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Apple iPhone Xs Camera Review

We’re delighted to republish our good friend, Austin Mann’s camera review of the Apple iPhone Xs today. He took a trip to Zanzibar, the images are gorgeous. In this review, Mann gives his first impressions, his thoughts on the new Image Signal Processor (ISP), vertical panoramas in the iPhone Xs as compared to the iPhone X, perks and perils of computational photography, the updated Portrait Mode and interesting discoveries with the app, Halide’s new technical readout information. Don’t miss this! (foreword by Joanne Carter).

If you prefer to read the original article on Mann’s own website, just go here.

Far and away the most significant camera update in the iPhone Xs is its new Smart HDR capabilities. Powered by the A12 Bionic chip, in the picture above the iPhone Xs is able to capture  the dark shadows of the rock while maintaining strong detail in the sunlit clouds.

I’ve never worked with a camera that can balance light like this—not even close.

See this photo below of the sailboat backlit by the sun. With a traditional camera, we’d either lose total detail in the shadows and maintain the highlights of the sky or we’d blow out the highlights in the sky and maintain detail in the shadows of the boat. Previously we couldn’t capture both in one frame (and merging multiple exposures in a fast moving scene like this wouldn’t work, either).

The power of the new ISP (image signal processor) in the iPhone Xs doesn’t just impact still photos, it impacts everything captured by the camera, including panoramas, time-lapses and video.

One challenge photographers will notice is creating silhouettes. Silhouettes are often just a result of the limitations of your film or sensor, but with iPhone Xs those limitations are no longer present.

Note: As an artist, I often express my perspective through silhouettes. They have a way of forcing the viewer to appreciate the shape and contour of the subject instead of the color or texture. The iPhone Xs is so good at balancing light, it’s actually quite difficult to create a silhouette!

Vertical Panoramas are Back and Better than Ever

As many of you know, I love shooting iPhone panoramas. Whether horizontal or vertical, the breadth of their perspective tells such a rich story.

This past year with the iPhone X I’ve had a lot of difficulty with vertical panoramas. I’ve shot so many over and over trying to get everything sharp, but the focus seems to degrade as I continue upward. After talking with Apple engineers, I’ve learned it was not an issue of focus depth but of the accelerometers inside the device and how they are tuned to read your motion.

The iPhone XS fixes this problem. Combined with the new Smart HDR, I’ve shot a bunch of vertical panos that are exposed beautifully and tack sharp from top to bottom. Check out the vertical panos below and note the fixed focusing issue and the insane exposure improvement from iPhone X to iPhone Xs.

These side-by-side results caught me off guard and it’s definitely the biggest upgrade I’ve seen in a long time. I think back to my 2013 iPhone 5S Review when I was comparing dynamic exposure in panoramas. While there were some improvements, they were nowhere near this significant.

Perks & Perils of Computational Photography

We’ve been slowly entering an exciting new era of “computational” photography where software continues to overcome previous limitations of hardware. The iPhone Xs is capable of running 1 trillion operations per image, and while extremely powerful, I’m also keenly aware of the fact that we know less and less about what’s going on to capture our image.

A key part of the creative process and achieving one’s artistic vision is troubleshooting. In order to troubleshoot, one must understand what is actually happening and what is causing the problem.

With a traditional SLR camera, if my image was too bright, too dark, too soft, etc., I knew exactly what to change/tweak to get closer to my vision. Today, with cameras heavily relying on software, sometimes things happen that I just don’t understand. Perhaps the tones in the sky don’t look quite right, or a vertical pano isn’t in focus like I wish. The difference is, I don’t know WHY it doesn’t look the way I want it to, which means I don’t know what to tweak to fix it.

Of course, the upsides of computational photography far outweigh the downsides, and almost always the software helps me capture exactly what I want, but I’m curious about how this conversation will develop over the next few years and how Apple will explore new ways to facilitate artistic expression.

Identical Camera Specs in both iPhones

Since 2014, I’ve been torn about which iPhone model is right for me. When the iPhone 6 Plus came out, it was exclusively equipped with Optical Image Stabilisation, giving it a photographic edge against its sibling, the iPhone 6.

