Is the iPhone XS camera really that much better? Definitely. See for yourself

iPhone XS review
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The iPhone XS and XS Max pack great cameras, but on paper they may not seem like big enough upgrades over the iPhone X. Think again. The addition of Smart HDR, paired with the powerful A12 Bionic processor, substantially improves the quality of photographs taken by Apple’s new iPhones.

We decided to pit the new iPhones against the old one in a camera shootout to highlight these improvements. We interchange the iPhone XS and XS Max, because the cameras are exactly the same.

Strong lighting conditions

Left: iPhone XS, Right: iPhone X

We’re going to be mentioning Smart HDR a lot, so let’s first break down what it means. It’s a new feature enabled in the iPhone XS and XS Max camera, and it uses the power of the A12 Bionic processor inside. How? The camera takes a wide variety of photographs from seconds before to seconds after you tap the shutter icon. These are taken at numerous exposures and speeds, and the best of each photograph is combined to form a well-balanced photo (the speed at which all of this happens is barely noticeable thanks to the A12 processor). Doing all this means the iPhone can now handle high-contrast scenarios, such as when you have a bright sky and a dark foreground, much better than before.

For example, take a look at the picture of the clouds. It’s a good comparison showing the differences between the iPhone X and the iPhone XS. The sky looks a little overexposed on the iPhone X photo, enough to mask intricate cloud patterns. Those patterns are visible on the iPhone XS photo, and you can see the sky is also a tad bluer, and the clouds more defined. More importantly, the buildings in the foreground are brighter, delivering a much more balanced photograph.

This is even more apparent in the photograph of the woman in the middle of a New York City street. This is not a Portrait Mode photo, but a regular shot. You can easily see how much better the iPhone XS fares — the colors are more accurate, especially the skin tone, but what really shines is Smart HDR again. Take a look at the woman’s forehead, nose, and the background on the left side of the iPhone X photo: It’s all overexposed. The difference when you then glimpse at the iPhone XS photo is startling.

The differences between the XS and XS Max over the iPhone X can be subtle, but in almost every case, the iPhone XS wins out thanks to Smart HDR. Case in point are the following two photos:

Left: iPhone XS, Right: iPhone X

These are two great-looking photos, but the one we’d pick to share is from the iPhone XS. The iPhone X photo looks slightly overexposed overall, from the clouds reflecting on the glass to the amber lights inside the building. Zoom in closer, and you’ll also notice much more grain on the iPhone X photo. Smart HDR can be turned off, but we’ve yet to find a good reason to do that.

Low light

Left: iPhone XS, Right: iPhone X

The iPhone XS and XS Max also have larger image sensors than the iPhone X, which means you should see better exposed low-light photographs with less noise. Smart HDR also helps work wonders here. In both these photos of the New York City skyline, it’s easy to see how quickly the iPhone X overexposes lights from buildings, and even the billboard on the bottom left of the photo with the World Trade Center.

Better yet, look at the color of the sky in the photos with the water tank on the top left. The iPhone X photo has a yellowish hue, but the XS’ photo is bluer and it looks more natural. There’s also significantly less noise in the XS photo. All of this can be applied to the second photo that has the World Trade Center in it.

Left: iPhone XS, Right: iPhone X

These next few photos are mostly taken in low light, which is the scenario we try to test the most, as many flagship smartphones can handle bright environments well. All of these photographs succinctly show off why the iPhone XS camera is better, and how. The photo of the subway entrance is one of our favorites — the iPhone XS got the color tone right, but it also didn’t overexpose the subway sign. The next photo from the High Line is another testament to the benefits of Smart HDR. Everything is much brighter, and if you zoom in on the cars near the traffic light, you can see how much more detail the XS photo offers.

The changes in the last photo are a little more subtle, but they again have to do with light. You can see the filament on the bulbs in the XS photo, whereas it’s too overexposed on the iPhone X photo. This also applies to the lanterns, as they are too bright on the iPhone X photo.

Food

Left: iPhone XS, Right: iPhone X

It’s not always an easy win for the iPhone XS, though. In this food photo, while we do think the iPhone XS takes the photo we want to share, we wouldn’t be surprised if you opted for the brighter iPhone X photo. The focus is slightly off on the iPhone X photo — the wooden spoon is more in focus — but neither are too grainy. Both work well, but the iPhone XS photo is more true to reality; the scene was definitely not as bright as the iPhone X photo makes it out to be.

Portrait Mode

Left: iPhone XS, Right: iPhone X

There have been improvements to Portrait Mode, especially with its accuracy in identifying subjects and applying bokeh, or blur ,around them. The accuracy of the cutout around the subject is good in both photos of the woman taken with the rear camera, but you can see how Smart HDR vastly improves the iPhone XS Portrait Mode photo. It doesn’t overexpose the sunlight hitting the woman’s forehead or in the background; instead, skin tone is much more realistic and natural, and the iPhone XS overall delivers a stronger photo.

It’s not all perfect. Flip over to the front camera, and the iPhone XS still makes mistakes. In the iPhone X photo, the blur around the subject is more accurate than the iPhone XS photo (look at the ear on the right of the XS photo). However, Smart HDR does make the XS photo the one we want to share. Look at the digital billboards in the background — they’re all completely blown out on the iPhone X photo.

Zoom in closer to the subject’s face, and you will notice there’s a slightly stronger level of detail on the iPhone X photo. The iPhone XS takes slightly softer portraits, but we don’t think this is a “beauty mode” like some have suggested. Instead, it looks like the softer image is largely due to aggressive noise reduction — look down at the subject’s shirt collar, and you’ll notice it doesn’t look as detailed as it does in the iPhone X photo. We believe it’s because of Apple’s new stronger noise-reduction technique, and there also seems to be a slight dip in contrast. Photography expert Sebastiaan de With from Halide explains this in greater detail in an in-depth blog post as well, if you want to explore it further.

Top row (from left to right): iPhone XS portrait mode, iPhone XS selfie mode, iPhone X portrait mode. Bottom row (from left to right): iPhone X selfie mode, iPhone 8 Plus, iPhone 6S

We snapped a few photos from the iPhone 6S, the iPhone 8 Plus, the iPhone X, and the iPhone XS to compare selfies from the front-facing camera (including two Portrait Mode selfies with the X and the XS). Despite the face looking slightly smoother, we think the XS photos are the best overall. The lack of Smart HDR on the other phones mean a blown-out background, though you can see a slightly stronger level of contrast.

We still prefer the end result of the iPhone XS — Smart HDR is worth it. If it’s not for you, you can always turn this mode off by heading to Settings > Camera and toggling off Smart HDR.

The iPhone XS and XS Max cameras are much improved over the iPhone X. Do we still think you should upgrade? No, unless you’re a serious iPhone photographer or you just want the latest and greatest. You can learn more about the phones in our iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max reviews.

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