The Cross In the Middle of Nowhere: iPhone 11 Pro Max vs the 12

(This post is part of an ongoing review of the iPhone 12 Pro Max.)

From oral arguments

John G. Roberts, Jr.: Counsel, this probably doesn’t have anything to do with anything, but I’m just kind of curious, why is this cross put up — you know, in the middle of nowhere?

[Laughter]

The Mojave Cross stands alongside Cima Road in the Mojave National Preserve, a simple memorial, painted white. A plaque upon the gate and another on a rock at its base insists that it is a memorial to our country’s war dead but its fame results from the fact that it is a Christian cross and that church services are held there every Easter.

I was there to shoot photos with the new iPhone 11 and 12, to compare the phones in various ways, but I was also there, in October of 2020, to take a break from the lockdown restrictions of the pandemic. The previous year I had spent a month in the Preserve, a guest of the National Park Service and sponsored by the Mojave National Preserve Artists Foundation, and it was then that I learned about the Cross.

It was put therein 1934 by a local miner and any stir a large Christian cross erected on federal land caused was a purely local one. That lasted until 2001 when a Park Service employee—the assistant superintendent—sued the government, pointing out that the Constitution forbids such a display, forbids the federal government from endorsing or favoring one religion—separation of church and state, an area of constitutional law not quite resolved to this day.

The light was still in the sky as I came back from my hike through the burned Joshua tree forest along Teutonia Peak Trail and I thought this might be a good occasion to compare the low light and noise characteristics of the two cameras (Note: I use the terms “phone,” “iPhones,” and “cameras” interchangeably).

At first glance the images look similar. The iPhone 12 has slightly higher contrast but one has no decisive advantage over the other. Let’s look a little closer. Both images are shot with the 1x lens of the cameras—and note that the iPhone’s 12’s 1x lens now has a larger sensor which is supposed to do good things in low light.

A 100% crop of the Cross itself shows a much less noisy (grainy) image on the iPhone 12 (right image) versus the 11 but the iPhone 11 (left image) looks to have more detail.

I sound tentative. Why? Because there is a sort of illusion in photography regarding the granularity of an image and sharpness. Film photographers have long known that shooting at a higher speed—and thus more grainy—film stock can make images look much sharper. Likewise, a slightly fuzzy image viewed on a low-resolution monitor might look fine but then when viewed on a higher resolution monitor that fuzziness might be revealed.

Another thing to be aware of is noise-reduction processing, a trick the cameras use at various strengths, to give the appearance that grain (noise in the digital world, I use the terms interchangeably in many cases where the distinction is not important) has been reduced. Grain is reduced, yes, but oftentimes the detail in the image is smeared and lost.

Here’s another pairing, same images, but now I’ve added additional sharpening to the iPhone 12 image.

Now the two photos are in good alignment, in terms of grain and detail, which suggests a third way to get smoother, less noisy images: Apply less sharpening than normal.

We seem to have come to a conclusion: While there are slight differences in the images at dusk from the two iPhones using the 1x lens, those differences can be nearly eliminated by slight changes in post-processing.

All well and good until we look at the next two images, shot with the same cameras at the same location, the cameras pointing the same way, the images made only seconds later:

It looks like Night Node has kicked in here. While the first two images had shutter speeds of a half-second each, on this new image the iPhone 11 went for a one-second exposure while the iPhone 12 decided on a two-second exposure. The cameras are tripod-mounted and on a bracket to allow both cameras to shoot at the same time.

There are differences here, as before, but they are different in two strikingly obvious way. First, the differences are starker, one image looking sharp and detailed, the other looking as if the camera misfocused (I don’t think it did). The other difference is that it is now the iPhone 12 Pro Max which is producing the superior image without processing.

What about a little post-processing? Maybe the iPhone 11 image can be brought up to something more parallel to the iPhone 12 image?

Not even close. This particular comparison seems clear—the iPhone 12 Pro Max is plainly superior to the 11—but yet joined to the previous comparison the overall result is less clear. How can you determine what is happening when it is happening?

