Taking pictures with the iPhone 12 Pro above Emerald Bay in Lake Tahoe, California. James Martin/CNET

Apple has been very photography focused this year.  They are offering up some significant camera tech upgrades spread across their new four models. The iPhone 12, Pro, Pro Max, and Mini. Of course, the tech access you get is dependent on how much you are willing to fork out.

All of Apple’s iPhone 12 series has plenty to offer in the camera department but of those released so far, the iPhone 12 Pro, is something else. With its smarter HDR and effective low-light upgrades the photography buffs out there are certainly going to be happy. 

James Martin recently took the iPhone 12 Pro camera for a spin around Lake Tahoe to test drive the latest upgrades for cnet. They say a picture paints a thousand words and his resulting photographs speak volumes for Apple’s upgrades. So let’s take a look at some of them.

Amazing light detection technology

Following the current trend of other high-end phones, the iPhone 12 Pro sports a  rear camera with a triple-lens setup. The array benefits from the company’s latest lidar technology. It can sense light and depth and processes the three lenses in conjunction with one another to create a superb shot. The Pro Max model also has lidar onboard. 

Lidar is an acronym for light image detection and ranging It utilizes top of the range, miniature laser sensors. They survey the surroundings and conditions by measuring the time it takes for light to return to the device. Working in a similar fashion to Apple’s Face ID tech, they map out a series of points and feed the information back in the form of data to the phone. Then it can calculate optimal settings. 

This makes capturing image data in low-light situations much better. The lens array is able to focus 6X faster than it previously could in the dark.

The improved focusing is very noticeable in a side by side comparison with its iPhone 11 equivalent. The accuracy is also improved, so users don’t have to worry about how the shot is going to turn out half as much.

Magnificent sunrise at Emerald Bay on Lake Tahoe, the picture was taken on the iPhone 12 Pro with the telephoto lens at 7:07. James Martin/CNET

The lidar tech is a big upgrade and takes the iPhone 12 Pro camera capabilities into high-end professional DSLR realms. The faster focus makes it feel less like a mobile phone and the light detection takes away the headache. Used in conjunction with the ultrawide Night Mode you get in-focus, optimal photos with very little effort.

Photo Improvements

The iPhone 12 and 12 Pro have the same camera arrays, consisting of a close-up selfie lens bolstered by a wide and ultrawide lens. The iPhone 12 Pro Max is set to bring the company’s new ProRaw software features which will no doubt be even better. 

The wide lens is Apple’s new standard 26mm lens. It has been bumped from an f/1.8 aperture to a wider f/1.6 to improve low-light performance and better support the new lidar tech. It has the same 12-megapixel sensor as the previous series 11 iPhones. But, the wider lens gives it better reactions and capturing capabilities than were previously possible.

The new seven-element lens dramatically improves the clarity of your pictures. It has a better overall focus bringing sharper details in the background. In the past your picture was focused on the subject centrally. The edges could be a little noisier and shadow and highlight definition disappeared but now there is far more detail.

If you look at some of the images James took with the wide lens you can clearly see what we mean. The mountains in the distance have the same amount of definition as rock details under the water in the foreground. The sky is also bright and has focused clarity.

Kayakers on the way to Bonsai Rock on Lake Tahoe’s eastern shore in Nevada, the picture was taken on the iPhone 12 Pro with the new f/1.6 wide (26mm) lens.
James Martin/CNET

Likewise, there is a greater variety between the colors captured in this shot of Sand Harbor taken with the f/1.6 wide (26mm) lens. The shadows are as detailed as the brighter parts.

The beautiful emerald waters of Sand Harbor on Lake Tahoe’s eastern shore in Nevada, the picture was taken on the iPhone 12 Pro with the new f/1.6 wide (26mm) lens. James Martin/CNET

Apple’s new Night Mode feature

Apple’s new low-light assisted Night-Mode capture is available across the entire range of series 12 mobiles. Previous iPhones guinea-pigged the feature on their standard wide lens. Now no matter your budget you are in luck. The entire array (selfie, wide, and ultrawide lenses) process using it.

It automatically kicks in when a low-light environment is detected by the sensors, so you don’t have to specifically select it in any menu. Activation is displayed to the user via an icon at the top of the screen.

You can attenuate the exposure length manually or trust the phone’s judgment and leave it in default mode. It is easy to adjust yourself, a simple tap of the Night Mode icon brings up a slider. The further you adjust it the longer the duration and thus more light is given to the scene. 

General picture stabilization has been improved a lot with the new series models. However, for long exposure shots it is always advised to pop your phone down on a surface.

The blue-hour photographs that James took were shot with a tripod using the maximum 30-second exposure length. As you can see they are pretty breathtaking. The “blue hour,” for those who are unfamiliar, is dawn and dusk. The sweet spot around half an hour before and after sunrise or sunset.

Emerald Bay State Park shot on the iPhone 12 Pro with a 30 second Night Mode exposure using the wide lens at 7:13, one hour after the sunset. James Martin/CNET

The quality of dark shots is really incredible for a 30-second exposure. The quality of shots with the ultrawide lens in Night Mode at max exposure is impressive for around 1 hour after sunset, after which time it begins to wane as there is simply not enough light to expose anything. 

The lidar clearly makes a huge difference though as is obvious from the comparison between the 11 and 12 Pro models James did under matching conditions.

An iPhone 12 Pro 30 second Night Mode exposure on the left, and the iPhone 11 Pro without Night Mode on the right. James Martin/CNET

Apple’s Photos mobile app brings a lot to the table for touch-ups and creativity. In addition to playing with saturation settings, James also used the “Long Exposure” feature in the app itself to get a smooth effect on the rough water motion.

