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I used an iPad as my main camera, and what happened amazed me

A person holding the iPad Air (2024) and taking a photo.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

I’ve spent the last few days using the iPad Air (2024) as my primary camera, and what started out as a bit of a joke became more serious as I went along. How so? Because I compared the results with the iPhone 15 Pro Max. The thing is, to my eyes, the iPad sometimes took better photos than the iPhone.

Confusing thoughts and emotions rushed through my head. Was I about to carry an iPad around all the time? Was there something wrong with my iPhone? Had I been mistaken all the times when I have used the iPhone to take a special photo and been pleased with the results? The iPad, a tablet with a single camera, shouldn’t be outperforming the flagship iPhone’s camera at any time. Yet, this was what I began to think was happening.

Where it all started

A person holding the Apple iPad Air (2024).
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

We’ve all seen the person using an iPad to take photos. and there’s nothing subtle about it. We may have given them a side-eye glance and wondered, “Why aren’t you using your phone?” That was the basis for me using the iPad Air (2024) as my main camera for a while; to see just how bad, irritating, or embarrassing it was. I’d taken a few photos with it for my review, but it wasn’t until I went to an early evening local event that I took photos with both it and the iPhone 15 Pro Max.

I needed to see how “bad” the iPad Air (2024) camera was, so I took a hasty photo of a gathered crowd with both it and the iPhone. I took a quick look and was quite surprised at what I saw. At first glance, the iPad’s photo was more appealing than the iPhone’s photo. You can see the two photos that stopped me in my tracks below.

The iPad Air (2024) photo is more brightly exposed than the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s photo, and it’s this difference that influenced my first glance impression. From the tree in the background to the clouds in the sky and even the faces of the people in the foreground, the iPad Air’s photo is livelier and brighter and arguably more representative of the scene in real life. It was quite cloudy, but not as oppressive as the iPhone makes out.

I wondered if perhaps the natural lighting was causing a problem for the iPhone (a thought process that in itself seemed so wrong), so I went to the opposite side of the crowd and took another photo, but it was the same deal. The iPhone plunged everyone into partial darkness, while the iPad made the scene look far happier. In just the first two photos I’d taken when comparing the iPhone and the iPad’s cameras, the iPad seemed to have the $1,200 camera phone flagship beaten.

Shocked doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings at the time.

Looking more closely

A person holding the Apple iPad Air (2024).
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

Comparing the iPad Air and the iPhone’s camera hadn’t been my intention, but now I was fully invested in finding out what was going on. The only way I’d know for sure if the iPad Air (2024) actually took better photos than the iPhone 15 Pro Max was to see them on a monitor.

Above, you can see another pair of comparison images that illustrate the differences in exposure and contrast between the two cameras. But it’s when you zoom in that the question of which is the better camera is quickly answered.

Don’t worry, normalcy is about to be (mostly) restored. The iPad Air’s photos lack a lot of detail, while the iPhone’s photos are pin-sharp down to the tiniest detail. You may be able to see the Michelin branding on the car’s tire in the iPad Air’s photo more clearly than the iPhone’s, but the difference in sharpness is massive, and it’s immediately noticeable throughout the image when you crop it down, from the shine on the vehicle’s body to the individual leaves on the trees and foliage in the background.

It’s the same story with the photos I’d taken at the event. The level of detail in the iPhone’s photos is incredible, and it leaves the iPad Air’s photos in the dust. It’s hardly surprising given the technical differences between the two — from the camera sensors to the processor. I was expecting the iPhone to completely trounce the iPad from the beginning, but this wasn’t the case.

I genuinely had to look closely to see where the iPhone improved over the iPad. Not everyone will feel the need to do the same, and a snap decision may come down in the iPad’s favor due to the way each camera exposes the shot. That’s not a good situation, as by rights, the iPhone 15 Pro Max should provide the very best camera experience in all situations and not be beaten by any other devices in Apple’s range.

The iPad’s camera is surprisingly good

A person holding the iPad Air (2024) and taking a photo.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

Let’s return to the basis of this article before the iPhone confused everything. Is it crazy to use the iPad Air as your main camera? The old cliché that says the best camera is the one you have with you applies to the iPad Air (2024). Ignore the lack of detail, and it’s perfectly acceptable. If you don’t have any other camera with you, it does the job quite well. For example, the photo of the inquisitive cat approaching me was taken with the iPad because I didn’t have time to reach for my iPhone, and it looks really good to my eyes.

The trend continued when taking photos during the day, whether they were close-ups, indoors, or outside. But despite this, I can’t carry on using it. The reason why isn’t because of the camera itself; it’s because the iPad is too big, too awkward, and too silly to use instead of a phone. We all know this, so I appreciate that it’s not a shocking conclusion, but don’t forget I had started to doubt everything I believed when I first saw those iPad Air and iPhone photos together.

The iPad Air (2024) reminds me of the Apple iPhone SE (2022). Not only does the camera use the same aspect ratio as Apple’s tiniest current smartphone, but it also lacks many of the features we expect on camera phones today, such as a portrait mode for the selfie camera and a wide-angle camera. But the iPhone SE 2 has proven itself very capable in comparison tests in the past and is a sobering reminder for those of us spoiled by multi-lens, high-spec phone cams that a basic camera can still take lovely photos. I’ve come to the same conclusion about the iPad Air (2024).

No, the iPad’s camera isn’t better than the iPhone’s

The back of the iPad Air (2024) laying on grass.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

At the end of my time using the iPad Air (2024) as my main camera, I have learned that it does not take higher-quality photos than the iPhone 15 Pro Max, but shockingly, it does expose (I’d normally apologize about the pun, but not this time as it’s so appropriate) a serious problem with Apple’s top camera phone. What is going on with the exposure levels? The iPhone has been heavy-handed in this area for a while, but when a tablet seems to more accurately set the tone and balance of a scene, it’s time to recognize there’s a problem.

It’s also time to give the iPad’s camera its due for taking decent photos. No, they aren’t packed with detail, but I’ve not been disappointed with any of the shots when I take the hardware limitations into account. It’s never going to beat a camera phone at night or when taking telephoto shots, but it’s far more capable during general use than I ever would have expected before going into this.

A person holding the iPad Air (2024) and taking a photo.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

Will I ditch my iPhone 15 Pro Max and use the iPad Air (2024) to take photos from now on? Again, no. It’s impossible to use with one hand, it has no special features at all, it’s not subtle in the slightest, and at times it’s rather embarrassing in its obviousness (this is definitely not a camera for the keen, discreet street photographer). But I’ve learned we shouldn’t laugh at anyone using an iPad to take photos anymore because, provided you don’t look too closely, there’s a good chance it’ll sometimes appear to do a better job than your expensive iPhone.

And that is a conclusion I never, ever expected to write.

Editors' Recommendations

Andy Boxall
Andy is a Senior Writer at Digital Trends, where he concentrates on mobile technology, a subject he has written about for…
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