iPhone XS Max in-depth camera review: Apple hasn’t snuck in a secret beauty mode

I want to start this camera review of the iPhone XS Max by saying, “I am tired.”

My initial plan was to just compare the iPhone XS Max against the Pixel 2 and the OnePlus 6. In fact, we’ve even put up a blind test on our YouTube channel comparing the phones. However, after analysing all the pictures, I was in a fix. The iPhone XS Max was doing a great job with dynamic range and colour accuracy but the finer details were not on par with the other two phones. A lot of folks who saw the video were surprised at the lack of finer details on the iPhone XS Max samples. 

Also read: OnePlus 6 review: upholds its legacy of being the fastest phone on the planet

Therefore, I decided to dig deeper and spent three whole days to analyse close to 300 samples from different cameras just to find out what’s up with Apple’s new image algorithm. It is entirely different. In fact, I have an answer to the whole #BeautyGate scandal by Unbox Therapy in this review.

Let’s get down to the most extensive and exhausting camera review I’ve done in my seven years as a professional gadget reviewer. 

P.S. click on the image to check out the full resolution samples of all the images. 

Specs and new features

The specs of the iPhone XS and XS Max are largely unchanged, except for the fact that you now get a larger 1.4-micron pixel size sensor on the primary 12MP camera. You can take a look at the detailed specs in the infographic. 

Apple has added a few new features to the camera. Firstly, there is a Smart HDR mode, which works in conjunction with the new Image Signal Processor (ISP) on the A12 Bionic to capture better HDR shots.

And secondly, you can change the aperture – and the depth – after shooting an image in the Gallery app. In fact, iOS 12.1 will let you change the aperture settings in the live preview as well. While the default aperture is set to f/4.5, you can move anywhere between f/1.4 and f/16. Honestly, this is not a new feature as such. Android phone makers like Huawei and Vivo have been doing this for ages now. 

 

Smart HDR

Before we talk about Smart HDR, the first thing you need to know is that Apple’s new algorithm – in conjunction with the powerful NPU on the A12 Bionic – takes four buffer shots at one go to reduce shutter lag. And, with Smart HDR turned on the algorithm also takes interframes, and a long exposure shot, to further improve the dynamic range.

 

Here are a couple of things that I noticed about Smart HDR.

  1. By default, Smart HDR is turned on. But in case you want to turn it off, you will have to go into the main settings to do so. Apple makes it really hard to switch modes and there is no option inside the camera. It is rather annoying. Thankfully, switching between apps on the new gesture-based navigation – first introduced in the iPhone X – is just a matter of sliding the tab at the bottom. So, that makes things slightly less irritating.
  2. Smart HDR shoots an HDR shot at will. Which means that it is an automatic mode that fires only when it feels like. 

In my testing, I noticed that a lot of my issues with the image quality had to do with the aggressive noise reduction algorithm in Normal mode. Thankfully, Smart HDR doesn’t smudge the details as much as a normal shot does. You can take a look at the example below. This happens a lot in less than ideal lighting conditions. 

Normal

Smart HDR

I have a sample for you guys. Above is a photo of our video editor Nitesh. I shot this photo against the tube lights in our office and therefore the iPhone XS Max decided to take both a normal shot and a Smart HDR shot. You can clearly see that the details on Nitesh’s face are completely smoothened out by the algorithm. This is clearly an issue because you have absolutely no control over Smart HDR and when it fires. Because if it doesn’t, you will end up with smudged details. 

Normal

Smart HDR

When I took a selfie, the scenario was different. The normal shot was replete with noise and Smart HDR does a good noise reduction without killing the details. And, this explains the whole #BeautyGate scandal better than anything else. 

I have two solutions for this:

  1. Switch on Smart HDR and learn how and when Apple’s algorithm decides to switch on HDR. 
  2. Or, just switch on HDR by default, sit back, and take the best photos every single time. Simple. 

