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iPhone 13 Pro vs. 12 Pro Max night mode shootout: Which is better in the dark?

Is the new iPhone 13 Pro a big improvement in nighttime photography? We wait for sunset to find out.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The iPhone 13 Pro promises even better images compared to the iPhone 12 Pro Max thanks to its larger sensor, its wider aperture and various software improvements across all its lenses. But are the new phone's night mode capabilities a significant upgrade over its predecessor, and is it enough to justify an upgrade? 

To find out, I took both phones on a nighttime walk around the beautiful city of Edinburgh and its excellent suburb of Leith. All shots were taken using the default iPhone camera app, using automatic settings with the phones being held by hand.

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iPhone 13 Pro.

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iPhone 12 Pro Max.

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Starting off with this lovely view of a quiet old street, where the images are almost identical. Each phone has captured loads of light in this dark scene, while managing to keep the bright streetlight under control. There's no real difference to be seen even when you zoom in on the fine details on the building on the left. They're great photos, but the iPhone 13 Pro here isn't offering any noticeable improvement.

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iPhone 13 Pro.

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iPhone 12 Pro Max.

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There's not a vast difference here either. The iPhone 13's shot is perhaps a little brighter (most noticeable on the sky and the buildings toward the middle of the frame) and zooming in to 100% does show a bit more clarity on the fine details. So, yes, there's perhaps a tiny improvement, but you really need to look hard to see it. 

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iPhone 13 Pro.

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iPhone 12 Pro Max.

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Switching this time to the telephoto zoom lenses: a 2.5x zoom on the iPhone 12 Pro Max and a longer 3x zoom on the 13 Pro. Aside from the more zoomed-in image, there's again not a lot difference in the quality of the night mode shot here. I'm actually not impressed with either; while they're bright, there's so much noise reduction and digital sharpening applied on the images that they look almost like a watercolor painting when viewed up close. 

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iPhone 13 Pro.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 12 Pro Max.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

With the standard camera lens, there's again not a huge amount of difference between the two phones here. Both shots are bright and sharp and it's only when you really zoom in on the fine details that you can see the iPhone 13 Pro's wider aperture has helped capture a slightly sharper image. 

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iPhone 13 Pro, superwide lens.

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iPhone 12 Pro Max, superwide lens.

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However, with the superwide lens enabled the iPhone 13 Pro pulls ahead. Its shot is brighter and noticeable more detailed, with much less image noise overall. 

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iPhone 13 Pro, superwide lens at 100% crop.

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iPhone 12 Pro Max, superwide lens at 100% crop.

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Zooming in to 100% of the original, it's clear to see how much better the iPhone 13 Pro is at taking night images using the superwide lens. 

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iPhone 13 Pro, 3x telephoto.

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iPhone 12 Pro Max, 2.5x telephoto.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

And the same is true when using each phone's telephoto zoom lens. The 13 Pro's is much more detailed and suffers less from image noise. Also note that it doesn't have the weird green dots in the air that can be seen in the iPhone 12 Pro Max's shot. That's lens flare caused by the lights and it's a regular problem when shooting at night with the 12 Pro Max. 

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iPhone 13 Pro, telelephoto lens with 100% crop.

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iPhone 12 Pro Max, telephoto with 100% crop.

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A 100% crop shows the difference in clarity between the two phones. 

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iPhone 13 Pro

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iPhone 12 Pro Max

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Back to the standard lens, and the differences are less noticeable but they are there. The 13 Pro's shot is sharper in the fine details and the weird lens flare orbs (seen vividly in the water on the 12 Pro Max's shot) are much less of a problem. The buildings in the distance in the center of the frame also appear slightly brightly and more defined. It's a great shot from both phones, however, and I'm genuinely amazed that any phone can capture shots like this. 

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iPhone 13 Pro, superwide mode.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 12 Pro Max, superwide mode.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

In superwide mode the iPhone 13 Pro again achieves a much sharper image, with noticeably improved clarity on the details on the side of the boat and on the buildings in the distance. 

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iPhone 13 Pro, telephoto zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 12 Pro Max, telephoto zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

And finally switching again to the zoom lenses on each phone, there's not much difference in either the brightness or the clarity of the shot, but the 13 Pro has less image noise, particularly in the sky, although you really have to zoom in to see it.

Now playing: Watch this: Comparing iPhone 13 Pro and 12 Pro Max cameras
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Which is better for night mode photos?

While both phones are able to take genuinely stunning images at night without a tripod, the iPhone 13 Pro just about nudges the 12 Pro Max out of the competition. Its larger image sensor and wider aperture are evidently helping it capture more light, resulting in sharper images with less image noise. The difference isn't always noticeable using the standard lens, but the iPhone 13 Pro is consistently better with its superwide and telephoto lenses.

But it is still a subtle difference and while it's good to see the phone taking a step forward with its technology, it's certainly not enough to justify upgrading from to the 13 Pro from the 12 Pro Max. However, if you're looking to upgrade from a much older handset and you're wanting to future-proof yourself for longer with the best nighttime image quality around, then the iPhone 13 Pro is the phone to go for.