Unlike similar features built into Samsung and Google's cameras, Apple's approach doesn't stack multiple exposures together in hopes of turning night into day. The resulting photos are significantly brighter than shots taken without Night mode, but there's still a palpable sense that you're shooting in the wee hours. Night mode works even better if you have the Pro propped up on a tripod or a stable surface; the phone can tell that it's not moving and set its exposure time to maximum (about 30 seconds) instead of the three- or five-second exposures it defaults to when you're physically holding the phone. The only real catch here is that you can't use Night mode with the ultrawide camera at all. Personally, I prefer the way Google's year-old Pixels handle night shooting — the results are a little punchier while still retaining an appropriate sense of moodiness. Still, Apple's approach is surprisingly good for a first attempt.
The 12MP front camera isn't quite as interesting as what's around back, and as usual, it'll take serviceable selfies without much fuss. Apple did add two notable features, though: tapping a button widens the camera's field of view slightly, so you can squeeze a few more people into those shots. You can now also shoot slow-motion video with that front camera, which Apple predicts will usher in the age of the "slofie." (Expect to see these all over Instagram before long.) I don't have the sort of long flowing locks needed for truly sexy slofies, so I settled for the next best thing: Flopping my jowls around and coughing up a mouthful of sharp, star-shaped glitter. I swear, the things I do for you people.
When it comes to comparing the iPhone Pro's cameras to its competitors, it can be hard to draw significant conclusions. I spent most of my time with the Pros testing them against Samsung's Galaxy Note 10 and Google's Pixel 3XL, and the thing to keep in mind here is that when it comes to photography, each of these companies has important philosophical differences.
As usual, the cameras Apple used this year are more intent on capturing what's in front of you as accurately as possible. Samsung likes its colors punchy and its details supersharp, so its cameras often produce photos that show you a more vivid, almost idealized version of your world. Google, with its contrast-y computational photography chops, lands somewhere in between. (That could change, however, when the Pixel 4 and 4XL launch later this year.) At times, I've preferred the Pros' more neutral shots, Samsung's aggressively pretty ones, and Google's detailed, contrast-y. It all depended on what I hoped to capture with each photo.
Put another way, the photos I took with the Note 10+ are the ones I'd most like to post on Instagram with the #nofilter hashtag. The photos I shot with the iPhone 11 Pros are the ones I'd most like to throw into Lightroom and have some fun with. Which phone actually takes the "best" photos is really a matter of preference, but Apple's cameras are clever and capable enough that you won't feel like you're missing out on anything.
Shooting with these cameras will feel a little different if you're used to older iPhones, and not just because of the different focal lengths you can play with. The interface has changed, too, and it takes a little getting used to. You can still swipe left and right to change your camera mode, but swiping up on that black bar gives you access to even more controls for flash, Live Photos, timers, filters and aspect ratio. Some of these are replicated at the top of the screen because... well, I'm not really sure, but it seems unnecessary.
Switching between these cameras is as simple as tapping on the screen, though you can get more fine-grained control on how tight you're getting by dragging the camera selector up and down. I was a little concerned that shooting in between these different zoom ranges would introduce noise and smudge details, but the Pros did a great job making sure that wasn't the case. More impressive is how Apple reconfigured its interface to take advantage of these new camera options. When you're shooting with the wide or telephoto cameras, you'll see the rest of the scene spill over behind your shutter button and camera controls, giving you a sense of the shots you could be shooting. It's sort of like shooting with a rangefinder camera, if you're familiar with those.
There are a few other additions worth pointing out: Quicktake lets you easily switch from framing up a photo to shooting a video by holding the shutter button down. (You now activate Burst mode by swiping that button to the left.) There's also a new High Key Light Mono setting for the Portrait mode, which snaps a black-and-white headshot of your subject with a bone-white background. (Think of it as the opposite of Stage Light Mono, which drowns your backgrounds in black.) If you can ensure no one else is near your subject, the results can be pretty striking, but because the cameras are designed to search for people, you might occasionally see a stray face cluttering up your shot.
I also find it a little shortsighted that the iPhone Pros' camera lacks any kind of dedicated "pro" controls. Think: shutter speed, ISO and especially manual focus.
Most people probably won't miss them, but I sometimes did. Case in point: I spent a day shooting sample photos at beaches and trails along California's Pacific Coast Highway, where I snapped a photo of a couple, silhouetted in black, framed nicely by clumps of beach grass. The photo turned out pretty good, but in that moment, I wished I had another phone with me — one with manual focus controls that would've let me see the couple more clearly and let the surrounding plant life fade into the rest of the scenery. Historically, Apple has been more than happy to let third-party developers build apps with that kind of functionality, but maybe it's time the company addresses that challenge itself.
Unfortunately, Apple's most important new photographic feature won't be ready for a few more weeks at least. Deep Fusion promises to combine nine different exposures into a single, highly detailed photo. On the surface, it sounds like Apple's attempt to unseat Google as the king of computational photography. If it's as impressive as Apple claims, Deep Fusion could change the experience of shooting with the iPhone Pros entirely, so I'll update this review once this feature goes live.
As much as I've enjoyed using these new cameras, my time testing them hasn't been bug-free. Every once in a while, the cameras would simply fail to start up; I'd see the full slew of camera controls, but not a hint of what was in front of me. An Apple spokesperson said the company was aware of the issue and that it would be fixed in the iOS 13.1 update going live September 30th. It's nice that there's a fix on the way, but it could still lead to an annoying 10 days for people who preordered their iPhones.
My larger takeaway is that these are the best cameras Apple has used in an iPhone, and the flexibility they offer is something everyone can appreciate. Still, when it comes to performance and overall visual deliciousness, the race between Apple and its competition is still much tighter than the company would like to admit.