But, I have to be entirely honest here, this is a problem and I really hope Apple releases an update to fix the whole Smart HDR mess soon. 

Portrait mode

Apple has really upped the ante on its Portrait mode algorithm. I have no doubt in my mind that Apple’s portrait mode is the closest you can get to DSLR quality. Just take a look at the shots. I have the Mi A2 and the Pixel 2 for comparison here. You can clearly see that the iPhone XS Max’s sample is crisp! From the colour accuracy, to the details, to the edge detection, iPhone just creams the other two phones. The Pixel 2’s image literally looks pale in comparison. Get it?

iPhone XS Max

Pixel 2

Mi A2

Also, the iPhone XS Max takes good portrait shots in low light as well, thanks to the new Smart HDR feature. But, the f/2.4 aperture still struggles to get the right amount of exposure, which the Oneplus 6 has no problem with. One look and everyone would want to pick the OnePlus 6 over the other two phones. But pixel peeping will immediately show you that OnePlus has an aggressive noise reduction at work. If you are into that sort of thing, then you might not have a problem. But technically, it is an issue. 

iPhone XS Max

OnePlus 6

Pixel 2

Overall though, I am a fan of the iPhone XS Max’s portrait mode. It is the single best thing about the camera on the phone. 

Sensor performance

This is the most important part of the review because it reveals a lot of details about the new iPhones. And this is where I was surprised at the lack of finer details. Trust me, I took so many shots just to be sure that I wasn’t missing out on something. However, after pixel peeping through a swathe of photos, I am convinced that the iPhone XS Max’s sensor just cannot resolve the finer details well. 

iPhone XS Max

Mi A2

In the first shot, we have a Celosia Cristata flower or more commonly known as the cock’s comb from our office garden. This decorative flower has a lot of fine details that can test the limits of any sensor. Remember we are only looking for details here and therefore I am not going to comment on the colour science. When you see the flower at 100% crop, you will notice that the Pixel 2 and the OnePlus 6 offer a lot of details compared to the iPhone XS Max and the Mi A2. It is expected from a budget phone like the Mi A2 but not the OnePlus 6. Mind you, this is a Smart HDR shot that was fired by the iPhone. 

OnePlus 6

Pixel 2

Moving on to the Smart HDR shot of a wider landscape. I was stunned at the lack of finer details on the iPhone XS Max. Honestly, there is an issue here because I took this shot at least 10 times before finalising on that one perfect shot. Take a look at the 100% crop of four different parts of the image. Just clock on the images to see the full resolution crop. While the Pixel 2 has the cleanest sensor details of all, the OnePlus 6 over sharpens the image. 

iPhone XS Max

OnePlus 6

Pixel 2

The iPhone’s sensor is seriously not as well resolving as the one on the Pixel 2 and the OnePlus 6. I am not going to mince my words here, I am not a fan of the 12MP sensor inside the iPhone XS Max. 

 

But if you are shooting images that don’t have such fine information, you will get some stunning shots. So, don’t expect the iPhone to bring out details from the finer strands of hair in a dog or the finer details in flowers, but for everything else, it works just fine. 

Dynamic range performance

Since Apple has improved the dynamic range performance of the iPhone XS Max, you get some great dynamic range in most shots. For this test, I switched off SmartHDR and used the HDR toggle manually. Without getting into the finer details, I can tell you that Apple has done a spectacular job here. It has the smoothest gradient in the sky on the rear from the blue to the flow of light orange of the evening sky. 

iPhone XS Max non-HDR

iPhone XS Max HDR

Yes, that orange looks more pronounced in the other two shots but that is an enhanced version of what my eyes saw. But, the iPhone’s sample loses out on details in the fine lines of the leaves on the stub owing to overexposure issues.

OnePlus 6 non-HDR

OnePlus 6 HDR

I actually saw this a lot during my time with the iPhone XS Max. And it is true because, with HDR on, the iPhone XS Max tends to overexpose for some odd reason. Overall though, I am still happy with the performance. 