Of course I’ve always wanted the best camera possible in my iPhone, but the size of the Plus has never been right for me. I like to stay nimble, lightweight, and discreet—especially with my cameras. Today, I can confidently choose the iPhone Xs knowing it’s smaller and lighter yet wields the same powerful camera as the iPhone Xs Max.

Changing Focus

Although it’s still not perfect, Portrait Mode got a pretty serious update with entirely redesigned blurring effects and the all-new Depth Control feature. If you’re like me, sometimes I don’t use images I’ve shot in Portrait Mode because they are just a bit too much, but now with full control in post, I can dial it back as needed.

See the images below and notice how the story changes with different focus settings applied. On the left at f/1.4, we have an isolated portrait of a captain against a nondescript background. On the far right at f/16, we have a portrait of the captain, on a wooden boat, with a crew mate and with land in the distance. A simple tweak to focus can completely tighten or broaden the story and it’s cool to have the power to do this on demand after the fact.

Discoveries with Halide’s Technical Readout

I didn’t see this mentioned anywhere by Apple, but I did notice the iPhone Xs shoots slightly wider than the iPhone X—guessing around 5%.

After hopping into Halide Camera and checking the Technical Readout, I confirmed the lens is wider by 2mm (from 28mm to 26mm) and also discovered the maximum exposure time is now up to 1 second (previously it was 1/3 of a second).


Halide Camera is an awesome app for creative pros looking to fine tune their control as photographers, but their team continues to build helpful features like the Tech Readout into their app, so it’s just a great all-around tool to have. You can download the latest version of Halide Camera with Technical Readout here.

Buying Advice for Photographers

If you’ve decided to upgrade and you’re debating between the iPhone Xs and the iPhone Xs Max, get a black iPhone Xs with 512GB of storage.

Among the iPhone camera’s greatest strengths is its light and nimble form factor. Working with the smaller device plays to that strength. By maxing out the storage you’ll have plenty of space to store your content (or store it for review), and getting black means you’ll minimize reflections and remain discreet.

If you shoot a ton of panoramas like me, this is a pretty big upgrade and one I would seriously consider—especially if your shooting in outdoor environments or ever shooting vertical panoramas.

The Bottom Line

Most of the time my expectations for camera upgrades on “S” years aren’t so high, but after shooting with the iPhone XS for a week, I can confidently say it’s a huge camera upgrade. There’s a lot of little improvements, but Smart HDR definitely takes the cake. This is a feature and technology that improves virtually everything you capture with your iPhone camera. I think you’ll be really thrilled when you experience the results yourself.

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Austin intuitive passion for innovation began early. “Even as a kid I was incessantly starting things—from business ideas to new ways of fixing people’s computers.” As an 8-year- old, Austin began in Photoshop in eventually spent thousands of hours building websites and tinkering with the earliest versions of Flash on his trusty 1998 Bondi Blue iMac he bought with savings from months of mowing lawns and working on neighbor’s computers. Fifteen Macs later, Austin still loves to explore, invent, and tirelessly test all things tech. After picking up his first camera as a sophomore in college, Austin’s eye for capturing the splendor of Creation, along with his proclivity as an early-adopter has taken him on a fascinating journey to every corner of the globe. His work has been widely published in both corporate to non-profit worlds, from National Geographic and the Travel Channel, to Samaritan’s Purse and the Global Poverty Project. Over the years, Austin’s wide range of experience has enabled him to organize and teach workshops worldwide on how to leverage photography & storytelling to dignify people, build communities and promote changes. Austin’s skill set is best described as a Gladwell-esque concoction of creator, storyteller, educator, consultant, entrepreneur, technician, thought leader, and behind-the-scenes maven . . . the proverbial “square peg” artist in the “round hole” world of professional nomenclature. However—and perhaps in spite of—his dexterity in a number of fields, the native Kansan is ultimately compelled by an unrelenting passion to equip and empower the people around him to dream bigger and create better. Austin’s belief in this magic—the kind that is sparked within intentional, collaborative community--birthed the vision for his latest entrepreneurial pursuit: WELD, a curated collective of freelance artists who work and create together. WELD’s flagship studio is located in Dallas, Texas, with an up-and-coming Nashville collaborative workspace opening at the beginning of 2015.