As Apple’s leading smartphone until Fall 2019, the iPhone XS (and XS Max) also has the best camera that iOS users can buy today. But how good is it on the world stage and in various situations such as low-light and zoom?
Learn more: what is our Camera IQ score?
We’ll dive into the iPhone XS (and iPhone XS Max) camera capabilities in this review. If you want to know more about the rest of the phone, check our complete iPhone XS/XS Max phone review.
Key Camera Specifications and Uber HW Camera Score
- Rear Camera System (2 cameras)
- Primary: 26mm focal length, f/1.8 aperture, 12 Megapixel, Phase Detection AF, OIS
- Secondary: 52mm focal length, f/2.4 aperture, 12 Megapixel, Fixed-focus, OIS
- Ultrawide: N/A
The iPhone XS and XS have a very good dual lens setup that serves as a high-performance primary camera system. The hardware has improved slightly since the iPhone X, but is unimpressive by 2018 standards.
The iPhone XS has a sensor size which is comparable to the Galaxy Note 9, but much smaller than the Mate 20 Pro (+70%). The small lens aperture of f/1.8 is a bit surprising and will come back to haunt the iPhone XS in low-light situations.
Learn more: what is our camera hardware score?
Image Quality Analysis
Important: let’s clarify some terminology we’ll be using:
- “image processing”: software work that improves the image data quality
- “image filtering”: software work that changes the style (aesthetic) of the photo.
- “context photo”: a great approximation of what we see
- Including how dark the scene actually is
- Only to provide the context of the shot.
- Not a quality benchmark
Daylight Photography: 187
In daylight situations, the relative weakness of the iPhone XS camera hardware isn’t an issue at all, because there’s plenty of light (image data) available. In fact, we show that the iPhone XS is a leader in daylight photography.
For example, in this scene, the iPhone XS does an excellent job at preserving colors and details, and this is representative of its performance in similar conditions. For example, if you compare it with the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, it is evident that the XS can capture better details.
The texture in the trees (to the left) is captured much better, and the details from the house’s siding are still distinguishable, thanks to Apple’s image processing great balance between noise reduction and detail preservation. In this case, the 16MP OnePlus 6T can’t best the 12MP iPhone XS/XS Max camera in what could have easily been a “megapixel contest”.
Sometimes, the OnePlus 6T captures better daylight pictures than other smartphones, including the iPhone XS. Sometimes, its 16 MP sensor gives it an advantage for scenes where a lot of detail is relatively close to the camera (unlike the previous example). This one is a good illustration of how the OnePlus 6T was able to capture some colors and details much better. That said, the OP6T has noticeable filtering if you know what to look for:
Both the iPhone XS and the OnePlus 6T dominated the recent daylight camera tests. They have slightly different styles with Apple filtering very little, while OnePlus is filtering to increase sharpness and contrast/saturation. When compared to reality, the XS is a bit dull and the OnePlus 6T gets some details and colors very well, but looks slightly unnatural due to filtering, but not to the point of destroying a lot of image data.
We think that OnePlus could tone the filtering down without consequences for image quality. If anything, photos would probably look a little better.
Low-Light Photography: 178
In low-light photography, the iPhone XS camera hardware hinders the performance. The small aperture makes it difficult to capture enough light to have excellent color capture, and details are becoming harder to distinguish. Generally speaking, the iPhone XS will bump into these issues as light get scarce.
In this challenging cityscape scene, the iPhone XS is slightly under-exposed for the lower half of the scene but doesn’t have “glowing” lights in the city portion of the photo. The colors are noticeably dull when compared to what the scene really looked like (see context shot), and this is, unfortunately, a recurring theme with low-light iPhone XS pictures.
A lot of the same remarks can be made for this photo: a night shot of a house’s Christmas lights. This scene also illustrates how the iPhone XS can lose details as the road appears much blurrier and smooth than it really is. Although the scene is generally bright in the iPhone XS photo, colors are dull, and the volumes also appear flatter because the brightness in low-light areas has been artificially boosted with HDR composition.
