Why the iPhone XS camera is tempting me to hang up my pro gear
Is the age of software processing outstripping the need for better hardware?
It took me three years to stump up the courage (and cash) to finally ditch my old iPhone 6S Plus for something newer, so it was a bit of a shame that my first few days with my iPhone XS Max were so underwhelming.
Yes, the OLED screen gives you bold, brash colours that would make a Duplo set's colour scheme look like an Ansel Adams photo, and FaceID is a brilliant thing that adds 'phone unlocking' to a list of archaic things we used to do along with copy-protecting floppy discs. But I just wasn't convinced it was worth just £400 less than my car.
But a recent holiday to the States turned my opinion completely on its head, and then some. Because I feel the XS's camera – and specifically its image process algorithms – is such a generational leap that it's in danger of doing my 'proper' camera out of a job. Here's why.
It makes getting great photos easy
The location helps, but viewed on the XS's OLED screen the colours alone will make you cry with joy
My 'proper' camera is a Fuji X-T2 – a decent mirrorless camera that captures incredibly sharp and colourful images. At least it does, but being a nerd I shoot RAW files that need a touch of processing to sort out the colours, contrast and other stuff. Which takes time in Lightroom. It does produce fantastic straight-out-of-camera JPEGs with some of the best film simulations in the business too, but I don't use them. Again, because I'm a geek and I like to tweak.
I'm also an underrated poet.
With me at the wheel of a rented Mustang driving along Colorado's twistiest roads, however, my long-suffering girlfriend was in charge of grabbing photos and videos of the trip. And my X-T2 is a bit of a pig to use if you're not me. It's set up for back-button focusing (ie pressing the shutter button halfway doesn't activate the autofocus…) and you need to twiddle various dials to get a decent exposure.
And when you do near-enough balance an exposure, chances are the sky will be fairly near bright white, unless you know to underexpose slightly. To her credit, my other half has some photography skills and can cope with all this, but it takes time… by which point I had probably V8-ed past the view.
Guess what, with my iPhone she just point and shot. And double-guess-what?
The XS's image processing stuff gives you photos that look like what you saw
Normally you'd end up with a dark car interior or a whited-out landscape. Instead you have a perfectly exposed twat in a car
Yep, that's right. Straight out of the camera the iPhone XS's photos kicked the arse of everything my Fuji was chucking out. Apple has done some incredible things here. The second you take a shot on the XS some bloody clever stuff happens to pull back highlights and boost foreground shadows just enough to make the scene appear on your phone just like you saw it in real life.
You simply don't get whited-out sky or blacked-out foregrounds. You get a dramatic high-dynamic range image that gives you an instant 'wow' moment. Yes, for stuff I'll print out then the sharpness and resolution of my Fuji can't be beaten by the iPhone – but I'd wager than 99.9% of people only view these photos on a phone or computer screen anyway.
Smooth, stable video is an instant win
Classic roadtrip music
My Fuji camera records gorgeous 4k video at up to 30fps, and it looks brilliantly sharp. Flicking my iPhone XS Max (let's be honest, that's a terrible name) into 4K 60fps mode, however, gives you buttery smooth motion, which is nicely stabilised by the phone's internal trickery.
Cinema nerds will decry 60fps video as not being 'cinematic', but if you want to wow your mates then just film something out of a moving car then show it blown up on the XS's edge-to-edge screen. They will swoon.
Again, it's a winner over my 'pro' camera because it's stabilised and has that gorgeous dynamic range straight out of the box – no blown skies make for far more pleasing footage without faffing around with ND filters and the like.
Here's the rub…
I'll always have a place for a 'proper' camera. Doing the artsy fartsy stuff that takes time
I used to use my phone camera as a last ditch effort to capture a moment (or burger, as was more often the case). Now it's my first port of call, even if I've got my proper camera with me. I'm usually a camera and image quality snob (don't get me started on digital zoom), but my new iPhone is the first phone camera that's properly wowed me. I know this hasn't been a technical analysis of the thing, but as an ardent(ly shit) amateur photographer, I can wholeheartedly recommend it.