An Amateur Photographer’s Long-Term Review of the iPhone 12 Pro Camera System

I bought an iPhone 12 Pro mid-cycle in March 2021 and have been shooting with it for the past several months in a variety of weather conditions. I was very pleased with the iPhone 11 Pro with the exception of the green lens flares that too-frequently erupt when shooting with it at night. Consider this a longish-term review of the 12 Pro with comparisons to the 11 Pro, and scattered with photos taken exclusively with the 12 Pro and edited in Apple Photos and Darkroom on iOS.

Background

I’m by definition an amateur photographer; I shoot using my iPhone as well as a Fuji X100F, and get out to take photos at least once or twice a week during photo walks that last a few hours. I don’t earn any money from making photos and shoot with it for my own personal enjoyment. Most of my photos are street or urban photography, with a smattering of landscape shots and photos of friends and family thrown in.

To be clear up front: this is not a review of the iPhone 12 Pro, proper, but just the camera system. This said, it’s worth noting that the hardware differences between the iPhone 11 Pro and 12 Pro are pretty minor. The 26mm lens is now f/1.6 and the 13mm can be used with night mode. At a software level, the 12 Pro introduced the ability to shoot Apple ProRAW and introduced Smart HDR 3, as well as Deep Fusion to improve photographic results in low to middling light. Deep Fusion, in particular, has no discernible effect on the shots I take, but maybe I’m just not pixel peeping enough to see what it’s doing.

For the past few years I’ve shot with a number of cameras, including: an iPhone 6 and 7, and 11 Pro, a Fuji X100 and 100F, a Sony RX1002, and an Olympus EM10ii. I’ve printed my work in a couple personal books, and also printed photos from all these systems at various sizes and hang the results on my walls. When I travel it’s with a camera or two in tow. If you want a rough gauge of the kinds of photos I take you might want to take a gander at my Instagram.

Also, while I own a bunch of cameras, photos are my jam. I’ll be focusing mostly on how well the iPhone 12 Pro makes images with a small aside to talk about its video capabilities. For more in-depth technical reviews of the 12 Pro I’d suggest checking out Halide’s blog.

The Body

The iPhone 11 Pro had a great camera system but it was always a bit awkward to hold the phone when shooting because of its rounded edges. Don’t get me wrong, it helped the phone feel more inviting than the 12 Pro but was less ideal for actual daily photography and I find it easier to get, and retain, a strong grip on the 12 Pro. Your mileage may vary.

I kept my 11 Pro in an Apple silicon case and I do the same for the 12 Pro. One of the things I do with some regularity is press my phone right against glass to reduce glare when I’m shooting through a window or other transparent substance. With the 12 Pro’s silicon case I can do this without the glass I’m pressed against actually touching the lens because there’s a few millimetres between the case and the lens element. The same was also true of my 11 Pro and the Apple silicon case I had attached to it.

I like the screen of the 12 Pro, though I liked the screen in the 11 Pro as well. Is there a difference? Yeah, a bit, insofar as my blacks are more black on the 12 Pro but I wouldn’t notice the difference unless the 11 Pro and 12 Pro were right against one another. I can see both clearly enough to frame shots in sunny days while shooting which is what I really care about.

While the phone doesn’t have any ability to tilt the screen to frame shots, you can use a tripod to angle your phone and then frame and shoot using an Apple Watch if you have one. It’s a neat function and you can actually use an Apple Watch as a paired screen if you’re taking video using the main lenses. I tend to shoot handheld, however, and so only have used the Apple Watch trick when shooting a video using the main cameras on the back of the 12 Pro.

I don’t ever really use the flash so I can’t comment on it, though I do occasionally use the flash as a light to illuminate subjects I’m shooting with another camera. It’s not amazing but it works in a pinch.

The battery is so-so based on my experience. The 12 Pro’s battery is a tad smaller than the one in my 11 Pro, which means less capacity, though in the five months I’ve owned the 12 Pro the battery health hasn’t degraded at all which wasn’t the case with the 11 Pro. This said, if I’m out shooting exclusively with the 12 Pro I’m going to bring a battery pack with me just like when I went out for a day of shooting with the 11 Pro. If it’s not a heavy day of shooting, however, I reliably end the day with 20% or more battery after the 12 Pro has been off the charger for about 14-17 hours with middling usage.

Probably the coolest feature of the new 12 series iPhones is their ability to use magnetic attachments. I’ve been using a Luma Cube Telepod Tripod stand paired with a Moment Tripod Mount with MagSafe. It’s been pretty great for video conferences and is the coolest hardware feature that was added to the 12-line of phones in my opinion. It’s a shame that there isn’t a wider ecosystem supporting this hardware feature this many months after release.

Camera App

The default Apple camera app is fine, I guess. I like that you can now set the exposure and the app will remember it, which has helpfully meant that I can slightly under-expose my shots by default as is my preference. However, the default app still lacks a spirit guide which is really, really, really stupid, and especially so in a so-called “Pro” camera that costs around $2,000 (CAD) after Apple Care, a case, and taxes. It’s particularly maddening given that the phone includes a gyroscope that is used for so many other things in the default camera app like providing guidance when taking pano shots or top-down shots, and so forth.

It’s not coming back, but I’m still annoyed at how Apple changed burst mode in iOS. It used to be you could hold the shutter button in the native camera app or the volume rocker to active a burst but now you hold the shutter button and pull it to the left. It’s not a muscle memory I’ve developed and also risks screwing up my compositions when I’m shooting on the street so I don’t really use burst anymore which is a shame.

