Best iPhone for photography: do you need an iPhone XS or will an older iPhone do?

Best iPhone for photography
(Image credit: Apple)

The iPhone range is quite unlike that of any other manufacturer. You don’t just look down a list of diminishing prices and specs when choosing a phone, but into the past too. 

There are no “cheap” iPhones. Old models hang on like the one-star employee who can’t be fired, so is just gradually demoted into their dotage. But this tactic actually works. These older iPhones may not make it on to our list of the best camera phones any more, but they are still great buys for photographers who don't need the latest gadgets.

And while camera phones are changing all the time, some of the best camera phone photography tips are timeless, whether you're using the latest iPhone XS or an older iPhone.

It's worth keeping in mind that slightly older high-end cameras are often better than newer lower-mid-range ones, and the same is true of CPUs and graphics chipsets. But how do the new iPhones in 2019 compare to older ones like the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus? 

There’s a big change in design when you drop down to the iPhone 8 generation. These landed before Apple started using OLED screens and punch holes in all its new phones, and they can look a little dated in 2019. 

Apple doesn’t just make up the improvements in image quality it shows off each year, either, as these are real and significant. As a result, you do see a drop off in low-light image quality in particular with the older models. However, you may be surprised by quite how well a three year-old phone can hold up today, as obsessed with techy progress as we are. 

All of the iPhones you can buy today have responsive, easy-to-use cameras that can take stunning images in daylight. The question is whether you’ll be happy with the compromises of the more affordable options. Forward thinkers are probably wondering what's next for Apple iPhone cameras, and we've got some information on what the next iPhone camera might offer.

Here’s a rundown of what you can expect from every iPhone on sale today. 

Apple iPhone XS

(Image credit: Apple)

1. iPhone XS

We think this is the best iPhone for photography right now

Release date: September 2018 | Rear cameras: 12MP (Wide angle lens, f/1.8), 12MP (2x zoom lens) | Front camera: 7MP | OIS: Yes | Weight: 177 g | Dimensions: 143.6 x 70.9 x 7.7 mm | Storage: 64/256/512 GB)

Same camera hardware as the Max
Very good image quality
Lacks ultra-low light ability of some Androids

The iPhone XS seems the “default” iPhone for many. It has the same cameras as the Max version. Both front and back arrays have dual sensors. The rears offer two 12-megapixel cameras, one for standard shots, the other 2x zoom images.

In almost all extreme conditions, certain Androids perform better. Huawei, and others, have superior “night” modes, more ambitious application of HDR and longer zooms. 

However they, in turn, often struggle to replicate some of the iPhone benefits. Apple offers a very natural and faithful image preview, which shows a good estimate of the benefits of image processing before that processing has even taken place. 

Colour balance and the character of Apple’s processing are also very pleasant. The 2x zoom is also useful, particularly as it has optical image stabilisation just like the main camera. 

And, while not genuinely remarkable, the iPhone XS takes much better ultra-low light images than the older iPhones. Other highlights include 240fps slo-mo at 1080p and X-series-only additional modes in the background blur portrait mode, such as Stage Lighting. This blacks out the background, for an image that looks a little like an actor’s headshot.

Apple iPhone XS Max

(Image credit: Apple)

2. iPhone XS Max

It's bigger than the iPhone XS but not necessarily better

Release date: September 2018 | Rear cameras: 12MP (Wide angle lens, f/1.8), 12MP (2x zoom lens) | Front camera: 7MP | OIS: Yes | Weight: 208 g | Dimensions: 157.5 x 77.4 x 7.7 mm | Storage: 64/256/512 GB)

Big screen for composing shots
Excellent general image quality
Very high price

The iPhone XS Max has the same camera setup as the iPhone Xs. So what benefit is there here?

It’s pretty obvious, really. The Max has a larger screen, which helps when composing images. This is a particularly bright OLED display with max power of around 650 nits. It copes remarkably well outdoors, and goes into a ‘turbo’ mode when required, to make sure you can see the image preview even when it’s sunny. 

