For the first time since increasing the iPhone’s camera resolution from 8MP to 12MP with the iPhone 6s, Apple has finally added a denser sensor: the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max have a new 48MP main sensor for primary photography.
This is a big leap. The physical sensor is about 60 percent larger than the previous standard 12-megapixel sensor, so it spreads the amount of light falling on it thinner than the previous sensor. The sensor consists of millions of elements, each of which corresponds to a pixel. Apple’s 48-megapixel sensor has four times as many elements as 12-megapixels – 6048 x 8064 pixels compared to 3024 x 4032. As a result, although the new sensor is larger, each element captures slightly less light than the previous sensor. It’s a blend designed to improve detail but usually also increases image noise in low light.
Apple set out to avoid this in normal photography. The 48-megapixel sensor, by default and in third-party photo apps, produces a 12-megapixel image. Like all photos taken on an iPhone or iPad, this resulting image invisibly combines multiple shots and runs through a pipeline, upgraded through the iPhone 14 series to what Apple calls the Optical Engine, replacing its use of the Neural Engine. The optical engine engages in the processing chain earlier than the previous algorithm, and Apple says this will help it better apply its machine learning-based processing to low-light images.
Shooting at 48 MP
Those 12MP photos might be great. In the test, they are! But you’re carrying a 48MP sensor and you might want to tap right into it. You can enable raw mode in the Camera app to get a lower-processed, higher-resolution photo that far exceeds the capabilities of the previous iPhone. Since it doesn’t make much use of Apple’s computational imaging technology, the 48MP resolution has trade-offs that go beyond just the storage and computational power needed to grab and process these images.
iPhone 14 Pro Max
This is partly due to how Apple has increased the density of the camera’s sensor elements. All sensing elements have a red, green or blue filter to capture the intensity of each of these light components individually. The color is not captured directly, but is approximated by adjacent pixels in the image that come out of any digital camera, including iPhones. The ratio in the sensor is two green elements each to red and blue, with filtered green light capturing much more luminance, or gradations, that our eyes see than either blue or red.
Apple’s large quadruple elements in the 48MP sensor are groups of small arrays of two elements in two that filter the same color. As a result, the 48MP raw image captures more detail overall but effectively less differentiation across colors in any resulting 4×4 pixel area—about the same as a 12MP sensor does in the 2×2 pixel area. This can result in more color distortion compared to a sensor that maintains the most accurate color pattern of the elements.
To capture in raw mode, enable the feature in Settings> camera > Formats By turning on Apple ProRAW and making sure 48 MP ProRAW Resolution is selected. In the Camera app, tap raw in the upper-right corner, which temporarily removes the slash across the word in the label and now lets you take raw photos. You can specify your choice to use raw or not to use permanent raw via Settings> camera > Preserve settings and enable Apple ProRAW. Now when you open the Camera app, it will remember your initial selection from your previous use.
Comparison between iPhone 14 Pro and Fujifilm X-E4 Mirrorless
To test Apple’s 48MP raw shots, I took a series of photos at different settings with the iPhone 14 Pro and Fujifilm X-E4 Mirrorless camera. The Fujifilm camera has a 26.1 megapixel sensor, providing a maximum image of 6240 x 4160. I used a 27mm f/2.8 lens, which has a 40mm equivalent to bring it in line with the Apple conversion below – somewhere between Apple’s main lenses and telephoto lenses. I modified photos for exposure and balance using Adobe Lightroom.
The X-E4 costs $1,050 with a 27mm lens (XF27mmF2.8 R WR), while the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max come with three cameras for $999 and $1,099, respectively:
Main: Apple now calls its primary camera the Main lens, which reduces confusion. It is a 24mm f/1.78 equivalent lens.
ultra wide: 13 mm equivalent, f / 2.2.
Telephoto: 77mm equivalent, f/2.8
Apple uses “35mm equivalent” language for its lenses, which is a way of comparing the capture range of a scene with a sensor that can be measured against conventional 35mm film shooting. This provides an apple-to-apple comparison (sorry) among other types of cameras. Apple lists 0.5x, 1x, 2x, and 3x factors with three lenses on its Pro models, where iOS emulates a 2x or 48mm equivalent lens by subsampling the main lens: it effectively cuts 12MP photos from the center of the 48MP sensor. I also tested some of these 12MP 2x shots.
Due to the color pattern of the items I mentioned above, a 12MP cutout should appear 100 percent less sharp than a photo shot using an original 12MP photo framing the same area, and also less sharp than a 12MP cutout from a larger mirrorless sensor or DSLR sensor From the same area at the same distance. To test the two, I shot the same scenes at 1x and 2x on an iPhone 14 Pro versus the X-E4.
The iPhone 14 Pro performs remarkably well against the Fujifilm X-E4, especially in low-light conditions: there is less noise and more detail is preserved. In almost every case, the iPhone 14 Pro in both 48MP and 12MP 2x raw zooms provides a result similar or better than the Fujifilm X-E4.
Where Fujifilm has an advantage is in a wide range of compact settings for shutter speed, physical aperture, simulated film speed, and with interchangeable lenses, especially super zoom for telephoto shooting from great distances. You can adjust and control each X-E4’s shot and time, and set up braces (shoot multiple exposures, manipulate automatically in iOS and iPadOS) for HDR and other photos.
But the iPhone 14 Pro offers a compelling alternative to the mirrorless camera that costs about the same for shooting relatively close up with its three lenses. In many cases, you might be left behind without a mirror in favor of the iPhone 14 Pro for similar shots with the benefits of a multi-purpose device with full-day battery life and loading of cellular photos and videos.