Breaking down Apple’s three new iPhone 12 camera systems

Apple has just announced its iPhone 12 lineup, and as part of today’s announcements, the company introduced a dizzying amount of camera tech scattered amongst the new iPhones. If you’re coming from an iPhone that currently has a single camera, or even a pair, you may find some serious upgrades here.

But first, let’s establish the baseline.

The iPhone SE’s camera.

One camera: iPhone SE (2020) and iPhone XR

The iPhone SE turned heads earlier this year at a $399 price, and the iPhone XR is now $499. Both have a single 12-megapixel f/1.8 “wide” camera, though they’re not quite the same — the XR has a larger sensor, while the iPhone SE appears to be a smaller one similar to 2017’s iPhone 8. Neither has ultrawide or telephoto lenses, nor fancy Deep Fusion techniques; your portrait-mode shots are also limited to what Apple’s machine learning algorithms can guess about depth, since there’s no second camera to verify.

Still, each offers a six-element lens with optical image stabilization, 4K60 video recording, and a basic portrait mode.

Two cameras: iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini

The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini come with two cameras each, but perhaps even more importantly, that single main camera has changed. While it still offers 12 megapixels like prior phones, the lens now has 7 elements and a larger f/1.6 aperture that lets 27 percent more light hit that sensor compared to the previous gen — which should mean brighter, less noisy and/or blurry images in low light, and slightly less depth of field.

You also get:

  • A second 12-megapixel f/2.4 ultrawide camera with a 120-degree field of view, a 5-element lens, and a 13mm-equivalent focal length, which sounds like the same ultrawide we got in the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro
  • Apple’s Deep Fusion computational photography system, which can now be used on either camera (instead of just the main) and which Apple says runs faster on the iPhone 12
  • Night mode, which you won’t find on the iPhone SE, can be used on both the ultrawide and front TrueDepth cameras here, meaning you’ll be able to take night mode shots no matter which iPhone 12 camera you’re using. (The iPhone 11 didn’t support night mode with the ultrawide.)
  • A new night mode time-lapse feature
  • Apple’s Smart HDR 3 system, which will automatically adjust things like white balance and contrast in photos to make them look more natural, according to the company
  • The ability to shoot HDR video with Dolby Vision at 30 fps

Three cameras + LIDAR: iPhone 12 Pro

Like the iPhone 11 Pro, the iPhone 12 Pro adds a third telephoto camera to the package, and as far as we can tell, it’s the same f/2.0, 52mm telephoto as last year except you can now also use it to take Deep Fusion photos. But perhaps most interestingly, the iPhone 12 Pro also has a LIDAR sensor, which could have a big benefit in low-light situations — Apple says the LIDAR sensor can do up to 6x faster autofocus in low light and let you take Night Mode portrait photos.

You also get:

  • The same main and ultrawide cameras found in the iPhone 12, and the same new modes
  • 2x optical zoom and 10x digital zoom, thanks to that 52mm-equivalent telephoto lens
  • HDR video with Dolby Vision, like the iPhone 12, but at up to 60fps instead of being capped at 30

iPhone 12 Pro Max

The iPhone 12 Pro Max’s primary camera seems like it will be a notable upgrade over the main camera in the other iPhone 12 models — and that camera was already an improvement over the SE and the iPhone 11 lineup. The 12 Pro Max’s 12-megapixel f/1.6 aperture wide camera has a 47 percent larger sensor, which Apple says translates to an 87-percent improvement in low-light photos. The main camera also has sensor-shift optical image stabilization, which means the camera’s sensor moves inside the camera to offset any movement. That, in theory, should make for more stable photos and videos.

Here’s what else you get:

  • A longer 2.5x optical zoom compared to the iPhone 12 Pro, thanks to a longer 65mm-equivalent focal length lens, but with a slower f/2.2 aperture
  • The same ultrawide camera as the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro
  • The same LIDAR sensor found on the iPhone 12 Pro
  • 12x digital zoom — higher than the iPhone 12 Pro
  • All the same software features as the iPhone 12 Pro, including Dolby Vision HDR at 60fps

Both iPhone 12 Pro models will also get an added software feature at some point later this year: support for Apple’s ProRAW format, which combines Apple’s computational photography with RAW. Until that’s available, though, it’s hard to know exactly how it could improve your photos or how much control it will give you while editing them.

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