Is the iPhone 13 Pro a Great Pocket Camera?

Short answer: yes.

I bought the new iPhone 13 Pro for one reason: the newest camera.

iPhone cameras have been improving every year, and I thought it was pretty likely that I could get some use out of one. In my case, since I shoot professional equipment, the question wasn’t “Is the iPhone camera any good?” It was “Is this an excellent pocket camera, capable of at least some professional work?”

Big ask for a tiny little camera.

Fortunately, I had a perfect test subject: high contrast skies, and subtle detail on Mt. Rainier. And let’s thrown in trees at a wide range of distance to see if the camera can handle the details.

The answer is the photo above, but there is a lot behind that answer.

Note: the displayed photo is actually a three-shot panorama, with the camera held vertical. I combined the pano in Affinity Photo and processed it in Capture One. The images held up well with those professional editing tools, giving me lots of options.

Here are some things I expect from an actual pro-level camera:

  • A wider dynamic range. This provides extra detail in the shadows and highlights.

  • Lower noise. The more accurate each and every pixel is in its response to light, the richer the colors.

  • An accurate, undistorted lens.

  • A fast lens for low-light subjects

  • Easy to use: pull it out of my pocket, and let the camera make as many of the decisions as possible. (Which implies that when I do want to do something specific, that is also easy to take control of.)

The iPhone 13 Pro camera gets excellent scores in all areas.

Dynamic range: A- The photo at the top of this page shows how good the dynamic range is. See technical details below for how and why. Why not A? Because A and A+ are just not available in a consumer pocket camera. That there is so much extra dynamic range at all is a major accomplishment.

Lower noise: B+ Colors are very good, but not as rich as a top of the line pocket camera can provide.

Note: dynamic range and low noise tend to go hand in hand. I think that the dynamic range gets a better score because of the artificial intelligence built into the post-processing engine of this camera. But if you start to push too hard against the noise levels, you start to create details that aren’t there. The AI elements are chosen well, IMO.

Lens: A This is a faster lens that previous models, and that makes it great for lower-light subjects. In addition, the AI features for low light are really excellent. That there are actually three excellent lenses - ultra wide, wide, and portrait—makes the grade here.

Easy to use: A+ The camera makes decent decisions on its own, but as a photographer, I have my own ideas about what makes a good photograph. In this case, I took an exposure that was at least two stops underexposed—to preserve the fantastic bright cloud details. I then used the camera’s excellent dynamic range to recover detail and color in the deep shadows I created in the trees. I did all of this quickly and easily in the Halide app. (It’s way better for serious photography with iPhone cameras than the default software from Apple.)

Technical info: As noted above, this was severely underexposed and then I used the extra depth of the dynamic range to recover details in shadows. Here is a photo straight out of the camera with my custom settings:

It should be pretty clear from that shot that the iPhone 13 Pro has tons of dynamic range available for a photographer who wants to work at a pro level but have the convenience of an always-at-hand camera.

For those who understand some photo-speak, I was able to treat these shots as if they were HDR resources (high dynamic range). Usually, you would have to take multiple shots of each exposure with different levels of brightness, but I was able to get an acceptable photo without that extra hassle. This is a fun, capable, and easy to carry camera; I can recommend it highly. It won’t replace your 35mm or medium format camera by any means, but it’s so good it’s truly a pocket camera with significant strengths. I recommend it highly.

Bonus shot: this camera also has macro capability. I didn’t find that the entire shot was well-focused in low to medium light, but the central portion is solid for macro. Here’s a cropped macro shot of some clover, taken at about 1cm from the subject: