Is the iPhone 12 Super-Wide Camera Any Good?

My iPhone doesn’t have a camera. Like all iPhone 12s (the iPhone 12 Pro Max, to say its full name, just this once), it has three cameras. Each of its three lenses has its own sensor chip behind it and the sensor chips aren’t all the same.

That makes it difficult to talk about the differences in lenses, from one model to the next, since the sensors may have changed, too. What also makes comparisons difficult is that the processing of the images may have changed. Some of these processing differences are due to capabilities in the new camera that are not available in the old camera and some of those differences are due to different choices made in the secret settings that only Apple knows: the nature of the color processing, the amount of sharpening, the color fringing and noise reduction, to mention a few.

It gets hard to tell what is going on sometimes, looking from a photo made on an older phone to a photo made on a newer phone.

When I bought my iPhone 11 I was thrilled with its camera(s). I was upgrading from an iPhone 6s Plus, an upgrade jumping forward four years, from 2015 to 2019 and those were a busy four years for Apple’s camera engineering teams. The iPhone 6s was a camera phone, it did its job well. The iPhone 11 Pro Max was a thing containing magic, a bit of glass and metal that could (and did) make a grown man run around the neighborhood in the dark, giggling. Ten-second handheld shots at night? No problem. It was fun in a way that photography hadn’t been for a while.

Like the iPhone 11, the 12 also has three lenses and, in Apple’s way of relentless iteration, each was new and improved, they said. The long lens was now 2.5x instead of 2x. The 1x lens, the main lens, now had a bigger and better chip behind it. The 0.5x lens, the super-wide, had a new optical formula with more lens elements. There was much more than just that, of course, with Night Mode now on the super-wide, with LiDAR, with much improved video color. But that gives the sense of it.

I loved the iPhone 11 but I didn’t love the wide-angle. It was fixed focus, which was fine, given its tremendous depth-of-field–but it wasn’t as sharp as I wanted it to be and it put a purple fringe around tree branches or anything against a bright light. Not magical. Not so fun.

When I had the iPhone 12 in my hands one of the first things I checked was the super-wide 0.5x. Was it really better? Was it good enough?

The answer was obvious. It was better. It was much better. And it was probably good enough. Probably.

The best way to show you the difference is just to show you, I think. I made a few photographs at a nearby marine reserve. I shot the cameras side-by-side on a bracket so the image area very closely matches up and both images were made within one second or so of each other. I used the Apple Camera app in both cases, letting it do its thing without interference.

A full-frame image is first (from the iPhone 12) just to help you get your bearings, then a pair of zoomed-in images, the first from the iPhone 11, the second from the iPhone 12. I’ll add a few comments to point things out.

Right away you can see that we are in trouble. There does seem to be a difference in sharpness, the iPhone 12 looks to be sharper, but there is also a pronounced difference in processing. While the sky and signs and road to the right look slightly lighter in tone than with the iPhone 11, the dirt trail, telephone pole, and bush are dramatically different. How much of the apparent increase in sharpness is due to processing rather than an actually sharper lens?

That last set of images was from the center of the image. Things are usually good in the center of images, even on bad lenses. Here we are looking at the right edge. There’s a lot of processing going on here and I want to say the bark on the trunk is sharper on the 12 but maybe it’s an illusion? But look carefully at the small dabs of sunlit leaves in the lower left of each image. The leaves there look about equally sharp. Now move over, along the bottom, to the right. That bush is starting to smear in an obvious way on the iPhone 11 image and gets worse the further you go toward the edge. The large branch that extends rightward from the trunk becomes increasingly blurred as you move along its length on the iPhone 11 image, while the iPhone 12 picture holds together well.

Looking at the top right, there is a lot of purple fringing in the branches on the iPhone 11 image that is greatly reduced in the newer phone. Some people don’t mind the fringing, some people mind it a lot. Either way, once you start to notice it hard to not notice it.

For all practical purposes, we are done. That was quick, I know. There is a meaningful difference, between the iPhone 11 and the iPhone 12’s super-wide, with big improvements in the newer lens. It’s not wonderful, but maybe good enough?

Here again, we see the processing in the shadows that makes the image so different. But do you see all that weirdness in the trees on the iPhone 12 image, how all the tree branches have a bright edge to them? It gets really crazy when the branches are small and all grouped together like on the top left of the image.

I mentioned before that the iPhone 12 seems to be sharpening more aggressively than the iPhone 11 and that can lead to the illusion of sharpness. How software sharpening works is the algorithm will look for distinct edges and then increase the contrast right at that edge. To the eye that sudden jump in contrast looks like an increase in sharpness, though there is no actual increase in detail. Turn the software sharpness up too much and you get these thin halos such as we are seeing around the branches. Like the purple fringing, once you start to see the halos they are impossible to ignore but unlike the purple fringing you can’t learn to not mind them. Sharpening halos are ugly and distracting and always will be.

The thing is, these branches probably didn’t need any sharpening at all. They are sharp-edged objects (from a photographic point-of-view), dark against a bight background. You already have your abrupt transition, your high contrast edge. The software here was just being dumb. Hopefully, it will get smarter.

Another thing that strong sharpening does is makes noise more obvious, makes it crisper, which attracts your attention more than mushy noise.

Here we have a bit of dirt and fence and the iPhone 12 photo looks like it is all “sandy.” Look at the fence railing and you can see it best–all those grains. There’s mote on the ground now, too. The effect gives very different looks to each of the images. I’m ambivalent in this case which I like better. The iPhone 12 image looks sharper and has much more local contrast, highlighting the detail, but the iPhone 11 image looks a little more–genuine? Film-like?

Finally, there’s more to processing than just doing stuff tp the colors or contrast or to the sharpness settings and the grain. You can also change the shape of things.

With all lenses, but with wide-angle lenses in particular, lens designers struggle with distortion. Point a random wide-angle lens at a straight line, such the horizon appears to be, and look carefully at the image. The line probably won’t be straight, especially if that line doesn’t run directly through the center of the image.

In many cases a little distortion doesn’t matter unless you are making images for some scientific purpose, but in other cases it can become very noticeable and very distracting. One way to reduce distortion is with complex lens designs. Another way is with software. You can reshape the image in software, which not incidentally allows you to use a lens with a simpler and probably a smaller design.

For some reason the distortion correction is different on the cameras. In the video you can see that the iPhone 12 is sharper and looking closely at the branches way up against the sky you can see those halos. Most strange is the “stretching” of the large branches toward the top right corner in the iPhone 12 image.

No lens is perfect and a perfect lens is probably a lens without character. There’s a reason people are scouring E-bay for vintage lenses to adapt to their shiny new techno-wonder camera bodies. But you want a general-purpose lens like this to meet certain minimum standards.

This super-wide 0.5x lens on the iPhone 12 is adequate in terms of image-making. And while the processing–especially the sharpening–can get carried away on the new iPhone, Apple did recently release their new image file format, Apple ProRaw, which will allow you to adjust all of these parameters to your taste at your leisure.

The final verdict on the iPhone 12’s super-wide lens is still obvious. It is better. It is much better. And it is probably good enough. Probably.