Thoughts on the iPhone 15 lineup
We will simply have to see about this camera
Well, that didn't quite go the way I expected.
Let's start with the cameras, which I wrote about extensively ahead of this week’s iPhone event. My best guess was that since there'd been fuzzy reporting on an iPhone 15 Pro Max periscope telephoto camera with "5-6x zoom", Apple would adopt Oppo's Find X6 Pro approach of a roughly 3x periscope camera that could crop to achieve around 6x magnification from the middle of its sensor. This would allow Apple to keep a 3x optical zoom in its three-lens configuration while significantly boosting image quality and giving more useful reach.
They did not do that, and what they did do seems worse.
The 15 Pro Max's new telephoto camera is, in fact, a 120mm-equivalent 5x module with an f/2.8 lens, giving similar capability to the 5x periscope cameras on countless Android phones. That means that everything in the range between 1x and 4.9x will be handled digitally, which — well, we'll see how that goes for Apple, but all things being equal it isn't what you'd want.
To be clear, a 5x lens has its advantages. It does of course help with optical reach, especially in good light, so long-range shots will undoubtedly look a lot better than on the 14 Pro Max and 15 Pro non-Max. But I'm not sure the tradeoff is going to be worth it in regular use. I don't know many photographers who'd carry around a 24mm prime and a 120mm telephoto with nothing in-between.
How the 15 Pro Max handles that in-between range in software will be critical. Apple is actually adding virtual 28mm and 35mm settings to the camera app, both of which are crops from the 24mm-equivalent primary sensor. 48 megapixels is more than enough for that sort of thing to look fine, so maybe I should add a 50mm lens to that hypothetical photographer's camera bag — I'm more concerned about the range between 50mm and 120mm. Put it this way: a 3x lens will make your 5x photos better than your 1x lens could manage, but a 5x lens does nothing for anything between 1x and 4.9x.
Another point of interest was the actual design of the camera, which is very different to periscope modules we've seen before. I wouldn't have been surprised if Apple dodged the "periscope" term regardless, but this camera really does seem to take a new approach; it makes use of a stacked "tetraprism" that's physically on top of the sensor. The tetraprism seems to save a lot of lateral space, which makes me wonder whether it couldn't have fit into the non-Max iPhone 15 Pro — although every millimetre counts at this scale. It's also worth mentioning again that this camera’s f/2.8 aperture is faster than any 5x telephoto I know of. So that's something.
The only other notable change to the camera hardware is that Apple said there's a larger 48-megapixel primary sensor, though not by how much, and the lens remains at f/1.78. The 0.5x ultrawide camera is also still at f/2.2.
Some of the software updates look meaningful, like the ability to automatically capture depth information of people or pets without switching to portrait mode, or to record spatial video for viewing on the upcoming Vision Pro headset. I'm not sure why spatial photos aren't also a feature, though, given that Apple already showed that as something you can do on the headset itself. It could just be a matter of having less data to work with.
Anyway, I am possibly over-indexing on the relevance of the iPhone 15 Pro Max not having a class-leading telephoto camera. I wouldn't have expected this iPhone to have the best smartphone camera setup even if it did have the best hardware, and otherwise I do think the 15 and 15 Pro look like impressive updates.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Multicore to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.