Pixel 2 non-HDR

Pixel 2 HDR

Indoor

A lot of us do end up taking shots indoors compared to outdoors with our phones. And evidently, the iPhone XS Max takes some great shots under tube lights or artificial lights. It lights up the subject evenly and offers plenty of details on the face. The facial tones are pretty accurate too. Surprisingly, the Pixel 2 does the worst job of the lot here. The OnePlus 6 comes a close second but the unnecessary over-sharpening is still slightly annoying. You can see that it kills the smoother details in Ashish’s neck, which has been well preserved by the other two phones. 

iPhone XS Max

OnePlus 6

Pixel 2

Coming to the selfies taken indoor, the iPhone XS Max does pretty well for itself but it is the Pixel 2 that steals the show. I mean, the whole Google algorithm for smartphone photography does an incredible job of retaining details even in selfies. The OnePlus 6 captures a dreamy sort of image with an aura around my face. While it does make me look good, I don’t think that is how the scene looked. 

iPhone XS Max

OnePlus 6

Pixel 2

Zoom (telephoto) performance

The secondary telephoto camera on the iPhone XS Max has improved by leaps and bounds for sure. I am not even kidding, the telephoto lens offers far more details and crispness compared to the regular lens. Sometimes I really wonder if something is wrong with my iPhone XS Max’s primary camera. 

iPhone XS Max wide

iPhone XS max zoom

Selfie and selfie portrait

Taking a look at the selfie portraits first, you will notice that the iPhone XS Max and the Pixel 2 produce spectacular images. The iPhone has the best edge detection, and the fact that you can fine tune it later just makes it even more appreciable. The Pixel 2 botches up the edge detection, as you can see in the top part of the hair. The OnePlus 6’s image looks too hazy if you ask me. 

iPhone XS Max selfie portrait

Pixel 2 selfie portrait

OnePlus 6 selfie portrait

Moving on to regular selfies, the iPhone XS Max’ TrueTone camera springs to life with a stunningly detailed photo with near accurate facial tones. This is the kind of selfie performance you come to expect from a flagship phone. Tell me where is the whole “beauty effect” here? That whole #BeautyGate scandal was slightly blown out of proportion if you ask me. Not that the iPhone doesn’t smoothen out the details, but it doesn’t happen when Smart HDR is on. So, that’s great. The Pixel 2 continues to be exceptionally good once again. Overall, I am pretty happy about the iPhone’s selfie performance and most selfie fans needn’t worry about quality. Just ensure that you switch off Smart HDR and switch on HDR by default. The iPhone XS Max’s super powerful A12 chip can handle all the processing with ease.

iPhone XS Max selfie

Pixel 2 selfie

OnePlus 6 selfie

Lowlight

When you look at the lowlight shots captured by the three phones, you will immediately notice a difference in the colour science of all the three samples. While the OnePlus 6 goes for an overall cooler temperature, the Pixel 2 is extremely warm. What I like about the iPhone XS Max’s shot is that it has a brilliant control over the light bleed. Take a look at the JMD Megapolis and Studio Pepperfry signages to judge for yourself.

iPhone XS Max

OnePlus 6

Pixel 2

Coming to the next sample, which is a wide shot, the iPhone XS Max does a brilliant job with the colour temperature once again. It is a natural colour temperature compared to the warm tone on the Pixel 2 and the reddish hue on the OnePlus 6. Moreover, zooming in reveals that the iPhone manages to retain a great amount of details. Zooming into specific parts, like the bushes at the bottom or the signages, reveals the sensor performance of the iPhone XS Max in lowlight is absolutely great. 

iPhone XS Max

OnePlus 6

Pixel 2

The OnePlus 6 tends to smudge the details with extreme noise compression and the Pixel 2 doesn’t do much to reduce the noise. I am really glad that Apple has managed to fix the low light performance to this extent, which was honestly the Achilles heel of Apple’s smartphone cameras till date. This makes me wonder that the problem with the loss of details in the sensor in daylight shots is more to do with the image algorithm than the sensor itself. I am sure RAW output will be better.

