A surprising discovery about the iPhone 12 Pro Max has been made, and it is not a good one for Apple’s premier flagship smartphone of 2020. While the device has a telephoto camera, it actually uses digital zoom to in night mode. Seemingly, the telephoto camera is worse than the main lens at higher magnifications in low-light conditions, then.
Many smartphone manufacturers include camera lenses to make up the numbers, as we have discovered during our tests. In the last few years, we have encountered review units with useless depth-of-field sensors added seemingly only to allow manufacturers to make claims about selling smartphones with triple or dual cameras. We are not the only ones to discover this, as a Mrwhosetheboss video from 2017 demonstrates. Then there are other manufacturers like Samsung, which market the Galaxy S20 and S20 Plus as having telephoto cameras when they do not really possess such a sensor.
Now, it turns out that Apple is doing something similar with the iPhone 12 Pro Max. According to MySmartPrice, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is not using its telephoto camera in night mode. Instead, the device applies a 2.5x digital zoom taken using the main rear-facing camera. MySmartPrice identified this discrepancy from EXIF data, which confirmed that night mode shots were taken with a 26 mm equivalent standard lens, rather than the 65 mm equivalent telephoto one.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max does use its 12 MP telephoto camera in good lighting conditions, but its f/2.2 aperture is considerably narrower than the f/1.6 aperture of the main 12 MP sensor. The latter also has a 1.7 µm pixel width to a 1.0 µm width of the telephoto lens. Hence, it seems that Apple is prioritising the main camera for its superior light sensitivity over the telephoto camera. Apple has been practising this approach for years, as the iPhone 11 Pro Max uses the same camera trickery for zoom shots at night, too.
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Alex Alderson, 2020-11-13 (Update: 2020-11-13)