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Unpacking the Announced iPhone 15 Camera for iPhone Photographers

Unpacking the Announced iPhone 15 Camera for iPhone Photographers


While the iPhone 15 isn't breaking entirely new ground in the realm of mobile photography, it does represent a significant upgrade for the dedicated iPhone photographer. Features like improved optical zoom and innovative depth-mapping capabilities offer fresh possibilities, especially for post-capture adjustments, such as the conversion of standard photos to Portrait Mode.

Quick Outline
  • The Evolution of Optical Zoom: Apple's Tetraprism Lens
  • Smart Portrait Mode - Focus and Depth Control
  • The Misleading 7 Focal Lengths
  • HDR Processing and Screen Brightness
  • Action Button
  • 48MP Camera for Everyone
  • HEIF Max
  • A17 Pro Chip in the 15 Pro range: More Than Just Speed
  • Connectivity: USB-C and Data Transfer Speeds
  • Beyond the Tech Specs: The Art of iPhone Photography
  • Conclusion

Video starts at the photography section

The Evolution of Optical Zoom: Apple's Tetraprism Lens

Firstly, I do apologise for using the term zoom lens. It is a fixed lens focal length that like all other smartphones, the software allows us to zoom between them. 

Apple's introduction of a 5x optical zoom "tetraprism" lens offers a major step up in optical zoom for iPhone photographers. This impressive camera system is only available on the iPhone 15 Pro Max due to its size requirements. This feature employs a folded glass structure beneath the camera lens, which reflects light rays four times resulting in further light travel within the confined space.
Apple has incorporated a new 3D sensor shift to enhance optical stabilization and autofocus during zooming. The addition of this technology aims to solve challenges like blurriness and focus issues that can arise when you're trying to capture a distant subject, resulting in sharper and clearer images.

iPhone tetraprism lens on the iPhone 15 pro max
Smart Portrait Mode - Focus and Depth Control

Portrait Mode isn't new, but what's exciting about the iPhone 15's version is its smart automation. If the iPhone detects a person, cat, or dog, it will automatically capture and record depth-mapping data... even if you are not in Portrait mode. 

You can then decide after the capture whether you should have taken a portrait photo. This offers you a new layer of creative freedom, allowing you to change your mind after the moment has passed and experiment with different looks for your captured images.

The feature I love most, is the software improvements also let you adjust the focal point after the portrait is taken. If there are two subjects in the photo, iPhone 15 pro users can decide after the photo is taken, which subject should be in the foreground and which should be in the background. At the moment, I use Focos app to load Portrait photos and tap on different parts of the scene to change where it focuses. This is a great feature to have in the Photos app.

iPhone tetraprism lens on the iPhone 15 pro max
The Misleading 7 Focal Lengths

When Apple claims '7 focal lengths,' it's not exactly referring to seven distinct lenses but rather to sensor cropping techniques that emulate various focal lengths. The sensor captures a larger image and then isolates the area of interest, effectively creating a zoomed-in effect while retaining significant detail. Sensor cropping offers a form of digital zoom that is highly versatile. It will be convenient to quickly switch between different focal lengths and fields of view. It is important to understand that sensor cropping isn't a replacement for optical zoom but rather a complement to it.

HDR Processing and Screen Brightness

Apple's updated HDR processing (Smart HDR) aims to make your photos appear more natural. The improvements are particularly evident in how the camera handles skin tones, dark shadows and highlights, adding a sense of depth and dimensionality to your shots. This is especially useful in high-contrast settings, where it can be challenging to maintain detail in both highlights and shadows.

The images shared at the Apple launch still had deep blacks. A problem I have had with not having the ability to turn off HDR was the brightening of shadows too much. To experiment with the chiaroscuro style (pronounced kee aa ruh skoo roh) with deep blacks, I would have to underexpose the whole photo by tapping and dragging down on the screen. This will be interesting to see how it looks when we start seeing real test reviews.

Alongside this, the new iPhone 15 series offers double the screen brightness to 2000 nits, making it easier to see your photos in outdoor settings. This allows for a more accurate preview of your shots, making sure what you see on the screen is what you get in the final image.

Action Button

The customisable action button replaces the mute switch. It can be set to quickly open the camera or activate an automation like opening the camera to a specific mode. It can even be set to turn on the flashlight for a fill-in light source in photography or even as a shutter button.

48MP Camera for Everyone

Good news... every model in the iPhone lineup gets a 48MP sensor.
The vanilla iPhone 15 has two lenses, the ultra wide and main wide angle lens. Additionally, using sensor crop, the iPhone 15 offers an optical-grade 2X telephoto. It will be interesting to see if it somehow algorithmically deals with subject to lens distortion for portraits.

The Pro models have the three lens camera configurations offering the 3X zoom camera which gives it more zoom versatility and helps with portrait mode shots.