Sand Point in Nevada along Lake Tahoe’s east shore, the picture was made on the iPhone 12 Pro with a 30 second Night Mode exposure using the ultrawide lens at 6:57, about 45 minutes after the sunset. Some of the basic edits were made in the Apple Photos mobile app. James Martin/CNET
A half hour before sunrise, while it’s still quite dark, the iPhone 12 Pro’s wide lens delivered significant detail in the foreground rocks, the trees on Fannette Island, and the water in Emerald Bay. James Martin/CNET
The ultrawide lens on the iPhone 12 Pro was used to take this image before sunrise, at 7:03. James Martin/CNET

Smart HDR 3 and Deep Fusion processing

Another big camera upgrade with this release is the Smart HDR and Deep fusion processing. Both the rear array and front-facing cameras now function with it. This gives users access to a range of refinements, enhancements, and pixel-by-pixel manipulation of photos. The definition is rendered with optimal balancing.

The new “sky segmentation” setting picks the sky tones apart from the others giving them special attention, ultimately adding more detail where you want it.

You don’t need to worry about the brightness of the searing hot sun dominating the rest of the image and creating too much noise. The phone can balance it out for you in a true-to-the-eye manner. 

The benefits can be easily seen in this California sky shot. The whiter highlights are limited, so as not to wash-out the image. The contrast is evident, the tones between the sky and lake differ and the detail of the forest below hasn’t been compromised at all.

A nice Wednesday morning hike to Secret Cove along Lake Tahoe. James Martin/CNET

You can also see the remarkable balancing act of the Smart HDR 3 within the exposure processing of this picture taken at Secret Cove. Here you’ll notice the sun reflecting on the surface of the lake. There are crystal-clear details that don’t overshadow the definition of the rocks or tree trunk seen in the foreground.

The emerald waters of Secret Cove in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. James Martin/CNET

Software bolstering for Apple’s Ultrawide Lens

Many people were big fans of the ultrawide lens that last year’s series 11 Pro brought to the table. Enabling you to capture an entire scene whether it’s an outdoor sweeping landscape or an indoor shot. They make the viewer feel as though they were present. Ultrawide shots are subject to distorting that can warp details at the edges.

Although the iPhone 11 Pro ultrawide lens was welcomed with open arms, it is fair to say the series 11 models had a few issues with their sharpness. Edges were subject to distortion and overall tended to be a little blurrier before in comparison to the focus shown at the central parts of a shot. To fix the issues Apple has worked hard on software upgrades to counter the problem. You now get crisp detail rendered throughout the entire scene. 

The improvements are evident when you compare the 2 phones directly. The edges of the photo that James took of California’s Emerald Bay State Park have much more detail with the iPhone 12 Pro than the iPhone 11 Pro rendering. The iPhone 11 Pro lacks the same definition and has a lot more visible noise that distorts the clarity.

Emerald Bay State Park in California, shot with the iPhone 12 Pro, left, and last year’s iPhone 11 Pro, right James Martin/CNET

The two models harbor identical hardware so the software improvements that the new series 12 model has been afforded clearly make all the difference. Lens distortion is corrected via the processing.

The iPhone 12 Pro is rated with a water and dust resistant certification of IPX68. This means it can actually withstand submersion. Underwater photography brings with it a whole host of distortion issues. 

Yet again, you can see how well the software upgrade allows it to cope with the conditions. It is very apparent in the images James shot when he braved the cold lake temperatures to give it a whirl.

The edge to edge clarity is pretty impressive, none of the details have been lost although some have been softened at the furthest corners. The middle third of the picture shows no distortion or muddiness. The rocks and the trees show great definition and the finer details aren’t missing.

Swimming with the iPhone 12 Pro at Sand Harbor in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. James Martin/CNET

When taken Kayaking across the emerald waters off of Sand Harbor the ripple definition was astonishing. There is a little image smoothing notable in the bottom left-hand corner but overall the details are brilliant and sharp. The mountain detail in the background for instance is great.

Kayaking Lake Tahoe’s crystal clear blue waters off Sand Harbor. James Martin/CNET

As previously mentioned, you can smooth the motion within an image with the in-app long-exposure feature. As demonstrated in the shots, the waters of the lake look calm and still and there are stunning details in the shades of blue.

An image was taken with the iPhone 12 Pro’s ultrawide lens, with some editing done in Apple’s Photos app using the Long Exposure feature. James Martin/CNET

Notable video improvements too

The Night Mode time-lapse feature is also now available across all four models in video mode. It allows for more light collection because it employs much longer interval frames. The low light performance is truly next-level.

Night Mode is an automatic video feature, so don’t worry if there is no icon displayed like shown in during photo mode use. When videoing a dark scene it is at hand.

Below is an epic time-lapse of the sun rising over Lake Tahoe. Tones are beautifully rendered. You can see Apple’s new software hard at work. Surveying and adjusting frame by frame to render with optimal details for the low-light conditions it has been presented with. No details have been lost, the image is crisp, the sky is bright despite the darker environment.

Again, even during evening twilight, the details don’t dwindle. You can see the water movement and the shadows of the trees backlit against the blue backdrop have good overall definition.

Watch this space…

Apple has clearly improved the camera array as one of the main focuses of this series. In the past, we have seen a large one-off addition to the hardware or software. But this time, Apple has worked on bringing several smaller refinements together. Ultimately they have polished what they started when the UW lens first debuted. 

There may be phones that offer a longer range but the iPhone 12 Pro is an undeniably impressive piece of kit. The summation of Deep Fusion, HDR 3, sensor-shift stabilization. Users now have the ability to capture the beauty of their surroundings from the palm of their hands like never before.

And that is just the beginning, we still have the iPhone 12 Pro Max to come in November.