As a note, I edit almost all my photos in the Darkroom extension for Photos. It crashes all the damn time and it is maddening. I’d hoped these crashes would go away when I upgraded from the 11 Pro to the 12 Pro but they haven’t. It is very, very, very frustrating. And the crashes happen all the damn time.

Image Quality

In a theoretical world upgrading my camera would lead to huge differences in image quality, but in practice that’s rarely the case. It is especially not the case when shifting from the 11 Pro to the 12 Pro, save for in very particular situations. The biggest change and improvement that is noticeable in daily situations is when you’re shooting scenes where there is significant dynamism in the scene, such as when you’re outside on a bright day; the sky and the rest of the scene are kept remarkably intact without your highlights or shadows being blown out. Even when compared to a camera with an APS-C or Micro 4/3 sensor it’s impressive, and I can get certain bright day shots with the iPhone 12 Pro that wouldn’t be possible to easily capture with my Fujifilm X100F or Olympus EM10ii.

The other upgrade is definitely that, due to sensor and computational power, you can get amazing lowlight shots using the ultra-wide lens using Night Mode. Shots are sometimes a bit noisy or blotchy but still I can get photos that are impossible to otherwise get handheld with an APS-C sensor.

Relatedly, the ultra-wide’s correction for distortion is pretty great and it’s noticeably better than the ultra-wide lens correction on the 11 Pro. If you’re shooting wide angle a lot then this is likely one of the few software improvements you’ll actually benefit from with some regularity.

One of the most heralded features of the 12 Pros was the ability to shoot ProRaw. In bright conditions it’s not worth using; I rarely detect a noticeable improvement in quality nor does it significantly enhance how I can edit a photo in those cases. However, in darker situations or more challenging low-light indoor situations it can be pretty helpful in retaining details that can be later recovered. That said, it hasn’t transformed how I shoot per se; it’s a nice-to-have, but not something that you’re necessarily going to use all the time.

You might ask how well portrait mode works but, given that I don’t use it that often, I can’t comment much beyond that it’s a neat feature that is sufficiently inconsistent that I don’t use it for much of anything. There are some exceptions, such as when shooting portraits at family events, but on the whole I remain impressed with it from a technology vantage point while being disappointed in it from a photographer’s point of view. If I want a shallow depth of field and need to get a shot I’m going to get one of my bigger cameras and not risk the shot with the 12 Pro.

Video

I don’t really shoot video, per se, and so don’t have a lot of experience with the quality of video production on it. Others have, however, very positively discussed about the capabilities of the cameras and I trust what they’ve said.

That said, I did a short video for a piece I wrote and it turned out pretty well. We shot using the ‘normal’ lens at 4K and my employer’s video editor subsequently graded the video. This was taken in low-light conditions and I used my Apple Watch as a screen so I could track what I was doing while speaking to camera.

I’ve also used my iPhone 12 Pro for pretty well all the numerous video conferences, government presentations (starting at 19:45), classes I’ve taught, and media engagements I’ve had over the course of the pandemic. In those cases I’ve used the selfie camera and in almost all situations persons on the other side of the screen have commented on the high quality of my video. I take that as a recommendation of the quality of the selfie cameras for video-related purposes.

Frustrations

I’ll be honest: what I most hoped would be better with the iPhone 12 Pro was that the default Photos app would play better with extensions. I use Darkroom as my primary editing application and after editing 5-10 photos the extension reliably crashes and I need to totally close out Photos before I can edit using the extension again.1 It is frustrating and it sucks.

What else hasn’t improved? The 12 Pro still has green lens flares when I take photos at night. It is amazingly frustrating that, despite all the computing power in the 12 Pro, this is an issue that Apple’s software engineers can’t fix given the current inability of their hardware engineers to resolve the issue. Is this a problem? Yes, it is, especially if you ever shoot at night. None of my other-less expensive-cameras suffer from this, and it’s maddening the 12 Pro still does. It’s made worse by the fact that the Photos app doesn’t include a healing tool to remove these gross little flares and, thus, requires me to use another app (typically Snapseed) to get rid of them.

Finally, I find that the shots with the 12 Pro are often too sharpened to my preference, which means that I tend to turn down the clarity in Darkroom to soften a lot of the photos I take. It’s an easy fix, though (again) not one you can correct in the default Photos application.

Conclusion

So what do I think of the iPhone 12 Pro? It’s the best non-Fuji X100F that I typically have when I’m out and about, and the water resistance means I’m never worried to shoot with it in the elements.2

If I have a choice, do I shoot with the Fuji X100F or the iPhone 12 Pro? If a 35mm equivalent works, then I shoot with the Fuji. But if I want a wide angle shot it’s pretty common for me to pull the 12 Pro and use it, even while out with the Fuji. They’ve got very different colour profiles but I still like using them both. Sometimes I even go on photowalks with just the 12 Pro and come back with lots of keepers.

This is all to say that the X100F and 12 Pro are both pretty great tools. I’m a fan of them both.

So…is the 12 Pro a major upgrade from the 11 Pro? Not at all. A bigger upgrade from earlier iPhones? Yeah, probably more so. I like the 12 Pro and use it everyday as a smartphone, and I like it as a camera. I also liked the 11 Pro as a portable camera and phone as well.

Should you buy the 12 Pro? Only if you really want the telephoto and the ability to edit ProRaw files. If that’s not you, then you’re probably going to be well off saving a chunk of change and getting the regular 12, instead.

(Note: All photos taken with an iPhone 12 Pro and edited to taste in Apple Photos and Darkroom.)


  1. Yes, I can edit right in Darkroom, and I do, but it’s not as convenient. ↩︎

  2. I admit to not treating the X100F with a lot of respect but I don’t use it when it’s pouring rain. The same isn’t true of the iPhone 12 Pro. ↩︎