Hands on with the iPhone 11 cameras

When it comes to smartphone features, photography reigns supreme. The iPhone 11’s camera was the main focus of the most prominent product images in Apple’s iPhone event Tuesday, and consumed the most overall time on stage. The iPhone 11 features major upgrades to the iPhone camera system across the product line, which is good, because the perception among smartphone-market watchers is that Apple’s photography game had fallen behind competitors like Google, Samsung, and Huawei.

After the event I got to spend some time with an iPhone 11 Pro and its Camera and Photos apps, both of which have been modified to support the new features of the iPhone 11 line. Here’s a look at what’s new and how it all fits together.

Adding the Ultra Wide camera

All iPhone models gained a camera in this update, which Apple is calling the “ultra wide.” It’s a 12-megapixel camera with a 120-degree field of view. In iPhone camera terms, it’s the “0.5x” camera, versus the 1x “wide” camera and the 2x “telephoto” camera. You can toggle between the lenses by tapping buttons right on the Camera app—and yes, that means that the iPhone 11 Pro’s Camera app now has three different buttons as shown in the phot below. You can also slide your finger over the buttons to bring up a zoom dial, which prominently displays the “home” zooms of the available lenses, and subtly snaps to them when you get close.

3 camera view iphone pro maxJason Snell

Three-camera view on the iPhone Pro Max.

While you’re taking video, you can also zoom in and out using that swiping gesture. The iPhone software will translate that into a smooth zooming effect, and hand off between one camera and the other imperceptably (a nice trick that requires a lot of math and image manipulation).

Yes, the ultra wide camera is there to help you take broader shots—especially in scenarios where you can’t just take ten steps back to get that broader view. If you’ve ever had to resort to taking a small panorama just to encompass the view, you’ll get the idea. But it gets more impressive when it’s used with in conjunction with the other cameras.

iphone 11 camera viewfinder Jason Snell

Here you can see the extra image information visible under the edges of the Camera app while framing a shot.

You can optionally set the iPhone 11—for both video and stills—to capture data from both the wide and ultra wide cameras. The iPhone retains both versions for an undetermined period of time; eventually, if you do nothing with the ultra wide version, it will get thrown away. What’s really happening here is that the iPhone is stashing away a broader view of the image or video you just took, in case you end up realizing after the fact that an important part of the scene was cropped off the edges of the frame.

iphone 11 more crop boundary Jason Snell

In the Photos app, this symbol indicates there’s more image available from the ultra wide camera outside the standard crop boundary.

To fix that issue, you do exactly what you’d expect—open the image in the Photos app and tap Edit, then select the Crop tool. You’ll discover that there’s more image beyond the crop marks! This is image data from the ultra wide camera that has been seamlessly stitched into your photo or video, and if you want to use it, you can just change the crop to reveal more information. It’s a very clever way to provide a safety net via the ultra wide camera. Once you’ve tapped that Edit button, that extra off-camera information will continue to be available for later tweaking—iOS won’t throw it away.

The mysteries of Night Mode

Ever since Google introduced its Night Mode, a feature for Pixel phones that uses multiple exposures, including long exposures, and a whole lot of image processing to create vibrant, bright scenes out of locations with very little light, Apple’s grainy, realistic approach to shooting images in dark locations has seemed out of step. With the iPhone 11, Apple finally gets in the game.