Apple has recently unveiled its latest flagship smartphone, the iPhone 15 Pro Max, which boasts a powerful camera system that can rival some of the best Android devices. But how does the iPhone 15 Pro Max achieve this feat with only three cameras on the back? And is it enough to convince users to upgrade from their previous models?
The magic of sensor-crop zoom
One of the key features that Apple highlighted in its iPhone 15 Pro presentation was the ability to switch between different focal lengths with the iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max. Apple said that these devices have “multiple focal lengths to work with” and that “it’s like having seven pro lenses in your pocket, everywhere you go”.
However, this does not mean that the iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max have seven physical cameras on the back. In fact, they still have only three cameras: a 48MP main camera, a 12MP ultra-wide camera, and a 12MP telephoto camera. The difference is that the iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max can use a technique called sensor-crop zoom to create additional focal lengths from the main camera.
Sensor-crop zoom is a digital zoom method that uses only a portion of the sensor to capture an image, effectively cropping out the edges and magnifying the center. This results in a higher zoom level without losing much quality, as long as the sensor has enough megapixels to support it. The iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max have a 48MP main camera, which allows them to use sensor-crop zoom up to 2x without any noticeable degradation.
This means that the iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max can offer four focal lengths from the main camera alone: 1x (24mm), 1.2x (28mm), 1.5x (35mm), and 2x (48mm). These are equivalent to some of the most common lenses used by professional photographers, such as wide-angle, standard, and portrait lenses. By combining these with the ultra-wide camera (0.5x or 13mm) and the telephoto camera (3x or 77mm for the iPhone 15 Pro and 5x or 120mm for the iPhone 15 Pro Max), Apple claims that users can have seven pro lenses in their pocket.
The advantages of sensor-crop zoom
Sensor-crop zoom is not a new technology, and it has been used by other smartphone makers before, such as Samsung and Huawei. However, Apple claims that its implementation of sensor-crop zoom is superior to others, because it uses computational photography techniques to enhance the image quality and reduce noise.
One of the benefits of sensor-crop zoom is that it allows users to switch between different focal lengths seamlessly, without having to physically move closer or farther from the subject. This can be useful for capturing different perspectives and compositions, as well as adjusting to different lighting conditions.
Another benefit of sensor-crop zoom is that it can create a more natural-looking bokeh effect, which is the blurred background that separates the subject from the surroundings. Bokeh is usually achieved by using a large aperture lens, which lets in more light and creates a shallow depth of field. However, sensor-crop zoom can also create bokeh by cropping out the edges of the image, which reduces the depth of field as well.
Sensor-crop zoom can also help users take better macro photos, which are close-up shots of small objects or details. Macro photography usually requires a dedicated macro lens, which has a short minimum focusing distance and a high magnification ratio. However, sensor-crop zoom can also enable macro photography by using the ultra-wide camera and cropping out most of the image, leaving only a small area in focus.
The limitations of sensor-crop zoom
Sensor-crop zoom is not without its drawbacks, however. One of the main limitations of sensor-crop zoom is that it reduces the resolution of the image, as it uses only a fraction of the sensor. For example, if the iPhone 15 Pro or iPhone 15 Pro Max uses sensor-crop zoom at 2x from the main camera, it will produce a 12MP image instead of a 48MP image. This means that users will lose some details and sharpness when they zoom in or crop their photos later.
Another limitation of sensor-crop zoom is that it can introduce some distortion and aberration in the image, as it magnifies the center of the lens. This can result in some loss of quality and accuracy in terms of colors, contrast, and edges. To compensate for this, Apple uses computational photography techniques such as Smart HDR and Deep Fusion to correct these issues and improve the image quality.
A third limitation of sensor-crop zoom is that it can affect the performance and battery life of the device, as it requires more processing power and memory to handle the large amount of data from the sensor. This can result in slower shutter speeds, longer processing times, and higher energy consumption. To mitigate this, Apple uses the A17 Pro chip, which is designed to handle complex tasks such as sensor-crop zoom efficiently and effectively.
The competition from Android devices
The iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max are not the only smartphones that offer impressive camera systems. Some of the Android devices that can compete with them are the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra, the Huawei P60 Pro, and the Google Pixel 7 Pro.
The Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra has a quad-camera system that consists of a 108MP main camera, a 12MP ultra-wide camera, a 10MP 3x telephoto camera, and a 10MP 10x periscope camera. The Galaxy S23 Ultra can use sensor-crop zoom up to 3x from the main camera, and optical zoom up to 10x from the periscope camera. It also has a 100x digital zoom feature called Space Zoom, which uses artificial intelligence to enhance the image quality.
The Huawei P60 Pro has a quad-camera system that consists of a 50MP main camera, a 20MP ultra-wide camera, a 12MP 5x periscope camera, and a ToF (time-of-flight) sensor. The P60 Pro can use sensor-crop zoom up to 2.5x from the main camera, and optical zoom up to 5x from the periscope camera. It also has a 50x digital zoom feature called SuperZoom, which uses optical image stabilization and AI to improve the image quality.
The Google Pixel 7 Pro has a triple-camera system that consists of a 50MP main camera, a 12MP ultra-wide camera, and a 48MP 4x telephoto camera. The Pixel 7 Pro can use sensor-crop zoom up to 2x from the main camera, and optical zoom up to 4x from the telephoto camera. It also has a 50x digital zoom feature called Super Res Zoom, which uses computational photography and machine learning to enhance the image quality.
The verdict: Is sensor-crop zoom enough to beat Android?
The iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max have a powerful camera system that can offer users a lot of flexibility and creativity in their photography. The sensor-crop zoom feature is one of the main selling points of these devices, as it allows users to switch between different focal lengths seamlessly and create stunning images with natural bokeh and macro effects.
However, sensor-crop zoom is not a perfect solution, and it has some limitations in terms of resolution, quality, and performance. Moreover, some of the Android devices have more advanced camera systems that can offer higher optical zoom levels, larger sensors, and more features. Therefore, users who are looking for the best smartphone camera might want to compare the iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max with their Android rivals before making their decision.