In recent years, the only differences among Apple’s top-tier iPhones have been in their size. Everything else has been the same, including the camera systems. But with the newest iPhone 12 Pro models, Apple is reverting to the way things were a few years ago—the era of the iPhone 8 Plus and earlier—by injecting a few extra camera perks into its pricier models.
This shift is evident in the new iPhone 12 Pro Max, which starts shipping this Friday. In addition to being the biggest iPhone ever, it has some extra power behind the lens that its smaller siblings lack.
I’m going over these specific camera improvements here in this review to help you make a decision between the iPhone 12 Pro Max and the iPhone 12 Pro. Aside from the camera, there are a lot of similarities between the two phones, so I recommend reading our iPhone 12 Pro review (and our iPhone 12 review!) to learn about the Max’s performance, hardware design, and features like Ceramic Shield and MagSafe. All of those things are identical no matter which model you pick. But if you’re itching to know the answer to the bigger question, it’s yes—the Pro Max is the iPhone to buy if you want the best camera experience on a smartphone. Just know that the margin is slim.
The Larger Sensor
I’ll get to the sheer size of this thing later, but the larger body of the iPhone 12 Pro Max has allowed Apple to stuff a larger image sensor into the main camera. A larger sensor allows a smartphone camera to absorb more light when you press the shutter button. The bigger the sensor, the better the image quality, the more detail you see in the frame, and the greater the improvements in low-light performance. Naturally, you’ll see all of these benefits in photos taken with the Pro Max.
Photograph: Julian Chokkattu
iPhone 12 Pro Max, Night mode with the main camera. Compare this image with the following two. The difference is small, but there’s less noise on the underside of the above-ground subway tracks, making it look more clear. This underside is also brighter.
Due to the larger sensor, Apple opted to use sensor-shift stabilization tech. This is similar to the image stabilization mechanism typically found on professional cameras like DSLRs. Instead of steadying the lens (which is what optical image stabilization does), Apple’s system keeps the sensor itself steady deep within the phone’s body. This makes the Pro Max more adept at canceling out the micro-movements your hands inevitably make whenever you’re taking a photo or shooting a video. It has a positive impact the image quality, particularly in low light when you need to stand still for several seconds to get a clear shot.
Apple says the sensor is 47 percent larger and offers an 87 percent improvement in low-light photos over the main camera on last year’s iPhone 11 Pro Max. That alone isn’t a big enough reason to upgrade from a year-old 11 Pro Max unless you’re having serious issues with it. Likewise, if you’re split between the iPhone 12 Pro and the iPhone 12 Pro Max, the bigger sensor does not make a dramatic difference. But the improvements are noticeable.
In all the low-light photos I’ve captured, the Max usually delivers an image with less noise and sharper details over the iPhone 12 Pro. You need an eagle eye to spot them though. I put all of my test photos from both phones side by side on a large monitor, where sometimes it was easy to see the advantage of that larger sensor. Most of the time, however, I needed to really zoom in to see the distinctions. One thing I spotted consistently was that if I captured a scene with some darker areas (as in, almost pitch black) on the iPhone 12 Pro, there’s a good chance that those areas in the Max’s photo of the same scene would be a little brighter.
One key factor to note is that because the Max’s sensor can take in more light, you don’t have to rely on Night mode as much unless you’re photographing a scene that’s much darker. That also means the Pro Max can capture low-light photos faster than the iPhone 12 Pro. Speed in low light is important—shaving milliseconds off the amount of time the shutter is open means less of your hand’s shaking is recorded, and fewer shots come out blurry.
This better clarity, likely aided by sensor-shift as well, is more noticeable when taking Portrait mode photos at night. Both the iPhone 12 Pro and the Pro Max have a lidar scanner, which shoots invisible lasers out of the phone to measure the distance of objects in front of it (much like how a self-driving car sees the traffic on the road). The lidar sensor is what enables Night mode to work with Portrait mode. The additional light captured by the Pro Max strips out the noise and brings out more details.
