Apple announced the iPhone 15 series this week. While iPhones always get better each year, there’s one thing about the iPhone 15 that really stood out to me: the camera in the iPhone 15 Pro Max.
iPhone cameras have always been good, but this year Apple has introduced technology that seems to breaking some of the laws of physics. In fact, the addition of this technology makes the iPhone 15 Pro Max compelling as a “real” camera. In this article, I’ll look at the mirrorless camera I use for product and video shoots, and compare it with an iPhone.
A little bit about lens tech
First, let’s talk about zoom (also known as telephoto) lenses. A zoom lens helps the photographer “zoom in” on a subject, effectively bringing far objects closer to the camera. There are two primary ways that iPhones — or any digital camera, really — handle zoom: optically and digitally.
Optical zoom is where the glass of the lens bends the light in such a way that the remote object is closer. Everything that hits the sensor and is recorded is what the lens sees. Optical zooms are the optimal zoom technology, because all the detail available is preserved in the image. This is essentially like using a telescope.
Digital zoom takes a pre-existing digital file and crops it. If you have a very high-resolution image, then cropping it doesn’t lose resolution. But if you need to zoom in a lot, or you have an image that’s fairly low resolution, there’s not enough data in the file to provide good-quality images. As a result, the use of strong digital zoom often results in pixelated or blurry images.
In recent years, some machine learning has been applied to the digital zoom process. Here, an AI makes an educated guess at the missing pixels and creates a simulated optical zoom. But the pixels are still generated by an educated guess and aren’t created by light hitting the sensor.
At its core, a telephoto lens has a longer focal length than a standard lens, which means the distance between the lens and the image sensor inside the camera is greater. This longer focal length compresses the scene, bringing distant objects closer and magnifying them.
Most telephoto lenses on traditional DSLR or mirrorless cameras are big, often 6 to 12 inches long. The idea that Apple has managed to do this in a phone that’s 0.35mm thick is almost incomprehensible. The light just doesn’t have room to pull in the image. And yet, that’s what they’ve done.
Apple accomplishes this using what they call a “tetraprism design — a folded glass structure below the lens — to reflect light rays four times over.” That’s a wow, right there.
Let’s talk about two more camera terms before we move on: focal length and aperture.
Focal length is specified in millimeters. The bigger the number, the more zoomed in the lens can go. So a lens with a focal length of 24mm is likely to be a wide-angle lens while a 200mm is a strong zoom lens.
I used to carry a 300mm lens as part of my kit, and I even had lens doublers (which turned 300mm into 600mm). But I found that inasmuch as I wanted to be able to zoom way in (usually on an animal high up on a mountain), lenses of that magnitude proved unwieldy and hard to control. Yes, professional photographers do use very big zoom lenses, but they reach the point of impracticality the bigger they get.
Aperture refers to how much light is let into the camera sensor. Aperture is measured in “f-stops” (like f/1.8, f/2.8, f/16). A smaller f-stop number indicates a larger aperture (more light is allowed in), while a larger f-stop number means a smaller aperture (less light is allowed in).
Beyond controlling light, the aperture also affects the depth of field in an image. A larger aperture (smaller f-stop number) produces a shallower depth of field, meaning a smaller portion of the image will be in focus, creating a blurred background effect. Conversely, a smaller aperture (larger f-stop number) results in a greater depth of field, where more of the image is in sharp focus.
You older folks may remember the days when most of us owned a camera of one kind or another but only used a phone when connected to a landline. Today, most people carry a camera in their pockets as part of a smartphone.
When smartphones started to include fairly good cameras, the consumer camera market was decimated. Why buy a separate camera if you already have a good enough one in your pocket?
But the specialty camera market still thrives. Gone are the days when folks would buy a camera to take snapshots. But now, people buy more capable cameras to take better photos, for studio work, for videography, and to be able to get certain looks using certain lenses.
