Guidemaster: Which iPhone camera best fits your use case?


iPhone 15, iPhone 15 Plus, iPhone 15 Pro, and iPhone 15 Pro Max lined up on a table
Enlarge / The iPhone 15 lineup.

Over the past couple of years of reviewing the iPhone, we’ve often jokingly called them “smartcameras” rather than smartphones, as the camera features are really what sell people on upgrading to new models.

So, for our final Apple gift guide, we’ll revisit some of what we explored in our iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Pro review with a special focus on the cameras. If you’re looking to grab a new iPhone for yourself or someone in your family, which camera is best?

The idea here is to provide a top-level, quick summary of the features of each iPhone camera as they pertain to specific uses to make for an easy buying guide for last-minute holiday shoppers who want a quick answer. We’ll go over each phone and survey its features, detailing their relevant uses and noting some recommendations and considerations along the way.

If you’re already deeply familiar with this topic, this is a cheat sheet for would-be buyers, not an in-depth analysis.

If you aren’t familiar with these topics and you’re interested in going deeper, our iPhone reviews from the past few years are the place to go; we’ve covered the iteration of SmartHDR, the additions of new lenses and features, and so on as those things have been introduced or tweaked.

But as for today’s quick summary, let’s dive in!

Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.

A note on computational photography and SmartHDR

The camera lens bump on the back of each iPhone has been getting bigger with time, but it’s software that has been driving better picture quality. Apple uses a few techniques to improve the pictures you take with your iPhone, and foremost among those is what the company calls SmartHDR.

Introduced in the iPhone XS (though some competing Android flagships did this beforehand and just called it something else), SmartHDR is a complex beast. But the simple description is that when you take a photo with your iPhone with SmartHDR enabled, it will take not one but several shots. It will then use a trained algorithm to combine all the photos’ best aspects into one picture.

The specifics of that algorithm have evolved with time, and Apple has identified a few specific versions of SmartHDR over the past few years. But all that matters when we’re looking at the latest iPhones is well, the latest version of SmartHDR. And here’s what you can expect: Most of the time, SmartHDR produces drastically better photos, with fewer unwanted artifacts and abnormalities, a clearer picture, better lighting, and so on.

Once in a while, though, it makes a weird call, and you’ll see something anomalous because of SmartHDR. It also sometimes (let’s be real: usually) gives photos a doctored, unreal quality.

The same goes for Night Mode, a feature Apple essentially copied from Google’s Pixel phones. Introduced in iPhones in 2019, Night Mode also takes a lot of photos in a short period (albeit a longer one than SmartHDR; you have to hold the phone still for a few seconds). In this case, the goal is to battle the low-light shortcomings of smartphone cameras, bring out lost detail, and reduce graininess.

It’s very effective but almost too effective in many cases; photos taken in the dark end up with a bright, glowing quality. It’s great if you want to ensure you can see how much you and your friends or family are smiling in a group photo; it’s not so great if your goal is capturing reality accurately.

Below: Shots taken in a very dark room with the iPhone 15, iPhone 15 Pro, and iPhone 15 Pro Max, from our iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Pro review.

Competing flagship phones do much of this, too, so it’s just the state of smartphone camera tech. Mostly, it’s worth the downsides because the laws of optics essentially cap how good these cameras can be without these sorts of computational photography features.

Anyway, when we make the recommendations below, we assume you are all-in on this computational photography stuff. Otherwise, you’ll want to look at alternatives to taking photos with an iPhone if quality matters to you.

iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Plus

We’ll start with the cheapest phone in Apple’s iPhone 15 lineup because the other two phones (iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max) build on what’s seen here. The iPhone 15 Plus is getting lumped in here because its camera system is identical to its smaller variant.

The iPhone 15 has a 48-megapixel main camera with a quad-pixel sensor and an ƒ/1.6 aperture. By default, this camera takes 24-megapixel images, using a computational process to combine low-light 12 MP images with large quad pixels and a 48 MP image.

You can take full 48 MP photos too by going into the Settings app, tapping Camera, tapping Formats, and turning on Resolution Control. When this is enabled, you can tap a toggle in the top-right corner when taking a photo to take one at full resolution.

The 48 MP lens is also used to enable 2x zoom at a quality comparable to the 2x optical zoom seen on prior Pro-model iPhones. Apple does this by cropping the image and applying machine learning techniques to produce the final result. (I told you it’s all about the computational features!)

This is why we don’t recommend the iPhone 14, iPhone 13, or iPhone SE (all of which are still in Apple’s lineup) for would-be buyers who prioritize the camera abilities. That 2x zoom is a must-have, and those other phones don’t offer it. They offer a digital zoom option, but you see a real hit to quality when you use it.

That covers 1x and 2x zoom with the rear camera. There’s another lens back there, though: a 12MP ultra-wide camera (ƒ/2.4 aperture). This one enables what Apple labels as 0.5x zoom, allowing you to capture more stuff in tight spaces, like a group of people posing for a selfie in a car or a very small room, for example.