As for the Pro version, it made the jump to that higher res 48-megapixel sensor last year, but this year, it uses a 25% larger 48MP sensor which comes with improvements in low light photography.

Both phones can also now shoot Super High Res photos at a 24-megapixel resolution. This is a great middle ground between low-detail 12MP shots and high-detail but very large sized 48MP pictures.

The 48MP sensor is achievable via a process called pixel binning. If this is a new term... think about a small garden where each flower represents a pixel that can capture light and color. Normally, each flower (or pixel) works independently to create a detailed picture. But what if you combine four flowers together to act as one big flower? This "big flower" can capture more light and color at once, but you end up with fewer total flowers (or pixels) making up your picture. In photography, this is called pixel binning. It can make photos look brighter and more colorful in low light, but the picture might not be as detailed.


To take advantage of the 48MP wide lens, Apple has implemented a new "HEIF Max" option in the Camera app to capture the full 48-megapixel resolution. This option is also coming to the iPhone 14 Pro with iOS 17. If you have an iPhone 14 Pro this may be enough to stop you rushing out to buy the iPhone 15...

Until now, iPhone 14 Pro users have three options for taking photos: 12MP JPEG or HEIF, 12MP ProRAW, and 48MP ProRAW. With iOS 17, iPhone 14 Pro will have the same HEIF MAX option as the iPhone 15 users for capturing images.

Having experimented with the three current file formats on my 14 Pro Max, the visual difference between 48MP RAW photos and 12MP HEIC was not enough to leave ProRAW turned on. The difference in file size would be a 3.5MB file compared to a file 20x at over 70MB size, making them difficult to share and work with. A 48MP HEIF Max photo is around 5MB. It still has more detail than a regular capture but takes up much less storage than a ProRAW image.

To switch between the file formats, all you have to do is tap and hold the HEIF Max/RAW button to switch between the options available for your phone.

Unfortunately, HEIF Max photos are not compatible with Live Photos. You can access the full 48MP using Portrait mode. It will also work with Photographic styles (are you the person who uses that?) and macro mode. iOS 17 will be available to download on Monday, September 18.

A17 Pro Chip in the 15 Pro range: More Than Just Speed

The A17 chip significantly changes the game in computational photography, a term that refers to the use of algorithms to enhance or extend the physical limitations of the smaller smartphone camera.
The iPhone 15 series follows a two-tier approach similar to its predecessor. The iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Plus are equipped with the A16 chip, which was previously found in the Pro models of the iPhone 14. Meanwhile, the iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max feature the all-new A17 Pro chip, which marks a significant technological leap.

The A17 Pro chip boasts a 6-core CPU, like the A16, but with up to 10% improved performance. Additionally, its 16-core Neural Engine operates up to twice as fast as its predecessor. Notably, the GPU has been redesigned, featuring 6 cores instead of the previous 5, leading to a claimed 20% increase in performance. How is this for an impressive number... the 17 Pro chip features 19 billion transistors, an increase of 6 billion from the A16 bionic chip.

A term that we may all be more familiar with is RAM. The A 17 pro chip has increased RAM from 6 GB to 8 GB. We know with our computer upgrades, that increased RAM allows us to run more things at the same time due to increased efficiency and performance.

Connectivity: USB-C and Data Transfer Speeds

The new USB-C port replaces the old Lightning port, promising faster and more efficient data transfer speeds. This is particularly beneficial for iPhone photographers who often need to transfer large batches of high-quality images and videos between devices.

For example, the iPhone 15 Pro Max offers a whopping 10GB per second data transfer rate. This dramatic improvement in data transfer speed can streamline your post-processing workflow, significantly reducing the time spent waiting for files to transfer from your iPhone to your computer or other devices.

The USB-C will be able to connect to more accessories and offer more convenience like connecting directly to a 4K display. You will be able to tether your dedicated camera straight into the iPhone without the adapters. You can even take full 48mp ProRAW photos and be instantly transferred to your tethered laptop running Capture One. The Apple launch showed an external hard drive connected to the iPhone 15. That's pretty exciting to open up the world of recording ProRes video.

Beyond the Tech Specs: The Art of iPhone Photography

Technology can bring automation and ease, but it can't replace the nuances of human skill and understanding in photography. Learning intermediate to advanced framing, composition, and narrative storytelling will always give you a stronger, more compelling final image.

While a new iPhone can take care of many technical aspects for you, honing your own skills will maximise the potential on any iPhone model and enrich your entire photographic journey.


The iPhone 15 offers several significant upgrades that will be highly valuable to iPhone photographers. If you have an iPhone 13, then this is a no-brainer to jump two levels of chips. The 5x lens exclusively available on the iPhone 15 Pro Max makes this the stand-out option.

Personally, I do often find myself wanting extra reach without sacrificing resolution. However, I will be investing my money in photography education and holding off until the next model. Who knows, once the hands on reviews start to appear on YouTube, I may change my mind.

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