Camera comparison: Can the iPhone XR's single camera compete with the iPhone XS and XS Max...

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in iPhone edited December 2018
Arguably one of the biggest differences in physical design for the 2018 iPhone models, the iPhone XR has only one rear camera while the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max have two. AppleInsider takes a closer look at the situation to see if the iPhone XR's single camera can still stand up to the dual-lens stablemates.

The iPhone XR and the iPhone XS Max
The iPhone XR and the iPhone XS Max


When the iPhone XR came out, I made the switch from the iPhone XS Max, thinking the camera would be just as good for those who want to save some cash, but I was wrong. After spending a month with the XR's camera, I switched back to the XS Max. Here's why.





The iPhone XR, iPhone XS, and iPhone XS Max are all 12 megapixel cameras, with the same wide lens, but the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max also has telephoto lens for portrait mode and zoom photos.

The iPhone XS, iPhone XR, and iPhone XS Max
The iPhone XS, iPhone XR, and iPhone XS Max


The iPhone XR has practically the same internals as the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, including the A12 processor, so photos from the wide lens are going to be basically identical across the board. As you can see here, the quality on the iPhone XR is up to par with the iPhone XS Max, with exceptional detail and dynamic range.

The telephoto lens greatly improves zoom quality

The iPhone XS only really gets ahead when you switch to the telephoto lens and zoom in. At 2x optical zoom, there's a noticeable difference in detail and quality. Since the iPhone XR lacks a telephoto lens, it can only digitally zoom in 5x compared to the combined optical and digital 10x on the iPhone XS Max by using the telephoto lens, while getting similar levels of detail.

This isn't a big deal for a lot of people, but there are many use cases where having some extra zoom can really help, especially for taking photos of wildlife.

  • Comparison of maximum zooms
  • Comparison of maximum zoom for video


While shooting video, the iPhone XR only has 3x zoom compared to 6x on the iPhone XS, for the same reason as stills. Now that's quite a bit more limiting than in photos, so having that telephoto lens is a big deal, especially since you can take great looking telephoto portrait photos.

Portrait photo differences

The iPhone XR is is the only iPhone that can take portrait photos using the wide lens. Even so, it's just not the same as on the iPhone XS, despite having the same depth control and portrait lighting features.

The biggest issue with the iPhone XR's camera is that you can't take portrait photos of objects or non-human subjects like you can on the iPhone XS. Apple quietly mentioned this, but most consumers only found out when they got their hands on their iPhone XR and started taking photos.

Attempted Portrait shots for the HomePod on the iPhone XR and iPhone XS Max
Attempted Portrait shots for the HomePod on the iPhone XR and iPhone XS Max


It makes sense that if you can take a portrait photo of a person, objects should work as well. Other single-lens phones like the Google Pixel 3 XL can take them, so why can't the XR?

iPhone XR vs Google Pixel 3 showing how the XR cannot take Portraits of objects
iPhone XR vs Google Pixel 3 showing how the XR cannot take Portraits of objects

Background compression and depth of field differences

But what if you don't care about taking portrait photos of objects? Well, portrait photos of people suffer as well when you're using a wider lens. In this example, you can see how the subject's face looks more natural and proportioned with each higher zoom lens.

Comparison of focal lengths for portraits (via DPReview)
Comparison of focal lengths for portraits (via DPReview)


Not only that but the background compression and depth of field increases, making for a more pleasing image.

This is exactly what you get with the iPhone XS telephoto lens.

  • Portrait Mode with similar framing for the iPhone XR and iPhone XS Max
  • Portrait Mode with similar framing for the iPhone XR and iPhone XS Max


As you can see, the telephoto portrait looks more natural, and the increased compression makes for less distracting objects in the background.

iPhone XR vs iPhone XS Max F1.4 blur comparison
iPhone XR vs iPhone XS Max F1.4 blur comparison


We see the same difference when taking photos of vehicles. The wide lens warps the car's body lines, making it look a bit odd.

iPhone XR Portrait shot
iPhone XR Portrait shot


The differences are clear. The iPhone XR also gets the depth control feature, so you can increase the blur to make portrait photos look better.

iPhone XR gives better low light portrait photos

Although the iPhone XS camera is better in so many ways, there's actually a scenario where the XR is superior. If you've seen any of our recent iPhone camera comparisons, you'll know that the telephoto lens performs worse in low light due to having a slower aperture which lets in less natural light.

  • Low light comparison for iPhone XR and iPhone XS Max
  • Low light comparison showing poorer low light capabilities for the iPhone XS Max


Since dual-camera iPhones can only take portrait photos using the telephoto lens, the iPhone XR has an advantage when taking portrait photos in low light, resulting in better-looking images with less noise. So, that's definitely a plus for the iPhone XR, but not as many people take portrait photos when it's dark.

