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Apple iPhone 11 Pro cameras explained: Why three and what does each do?

On the 10 September 2019 Apple unveiled its latest top-end smartphone: the iPhone 11 Pro. Yep, the Cupertino-based company has jumped on the ‘Pro’ naming convention that’s so prevalent this year, labelling its flagship as even more special, largely thanks to those three lenses on the rear.

Personal opinion interjection here: we think the layout of these three cameras looks all kinds of wrong, but as the design has been teased through leaks for months prior it’s almost softened the blow of seeing it for real.

Whether you like the look or not, however, it’s all about what these cameras can do that ought to excite. So why three and what does each do?

iPhone 11: Main camera

  • 26mm equivalent focal length
  • f/1.8 aperture
  • 12-megapixel resolution
  • 100% autofocus pixels
  • Optical image stabilisation

The main camera delivers that typical semi-wide-angle view onto the world. Apple has stuck to its guns with a 12-megapixel resolution, too, which might seem somewhat low compared to the 48MP options available elsewhere – but then it will offer Deep Fusion, which we explain further down, to mitigate that point of difference.

Interestingly every pixel across the sensor is able to be used for autofocus, which is something even many dedicated cameras fail to offer, which will give the main camera the best focus system out of the three.

It also comes with the widest aperture, at f/1.8, meaning the most light can enter – which is useful for shooting in low-light conditions. However, Night Mode also now features which, again, we’ll explain further down the page.

iPhone 11: Wide-angle camera

  • 0.5x, 120-degree field-of-view
  • 13mm equivalent focal length
  • f/2.4 aperture
  • 12-megapixel resolution

The biggest new feature is the addition of a wide-angle lens. It sees double that of the main camera, hence its 0.5x zoom designation, meaning an equivalent focal length of 13mm. That’s really wide – 120-degrees wide, which is about equal to human vision flattened into an image – and will aid in cramming a lot more into the frame.

Again, Apple has stuck to the 12-megapixel marker, which is commonplace for such wide-angle cameras. Whether the edge quality will stand up to scrutiny – something competitors struggle with, we’ve found – is something we’ll have to wait to find out.

The aperture is f/2.4, meaning a little less light is let in, but this is necessary for a wide-angle optic to ensure a balance of sharpness across the frame.

iPhone 11: Zoom camera

  • 2x optical zoom
  • 56mm equivalent focal length
  • f/2.0 aperture
  • 12-megapixel resolution
  • Optical image stabilisation (OIS)

We did wonder if Apple would push beyond its 2x zoom lens, as it’s what we’ve seen prior to now in the series. And with some competitors now offering 5x optical zoom – there’s the Huawei P30 Pro – it seems a little conservative. But so long as it retains the quality, we’re on board with the decision.

This 2x optic means half the view of the main camera, thus a 56mm equivalent focal length. To call it ‘telephoto’ is a reach, as that’s actually about as close to a standard lens as you can get in traditional form, which will make it great for portraits – it’ll avoid making faces look bulbous, as this focal length keeps things flat and neutral, and as if subjects are closer-up to the phone.

This lens is often thought of as Apple’s “Portrait Camera”, as it goes hand-in-hand with that shooting mode, which uses software to blur the background for a more pro-looking result (presumably with with some edge imperfections, as is typical, we might add) – or you can apply various lighting effects, again using software.

iPhone 11: What is Deep Fusion?

  • ‘Neural image processing’
  • Combines elements from up to 9 images
  • Not available at launch, software update will follow

As we said in the main camera section, Apple hasn’t gone high-resolution like some of its competition. Both Samsung and Sony make 48-megapixel sensors, which utilise four-in-one oversampling to produce 12-megapixel images that are sharper and more colour accurate than an otherwise huge 48MP shot would be.

Apple is taking this route, instead pulling on the guts of the iPhone 11’s A13 Bionic processor and neural engine to process through machine learning in what it’s calling Deep Fusion. However, this isn’t available yet and won’t be at launch, by the sounds of things. It’ll take some ironing out to get perfect, no doubt.

So what is Deep Fusion? The camera takes nine shots – two groups of four prior to pressing the shutter, then one longer exposure at point of press – at various shutter settings. It can then automatically look through these shots, select the best combinations for sake of sharpness, ensuring there’s no blur, and composite the best parts together.

This is also a clever way to help negate image noise, that multi-coloured dotting that can appear in images. As noise won’t appear identically in each frame, the system will be able to select the least noise-ridden parts into the image for a cleaner, sharper result.

In a sense, then, Apple is looking to use processing rather than cramming pixels onto a sensor to produce its best results. How it’ll turn out, we’ll have to wait and see. But this is probably the iPhone 11 Pro camera’s most interesting feature.

iPhone 11: Night Mode, 4K video

  • New: Night Mode
  • 4K video at 60fps
  • Multiple shooting modes

In addition to the usual modes people have come to expect – time-lapse, slo-mo, video, potrait (with lighting modes), square, pano – the iPhone 11 Pro also introduces Night Mode.

Let’s face it, Apple had to play this card. With the competition gunning hard to win in the low-light shooting stakes, we’ve already seen Google wow with its Night Sight mode, and Huawei impress with its new SuperSensing sensor composition in the P30 Pro.

How exactly this works, however, Apple didn’t go into great detail about on stage. There was a glimpse of a ‘5S’ marker during a demo, suggesting its a mixture of long-exposure, kept steady thanks to optical image stabilisation, layered up with multiple other exposures and some intelligent processing to lift those shadow details, keep the highlights in check and, well, make nighttime look more day-like.

We can foresee an obvious ‘which flagship phone camera takes the best night shots?’ feature in the future, pitching the upcoming Google Pixel 4 (ok, so that’s still rumoured, but it’s a given) and Huawei Mate 30 Pro (again, not yet in the wild, but due this month) against the iPhone 11 Pro.

Oh, and let’s not forget the iPhone 11 Pro also offers 4K60p video on both rear and front cameras. You can only shoot in this mode using the main camera, though, not the ultra-wide or zoom – we checked at the Apple launch event just to make sure.



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