It turns out the iPhone 12 Pro is the iPhone 13 Pro’s toughest camera rival

Your faithful iPhone 12 Pro suddenly feels a bit old, right? I know the feeling, and it’s all due to the release of the new iPhone 13 Pro. If you use the camera a lot, you’ll be wondering if it’s a good reason to upgrade to the new phone, or at the very least, a good excuse to do so.

I love the iPhone 12 Pro’s camera. It has been a stunning performer over the last year, delivering consistently fantastic photos reliably, to the point where if I wanted to take a good shot no matter what, I reached for my iPhone. This solid dependability is equally as important as how the final photo looks.

The iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

After the iPhone 13 Pro arrived, I had a day to take photos with it and the iPhone 12 Pro before it was returned as part of my trade-in deal. The question is, would I miss the iPhone 12 Pro after it was sent back? Surprisingly, the 13 Pro is not a massive upgrade over the 12 Pro’s camera, with the results often being very similar. But are they similar enough to not make me miss the 12 Pro?

A few specs and testing details

There are a few points to make clear before we start. I shot all the photos back-to-back using the standard Photo mode, without changing any settings, editing, or applying filters. Both phones have iOS 15 installed. I viewed the photos on a color-calibrated monitor, but the uploaded examples here have been resized for friendlier online viewing.

Regarding specifications, the iPhone 13 Pro has three 12-megapixel cameras. The main camera has an f/1.5 aperture, the telephoto provides a 3x zoom with an f/2.8 aperture, and the wide-angle camera has a 120-degree field of view and an f/1.8 aperture. The iPhone 12 Pro also has three 12MP cameras, but the specs are slightly different, with the main camera having an f/1.6 aperture, the telephoto camera providing a 2x optical zoom with an f/2.0 aperture, and the wide-angle camera an f/2.4 aperture. Both have electronic and optical stabilization and use lidar for night photography.

The seat by the pond

Let’s start with a standard type of photo. Overcast conditions with a hint of blue sky behind the clouds, a lot of green foliage, and texture on aging wood give the cameras lots to think about in this classic scene. The two photos are very similar, right down to the same level of detail, tone, and treatment of colors. The difference comes in the sky, with the iPhone 13 Pro’s white balance and exposure making the clouds greyar, rather than the steely blue in the iPhone 13 Pro’s photo.

The iPhone 13 Pro’s photo is more what I was seeing with my own eyes, and not the iPhone 12 Pro’s more oppressive sky. There’s some evidence of better shadow control and dynamic range on the grass in the iPhone 13 Pro’s photo, particularly in the lower right, as well as slightly increased saturation. I do think the iPhone 13 Pro has taken the more realistic photo, so it will get the win, but really either photo is good.

Winner: iPhone 13 Pro

The buildings in the distance

These were taken on the same day at a different place as the photos above. Although the conditions had improved, the iPhone 13 Pro’s white balance and exposure again give the scene a different atmosphere when looking at the sky. Tt’s the treatment of the buildings that’s different.

The iPhone 13 Pro adds more texture to the walls on the white building, while the wood and brick on the left-most building has a darker tone. The road in the 13 Pro’s photo also takes on that higher level of texture. However, zooming in doesn’t translate into more detail, with the levels being almost identical.

There is a clarity to the iPhone 12 Pro’s photo that’s missing from the iPhone 13 Pro. It’s almost like the 13 Pro has processed the image a little too much, and although I prefer the 13 Pro’s sky, the iPhone 12 Pro’s photo is more pleasing to the eye overall.

Winner: iPhone 12 Pro

The wide-angle church

The different way the iPhone 13 Pro handles exposure compared to the iPhone 12 Pro continues with the wide-angle camera. The brickwork in the iPhone 13 Pro’s photo is decidedly darker thanin the iPhone 12 Pro’s photo, and some of the shadows don’t reveal quite as much detail either. There’s slightly less edge distortion in the 13 Pro’s photo, but again, not by much.

It’s hard to describe, but the iPhone 12 Pro’s photo has a better atmosphere. Whether it’s the HDR at work, the different exposure, or the lighter tone overall, I’m not sure. But there’s a sensitivity to the colors — a subtle, almost soft increase in brightness to the iPhone 12 Pro’s photo that’s missing from the iPhone 13 Pro. It has captured a more emotive scene, in my opinion.

Winner: iPhone 12 Pro

Insects up close

The iPhone 13 Pro has a new macro mode, which kicks in automatically when you get in close to a subject. The iPhone 12 Pro doesn’t have such a feature, but as these two photos prove, this doesn’t mean it can’t take good close-up shots. Obviously, these aren’t the same insects, but neither were very cooperative as models, and got bored and flew off by the time I’d swapped phones.

