Apple gave us four new iPhones this fall and, for the most part, their differences are pretty obvious. The iPhone 12 and the iPhone 12 mini are exactly the same in every way, except the mini is smaller and takes a hit on battery life because of that smaller size. The iPhone 12 Pro and the iPhone 12 Pro Max seem almost the same, except in sized, but there's actually a huge difference in the camera.
The iPhone 12 Pro and the iPhone 12 Pro Max both have triple rear-camera systems consisting of wide (main), ultra-wide and telephoto lenses. The ultra-wide lens is the exact same on both smartphones, but the Pro Max has superior wide and telephoto cameras. Specifically, the Pro Max's wide lens has much larger sensor — 47-percent larger, to be exact — which allows it to take better photos in low-light situations. And the Pro Max has a longer telephoto lenses (2.5x vs 2x) with slightly better optical zoom (5x vs 4x range) and digital zoom (up to 12x vs up to 10x).
In theory, the iPhone 12 Pro Max should be better at taking zoomed-in photos as well as low-light photos. And after using both new iPhones for the past month, that's exactly what bears out in practice. The differences aren't enormous to the casual observer, but they're there, especially in conditions where smartphone cameras traditionally suffer.
The biggest difference that I noticed was when shooting in Night mode because the iPhone 12 Pro Max was way quicker. Because it didn't need those extra long exposures, it could can a Night mode photo a second of more quicker than the iPhone 12 Pro Max.
But you don't have to take my word for it. Here are 10 different photos to compare below. So what do you think? Are the Pro Max's photos worth the extra $100?
Photo #1: The night sky
Both the above photos were shot in early November using the wide (main) cameras on photo smartphones. And both used Night Mode. They're similar at a glance but, you can really tell the difference when you look at the tree branches in the top-left of each photo, and to a lesser extent with the docks and pylons in the water. The Pro Max's photo just shows a little more detail in both those areas. Also, it's worth pointing out that the Pro Max's Night mode used a 2-second exposure, while the Pro used a 3-second exposure.
Winner: Pro Max
I convinced my brother to be my model for these photos by trading away some TV time, but unfortunately I'm not super impressed with either of these Night mode photos. Drastic lighting conditions like this are a challenge for any camera, and the iPhone 12 is no exception. And while the large sensor size should help the Pro Max's results, I struggle to find too much in the way of improvement.
Photo #3: Puppy sleeping
This is a top-down photo of our 11-week-old puppy. It was late morning and she was sleeping in the sun. Both photos look almost identical, with the same lights and darks of the sun and shadows. And Della (our dog), looks like an adorable seal pup in both.
Photo #4: American flag
These photos were taken while the sun is setting over the river. Both photos do a good job of lighting the photo, and you see in great detail the bark of the tree, the sky and the river-side homes in the distance. Here, you can see the Pro Max's advantages in the detail of the clouds. (But I could be picking it because I captured the flag better, too.)
Winner: Pro Max
Photo #5: The HomePod mini
This photo of the HomePod mini, Apple's tiny new smart speaker, is one of the clearest examples of the Pro Max winning. The Pro Max's photo is better lit and you can see more detail in the speaker's mesh fabric and it just looks like the nicer photo.
Winner: Pro Max
Photo #6: Portrait mode of a puppy
I've learned that it's nearly impossible to capture a Portrait mode of a puppy while they're awake because they never stay still for long enough. That's why this Portrait mode is of our puppy sleeping — it's way easier. Both photos were taken using the combo of the iPhone's wide and telephoto lenses, which is why the Pro Max's shot looks closer (it has the stronger telephoto lens). Other than that, however, the two shots are virtually identical.
Photo #7: Sandy Hook beach (Zoom #1)
These photos were taken on the beach of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and in the distance you can see the skyline of New York City (as the crow flies, the distance is about 22 miles). The photos are pretty close, captured with the with wide (main) cameras of both iPhones, but the main point is to show you the zoom capabilities highlighted in the next (below) photos.
Photo #8: Sandy Hook beach (Zoom #2)
These photos were taken from the exact same location as the above and it really shows off the Pro Max's superior zoom capabilities. This is no contest.
Winner: Pro Max
Photo #9: Kite surfers
These photos were also taken on Sandy Hook and what you can't tell is that it was absolutely blowing — 30mph winds at least. Both photos were taken with the wide (main) cameras and I didn't even tap to meter. And as far as I'm concerned, both these photos are basically identical. The only way you can tell there's a difference is that the kite surfers are placed slightly differently.
Photo #10: The ultra-wide bridge
These are ultra-wide photos of the Highlands-Sea Bridge which connects Sandy Hook to Sea Bright. You can also see the Twin Lights lighthouse on top of the hill. Both photos were taken with the ultra-wide cameras of both smartphones and, as you can see, they're very similar.