(sorry for misaligning the iPhone on this one :/)
It’s not a terrible iPhone photo, but the iPhone XS loses a lot of details on the road. Colors are dull, but in this case, it is possible to boost (+52%) the color saturation in software to get a closer match to the original color hues — let’s call it “iPhone XS Boost” in the next photo comparisons. That’s precisely what the Pixel 3 seems to be doing, which is why a lot of people would prefer the Pixel 3 photo, especially when looking at it on the phone, or in social media. But remember, when it comes to low-light, brighter isn’t always better.
After the saturation tweak, the iPhone XS photo comes out as visually pleasing as the Pixel 3, but when you take a closer look, you can see that the XS low-light photo is often less noisy (quite visible on the car/house/sky to the left). This is one of the reasons why the iPhone XS may ranks higher than Pixel 3 in low-light image data quality. Pixel 3, on the other hand, might be more “convenient”, if you like flashier colors and dislike editing before sharing.
That said, both iPhone XS and Pixel 3 cannot match the low-light quality of the Galaxy Note 9 which produces better image data right away, with little need for further processing.
The images above show the iPhone XS with a 52% color boost, next to the Note 9 photo “out of the box” which has more accurate color hues. Below is the out of the box pictures for both phones. The difference is quite large.
Zoom Photography: 87
The iPhone XS zoom capabilities are quite good, and it shows that its 2X optical zoom can’t be beaten by smart software such as the Pixel 3’s software zoom. The Pixel 3 is noticeably more pixelated, and that’s reason enough to want an optical zoom. However, if you’re going to have an optical zoom, a 3X zoom such as the Huawei Mate 20 Pro’s will perform much better and be more useful in real-world situations.
Apple is going for a noisier but more natural photo style. Samsung has opted for the exact oppositve with a more filtered but less noisy photo tuning. Neither are perfect, and they actually go in opposite style directions.
The iPhone XS’ zoom puts it in today’s top-5 zoom in terms of image quality, and it comes with a different trade-off compared to the closest competition: again the Note 9 / S9+. Yes, both Samsung phones have the same hardware, but the Galaxy Note 9 has benefited from significant camera software updates.
The Huawei Mate 20 Pro and P20 Pro remain the top zoom mobile camera. It’s not even a contest.
Samsung generally performed better, with better-preserved details, which is the primary strength of a useful zoom feature. The street mural shows that very well letters being more legible on the Galaxy Note 9. Again, Pixel 3 is consistently behind the iPhone XS in zoom tests.
Ultrawide Photography: N/A
Unfortunately, the iPhone XS does not include support for ultrawide (~16mm) photography. That’s a pity because ultrawide opens a lot of photo possibilities that Android users can enjoy right now. It is rumored that the next-gen iPhone might have a dedicated ultrawide camera, but it remains to be seen.
Conclusion and Uber IQ Camera score
From a photo-quality perspective, the iPhone XS is an excellent daylight camera that captures great pictures when the lighting conditions are favorable. This is without a doubt thanks to Apple’s camera software engineers who have done an excellent camera tuning job.
Without a doubt, many camera users will also like the relative lack of image-filtering effects on the iPhone XS camera. A lot of the image-processing we’ve seen involves HDR image processing to equalize the brightness levels and avoid over-exposure when possible. However, too much of it can also diminish volumes, shadows and lead to a more flat-looking image.
For low-light situations, Apple needs to support its software with better camera hardware. There is just no way around it even if the iPhone XS ranks quite well in that category. The Galaxy Note 9 and S9 are way ahead at night, and pretty close during the day.
Learn more: what is our Camera IQ score, and full rankings
|Uber IQ Camera||Sub-scores|
Don’t miss out complete iPhone XS smartphone review if you are considering getting one, and thanks for your interest in this XS / XS Max camera review!
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