While I was testing the Pro Max, I also carried the iPhone 12 Pro and the Google Pixel 5, our favorite Android camera phone. Both the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max took low-light photos that were a good deal sharper (even in Portrait mode) than the Pixel. The Pixel does sometimes step up and record more definition in areas left muddy by the Pro Max. I also occasionally prefer the Pixel’s daylight results, as colors can look more true to life in high-contrast scenes (even if the Pro Max’s images are a tad clearer).
The perks of the larger sensor are harder to discern over the iPhone 12 Pro when the sun is out. You won’t find too many photos you’re disappointed with when you shoot in daylight.
The Other Cameras
Nestled next to the main camera on the back of both the iPhone 12 Pro Max and the iPhone 12 Pro are two additional cameras. One is a 12-megapixel ultrawide, and it’s exactly the same on both iPhone models. Its wider field of view allows you to take in more of a scene than the default cam. It also does a solid job in low light, but I think the Pixel, which also has an ultrawide camera, fares a little better here.
The last camera on the back, the telephoto zoom camera, is different depending on which model iPhone you have. The Pro Max’s telephoto offers 2.5x optical zoom; that gets you a tad closer to your subject than the 2x optical zoom camera on the regular iPhone 12 Pro. The Pro Max’s telephoto also has a narrower f/2.2 aperture, so one trade-off you make for the ability to zoom in farther is that the camera takes in less light. The results play out unsurprisingly. Using this telephoto camera at night, the regular iPhone 12 Pro faintly outperforms the Pro Max, but the difference is so small I’ll take the ability to zoom in a little closer. It’d be nice if Apple went a little further, as 3x optical zoom cameras are frequently available on competing Android phones.
There’s no difference between the front-facing selfie cameras on the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max. The quality is also very similar to what you get on the Pixel 5 (though I think the Pixel’s selfie cam handles skin color a little better).
As for videography, the larger image sensor on the main camera does make a noticeable difference. When shooting high-contrast scenes, like a dim indoor room with bright sunlight outside, the iPhone 12 Pro Max does a better job exposing both areas, whereas the iPhone 12 Pro tends to blanket the background bright white. The Max’s footage also doesn’t have as much grain in darker scenes.
All of the improvements you’ll get from a larger sensor are small when compared to the already excellent iPhone 12 Pro, but they add up to make this big handset the best camera phone on the market. Oh, and speaking of the size…
… Did I mention this thing is huge? The “Max” in the name doesn’t really do it justice. It’s taller, wider, and heavier than last year’s Max, though not by much. Surprisingly, it’s also thinner. It’s still a two-handed phone, but I like the larger 6.7-inch screen on this year’s model. I’m fairly agnostic about phone size. When I have a compact phone in my hand, I love that I don’t have trouble reaching every corner of the screen. When I’m holding a ginormous phone, I love seeing every single app on a larger scale. You might be pickier, and if you’re absolutely against big-screen phones, well then you’re probably already looking at the iPhone 12 Mini.
Doing phone things—watching shows and movies, totally not refreshing election results every minute—on this larger screen for a week has been easier on my eyes. I talk about the OLED screen quality in my iPhone 12 Pro review, but I can tell you again that it really is quite exquisite. Would it be even nicer if Apple took ProMotion (the 120-Hz screen refresh rate for smoother interaction) from its iPad Pro and bestowed it upon the iPhone 12 Pro Max? Sure, but apparently you can’t have everything.
A big phone also means a big battery, and the good news is battery life here is excellent. I frequently ended up with 45 percent of a charge left by 11 pm after more than five hours of screen-on time. (Yep, totally not just refreshing election results.) You don’t need to charge this iPhone every night, just maybe before noon the next day. And would it be amazing if instead of requiring a Lightning cable, Apple let us recharge the phone with USB-C? The same cable I use to recharge my MacBook and iPad Pro? Sure, but … well, you get it. At least it also charges wirelessly.
Apple has four new phones in its 2020 lineup, so if you’re upgrading this year, you have a lot of options to choose from. For most people, the cheaper iPhone 12 is the way to go. It’s a phone with very few faults. But for lovers of big phones, and for those who absolutely must have the best camera—even if it’s only a little bit better than the rest—the answer is the Max.