Both X-series phones also have dual front-facing cameras. The imaging sensor is a 7-megapixel chip just like the recent older iPhones, and the second is a “time of flight” camera. This is used solely for depth mapping.

Its primary function is to make the Face ID unlock feature work well, but it also improves “bokeh” images. You can alter the blur effect level, effectively changing the virtual aperture, after shooting the image. 

Unlike older plus-size iPhones, the iPhone XS Max also provides good screen space per square inch of phone. While very slightly smaller than the iPhone 8 Plus, this phone has a 6.5-inch screen in place of a 5.5-inch one. 

Apple iPhone XR

(Image credit: Apple)

3. iPhone XR

It's a great camera phone at a good price, but there's no zoom

Release date: September 2018 | Rear cameras: 12MP (Wide angle lens, f/1.8) | Front camera: 7MP | OIS: Yes | Weight: 194 g | Dimensions: 150.9 x 75.7 x 8.3 mm | Storage: 64/256/512 GB)

Retains high quality build
Very good battery life
No telephoto or ToF camera
Lower price, but hardly cheap

The iPhone XR is one of the most interesting phones in the 2019 line-up from an Apple bore’s perspective. It’s a “cheaper” iPhone (still not that affordable, mind), but not an old model. 

The lack of a zoom camera is its biggest loss. The iPhone XR has only the one rear camera, the same 12-megapixel stabilised get-up as the iPhone XS. You get great images, sure, but a zoom is handy for gigs and other situations when you can’t simply move closer. Here you have to use a compromised digital zoom. 

Surprisingly, it does have one distinct feature. It lets you shoot background blur portrait images using the standard lens, rather than the 2x lens array used by the iPhone Xs and Xs Max. However, it only works on people. With no second camera to create a parallax-based depth map it needs to use face-recognising software. And that means no still life or doggie bokeh images. 

Other differences? While the iPhone XR has the same processor as the pricier iPhones, it uses an LCD screen rather than an OLED. This screen is larger than the iPhone Xs’s, though, and battery life is far better than that of the smaller, fancier iPhone Xs too. 

Build quality is of Apple’s usual high standard. This is not a plastic phone like its spiritual predecessor the iPhone SE. It has a glass back and metal sides – though those sides are aluminium rather than stainless steel. 

Apple iPhone 8 Plus

(Image credit: Apple)

4. iPhone 8 Plus

Starting to date in design terms, but still holds up well as a camera phone

Release date: September 2017 | Rear cameras: 12MP (Wide angle lens, f/1.8), 12MP (2x zoom lens) | Front camera: 7MP | OIS: Yes | Weight: 202 g | Dimensions: 158.4 x 78.1 x 7.5 mm | Storage: 64/256GB)

Has a stabilised telephoto camera
Very good shooting experience
Design is already a little dated
Worse low-light performance than Xs

In one sense the iPhone 8 Plus may seem a step above the iPhone XR. It has a 2x telephoto camera, with a 12-megapixel sensor. 

Don’t mistake this for a like-for-like alternative to what’s on offer in the iPhone Xs Max, though. This telephoto lens is not stabilised, making it more likely you’ll get blurry images when light level is sub-optimal. 

In daylight the iPhone 8 Plus takes excellent images that aren’t too far off those of the newest iPhones. Apple did make some significant improvements to very low light image quality in the Xs range, though, so night photos end up looking a little fuzzy in direct comparison (when viewed close up at pixel level).

The phone itself now seems rather dated. It has a 16:9 5.5-inch screen with relatively large borders, and what now seems a fairly lazy screen to surface ratio. Android phone makers could not get away with selling a design like this for £699. 

Still, this only becomes an issue in a direct comparison. We were perfectly happy with the iPhone 8 Plus in 2017. Things have changed since then, but not that much. Our hands haven’t suddenly shrunk. 

