Capturing a miniature world with iPhone XS Max | 9to5Mac

The promise of true “point-and-shoot” photography with the iPhone has always eluded me. Each year, more advanced camera hardware and new iOS features have improved my photos. Yet, when it comes time to capture a scene, I’m temporarily removed from the moment.

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Is my exposure balanced? How is the depth of field? Where is my light source? No, don’t stand in that shadow. Let’s move over a little bit, there’s something distracting in the background. These inconveniences – no matter how minor – can ruin the energy of a scene or cause me to miss a critical moment.

With a library of photos growing by hundreds every month, any breakthroughs that reduce this friction can significantly change how I take photos. That’s why I was excited to hear about the camera improvements on the iPhone XS and XS Max. Depth Control allows you to change the depth of field on photos taken in Portrait mode after shooting. Smart HDR improves shadow and highlight detail. Larger pixels allow for improved low light photography. Apple calls this year’s camera system the dawn of “a new era of photography.” But what does that mean?

To put the cameras in my iPhone XS Max to the test, I visited Milwaukee’s Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, famous for its domes replicating three unique climates. With tiny, delicate plant life and bright sunlight streaming in, I reasoned it would be the perfect place to push the limits of the iPhone’s improved depth capabilities and Smart HDR. Unless noted, every photo you see in this review was shot on an iPhone XS Max in Portrait mode with minimal edits in Apple’s Photos app.

I’ve been using Portrait mode since it debuted with the iPhone 7 Plus, but never to its full potential. The initial varying quality and accuracy of the blur lost my trust. When I took portrait shots, I always followed them up with a normal photo – just in case. With the iPhone XS Max, I can point, tap, snap, and get a beautiful photo with almost no effort. The results were stunning nearly every time.

When photographing small details in nature, the right depth of field is critical for separating your subject from distractions in the background. These organic edges and unpredictable outlines are where Portrait mode has struggled in the past, often clipping corners or aggressively smoothing details.

While iOS 12 and the iPhone XS don’t eliminate this problem altogether, the hardware and software combination makes a great stride in the right direction. Compared to an identical photo taken with my iPhone X (below), you can see how much more detail the XS Max preserved when applying the bokeh effect on the background.