For the purpose of this article, I’m going to focus on dedicated cameras with interchangeable lenses. By switching lenses, photographers can get a wide range of different photos and effects. Many photographers buy lenses that give them different focal lengths and apertures.
While lenses are typically sold in fixed focal lengths, many are sold as variable focal length lenses. The “kit” lens that came with my Sony ZV-E10 camera came with a variable 16mm-55mm lens, which allows me to set the focal distance anywhere on that scale. I also own a dedicated fixed-length 30mm macro lens, which allows me to get some very close-up shots. (I do not own a telephoto lens for that camera because I only use it in the studio for product photography.)
The lenses that come with the iPhone 15 Pro Max
In this article, I’m specifically focusing on the iPhone 15 Pro Max because it’s that 5X telephoto that makes it possible for the iPhone to replace an entire standalone camera rig. The iPhone 15 Pro Max comes with three main lenses capable of seven lens settings:
- Ultra-wide: This does both macro shots (super close-up) and wide-angle shots with a 13mm focal length.
- Main: This supports focal lengths of 24, 28, and 34mm. These would be considered standard pictures that neither bring the image in closer nor grab wide-angle images.
- Telephoto: This supports a focal length of 48mm, which is effectively a 2x zoom. With the iPhone 15 Pro Max, it also supports a 120mm focal length, providing a 5x zoom.
There are two things to keep in mind here. First, many standalone cameras allow you to easily swap lenses. The iPhone does not. And many lenses are variable zoom, allowing you to pick a zoom level at any point along the range from widest to zoomy-est. The iPhone does not. (It has fixed optical zoom levels, and you can use digital zoom that appears to give you a similar level of zoom flexibility — but at the risk of the image quality reduction we previously discussed).
Types of standalone cameras
In the same way that new cars range from about $20,000 to $1 million or more, cameras are available in a wide range of price points. For this article, I’m going to look primarily at prosumer cameras at the lower end of the range. Typical replaceable lens cameras in this range come in two main categories: DSLR and mirrorless.
DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) cameras utilize a mirror mechanism to reflect light from the camera’s lens up into an optical viewfinder. This is the “reflex” in single-lens reflex. It means that when you look through the viewfinder of a DSLR, you’re seeing the scene through the lens, thanks to this reflex mirror.
Mirrorless cameras, as the name suggests, do not have this mirror mechanism. Instead, light passes directly from the lens to a digital image sensor, which then displays the image on the rear screen or an electronic viewfinder.
The primary implications of these differences are:
- Size and weight: Without the need for a mirror box and optical viewfinder, mirrorless cameras can be smaller and lighter than DSLRs.
- Viewfinder: While DSLRs offer an optical view through the lens, mirrorless cameras use either just the main LCD screen or an electronic viewfinder to display the image.
- Autofocus speed: Historically, DSLRs had the edge here, especially for fast or professional photography. However, advancements in mirrorless technology have closed this gap, and many mirrorless cameras now offer incredibly fast and accurate autofocus.
Both types have their pros and cons, and the choice often comes down to personal preference and specific use cases. My Sony ZV-E10 is a mirrorless camera, and that’s what we’ll be using as the subject of this comparison.
The essential disclaimer
Before I delve into a comparison of the iPhone 15 Pro Max and a mirrorless camera alternative, it’s time for an important disclaimer: I am not telling you not to buy a standalone camera.
Although I own a variety of smartphones, I also have several standalone cameras. The Sony I’ll be discussing here was purchased specifically for work, and it helps me in ways my iPhone doesn’t.
Standalone cameras often have better ergonomics, with nice handholds and grips, dials you can move without looking at the camera, standalone buttons you can push by feel, and more.
Standalone cameras are also often much easier to see in bright sunlight. Even though smartphone makers are creating brighter displays, they’ll never come close to the isolated view possible through an electronic viewfinder, where you hold up the camera to your eye. That position is also a very stable position for great pictures.