On the front of the phone, you’ll find a 12 MP camera with a ƒ/1.9 aperture; this is the selfie camera. Like the rear camera, it supports several of Apple’s computational photography buzzwords like SmartHDR 5, the Photonic Engine, and Deep Fusion.

The front and rear cameras can record 4K video with Dolby Vision HDR at up to 60 fps. The rear camera system supports Cinematic Video, which adds a depth-of-field effect behind human subjects. It also has Action Mode, which takes lower-than-4K resolution video but has a strong stabilization effect for situations where your hands move a lot.

Altogether, these features make the iPhone 15 an excellent all-around camera system. It has all the features you’d need to take photos of your kids at home or take selfies with friends while on the town—including Night Mode for low-light shots.

It will be enough for most people. This is a particularly good time for the non-Pro iPhone, as Apple introduced a bunch of formerly Pro-only features (like the 48 MP main camera) to the non-Pro phone for the first time during this cycle.

That said, there are still some situations where you might want to spring for the iPhone Pro or even the iPhone Pro Max.

iPhone 15 Pro

Now that we’ve covered the basics of the iPhone 15’s camera system, we can focus on what’s different if you spend extra on the iPhone 15 Pro.

The iPhone 15 Pro has a more powerful sensor (2.44 µm quad pixel to the iPhone 15’s 2 µm quad pixel) in the main camera, which goes from a ƒ/1.6 aperture in the iPhone 15 to ƒ/1.78 in the Pro. Whereas the iPhone 15 had a 26 mm main lens focal length, you’re looking at 24, 28, and 35mm for the Pro.

Apple says the iPhone 15 Pro has improved optical image stabilization and a flash that produces more natural colors, too. Meanwhile, the Ultra-Wide lens goes from a ƒ/2.4 aperture to ƒ/2.2.

The Pro phone adds a third lens, too: a 12 MP, ƒ/2.8 aperture telephoto lens for 3x zoom. That means that the iPhone 15 Pro’s zoom levels are 0.5x, 1x, 2x, and 3x to the iPhone 15’s 0.5x, 1x, and 2x.

There are no substantial differences between the front-facing camera in the iPhone 15 and the iPhone 15 Pro.

There are a few Pro-specific features, too, specs aside. The iPhone 15 Pro can use Night Mode for portrait photos (a shooting mode that adds a depth-of-field effect to still images), whereas with the iPhone 15, you have to choose one or the other. It’s an edge case, but there you have it.

The iPhone 15 Pro also supports the ProRAW format, which provides high-quality images with minimal doctoring so that photographers can tweak or enhance the image to their own spec in software later.

Finally, the iPhone 15 Pro supports Macro photography mode. This automatically switches the camera settings when you’re taking an ultra-close-up shot of something detailed, which results in substantially better macro photography in many situations.

On the video side of things, the differences in quality aren’t huge. But there are some Pro-specific features here. The iPhone 15 Pro supports log video recording, macro videos, and a 3D “spatial video” format to be viewed later on Apple’s upcoming Vision Pro headset. When I tried the Vision Pro earlier this year, I wasn’t impressed with these spatial photos, but it’s possible Apple will have improved them by the time the device reaches the public.

You’ll want to go with the Pro if you’re taking close-ups of flowers. You might prefer the Pro to the regular 15 if you want to take ProRAW photos to edit the image to professional standards later. And 3x zoom makes a big difference in situations like concerts where you want to take pictures of something far away.

In general, this makes the iPhone 15 Pro a better fit for content creators of various types, and it offers more options for some unique edge cases. You’ll also see marginally better low-light photography—sometimes.

If you’re not seeing those edge cases often and are not producing professional-quality content, though, the iPhone 15’s camera will serve you just fine. In our experience, the only thing you’ll miss frequently is that 3x zoom.

iPhone 15 Pro Max

Speaking of zoom features, that’s the main thing differentiating the iPhone 15 Pro Max from the smaller iPhone 15 Pro.

The Max replaces the 3x telephoto lens with a 5x one—same megapixels, same aperture. You lose the 3x option, but you can still take advantage of the main camera’s 48MP lens to take 2x zoom photos, and 5x is more differentiated and arguably better for many situations.

Below: Daytime shots at 2x, 3x, or 5x zoom (as applicable) on the iPhone 15,  iPhone 15 Pro, and iPhone 15 Pro Max from our iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Pro review.

That’s the only difference between the iPhone 15 Pro Max and the iPhone 15—but it’s significant.

In general, we’d recommend picking between these two Pro models based on screen size, not camera features, but if you find yourself in situations like concerts where you want more powerful zoom, it could be worth the upgrade on that basis.

A quick recap

The iPhone 15 is a good all-around camera, and it will be enough for most use cases. We don’t recommend springing for the more expensive phones for the camera alone unless you have a very specific need in your daily life.

Jump to the iPhone 15 Pro or Pro Max if you are a professional content creator who needs the best raw image files, the ability to record 4K 60 fps HDR video to external storage, if you like to do macro photography, or if you are an avid user of Apple’s AI-driven Portrait Mode.

Go for the Max if powerful optical zoom is a top priority. Otherwise, stick with the 15.


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