Flash performance 

The iPhone XS Max’s Quad-LED Dual-Tone flash has been improved, according to Apple. I don’t see any difference as such. It is still very focussed on lighting up the subject and the subject alone. And therefore, the periphery remains underexposed.

iPhone XS Max

Pixel 2

OnePlus 6

The Pixel 2 offers a far better even lighting across the frame of the image and therefore it remains my pick for great flash performance. The OnePlus 6 ended up overexposing the subject, which sucks for the phone. 

Action shots

The addition of new four new buffer frames in the algorithm means that the iPhone XS Max should be able to reduce shutter lag and take crisper action shots. Well, that’s not really happening. I managed some decent shots but the OP6 and the Pixel 2 are doing a slightly better job in capturing the details. These phones are also keeping the details clean when the subject is in motion. The iPhone XS Max is not bad but it is not able to keep the same level of crispness across the frame with different subjects in motion. 

iPhone XS Max

OnePlus 6

Pixel 2

Having said that, the exposure and the colour science is incredible on the iPhone XS Max. If you don’t care about pixel peeping then the XS Max takes some good looking action shots at first glance. 

Video performance

We’ve come to the final and the most important part of the review where the iPhone XS Max eats the competition RAW. Firstly, the iPhone XS Max can shoot 4K 60fps video that is optically stabilised. Plus Apple has an improved spatial stereo recording now. And, you also get 1080p 60fps recording on the front camera.

The 4K 60 fps footage captured by the iPhone XS Max looks plain stunning. From accurate colours to crisp details, the iPhone does a great job. The OnePlus 6 and the Pixel 2 have saturated colours that look good but are not real. Also, the Pixel 2’s video stabilisation is phenomenal but note that video recording tops out at 30fps in 4K. Regardless, I have no complaints with the stabilisation on any phone. 

When it comes to footage from the front camera, the iPhone XS Max tops the performance charts with crisp colours and clear sound recording as well. 

And, do I even have to explain that the 1080p 240fps slow motion footage looks the best on the iPhone? It is clearly unbeatable in that regard.  

Final thoughts on the iPhone XS Max camera

The iPhone XS Max’s camera is a big jump in low light and Portrait photography from the iPhone X. No doubt. And, if you love shooting a lot of videos or taking portraits, the iPhone XS and XS Max should provide you with the best flagship camera performance.

As for the #BeautyGate scandal, as perpetrated by Lou from Unbox Therapy, I am fairly confident that it was because of the excessive noise reduction algorithm adopted by Apple for normal shots. If you shoot using the HDR mode, it will definitely fix that problem. 

If you are spending upwards of Rs 1 lakh on a phone, it better come with the best cameras. But alas, the iPhone XS Max is the best only in certain areas. It is not the ABSOLUTE best, just yet. Come on Apple, high time you poached the camera engineer from Huawei. Just kidding, fix the Smart HDR for now. That’s all. 

Also read: Can the Huawei P20 Pro’s triple cameras beat the Sony Alpha 6300 – a mirrorless camera?

To sum it up though, I am really glad that Apple has made such great strides in imaging. But I sincerely want the company to push the envelope a little and create a camera like the one on the Huawei P20 Pro. That’s not asking for too much no?

A lot of effort goes into making such comprehensive reviews and comparisons. Do let us know in the comments section below what you thought about it.

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Ershad Kaleebullah
ershad.kaleebullah@u2opiamobile.com

When Ershad isn't writing, he spends time killing virtual zombies on his PS4. Having worked with a slew of renowned publications like PCWorld, Channelworld, CIO, NDTV Gadgets (now Gadgets360), MySmartPrice, The Inquistr, and 91Mobiles, Ershad brings a whole world of experience to Mr. Phone. He is trying hard to convert all the team members into Apple fans but is facing a lot of resistance. Is anyone willing to help?