As mentioned before, standalone cameras can work with variable focal length lenses. But more to the point, standalone cameras that support replaceable lenses can work with any lens your heart desires and your wallet can afford. There is enormous flexibility in standalone cameras.
I also find the ability to use a powerful remote flash a big win for product photography. I make a room pitch black and set my flash where I want the light to come from, which may not be from the top of the camera. And I can put out a ton more light with my flash than the on-board flash on smartphones.
For a great overview of other reasons standalone cameras differ from smartphones, watch this video.
And with that, let’s look at how the iPhone 15 Pro Max challenges mirrorless cameras.
Up until the iPhone 15 Pro Max, I never would have said you could get away with a smartphone camera instead of a standalone model. But the ability to zoom 120mm optically gives the iPhone 15 Pro Max a wide enough array of lens options that it should be able to stand up to most prosumer needs.
Price is also an interesting issue. The iPhone 15 Pro Max maxes out at $1,599 for the fully-equipped unit with 1TB of storage. Let’s see how that compares to the Sony ZV-E10: The base camera, with a 16mm-50mm kit lens, is $798. You can get the camera without the base lens for $100 cheaper, but there’s no way you’ll be able to get anything close to the lens value for $100. Now, to be fair, the included lens is far from epic quality. I would definitely replace it if I were doing more with the camera and this type of lens.
In terms of lens substitution, that lens compensates for the main iPhone 15 Pro Max lens with focal lengths of 24, 28, and 34mm focal distances. It also compensates for the 2x zoom, which is all of 48mm on the iPhone. That said, it fails miserably at macro shots and close-up pictures, so you’ll need to add another lens.
The very least expensive macro lens I found for the ZV-E10 is also quite good. It’s listed as a 30mm lens, but I’ve taken pictures from only an inch or so away from the subject and it’s worked really well. That lens sells on Amazon for $248 (with a 17% discount) and is my primary lens for this camera.
I wasn’t able to find a 120mm lens for the Sony on Amazon. I did find a number of higher-cost variable focus lenses. Bu also found an off-brand Samyang 135mm lens, which would also serve the telephoto needs comparable to the iPhone 15 Pro Max. That’s $819 with an 18% discount.
You can charge the camera’s included battery by running a cable into the camera. That cable is included. But since neither the camera nor the iPhone comes with a charger, I won’t spec one out. One note, however: the iPhone’s battery has a whole lot more staying power than the batteries that work in the Sony camera. You’ll need to swap batteries in the Sony camera a lot.
All told, though, for comparable specs, we’re at $1,884.99 for the standalone camera solution. Comparing that to the fully-equipped $1,599 price of the iPhone, it makes the iPhone 15 Pro Max seem like quite the deal.
One note: I’m comparing a 1TB iPhone to a 256GB camera. That’s because the phone typically will be used as more than a camera replacement, and so the additional storage will be needed for all those extra apps and their data. But you could get a very nice iPhone 15 Pro Max with 256GB storage for $1,199, thereby increasing the price/performance benefit of the iPhone 15 Pro Max to a $686 savings. That’s not inconsiderable.
Here’s the bottom line
If you want good, solid camera functionality (including telephoto), the iPhone 15 Pro Max will do it for you, and do so for considerably less than a comparably equipped lower-end standalone camera. The iPhone will get you quite far.
But if you want loads of flexibility, and are willing to spend the big bucks (we’re talking many thousands of dollars), you will definitely get more camera capability from a standalone rig.
The bottom line though is that the iPhone 15 Pro Max eliminates the one remaining objection to iPhones as general-purpose cameras — the lack of telephoto –and does so for a price measurably lower (and with a whole lot more capability) than a comparably equipped low-end mirrorless offering.
Is it a perfect substitute solution if price (and weight and clutter and bulk) is no object? No. But is it a darned good substitute for a whole lot of prosumer-level camera needs? Yes. Yes, it is.
What do you think? Would you get an iPhone 15 Pro Max instead of a standalone camera? Let me know in the comments below.
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