can't imagine ever using it again unless I was, like, a 12-year-old?
The iPhone 11 Pro brings improvements large and small
At the end of the day, I really enjoyed using the 11 Pro and that ultrawide-angle camera. But it's the small tweaks the Smart HDR, the better selfie camera and the addition of a Night Mode that make the iPhone 11 Pro the absolute
system found on any iPhone. If you value photos and videos above all and have an iPhone XS, it's worth considering the upgrade.
Watch this: We compare the cameras on the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone XS
Originally published earlier last month. Updated with information about Deep Fusion.
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