For the first time since iPhone camera resolution jumped from 8MP to 12MP with the iPhone 6s, Apple has finally added a denser sensor: the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max have a new 48MP main sensor for primary photography.
That’s a big jump. The physical sensor is about 60 percent larger than the previous standard 12MP sensor, so it spreads the amount of light hitting it more thinly compared to the earlier sensor. A sensor is made up of millions of elements, each of which corresponds to a pixel. Apple’s 48MP sensor has four times as many elements as the 12MP one-6048 by 8064 pixels compared to 3024 by 4032. As a result, although the new sensor is larger, each element receives slightly less light than on the previous sensor. It’s a combination designed to improve detail, but would normally also increase image noise in lower light.
Apple wanted to avoid this in normal shooting. The 48MP sensor produces a 12MP image by default and in third-party photo apps. Like all photos taken on an iPhone or iPad, this resulting image invisibly combines multiple shots and runs through a pipeline, upgraded over the iPhone 14 series to what Apple calls the Photonic Engine, replacing the use of the Neural Engine. The Photonic Engine intervenes in the processing chain earlier than the previous algorithm, and Apple says it will help better apply its machine learning-based processing to low-light images.
Shooting at 48 MP
These 12MP images can be dandy; in testing they are! But you’re holding a 48MP sensor and you may want to tap it directly. You can enable raw mode in the Camera app to create a less-edited, super-high-resolution image that goes way beyond previous iPhone capabilities. Because it doesn’t take much advantage of Apple’s computational photography technology, the 48MP has trade-offs beyond just the storage and processing power needed to grab and manipulate these images.
iPhone 14 Pro Max
That’s partly because of how Apple increased the density of the sensor elements in the camera. Sensor elements all have a red, green or blue filter to capture the intensity of each of these light components separately. Color is not grabbed directly, but interpolated across adjacent pixels in the image coming from any digital camera, including an iPhone. The ratio in a sensor is two green elements for each red and blue, because green filtered light captures much more of the luminance or gradations in tone that our eye perceives than does blue or red.
Apple’s super-sized quad elements in the 48 MP sensor are collections of small arrays of two-by-two elements that filter the same color. As a result, the 48MP raw image captures more detail, but in fact less differentiation between colors in any resulting 4 by 4 pixel area — about the same as a 12 MP sensor in a 2 by 2 pixel area. This could produce a muddier color compared to a sensor that retains the finer color pattern of elements.
To capture in raw mode, enable the feature in Settings > Camera > formats by enabling Apple ProRAW and making sure 48MP is selected for ProRAW resolution. In the Camera app, tap the Raw button in the top right corner, which temporarily removes a slash through the word in the label and now allows you to create raw images. You can make your choice to use raw or not to use raw permanently via Settings > Camera > Keep settings and enable Apple ProRAW. Now whenever you open the Camera app, it will remember your raw choice from your previous use.
iPhone 14 Pro vs Fujifilm X-E4 Mirrorless
To test Apple’s 48MP raw footage, I shot a series of shots in different settings with an iPhone 14 Pro and a Fujifilm X-E4 mirrorless camera. The Fujifilm camera has a 26.1 MP sensor, which delivers a maximum image of 6240 by 4160. I used a 27mm f/2.8 lens, which has an equivalent of 40mm to bring it in line with Apple’s conversion below — somewhere between Apple’s main and telephoto lenses. I adjusted images for exposure and balance using Adobe Lightroom.
The X-E4 costs $1,050 with the 27mm lens (XF27 mmF2.8 R WR), while the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max come with three cameras for $999 and $1,099 respectively:
Head: Apple now calls its primary camera the head lens, reducing confusion. It is a 24mm equivalent f/1.78 lens.
Ultra-wide: 13mm equivalent, f/2.2.
Telephoto: 77mm equivalent, f/2.8
Apple uses “35mm equivalent” language for its lenses, a way of comparing the scope of a scene shot to a sensor that can be measured with traditional 35mm film photography. This provides an apples-to-apples (sorry) comparison between other types of cameras. Apple lists 0.5x, 1x, 2x and 3x factors with three lenses on the Pro models, as iOS simulates a 2x or 48mm equivalent lens by subsampling the main lens: it effectively cuts 12MP images from the center of the frame. 48 MP sensor . I also tested some of these 12MP 2x shots.
Because of the color pattern of the elements I mentioned above, a 12MP crop should appear 100 percent less sharp than an image shot with a native 12MP image framing the same area, and also less sharp than a 12MP crop of a larger mirrorless or DSLR sensor of the same area at the same distance. To test the two, I shot the same scenes at 1x and 2x on an iPhone 14 Pro against the X-E4.
The iPhone 14 Pro holds up remarkably well against the Fujifilm X-E4, especially in low light: it retains less noise and more detail. In almost all cases, the iPhone 14 Pro offers a comparable or better result than the Fujifilm X-E4 in both raw 48MP and 12MP 2x zoom.
Where the Fujifilm has an advantage is a wide range of tweaky settings for shutter speed, physical aperture and film speed simulations, and with interchangeable lenses, especially zoom and super zoom for telephoto shooting at great distances. You can tune, time and control each X-E4 shot, set bracketing (shoot multiple exposures, handled automatically in iOS and iPadOS) for high dynamic range and other shots.
But the iPhone 14 Pro offers an attractive alternative to a mirrorless camera that costs about the same for relatively close-up photography with three lenses. In many cases, you can leave a mirrorless camera in favor of the iPhone 14 Pro to take similar photos with the benefits of a multi-purpose device with an all-day battery and mobile photo and video uploads.