Camera-enthusiasts should buy the iPhone XS or XS Max

Those little drawbacks with the iPhone XR's camera, among other general limitations, caused me to switch back to the iPhone XS Max.

iPhone XR
iPhone XR


Ultimately, the XR still has the best single-lens camera alongside the Google Pixel 3, according to DXOMARK, and for $750, I'd say it's a pretty good deal for what you get.

Nevertheless, the camera on the iPhone XS is undoubtedly better. If camera performance is very important to you, I'd recommend spending the extra cash.

Deals on the iPhone XR, XS and XS Max

If you haven't already ordered Apple's latest iPhones, wireless carriers are incentivizing the purchase.

Carrier deals:

  • AT&T Wireless: Get the iPhone XR, XS or XS Max for $0 down.
  • Verizon Wireless: Get a 32GB 9.7" iPad and iPhone XR for $30 per month combined when you add new lines.
  • Sprint: Get the 64GB iPhone XR for $0 per month with eligible trade-in and Sprint Flex lease.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 26

    the flash sucks on the XS, camera set up is completely flawed.. Flash should’ve been placed far enough from the lens axis, but instead it’s dead smack in between both lenses 🤦🏽‍♂️ nearly impossible to not get red eyes in pictures, phone is way too expensive for that ... last year you guys did a review on the flash.. no tech/phone reviewer has addressed this issue .. 

  • Reply 2 of 26
    Fortunately, I already have a good DSLR camera, so this just confirms my previous bias towards the XR model, and not spending the extra for one of the XS ones.

    Thanks.
    radarthekat
  • Reply 3 of 26
    They have an app that allows the XR to take portrait photos of anything but it would be nice if apple made this available via the native photo app
    radarthekat
  • Reply 4 of 26
    the telephoto lens performs worse in low light due to having a slower aperture which lets in less natural light.


    Apertures are holes.  They have sizes, not speeds.  The telephoto lens has a smaller aperture, not a slower speed.  If we were talking about shutters, then we could also talk about speed.
    macpluspluswatto_cobraSpamSandwichradarthekat
  • Reply 5 of 26
    tzeshantzeshan Posts: 1,885member
    XS uses the second lens to help portrait. 
  • Reply 6 of 26
    bonobob said:
    the telephoto lens performs worse in low light due to having a slower aperture which lets in less natural light.


    Apertures are holes.  They have sizes, not speeds.  The telephoto lens has a smaller aperture, not a slower speed.  If we were talking about shutters, then we could also talk about speed.
    You're technically right...but fast and slow are used for aperture by many folks including photo enthusiasts.  Fast = more light.  Slow = less light.  So, speed has been used for anything that alters the amount of light that affects picture quality.  Fast sensor.  Fast lens.  Fast f-stop.  etc.
    edited December 2018 watto_cobra
  • Reply 7 of 26
    Great story, as usual guys!  I just upgraded my iPhone 6s Plus to the Xs for all the reasons you point out. It took me weeks to decide between it and the Xr. Ultimately, because of my photography interest (and a physical size reduction that I’ve decided was best for me). Thanks again. 
  • Reply 8 of 26
    KBChicagoKBChicago Posts: 14unconfirmed, member
    bonobob said:
    the telephoto lens performs worse in low light due to having a slower aperture which lets in less natural light.


    Apertures are holes.  They have sizes, not speeds.  The telephoto lens has a smaller aperture, not a slower speed.  If we were talking about shutters, then we could also talk about speed.
    While that's true, a lens that has a larger aperture (i.e. f1.8 vs f2.8) is said to be a faster lens or "faster glass".  That said, the correct term would have been a wider aperture.  He simply mixed his terms.  In the end, he was correct about the function--it lets in less light.
  • Reply 9 of 26
    How does the iPhone 8 stack up against the new ones in the photography department? I hate the no-home button design of the new X’s and prefer a thumbprint option instead (especially for Apple Pay—I don’t want any unintentional scanning of my face).
    edited December 2018
  • Reply 10 of 26
    Everything I read about any 2018 phone reinforces my happiness for picking up the iPhone XS Max!
  • Reply 11 of 26
    How does the iPhone 8 stack up against the new ones in the photography department? I hate the no-home button design of the new X’s and prefer a thumbprint option instead (especially for Apple Pay—I don’t want any unintentional scanning of my face).
    Xs/Xr is the first time Apple increased sensor size since iPhone 5s in 2013...jumping from 1/3.0" (5s to 8/X) to 1/2.55" in XS/Xr. Add in Smart HDR and its a whole next level. 