While the iPhone 12 Pro’s photo is very good, when you zoom in just a small amount, there’s no contest between them. The iPhone 13 Pro’s macro shot is solid, stable, and packed full of detail. Segmentation on the insect’s antenna is visible, the wings are clear and sharp, and the bud on which it sits is also sharply in focus. The iPhone 12 Pro can’t get close, no pun intended.

The macro mode isn’t perfect, though, as switching between lenses — it uses the wide-angle for macro shots — does produce a “jump” and forces you to realign the shot. There’s no way to turn off the macro mode, either. There will be times you don’t want to use it, but at the moment, it’s unavoidable.

Winner: iPhone 13 Pro

Wrist shot, indoors

I chose this photo to show just how similar the two cameras are. Taken indoors with sunlight coming in from the right, and looking directly down on the watch, it’s almost impossible to tell them apart. There are small differences — the dial in the iPhone 13 Pro’s photo is slightly darker, for example — but nothing that affects the final product. Skin tone is good, as is white balance and detail on the cuff, plus each photo captures the different colors on the watch’s bezel accurately.

What does this mean to you? It means that under regular circumstances, taking normal photos indoors, you probably won’t notice any difference between the iPhone 12 Pro and the iPhone 13 Pro’s cameras.

Winner: Draw

Village Hall at night

Taking photos in low light, the iPhone 13 Pro’s night mode activated less often than on the iPhone 12 Pro’s camera, indicating it’s more adept at handling darker conditions. For this photo, the iPhone 12 Pro selected an f/1.6 aperture, ISO 640, 0.1 exposure value, and a 1/10s shutter speed, while the iPhone 13 Pro used an f/1.5 aperture, ISO 800, 0.2 exposure value, and a 1/17s shutter speed.

What’s interesting is despite the difference in settings, the two photos aren’t all that different, and if anything, the iPhone 12 Pro’s photo is a little brighter. Take a look at the sky in general, the tarmac on the right of the frame, and the wall of the building on the left of the shot. Good night photos aren’t just about making it look like daytime. But this aside, I do think the iPhone 12 Pro’s atmosphere is both attractive and realistic.

There’s nothing wrong with the iPhone 13 Pro’s photo at all. It’s a slightly different interpretation of the same scene, and this means some will prefer it over the 12 Pro’s shot. However, my eyes are drawn to the iPhone 12 Pro’s photo more.

Winner: iPhone 12 Pro

Video and zoom

Video comparisons were beyond the scope of this piece, but the iPhone 13 Pro’s Cinematic mode is not available on the iPhone 12 Pro. In my early tests, it’s definitely fun, but the artificial bokeh effect can be noticeable, and creativity, talent, and luck are needed to get the best from it. Like many special video modes found on smartphones, it’s not a reason to buy the phone, but in the right hands, it has the potential to produce eye-catching video that wouldn’t be possible on any other mobile device.

The iPhone 13 Pro has a 3x optical zoom, compared to the iPhone 12 Pro’s 2x optical zoom, so it wasn’t fair to judge the two directly. However, you can see an example of how the two perform above. The iPhone 13 Pro’s zoom provides the same level of detail as the iPhone 12 Pro’s zoom, but closer to the subject. It’s a good upgrade, potentially making the iPhone 13 Pro’s camera a little more useful. Cinematic mode also has the potential to make the camera more fun.

Conclusion

The iPhone 12 Pro won three categories, the iPhone 13 Pro won two, and there was a single draw, giving the iPhone 12 Pro the edge over the iPhone 13 Pro. It’s a surprising outcome, but even though the 12 Pro came out on top, it’s not what you’d call a decisive victory as neither is really technically superior to the other, and the two cameras take very similar photographs most of the time. I chose these few out of around 40 photos taken with each phone, and the majority of those not published looked basically the same.

The iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro's camera modules.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

My iPhone 12 Pro has since been returned, so how do I feel after this test? While I do think many of the differences are most noticeable in a direct comparison and I may not notice them any other time, I do look at the iPhone 12 Pro’s photos here and think, “Wow, that looks exactly how I hoped it would.” I haven’t done the same with shots outside of the macro camera on the iPhone 13 Pro yet. It’s early days, but I do think the iPhone 13 Pro’s camera perhaps needs some software tweaks to truly realize its potential.

If you’re planning to upgrade with the hope the camera is going to be even better, your expectations should be kept in check. It’s obviously not worse in any way, but you may prefer how one phone’s photos look compared to the other based only on personal taste, rather than a performance difference. The iPhone 13 Pro is available to buy now, and it shares the same camera as the iPhone 13 Pro Max, which you should buy if you want a larger screen. The cheaper iPhone 13 has a slightly different camera system, so results will differ.

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