The Supreme Court case was about standing, whether the park employee was positioned to show that he was harmed by this cross and that he was the right person to bring the lawsuit. The history of the case is complicated and convoluted and at some point someone had the idea that they could make the case go away if the land under the Cross was somehow private land (not subject to separation of church and state laws) rather than public land (which is). A swap was arranged, one acre of public land here, under the Cross, for five acres elsewhere in the park, from one of the many private landholdings embedded in the Preserve.

That seemed like a cheat to the park service employee who brought the suit, a sneaky way around the limits set by the Constitution, and so the transfer was challenged. There were a lot of court cases and the whole matter ended up, deep down, sort of muddied and unresolved.

The text of the ruling of the court and its joining opinions and dissents as well as the oral arguments are almost all of a technical nature, rarely talking about the actual physical cross situated upon an outcropping called Sunrise Rock here in the desert. None of the Justices had visited the Cross and few seemed to understand the nature of its location, assuming that it was in some barren wasteland with an occasional lost hiker stumbling by.

Justice Alito makes this undercurrent explicit in his partial dissent in the case:

Sunrise Rock is situated far from any major population center; temperatures often exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer; and visitors are warned of the dangers of traveling in the area. As a result, at least until this litigation, it is likely that the cross was seen by more rattlesnakes than humans.

There was no real, resolvable issue here, they were just polishing a few concepts, preparing for some later day when the case would matter. No one even saw the Cross, save desert creatures, my my.

Except that Cima Road is not some barren dirt tract in the middle of nowhere. As I stood there making my comparison images many cars drove by—not stopping to enjoy the park but cutting through the park, following a shortcut from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and back. When I was the artist-in-residence it was the same, cars going by every few minutes during the busy times of the day, hundreds of cars a day, maybe a thousand on busy days.

Twice, last year, I encountered people who were mindlessly following Waze or Google Maps, entering the long road through the Preserve, low on gas with no gas stations at all for many miles. One was a group of teenagers fuel-less at the side of the road. I came across them shortly after dusk, hanging out and waiting for I don’t know what—there is no cell signal in that part of the Preserve and they had been unable to tell anyone of their plight, now several hours underway. Another time—just in front of this Cross as I was shooting night photographs, a truck drove by in the dark, braked, and reversed to come back up alongside me. That had me a bit worried. But he was just wondering if he was near Las Vegas and how much further it might be. Just following whatever his phone said, having no clue where he was.

All of them, the short cutters, the Google Maps followers, not to mention the people who actually come to the Preserve with the intent of enjoying its wonders, all of them see the Cross, pass right by it.

More people see the Cross here, next to a volcanic dome in the Mojave Desert, every day, than would see the Cross if it were placed in the central square of many small towns, anywhere in America. Hundreds of people every day, a different “hundreds of people” every day.

Oh, I hiked all over the area of the Cross on both trips and never did see any rattlesnakes.


It looks like a small California mission sitting aside the tracks, a few buildings of uncertain purpose on this side and that side of the rails, park employee housing, two nondescript single-story dormitories, just a few hundred feet away. Kelso Station, what used to be a real train station, is now the Preserve’s information center providing, when it is open, brochures and guidance for the curious (and a small art gallery for the very curious) but to most people it’s a place to stretch your legs and to use the restrooms, open all night. It’s a long way to anything.

As we’ve seen so many times now, the iPhone 12 offers a bit more contrast (and thus apparent sharpness) than the iPhone 11 right out of the camera.

And again a slight post-processing adjustment raising the contrast, a very small adjustment to white and black points on the 11 image, brings us the iPhone 12 image’s near-twin. But look more closely at the pillars (if that is the right architectural term), look at the fine detail of the surfaces in the iPhone 12 image, look at the irregular coloration, the staining. Much of that vanishes in the iPhone 11’s smoothness. That’s a meaningful difference and an important improvement.

All cameras sing in the sunlight. Real talent is revealed in the dark.

That principle couldn’t be better demonstrated by this unfair comparison—both super-wide (0.5x) lenses facing the door of the depot. You can see the difference from across the room, the iPhone 12’s super-wide now featuring Apple’s Night Mode, just like the 1x camera, and the hapless super-wide of the iPhone just not getting the shot at all.

