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iPhone 15 Pro Max: 50 photos that show what the new camera system can do

iPhone 15 Pro in Blue Titanium in front of an Apple Store

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

The iPhone 15 Pro Max is the pinnacle of iPhone cameras this year because it is the only one that has the new 5x “tetraprism” telephoto lens to zoom farther and take higher quality long-distance shots than any iPhone has taken before. 

However, there are other new features in this year’s camera system beyond the 5x zoom lens. Here’s a quick reminder of the other important camera upgrades:

  • 24MP high-resolution default images as well as 48MP standard photos (previously 48MP was only available in ProRAW mode and all other images were 12MP)
  • Portrait mode images are sharper, more colorful, and better in low light
  • Automatic portrait mode recognizes a person, cat, or dog and captures depth info on the subject even if you don’t take the photo in portrait mode, and lets you edit the portrait quality details after the fact
  • Night mode gets more detail, color, and night portrait mode powered by the LiDAR sensor
  • Smart HDR captures better “true-to-life renderings” (as Apple puts it) of skin tones, colors, and dynamic range
  • Three focal lengths in the main camera (24mm, 28mm, and 35mm) offer more flexibility for framing and composing shots

I experienced the benefits of all of these features in my two weeks of testing the iPhone 15 Pro Max. Apple also touted a new “nanoscale coating to reduce lens flare” but I didn’t notice any improvements to lens flare — the iPhone is still generally the worst smartphone camera system for generating lens flare and unwanted artifacts, especially when shooting into the sun.

iPhone 15 Pro review: Coming from iPhone 12 Pro or earlier? This upgrade will wow you

Still, lens flare aside, there’s a lot to like about the new camera system. Overall, I found that Apple has improved not just the sharpness and capabilities of the camera sensors and lenses, but also the processing in the camera app that uses machine learning to automatically refine photos and make adjustments. 

With last year’s iPhone 14 Pro Max, there were times when I felt like I was fighting the camera system to give me the photo I took and not over-process it with too much HDR. For example, when I’d take night photos, it would often over-brighten the night sky in a way that made it look more like daytime. There were other times when the iPhone 14 Pro Max would oversharpen and/or over-brighten spots of regular photos in ways that were much too heavy-handed for my taste. The result was photos that sometimes looked less real and too stylistic.

This year’s iPhone 15 Pro Max dials back on the HDR and gets “true-to-life renderings” (as Apple calls them) dialed in much more regularly — at least in my tests so far.  

Also: The best new features in iPhone 15, iOS 17, and Apple Watch – and how to use them

I tested the new camera system in a bunch of different environments and tried lots of different kinds of shots — taking about 1,000 photos in my first couple weeks with the iPhone 15 Pro Max. Below is a mix of different shots, including some of my favorites as well as ones that show the different capabilities of the camera, and a few of its challenges. In some cases, I’ve done some editing in the built-in Apple camera app or Adobe Lightroom to pull out the full quality of the photo.

Let’s start with a look at what Apple has designated as the seven different lenses on the iPhone 15 Pro Max camera system (Macro, 13mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 77mm, 120mm) to get high-quality shots at different distances, as shown in the image below from the Sep. 12, 2023 Apple Event where the iPhone 15 was announced.

7 lenses of the iPhone 15 Pro Max camera system

These are the 7 lenses of the iPhone 15 Pro Max camera system.

Apple

Also: Mastering the iPhone 15 Pro camera: Here’s what Apple’s marketing terms actually mean

I replicated this with six of the seven lenses in front of an Apple Store with a glossy mirrored storefront. I didn’t use Macro because I haven’t been very impressed with the quality of Macro mode and it also didn’t make sense for this shot. 

The same shot using 6 ‘lenses’ in the new camera system

Apple Store photo taken by iPhone 15 Pro Max at 13mm

Photo of Apple Store taken by iPhone 15 Pro Max at 13mm (straight out of camera).

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Apple Store photo taken by iPhone 15 Pro Max at 24mm

Photo of Apple Store taken by iPhone 15 Pro Max at 24mm (straight out of camera).

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Apple Store photo taken by iPhone 15 Pro Max at 28mm

Photo of Apple Store taken by iPhone 15 Pro Max at 28mm (straight out of camera).

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Apple Store photo taken by iPhone 15 Pro Max at 35mm

Photo of Apple Store taken by iPhone 15 Pro Max at 35mm (straight out of camera).