    See this video (5:24 if you want to see differences b/w iPhones) : 

    edited December 2018 logic2.6
  • Reply 12 of 26
    Just FYI.

    iPhone 4:
    Sensor size: 1/3.2"
    Lens: 4 elements

    iPhone 4s and 5:
    Sensor size: 1/3.2"
    Lens: 5 elements

    iPhone 5s and 6 and 6s:
    Sensor size: 1/3.0"
    Lens: 5 elements

    iPhone 7/8/X:
    Sensor size: 1/3.0"
    Lens: 6 elements

    iPhone XS/Xr:
    Sensor size: 1/2.55"
    Lens: 6 elements

    Note above: elements count does NOT include the glass covering.  Of course, throughout the years, BSI, OIS, deep trenching with pixels, and IR filter improvements were all introduced along the way.  Etc.  But above is the basic camera design.
    edited December 2018 h4y3sMplsP
  • Reply 13 of 26
    jbdragonjbdragon Posts: 2,034member
    How does the iPhone 8 stack up against the new ones in the photography department? I hate the no-home button design of the new X’s and prefer a thumbprint option instead (especially for Apple Pay—I don’t want any unintentional scanning of my face).
    Having the XS, I don't miss the Home Button. I actually like FaceID much better. It's being used to unlike a number of apps like LastPass. I'm already looking at the screen anyway and it just unlocks. No having to keep putting my finger on the button. It just makes things move along smoother/faster. I almost want to upgrade my 1 year old 12.9" iPad pro just to get FaceID on it also. Going from one to the other is a little jarring for me.

    You do know that FaceID doesn't actually store you face!!! Just like TouchID doesn't actually store your Fingerprint. That info is stored in the Secure Enclave on your iPhone ONLY. Not even Apple has access to it. I'm a fan. It works great. I don't miss the home button.
    edited December 2018 radarthekath4y3s
  • Reply 14 of 26
    How does the iPhone 8 stack up against the new ones in the photography department? I hate the no-home button design of the new X’s and prefer a thumbprint option instead (especially for Apple Pay—I don’t want any unintentional scanning of my face).
    FYI, you have to double click a button to use Apple Pay so no unintentional scanning will occur. 
    h4y3s
  • Reply 15 of 26
    MplsPMplsP Posts: 1,208member

    the flash sucks on the XS, camera set up is completely flawed.. Flash should’ve been placed far enough from the lens axis, but instead it’s dead smack in between both lenses 🤦🏽‍♂️ nearly impossible to not get red eyes in pictures, phone is way too expensive for that ... last year you guys did a review on the flash.. no tech/phone reviewer has addressed this issue .. 

    Are you seriously trying to that the extra 3mm of separation on the XR makes an appreciable difference?? You need much more separation than that. Back in the days of compact 35mm cameras, there was easy 3-4 cm of separation and you still would get red eye.


  • Reply 16 of 26
    nhtnht Posts: 4,429member
    I got my wife a Xr for Xmas and I wonder if it’s worth the trade off from her 7 plus...kinda a wash but maybe I should get her a used X instead but that would have been used so meh as a gift.
  • Reply 17 of 26
    nht said:
    I got my wife a Xr for Xmas and I wonder if it’s worth the trade off from her 7 plus...kinda a wash but maybe I should get her a used X instead but that would have been used so meh as a gift.
    Why wash?  In what way?  Camera?
  • Reply 18 of 26
    nhtnht Posts: 4,429member
    Madtiger said:
    nht said:
    I got my wife a Xr for Xmas and I wonder if it’s worth the trade off from her 7 plus...kinda a wash but maybe I should get her a used X instead but that would have been used so meh as a gift.
    Why wash?  In what way?  Camera?
    Better with the wide lens, worse without the 2x zoom lens.  It’s a wash if you do enough of both as to which phone is better vs say an Xs which has both and is obvious better than the X, Xr, 7 Plus, 8 Plus.
  • Reply 19 of 26
    MplsPMplsP Posts: 1,208member
    I was under the impression that tzeshan said:
    XS uses the second lens to help portrait. 
    I was also under the impression that it used both lenses for portrait mode. With all the hoopla about real-time HDR analysis and the fact that the wide angle lenses are the same it's surprising that there's so much difference in the low light portrait mode shots.
  • Reply 20 of 26
    MplsP said:
    I was under the impression that tzeshan said:
    XS uses the second lens to help portrait. 
    I was also under the impression that it used both lenses for portrait mode. With all the hoopla about real-time HDR analysis and the fact that the wide angle lenses are the same it's surprising that there's so much difference in the low light portrait mode shots.
    Well, Portraits in photography is always well lit. 
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