Here’s a more fair comparison, Night Mode versus Night Mode on the 1x cameras. Both are acceptable images, the lighted areas somewhat indistinguishable. But what about the shadows, the difficult parts of the image?

Now, a quick note to avoid confusion. In the film days you did things or did not do things to a negative. You gave it more exposure or you gave it less. You developed it all in one developer but not the other. There were tricks to get around this, many of them. For example, you might put a filter in front of the lens that was dark on the top and light on the bottom, a graduated neutral density filter, which would be used to limit exposure from the sky, to give the foreground more exposure relative to the semi-blocked areas. Another trick, especially useful with film in sheets such as that used by large view cameras, was (is!) to reduce the agitation of the developer as you processed the film, purposely allowing the developer to exhaust itself in the dark (highly developed) areas of the negative and allow the still potent developer to keep on doing its thing in the less dark areas. It would be almost as if the dark areas (when reversed in the print, the light areas) were somehow developed separately. And, of course, there was dodging and burning, darkening and lightening areas with your hand or with wire-handled bits of cardstock.

Phones have many more tricks, but the biggest trick may be their ability to segment the image by content, not by location in the image or simply by its tone. The phone can recognize stuff and the computer inside can identify areas of the image that are likely to be sky, most probably are areas of skin, who knows what else they can identify, and then to treat each of these areas differently, smoothing that sky or skin, bringing out the detail where there is detail, a professional retouching artist working his magic in an instant.

But the tree behind the excavator shows the pronounced and ugly grain of the iPhone 11 and the smoothness of the 12, a high level of detail still apparent. The iPhone 11 Pro Max doesn’t just look like last year’s model, it looks outdated.

The Kelso Station was once considered outdated. Built in 1924, replacing a more basic station, the structure needed rehabilitation by the time it was closed by the railroads in 1985. They were going to tear it down until residents of nearby towns, railroad employees, and concerned politicians changed the railroad executive’s minds. The railroads leased the building to the Bureau of land Management at first, then gave it to them in 1991. I thought at first as I walked up to the structure that night to make iPhone photos that the building was closed due to Covid, but it seems instead that the Park Service is taking the opportunity to continue its renovation.

The Depot used to serve food at the large U-shaped wooden counter, now lined with brochures and gifts for sale.

One final iPhone image comparison. You won’t even need to see the 100% crop to notice the difference. The iPhone 12 dominates here, the iPhone 11’s night sky blotching and noise-filled.

A big win for the iPhone 12.

—-

On Sunday or Monday night, May 9th or 10th in 2010, the Mojave Cross vanished. It had been covered in plywood during the pending litigation but then the plywood was gone and a few days after that the Cross had been cut down, no sign of it anywhere. On the 10th a caller to a newspaper, Desert Dispatch, the primary local news source for the desert region, was contacted by someone who claimed to know the person who stole the cross. This person shared a fifteen-point letter, asking that the paper print it, which explained that the cross was taken away because it was a Christian memorial, not a religious-neutral war memorial, as the Cross’s supporters claimed. The letter said that if a non-sectarian memorial was placed on that spot, or the Cross was given a new home on private land then the Mojave Cross, undamaged, would be forwarded to the owners.

Ten days later a replica of the cross appeared upon Sunrise Rock.

Less than a month had passed since the Supreme Court had ruled on the Mojave Cross issue, dealing a setback to those opposed to the land swap which would have preserved the Cross on its Cima Road location.

In early November 2012, after working its way for two and a half years through the Park Service’s purchasing system, the one-acre plot under the Cross was given to a private citizen in exchange for five acres elsewhere within the Preserve’s boundaries. The deal was done, the immediate controversy settled, and the missing Cross reappeared as mysteriously as it had vanished, lashed to a fence along a mountain road south of Half Moon Bay, almost five hundred miles from Sunrise Rock but only a dozen miles from my home.

A note attached to the Cross asked that it be returned to its owners.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Randy Moe

    I have been testing iPhone SE 2 in low light. Iso 2000, 1/4 f1.8 seems the inbuilt software is a big help.

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