Apple iPhone 8

(Image credit: Apple)

5. iPhone 8

It's good, but a lot has changed in camera tech since 2017

Release date: September 2017 | Rear cameras: 12MP (Wide angle lens, f/1.8) | Front camera: 7MP | OIS: Yes | Weight: 148 g | Dimensions: 138.4 x 67.3 x 7.3 mm | Storage: 64/256GB)

Competes well in daylight shooting
No zoom
No animojis

The iPhone 8 shows you how Apple used to treat its small and large iPhone variants. Where the iPhone Xs and Xs Max have the same camera hardware, the iPhone 8 misses out on the 2x zoom of the iPhone 8 Plus. 

You’re left with the single 12-megapixel main camera. And just like the iPhone 8 Plus’s, it’s great indoors but does not quite stack up to the higher-end phones at night. 

Dynamic range optimisation is also slightly better in the newer iPhones. However, it can still shoot 4K video and slo-mo at up to 240fps (1080p).

The 8-series phones miss out on Animojis, the animated emojis powered by your own facial expressions and the front camera. But we don’t think too many photographers will miss this. OK, maybe some photographers who are also parents of young kids will. 

We’d argue the iPhone 8 design has actually worn a little better than the iPhone 8 Plus. Its small stature lets it pass for cute rather than high-end, and it does not have the pocket-bulging effect of the Plus. 

Apple iPhone 7

(Image credit: Apple)

6. iPhone 7

It came out in 2016 but the iPhone 7 is still good for photography

Release date: September 2016 | Rear cameras: 12MP (Wide angle lens, f/1.8) | Front camera: 7MP | OIS: Yes | Weight: 138 g | Dimensions: 138.3 x 67.1 x 7.1 mm | Storage: 32/128/256GB)

Easy to handle and live with
Weathers well for a 3-year-old phone
Weaker DR and colour processing
Less good in low light

Now here’s a blast from the past. The iPhone 7 was released in 2016, and is testament to iPhones’ supreme shelf life. 

On paper its camera sounds almost identical to the iPhone 8’s. It has a single 12-megapixel rear sensor with OIS and an f/1.8 lens, and a 7-megapixel selfie camera. 

Apple made notable improvements in 2017 that are missing in this older model, and photographers will notice. Autofocus is slower, dynamic range is a little worse and colour reproduction is a little less punchy or charming, particularly in less than ideal lighting. 

It’s still a good camera, particularly as a breezy auto mode shooter, but the years are taking their toll on this most affordable iPhone. 

Step away from the camera and the iPhone 7 looks almost identical to the iPhone 8. Both have 4.7-inch LCD screens of 1334 x 750 pixel resolution. You miss out on HDR support for the phone’s own screen (it still takes HDR photos), and the TrueTone feature. This alters the display’s colour profile to suit the ambient lighting. 

Apple iPhone 7 Plus

(Image credit: Apple)

7. iPhone 7 Plus

The Plus-size version of the iPhone 7 does come with two cameras

Release date: September 2016 | Rear cameras: 12MP (Wide angle lens, f/1.8), 12MP (2x zoom lens) | Front camera: 7MP | OIS: Yes | Weight: 188 g | Dimensions: 158.2 x 77.9 x 7.3 mm | Storage: 32/128/256GB)

Has a telephoto camera
Solid shooting experience
Ageing design
Less dynamic range than newer iPhones

The iPhone 7 Plus was the first Apple phone to have a 2x zoom camera. This seemed very special back in 2016, but today? Not so much, but it’s still useful. 

This phone stacks up much like the iPhone 7. Dynamic range and colour benefit from less optimisation, although the actual sensor is genuinely different too. Low-light performance is only OK by today’s standards, and fairly poor if you look in a brand-agnostic way at Android phones of a similar price. 

Still, the main camera is stabilised so the low-light shooting experience is still better than that of some mid-range and entry-level Androids.

The phone’s design is very similar to the iPhone 8 Plus’s. It’s relatively bulky, and has a 16:9 screen and a dated shape. iPhone build ages well, though, and this still feels like a top-quality mobile. 

It holds up well in other respects too. The Apple A10 Fusion processor is quite old now, but has enough power to run games like Fortnite well, not least because the developers know millions of players will have this exact model.  

Read more:

• These are the best camera phones in 2019
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10 fantastic iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max camera tips and tricks