October 13th, 2019
It's not often that I get the chance to take advantage of the latest and greatest iPhone. My iPhone is generally a cycle or two behind what's current and that's OK. This year, however, my two year cycle of replacing my existing phone coincided with the release of the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro. I was in a fortunate position to be able to consider an upgrade to the latest and greatest and so I did. I traded my iPhone 8 for the iPhone 11 Pro and have been using it regularly for the past several weeks. The reviews are mostly spot-on. It's a great phone with a seriously impressive camera that could also use a little bit of improvement.
There is virtually nothing to complain about in regards to the performance and day-to-day use of the iPhone 11 Pro. It's fast with excellent battery life. I'm not an iPhone power user in the sense that I do not watch a lot of video media, play a lot of games, or record video — basically all of the things that indicate battery potential. I use my phone primarily for phone calls, listening to music, occasional Google Maps, and taking photographs. On average I end my day with about 70% battery which I figure is about an extra hour more than what I would have got with my iPhone 8 under similar use.
If you are an iPhone 8 user wondering if the difference in speed and overall performance is noticeable between it and the iPhone 11 Pro I would say that it is noticeable, but not wildly so. Before I traded in my iPhone 8 I did a side-by-side comparison between them both and was surprised by how well the iPhone 8 performed. Yes, the overall iOS experience on the iPhone 11 Pro is faster but the perceived difference in speed I thought was rather negligible. I would argue the same goes for the display. The display on the iPhone 11 Pro is better than the iPhone 8 display thanks to the OLED panel, but you might be surprised by how well the iPhone 8 display compares. Color and contrast are rendered better on the iPhone 11 Pro, but they rendered nicely on the iPhone 8 too. I was reminded of how well Apple has continued to manage their LCD displays. What I do thoroughly enjoy more about the iPhone 11 Pro, however, is the full front display. The extra screen real estate is quite nice.
The most substantial change are with the cameras and image processing. The iPhone 11 Pro now features three cameras: a 13mm wide-angle lens with an f1.8 apeture, a 26mm standard lens with an f2.0 apeture, and a 51mm telephoto lens with an f2.4 apeture. Optical image stabilization (OIS) is supported for the standard and telephoto lens while the wide-angle does not have OIS — camera shake is far less of an issue on a wide-angle lens. Besides the cameras, Apple has made some serious updates to its computational photography to improve images with high dynamic range, along with improved lighting effects for portraits. It made sense that Apple would put their best effort forward to improve what is arguably more important than the camera hardware, the software.
If you keep your expectations in line with what can be expected from a 12 megapixel sensor, the image quality is truly impressive. Straight-out-of-camera jpegs are pleasant and respond decent to minor image editing. I took this photograph of the Washington Memorial using the wide-angle lens and, other than some minor editing to reduce the saturation and increase the exposure, everything was handled rather nicely by Apple's image processing.
High dynamic range scenes have improved as well but don't expect noiseless miracles. If you tend to be a pixel peeper you'll see some aggresive noise reduction employed by Apple's image processing. But, again, keeping reasonable expectations in mind it's hard to argue with the quality. Image quality can be improved slightly by utilizing RAW capture, but Apple makes you work for it. This is my complaint with the iPhone 11 Pro, or any iPhone for that matter.
RAW photo capture has been an option supported by iOS for a few years now. Apple, however, continues to make RAW photo capture a third-party app solution only. While there are several third-party apps that handle RAW capture support, it would be extremely useful to have RAW capture supported directly by the default Camera app — either as a toggle button or a settings option like Android. With each iOS release, I'm finding it less necessary to use third-party camera apps since the default Camera app works so well. Adding RAW support would make it that much better and slightly more befitting of it's 'Pro' name.
When you are able to capture RAW images uing apps like Adobe Lightroom Mobile or Halide, images exhibit an impressive amount of highlight and shadow recovery. I took the two images below in less than ideal lightning conditions and the RAW files handled highlight and shadow recovery well. Interestingly, RAW capture is not supported for the wide-angle lens. Here's hoping that Apple enables that feature in a future update.
To be fair, you don't necessarily need RAW images. The benefits are generally limited to high dynamic range scenes. For the vast majority of situations, the default Camera app handles everything quite nicely and is often easier to use. It is also scheduled to get a bit better too with Apple's upcoming Deep Fusion update, which uses computational photography to improve image quality. Sample images look promising.
I will end this by summarizing my experience as both a user and a photographer. As a user, the iPhone 11 Pro has been great. Earlier I spoke about some of the negligible differences that I found between my iPhone 8 and iPhone 11 Pro. By themselves those statements stand on their own, but I also recognize that people don't often approach smartphones from that perspective. Rather, it's the overall experience of using a smartphone and the iPhone 11 Pro is greater than the sum of its parts. Is it worth upgrading if you have an iPhone 8? Yes.
As a photographer, the improvements that Apple has made to their camera hardware and software are noticeably significant. There are far fewer limitations with the iPhone 11 Pro versus my iPhone 8 and my confidence with taking the photographs I want to take with the iPhone 11 Pro is far greater. Despite some feature fragmentation between the default camera app and other third-party camera apps, there simply aren't many things to complain about. As a flagship phone, the iPhone 11 Pro delivers.