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Best iPhone camera for photography: the iPhone 11 Pro or a cheaper, older model?

Best iphone camera
(Image credit: Apple)

Choosing the best iPhone camera phone is easy in one way, tricky in another! The new iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro bring some big upgrades to the camera, so if you want the latest and the best iPhone camera, choose one of these. But the evolution of iPhone cameras is slow and steady, so the previous generation iPhones and even the ones before deliver really good image quality too. 

This means you can get one of the world's best camera phones without necessarily paying iPhone 11 prices. 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. 

This tactic actually works, both for Apple (we guess) and definitely for end users. 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. The price of iPhones is historically higher than rivals, but some of the older models arguably qualify as the best budget camera phones to get right now.

It seems like only yesterday that Apple launched the iPhone X series. These are still great camera phones, and the arrival of the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro has pushed the prices down. 

If you want bigger savings still, you can go for the previous iPhone 8, though 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. 

Just remember, though: the new iPhone 11 ultra-wide camera is only available on the latest generation iPhones.

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 technical progress as we are. 

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

Best iphone camera: Apple iPhone 11 Pro

(Image credit: Apple)

1. Apple iPhone 11 Pro

Well, let's not pretend we're surprised. The iPhone 11 Pro is brilliant

Release date: September 2019 | Rear cameras: 12MP 13mm f/2.4, 12MP 26mm f/1.8, 12MP 52mm f/2 | Front camera: 12MP, f/2.2 TrueDepth camera | OIS: Yes | Weight: 188 g | Dimensions: 144 x 71.4 x 8.1 mm | Storage: 64/256/512GB

Triple-camera array
Consistent image quality
Brilliant 'slofies'
Portrait effects
No 5G yet
Unambitious specs, on paper

You can't judge camera phones purely on specs. The iPhone 11 Pro's triple-camera array is hardly cutting edge by today's camera phone standards, but it works brilliantly. The colors, tones and exposures are consistent across all three cameras, and the image processing is perfectly judged to produce natural looking detail and not the usual over-sharpened, over-smoothed smartphone 'look'. The new ultrawide camera is just brilliant for travel photography, landmarks and spectacular interiors, and while it can't quite match the edge to edge image quality of the other lenses, it still produces sharp, distortion-free ultra-wide images that widen your horizons in every possible way. We like the regular iPhone 11 Pro best – the iPhone 11 Pro Max has the same cameras but it's just a bit big, while the regular plain-vanilla iPhone 11 is cheaper but doesn't have the 52mm telephoto lens.

Read more: Apple iPhone 11 Pro review
Also consider: Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max review

Best iPhone camera: iPhone 11

(Image credit: Apple)

2. Apple iPhone 11

It's cheaper than the iPhone 11 Pro, but you lose the 'telephoto' lens

Release date: September 2019 | Rear cameras: 12MP 13mm f/2.4, 12MP 26mm f/1.8 | Front camera: 12MP, f/2.2 TrueDepth camera | OIS: Yes | Weight: 194 g | Dimensions: 150.9 x 75.7 x 8.3mm | Storage: 64/128/256GB

Twin-camera array
Consistent image quality
Ultra-wide 13mm lens
No 5G yet
No 56mm 'telephoto' lens

iPhone 11 vs iPhone 11 Pro? That's a tricky question because it depends on the kind of photography you like to do – or more specifically, the angles of view you like. Both iPhones have the new 13mm ultrawide camera that's brilliant for interiors tall landmarks and travel photography, and both have the standard 26mm 'wide' camera. But the iPhone 11 Pro adds in a 56mm 'telephoto' camera which you may or may not find useful. Camera phone photograph tends to be up-close and 'immersive' compared to regular photography, and wider angle lenses are better. The other key difference is the screen. The regular iPhone 11 screen is mid-way in size between the iPhone 11 Pro and the 11 Pro Max, and it uses a Liquid Retina HD display rather than the Pro's Super Retina XDR screen – but will you notice the difference?

Apple iPhone XS

(Image credit: Apple)

3. iPhone XS

In its time, the iPhone XS was the best iPhone, and it's still good even 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 regular iPhone XS has the same cameras as the Max version. The rears offer two 12-megapixel cameras, one for standard wideangle shots, the other for 2x zoom images. 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. The color balance and the character of Apple’s processing are also very pleasant. 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. The 2x zoom is also useful, particularly as it has optical image stabilisation just like the main camera. Many people might find this more useful than the new ultra-wide lens on the iPhone 11, so the iPhone XS is still a good option, even though it's now last year's model.

Apple iPhone XS Max

(Image credit: Apple)

4. 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. 

Apple iPhone XR

(Image credit: Apple)

5. 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 fan’s perspective. It’s now and older, cheaper iPhone (still not that affordable, mind). 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. Other differences? While the iPhone XR has the same processor as the pricier iPhone X models, 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. 

Apple iPhone 8 Plus

(Image credit: Apple)

6. 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, however, the iPhone 8 Plus takes excellent images that aren’t too far off those of the newest iPhones. 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. 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)

7. 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 11 Pro and Pro Max have the same camera hardware (so did the Xs and Xs Max before them), 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 against the latest models at night. Dynamic range optimisation is also slightly better in the newer iPhones. However, the iPhone 8 can still shoot 4K video and slo-mo at up to 240fps (1080p). 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)

8. 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)

9. 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. 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. 

Read more:

• These are the best camera phones in 2019
• Looking for the best budget camera phones? Try these!
Premium iPhone 11 will feature a triple-camera array (report)
10 fantastic iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max camera tips and tricks