Many wonder whether the iPhone 11 is as good as a DSLR camera, like the Sony A7III. (Josh Barde)
Many wonder whether the iPhone 11 is as good as a DSLR camera, like the Sony A7III.

Josh Barde

Separating performance from hype: iPhone 11 Pro

May 21, 2020

Over 1.2 trillion digital photos are taken each year worldwide, and 85% of those photos come from smartphones; however, those smartphone users often don’t know the quality or potential of their camera.

Apple has been at the top of innovation for over 11 years since their first smartphone came out in 2007. Since then, they have made dramatic improvements to the camera. With their new double and triple camera system, the question of whether the iPhone is on par with a professional camera has made professional photographers and tech reviewers curious to see if it lives up to the hype. 

The iPhone 11 Pro has a three-camera system that allows the phone to have incredible telezoom and wide-angle features. The system consists of a wide camera (f/1.8 aperture), an ultra-wide camera (f/2.4 aperture), and a TrueDepth camera (f/2.2 aperture). 

Digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras, on the other hand, can switch between different lenses, which allows the photographer to get really close to or far away from an object without moving. DSLR cameras also have the ability to reach an aperture as low as f/1.4, giving it an edge up. But, Apple has made up for the iPhone’s smaller aperture by using software techniques.

“A DSLR has an advantage simply because the lens has a much larger aperture and can gather much more light. Nothing beats more photons. What Apple has done brilliantly is compensating for small aperture lenses with amazing software,” said Daniel Lipton, a senior software engineer at Apple.

The next-generation smart high dynamic range (HDR) on the iPhone allows photos to have a wider variety of colors and brighter highlights. This will enable pictures to be punchier and to also have more natural colors. 

“The color science in the iPhone is next to perfect as well as the high dynamic range. That’s the only thing I’d say is beating the majority of DSLR and mirrorless cameras as of now,” said Hayden Pedersen, a photographer and filmmaker.

Night Mode

Photo taken with a DSLR camera. (Josh Barde)
Photo taken with an iPhone in Night mode. (Josh Barde)

Night mode is a new feature that was released with the iPhone 11, and it’s mainly used in low-light situations. The image sensor reads the light differently, allowing one’s photos to become more luminous and detailed even if there is no light around.

Apple has also implemented the option to use up to a 10-second shutter speed, which makes the photo a lot brighter. However, most DSLR cameras can go beyond 30 seconds for shutter speed.

“Night mode is incredible, but you can’t do it on the wide-angle yet which kind of sucks because the wide-angle is so good on the iPhone. Once there’s night mode on the wide-angle, it will be a game-changer,” Pedersen said.

The iPhone does a spectacular job of letting in a lot of light when there is little of it, but in places with a lot of texture, noise or grain tend to pop up. Additionally, the sides of the photo can become blurry, unlike the DSLR.

In the pictures above, the DSLR camera was able to keep the clearness in the background and on the horizon, whereas the iPhone lost some of that.

Regardless, the iPhone seems to handle itself pretty well in low-light situations, given that it has such a small camera.

Portrait Mode

Photo taken with a DSLR camera. (Josh Barde)
Photo taken with an iPhone in Portrait mode. (Josh Barde)

Portrait mode was introduced to the iPhone in 2016 and has improved a lot since then. Apple’s software creates a shallow depth of field, which is the blurriness people seem to like. It can capture a lot of details in the face but often has trouble with creating bokeh — the smooth blur — around the subject.

iPhone Portrait mode also adds a filter over one’s face, which cleans up impurities. But, this may make parts of the photo look unnatural.

“Portrait mode still needs a lot of work for it to be as believable as that of a DSLR or a mirrorless [camera] with a portrait lens because the bokeh is pretty unrealistic,” Pedersen said.

An example of Apple’s software not being able to add bokeh effectively is seen in the picture above; there is a spot between the fisherman’s hands and his sweatshirt where bokeh is missing. Contrarily, DSLR cameras have no problem with this effect, as it is not artificially made; it creates the soft blur simply with a small aperture.

“Often on the iPhone, the details provided in the photo isn’t enough to make it pop. When you need an image to pop, you’ll want that detail to work with. The texture of fabrics and skin, the detail in the eyes, and being able to see each eyelash are all so important in an image,” said Jeff Bartee, a professional photographer. 


Photo taken with a DSLR camera. (Josh Barde)
Photo taken with an iPhone in Landscape mode. (Josh Barde)

With the new wide-angle camera on the iPhone, landscape shots can capture a lot more of the scenery than before. In good lighting, the iPhone can also pick up more details, creating an all-around high-quality photo. 

For instance, the iPhone picture above looks similar to the one by the DSLR, even on the horizon and in the background. Also, the blues in the sky and water are much more dramatic than in the DSLR. 

“Everyone has a pretty dang good camera in their pocket at all times now. It will be interesting to see how close [iPhones] can get to being a fully functional camera,” said Chris Burkard, a professional photographer. 

For any regular iPhone user, they may not need a full DSLR camera, as the camera on their phone is often sufficient enough. 

“iPhones are expensive. However, most people need a phone; they don’t need a camera. If you can have both in one, not only is it worth the money, but it’s also super convenient,” Pedersen said. 

It’s evident that Apple has stepped up their game when it comes to camera technology, and even if they aren’t entirely on par with a DSLR, they are getting pretty close.

Bartee said, “For most people, without question, the iPhone is the camera that makes the most sense to carry. It’s what I carry if I am headed out the door for a casual night with friends. It’s a camera you can have with you all the time and not have to think about it.”

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