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Apple Store photo taken by iPhone 15 Pro Max at 77mm

Photo of Apple Store taken by iPhone 15 Pro Max at 77mm (straight out of camera).

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Apple Store photo taken by iPhone 15 Pro Max at 120mm

Photo of Apple Store taken by iPhone 15 Pro Max at 120mm (straight out of camera).

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

New York City

5x zoom photo in New York City from iPhone 15 Pro Max

This low-light 5x zoom (120mm) photo in New York City before dawn captures excellent detail and has minimal image noise. 

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Shot of wearing Solos AirGo3 smartglasses in front of New York skyline

This shot of the Solos AirGo3 smartglasses with the New York skyline in the background was taken with the back camera using the Apple Watch Series 9 remote camera app. The skin tone does have improved depth and accuracy.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Downtown New York City skyline shot by iPhone 15 Pro Max

Morning shot of the downtown New York City skyline shot in portrait mode with the 5x camera.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Empire State Building at night, taken with iPhone 15 Pro Max

This photo of the Empire State Building at night taken with the 5x zoom has impressive clarity and detail and only a little bit of image noise.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Midtown Manhattan skyline at night, taken by iPhone 15 Pro Max

This shot of Midtown Manhattan skyline at night also shows the quality of the 5x zoom (120mm) in low light.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Downtown Manhattan at dusk, taken by iPhone 15 Pro Max

Downtown Manhattan at dusk.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Sunset over New Jersey from Manhattan, taken by iPhone 15 Pro Max

This photo of the sun setting over New Jersey has a large sun flare artifact in the upper left side of the image. I could have easily removed this in Adobe Lightroom but I left it to show that the iPhone camera still struggles with lens flare. 

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Ultrawide angle shot of LaGuardia Airport, taken with iPhone 15 Pro Max

This ultrawide angle (13mm) shot taken at LaGuardia Airport shows the crispness and clarity of the iPhone 15 Pro Max ultrawide. 

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Sunrise out an airplane window (abstract), shot with iPhone 15 Pro Max

This sunrise photo was shot out of the dirty window of an airplane when the iPhone 15 Pro Max couldn’t find something to focus on. The result looks a bit like abstract art.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Louisville Zoo

Louisville Zoo entrance, taken with iPhone 15 Pro Max

This shot of the entrance of the Louisville Zoo at dawn shows good dynamic range with the colors of the sky in the background.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Louisville Zoo sign, show with iPhone 15 Pro Max

The Louisville Zoo sign with the dawn sky in the background, taken with 5x zoom.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Pelican photo taken with iPhone 15 Pro Max at the Louisville Zoo

This pelican photo taken at 120mm (5x) shows excellent detail in the feathers.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Polar bear photo taken at a zoo shows animal portrait mode in iPhone 15 Pro Max camera

This photo of Qannik the polar bear at the Louisville Zoo shows the quality of automatic animal portrait mode.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Polar bear at the zoo, taken with iPhone 15 Pro Max

This photo of Qannik walking shows how well the main camera can freeze motion.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Lioness at the Louisville Zoo, taken with iPhone 15 Pro Max

This photo of a lioness at the Louisville Zoo shows good dynamic range with the dappled sun spots on her side. This was taken with the 5x zoom and then cropped in a bit.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Rhino at the Louisville zoo, taken with iPhone 15 Pro Max

This photo of the white rhinoceros, Letterman, at the Louisville Zoo also shows good dynamic range from the 5x camera.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Bald eagle at the Louisville Zoo, taken with iPhone 15 Pro Max

This photo of a bald eagle at the Louisville Zoo shows very good detail in the feathers, captured by the 5x camera.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Festive fall shot at the Louisville Zoo, taken with iPhone 15 Pro Max

This festive fall shot shows good depth of field from the main camera without using portrait mode. 

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Portrait mode photo of African pots at Louisville Zoo

This shot of African pots, part of the scenery at the Louisville Zoo, was taken with portrait mode on the main camera. 

