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iPhone 13 vs. iPhone 12 vs. iPhone 11: Portrait mode shootout

The new iPhone 13 Pro has 3x optical zoom and nifty new video features. But will it shoot you a better Facebook profile picture?

iPhone 13 Pro, Sierra blue

iPhone 13 Pro in Sierra blue

Stephen Shankland/CNET

The iPhone 13 Pro is here and, unusually, its most vaunted features aren't its cameras. My CNET colleague Patrick Holland gave the 13 Pro and Pro Max high marks for their long battery life, sumptuous ProMotion displays and the software improvements brought by iOS 15. But there's plenty to love about its camera too, with the 13 Pro's new 3x optical zoom and Cinematic mode for videos. 

None of the iPhone 13's flashy new camera features relate to Portrait mode, but that doesn't mean there aren't improvements. Comparing the iPhone 13 Pro to 2020's iPhone 12 Pro and 2019's iPhone 11, I found that this year's model was reliably better in both low- and high-light (sunny) conditions. It's also made strides with edge detection, allowing it to more smoothly foreground your subject, especially compared to the iPhone 11. I rounded up some friendly volunteers to put these phones' cameras to the test.

Before I compare the Portrait modes in these cameras, a few notes: I originally planned to include comparisons with the iPhone SE, but the SE requires you to be much closer to your subject, which results in much deeper blurring. That's something I only realized after I had taken all the photos and started comparing them. Total rookie error. It'll be updated with SE shots soon.

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Second, I compared an iPhone 13 Pro to an iPhone 12 Pro and a plain, not-Pro iPhone 11. That may sound unfair to the iPhone 11 line, but note that the only camera difference between the 11 and the 11 Pro is the latter's telephoto lens. Since all the photos below were shot at 1x zoom, that doesn't come into play. 

Third, the iPhone 13 Pro's A15 Bionic processor consistently resulted in much quicker shots. I often noticed a delay between pressing the button and the photo being shot in the 11 and even the 12 Pro.

And finally, I'll be commenting a lot on how well these phones foreground their subject, and the quality of the focus falls off. Note that you can adjust the aperture before or after taking photos on all these phones to set things to your liking. The comparisons below are on a point-and-shoot basis.

iPhone 13 vs. iPhone 12

The first point to make about the iPhone 13 Pro isn't about the camera quality, but a note on zoom. Because the 13 Pro has 3x optical zoom, Portrait shots are automatically taken at 3x zoom. This is different from previous generations, which were set at 2x as a default. The photos of Dan below were taken from the same length, which shows how the iPhone 13 Pro shoots further.

The 13 Pro doesn't give you the option to photograph portraits in 2x zoom, so every other photo in this comparison was shot at 1x. In real life, of course, when you're not taking photos for the purpose of comparing them with two other phones, you can adjust your zoom by... moving your feet.   

Apart from the aforementioned 3x optical zoom, as compared to the iPhone 12 Pro's 2.5x, Apple has improved the new iPhone's image processing. This results in portraits with better light balance and edge-detection compared to previous iPhones. Below is a particularly acute example of the former.

The photos were taken on a sunny day, which on paper is an ideal condition. Not so. Because of the way Addel is standing in relation to the sun, he has shadows all over his face and torso. The iPhone 12 Pro was troubled by the light and shadows, and as a result produced a photo that looks undersaturated in comparison. 

In case you were thinking that was a one-off, here's another set that shows the same contrast. Literally. 

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iPhone 13 Pro (L) vs. iPhone 12 Pro (R). 

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

These portraits don't represent the standard differences between the 13 Pro and its immediate predecessor, though. In other lighting conditions, the two were better matched. Take these full-body snaps of Manelle. Since the sun is shining on her, rather than against her, the lighting is more favorable. The result is two similarly strong portraits. In fact, if you look closely at her right shoulder you'll notice that the iPhone 12 Pro separates Manelle less harshly from the background than the 13 Pro. (Pardon the shadows, it's hard to get people to pose for long at picnics.) 

iPhone 13 Pro (L) vs. iPhone 12 Pro (R)

Daniel Van Boom

This was the same experience I had with selfie photos. In good daylight conditions, I couldn't tell any difference between selfie portraits on the iPhone 13 Pro and those on the iPhone 12 Pro. 

Low-light conditions are where the iPhone 13 Pro yields consistently better results than its predecessors. In these photos of me, begrudgingly taken by my partner, you'll see that the iPhone 13's shots are much brighter, and a little clearer too. (Both were taken using each phone's automatic Night mode.) The edge detection is better too, as my little Homer Simpson hairs look more jagged in the iPhone 12's photo.

iPhone 13 vs. iPhone 11

There's definitely a gulf between the iPhone 13 and the 12, and that gulf is wider still with the iPhone 11. The differences are the same -- better edge-detection, improved low-light photography -- only more so. 

See the below photos of Dan, who is well and truly over being photographed by me for this article. First, you'll notice that the iPhone 11 produced a much warmer photo, and had less balanced lighting. If you look closely at either side of Dan's head, you'll also see that the iPhone 11 struggled with detecting where Dan's hair ends and the background begins. 

It was worse for Jackson and his glasses. The iPhone 11 failed to foreground the glasses protruding out to the side of Jackson's face, resulting in an awkward depth-of-field misfire. 

As with the 12, however, many scenes produced similarly good photos. The iPhone 13 Pro captured better shots of Milly here, as they looked clearer and more balanced, but you can only make that judgement when looking at the photos side by side. 

There's a major chasm between the 13 and the 11 phones in the dark, since the 11 can't shoot Portrait mode with Night mode. Meanwhile, the 13 automatically enables Night mode when shooting in low-light conditions. These photos of Jackson, who is also tiring of being photographed by me, show the difference. The iPhone 13's shot is over-processed, as you can see by looking at the unusual hues of Jackson's shirt. But it's still miles better than the darker, less vibrant alternative. 

iPhone 13 Pro (L) vs. iPhone 12 Pro (R).   

Daniel Van Boom

This adaptation to low-light is also found in the selfie camera. I took these selfies underneath the shadow of a balcony, but you wouldn't guess that at all from looking at the iPhone 13's selfie. The iPhone 11's selfie is a bit more dank.