Just recently, we looked back at ten years of iPhone camera hardware data. Following yesterday’s launch of the iPhone 12 family, Apple released enough information to paint a first picture of how the new iPhone 12 camera stacks up to the iPhone 11 and the competition, especially Samsung and Huawei. (photo credit: Apple)

Note: This preliminary analysis and provisional Camera HW score (FAQ here) are based on partial data disclosed by Apple and estimations we did when the information was incomplete. As we get more confirmed data from device teardowns and other sources, we will update our internal data, and the score might change, but probably not dramatically.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max should be the object of attention for iPhone users who are photo enthusiasts. By the end of this article, we will go over the whole iPhone 12 family, but let’s start with the iPhone 12 Pro Max since it has the most powerful iPhone camera system to date.

iPhone 12 Pro Max Camera Hardware

iPhone 12 Pro Max Wide Camera with 1.7-micron pixels

The Primary 26mm “Wide” camera is where most progress has been made since the iPhone 11 Pro, so it makes sense to start with this.

Apple said that the sensor is 47% larger than the iPhone 11 Pro’s, which is entirely accurate (47.4% in fact).

The company also mentioned that this new primary Camera gets 87% more light than last year’s best iPhone camera. This number sounds legitimate, and our internal numbers show this to be even higher.

The difference between Apple’s and our assessment might be explained by the fact that the whole surface of the sensor may not be in use, because of eventual image cropping required by the Sensor-Shifting Optical Image Stabilization, thus reducing the useful sensor area.

It is great that Apple has increased this Camera’s sensor size by 47.4% (vs. 11 Pro), but Samsung’s S20 Ultra and Huawei P40 Pro primary sensors are still significantly larger than the iPhone Pro 12 Max, respectively.

Wide cameras
iPhone 11 Pro iPhone 12 Pro iPhone 12 Pro Max Galaxy S20 Ultra Huawei P40 Pro+
Megapixel 12-MP 12-MP 12-MP 108-MP 50-MP
Aperture f/1.8 f/1.6 f/1.6 f/1.8 f/1.9
Sensor size baseline +15% +47% +190% +215%

Both Samsung and Huawei use Quad-Bayer style sensors, capturing two images with different ISO simultaneously (in 12MP mode). It’s possible to shoot A dozen HDR frames 2X faster to reduce issues with moving objects. They also have Optical Image Stabilization (OIS).

On the contrary, Apple’s sensor does not seem to use a Quad-Bayer sensor and needs more time to capture a similar set of 12 HDR frames. That could be why Apple “needs” to have a high-performance sensor-shifting OIS, even more so than competitors. It will be interesting to compare sharpness on all three phones in 12MP mode.

The image quality of the iPhone 12 Pro Max will heavily depend on the new sensor-shifting OIS system. If it works well, Apple should be able to compete ferociously at 12 Megapixel daylight photos. We do not think the iPhone 12 Megapixel photos could capture more details than Samsung’s Series 20 cameras in 108 MP mode.

In low-light, we estimate that both the Samsung S20U/ Note 20U and the Huawei P40 Pro have a theoretical advantage as their optics gather more light, simply because they are bigger.

Other camera features

When Apple says 100% Focus Pixels, it means that its sensor uses Phase-Detection Dual-Pixel Autofocus technology (PD-DP AF), which has proven to work very well since introduced in DSLR cameras in 2013 and mobiles phones in 2017 (Samsung Galaxy S7).

The Lidar-assisted autofocus seems to work like a laser-assisted focus: it should be good at quickly detecting if the subject is close or far and speedily activate the AF motors. From there, the Focus Pixels can take over and finalize the autofocus. Good stuff.

iPhone 12 Pro Max 65mm Telephoto Camera

The new 65mm zoom camera of the iPhone 12 Pro Max is also an improvement from the 52mm focal length that Apple has traditionally used since the iPhone 7+. It is not a radical improvement, but it will push Apple’s zoom performance a bit higher.

This 65mm choice is probably driven by Apple’s desire to emphasize portrait photography, rather than an extremely long zoom. It makes a lot of sense in that context.

Our camera score rewards extreme zoom because that’s how we think people judge zoom performance, so phones with higher-powered zoom lenses (80-240mm) score much higher.

Zoom cameras
iPhone 11 Pro iPhone 12 Pro iPhone 12 Pro Max Galaxy S20 Ultra Huawei P40 Pro+
Megapixel 12-MP 12-MP 12-MP 48-MP 8-MP
Aperture f/2.0 f/2.0 f/2.4 f/3.5 f/4.4
Focal 52mm 52mm 65mm 103mm 269mm

Standard Ultrawide Camera

Given the technical details we have on the Ultrawide camera module, it seems to be remarkably similar, if not identical, to the iPhone 11 series. If that is true, this Ultrawide camera will be outperformed by the competition, as we have already demonstrated this in our iPhone 11 Pro camera review.

The whole iPhone 12 line seems to share an identical Ultrawide camera module.

Ultrawide cameras
iPhone 11 Pro iPhone 12 Pro iPhone 12 Pro Max Galaxy S20 Ultra Huawei P40 Pro+
Megapixel 12-MP 12-MP 12-MP 12-MP 40-MP
Aperture f/2.4 f/2.4 f/2.4 f/2.2 f/1.8
Sensor size baseline +0% +0% +100% +320%

iPhone 12 Pro Camera Hardware

iPhone 12 Pro Primary Camera

The iPhone 12 Pro (non-Max) Primary camera is less potent than the iPhone 12 Pro Max, but unfortunately, Apple has not released the same sensor information.

However, Apple did provide a clue: the Camera yields a “27% low-light improvement” over the iPhone 11.

Based on that, and what we know of the Pro Max camera, we can compute that the iPhone 12 Pro’s primary sensor is only a bit bigger than the iPhone 11 Pro’s (by an estimated 15%), and the iPhone 12 f/1.6 lens is therefore responsible for most of the low-light improvements over iPhone 11 Pro.

Standard 52mm Telephoto Camera

The iPhone 12’s 52mm telephoto camera seems technically identical to the one previously found on the iPhone 11 Pro. As of now, there’s nothing to indicate that it will have higher electro-optical performance, so you can read our iPhone 11 Pro Camera Review to check on real-world zoom photo performance, with examples.

iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini

The iPhone 12 and 12 mini seem to share the same Primary Camera as the iPhone 12 Pro, and as we mentioned earlier, all models share the same Ultrawide camera module.

iPhone 12 Camera Harware: First Impressions

With today’s publicly available data, we can estimate the iPhone 12’s Camera HW score and compare Apple’s camera hardware position relative to players like Huawei and Samsung in 2020.

Our Camera HW score clearly shows that the iPhone 12 Pro Max is The iPhone to get if photography is an essential purchase factor for you. The technical gap between the Pro and Pro Max cameras is large enough that you are going to regret not going for the Pro Max.

The chart above confirms what we suspected before the iPhone 12 launch: Apple’s 2020 camera hardware strength has grown enough to stay within a respectable distance of other competitors, but there is no sign that Apple will go for the jugular anytime soon.

Our assessment: the technical data suggests that the new iPhone 12 will lose (extreme) Zoom and Ultrawide contests, while the competition will hotly contest the low-light performance. In daylight photography, the iPhone 12 should compete well but is unlikely to match the level of details that 108MP sensors offer.

We are looking forward to testing the new iPhone 12 Camera’s real-world image quality (IQ), especially the iPhone 12 Pro Max. We’ll generate a Camera IQ score, and use that data to further refine the Camera HW algorithm.

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