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Walking trail

Apple Watch Series 9 at trail entrance, taken with iPhone 15 Pro Max

This photo of Apple Watch Series 9 (which I’m also reviewing) at the entrance to the St Matthews Community Trail has good detail and color, but the iPhone 15 Pro Max did struggle to catch focus on the watch.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Trail photo, taken with iPhone 15 Pro Max

Walking and running trail, taken with main camera at 24MP.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Fall leaves on the trail at twilight, taken with iPhone 15 Pro Max

This photo of fall leaves on the trail at dusk (taken with the main camera at 24MP) shows excellent detail and a good capture of somewhat harsh light.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Photos of trees and sky from walking trail, taken with iPhone 15 Pro Max

This photo of trees and the sky from a walking trail (taken with the main camera at 24MP) shows good dynamic range and detail.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Sun setting through the trees, taken with iPhone 15 Pro Max

This photo of the sun setting through the trees, taken from a forest walking trail, picks up some odd details of leaves, which is interesting but also a bit distorted. 

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Sunflowers near a stream, taken with iPhone 15 Pro Max

This shot of sunflowers by a stream taken with the 5x camera shows the iPhone 15 Pro Max struggling to grab focus on the flowers and so the detail in the shot isn’t as good as it could be.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Vandalized tree on the walking trail, taken by iPhone 15 Pro Max

This shot shows good depth of field from the main camera at 24MP.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Lens flare from iPhone 15 Pro Max

This shot shows some of the iPhone’s excessive lens flare issues cropping back up, even with the lens coating that’s meant to reduce the issue.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Red berries hanging over a walking trail, taken by iPhone 15 Pro Max

This could have been a fun shot, but the iPhone 15 Pro Max struggled to grab focus on the berries and the tree branch in portrait mode, which sometimes has a hard time with inanimate objects. That also resulted in the bokeh effect being imprecise and not very good around the edges of the leaves. This was potentially a much better shot, but the camera couldn’t quite capture it.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Shopping

Gyros sign, taken by iPhone 15 Pro Max

This low-light shot of a restaurant sign taken with the 5x lens had more image noise than expected.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Mini Air Jordans, taken by iPhone 15 Pro Max

This photo of mini Air Jordans has good color and depth of field from the main camera at 24MP (not using portrait mode).

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Air Jordans, taken by iPhone 15 Pro Max

This photo of classic Air Jordans was taken with the main camera at 24MP.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

North Face hat, taken with iPhone 15 Pro Max

This photo of a North Face hat shows excellent depth of field from the main camera at 24MP.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Tiny butterfly shows, taken with iPhone 15 Pro Max

This photo of tiny butterfly shoes shows another example of excellent color from the main camera at 24MP.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Nike running shoes, taken by iPhone 15 Pro Max

Another example of strong depth of field and rich color from the main camera at 24MP.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

G.O.A.T. hat with excellent bokeh, taken by iPhone 15 Pro Max

This photo of a G.O.A.T. hat shows the excellent bokeh (background blur) that’s possible from the updated portrait mode. 

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Apple Store

Apple iPhone 15 Plus in black at an Apple Store

The iPhone 15 Plus in black has a very premium look and feel, and it’s captured nicely by the iPhone 15 Pro Max at an Apple Store.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

AirPods Max at an Apple Store, captured by iPhone 15 Pro Max

This photo of the AirPods Max on display at an Apple Store was taken with the main camera (24mm and 24MP). 

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Apple Watch Ultra 2, captured by iPhone 15 Pro Max

This photo of the Apple Watch Ultra 2 catches excellent depth of field (without portrait mode on), decent bokeh, and good color — from the main camera, which most people will use without ever changing the settings.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Apple Watch Series 9 display at an Apple Store

This photo of an Apple Watch Series 9 display at an Apple Store shows good dynamic range and vibrant colors. 

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max

The iPhone 15 Pro in front of an Apple Store, taken with iPhone 15 Pro Max at 24mm

The iPhone 15 Pro in front of an Apple Store, taken with iPhone 15 Pro Max at 24mm.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

iPhone 15 Pro (Blue Titanium) in hand, in front of an Apple Store

The iPhone 15 Pro in Blue Titanium, as photographed by the 24mm main camera of the iPhone 15 Pro Max.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

iPhone 15 Pro photo taken with iPhone 15 Pro Max in portrait mode

This iPhone 15 Pro photo was taken with iPhone 15 Pro Max in portrait mode.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

iPhone 15 Pro in Blue Titanium, taken by iPhone 15 Pro Max

This photo of the iPhone 15 Pro in Blue Titanium was taken by iPhone 15 Pro Max in a furniture store and shows good skin tone and depth of field from the main camera.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET


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