iPhone 13 Revamps, Not Rethinks, Its Camera

The iPhone 13 and 13 Pro family improve and iterate on the iPhone 12 camera. The biggest updates are with video, now with depth of field control for the bokeh effect.

September 15, 2021

Apple's yearly iPhone update is here, once again in four flavors. The standard iPhone 13 and small mini include dual-lens rear camera stacks, while the bigger 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max have triple lens arrays. Both camera systems are upgraded, with new optics and, behind the scenes, a fresh image-processing engine powered by the phones' A15 Bionic processor.

I've not had the opportunity to use the phone as of yet, but will do my best to break down the basics on the iPhone's cameras from a photographer's perspective.


Computational Photography Rules Everything Around Me

The first iPhones couldn't compete with dedicated cameras, but the scales shifted slowly over time. While the traditional camera makers—Canon, Nikon, Sony, and the rest of the pack—put longer zooms and higher megapixel chips into pocket cameras, Apple put its eggs into the software basket, keeping the resolution at a sensible 12MP, and using computational photography to improve on its function.

iPhone 13 Family
The iPhone 13 and 13 mini have dual rear cameras, a 13mm ultra-wide and 26mm wide angle.

With the iPhone 13, the story is the same as it's been for the past few generations—the phone uses high-powered processing and multiple lenses, surpassing what most point-and-shoot cameras can do for stills, and blowing them out of the water in video.

Economics play a role. iPhones (and quality Android competitors, including the Google Pixel, OnePlus, and Samsung Galaxy lines) have incredible CPU power inside. A chip like the A15 is an overkill for a compact camera, but with a device like the iPhone it does much more.

The days of debating whether a phone can replace a camera are over, at least for most of us. Family photographers who loved their digital Canon PowerShot or Nikon Coolpix can pick up a smartphone and enjoy speed and image quality beyond what a pocket camera can deliver. This is especially true if you're an automatic-settings person—the iPhone's HDR image processing is tuned for brightly lit snaps, and avoids the deer-in-headlights look you get from low-light shots lit mostly by flash.

iPhone 13 Pro Family
The triple-lens iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max offer better lenses all around, plus a 77mm telephoto for portraits.

There are still reasons to pick up a real camera. We covered them in detail a couple years back, comparing the iPhone 11 to Canon's best point-and-shoot. Much of it is experiential—enthusiast cameras offer eye-level viewfinders, and tactile controls that are more pleasing to use than the iPhone's big touch screen. If you're the type of person who wants to fiddle with Raw files, or you simply prefer holding a camera in your hands, a camera is still a better fit.

The iPhones have gotten a little better over the years, but small cameras haven't made leaps and bounds. The G5 X Mark II from our iPhone 11 shootout is still its best point-and-shoot. Like other camera companies, Canon has put its development efforts into interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras, the type professionals and serious hobbyists prefer to use.


iPhone 13 and 13 Pro Cameras

The standard iPhone 13 and 13 mini use dual-lens rear cameras. The main lens matches the view of a 26mm full-frame prime, an angle that older photographers still think of as wide angle, but is similar to where most compacts and starter lenses for interchangeable lens models start their zoom. The sensor is larger than last year's iPhone 12 and is mounted on a sensor-shift system for sharper photos and steadier handheld video.

iPhone 13 : Main Lens
The main lens on the iPhone 13 and 13 Pro captures images with a moderate wide field of view, a versatile angle for snapshots, travel, and cityscapes.

The second lens is an ultra-wide, matching the look of a 13mm full-frame optic, with the same f/2.4 aperture used by the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro series. It's an extreme view, one that you won't find in any dedicated point-and-shoot, and an expensive add-on lens for mirrorless and SLR cameras. If you're moving from an iPhone 11 or 12 you'll have the same basic toolkit, along with the software updates powered by the A15 processor.

You'll have an upgraded camera experience if you opt for a pricier Pro model (starting at $999). The 13 Pro and Pro Max include three cameras—a brighter 13mm F1.8 ultra-wide for better Night Shot images and 2cm close-up focus, the standard 26mm F1.5 stabilized lens, and a short telephoto 77mm F2.8, a perfect view for head-and-shoulder portraits.

iPhone 13 Pro : Macro Lens

Adding some macro to the phone is welcome, though we'll have to see how it works. Close-up focus has been a tough thing for some smartphones. The Samsung Galaxy Ultra S20 touted the feature but nearly every review called out poor focus performance.

We'll have to see if Apple's implementation is better. Its previous ultra-wide efforts sidestepped the poor image quality from others trying to broaden the view of smartphones. The sample shots Apple showed off looked good, but we'll reserve judgment until we can test it in real life.

iPhone 13 Pro : Macro Lens
Focusing up close to subjects can create perspective distortion. It's very visible in this Apple sample shot; the blueberries near the edges of the frame are stretched unnaturally. It's an unavoidable effect of using ultra-wide lenses at very short working distances.

We can expect some optical bokeh, not the simulated Portrait Effect, when working that close. When I've used macro add-on lenses with other iPhones they've shown really ugly specular highlights, a result of the molded plastic elements that make up a phone lens. The angle of view is also a concern—professional macro lenses are typically telephoto designs, so you can put some distance between camera and subject to avoid perspective distortion and casting a shadow.

On the other side, the change to a 77mm F2.8 is a welcome one. Apple's earlier 56mm lens was more standard angle than telephoto, and this one is a better fit for portraits that isolate your subject from its environment. It's not long enough to snap on-field action from the stands or get up close to a hummingbird, though—you'll still need to reach for an ILC with a big lens, or a bridge zoom camera, for those type of images.

iPhone 13 Pro : Portrait Lens
The 77mm Pro lens is the perfect angle for headshots.

Apple hasn't yet put a zoom with folded optics in the iPhone, another trick Samsung has done with its Galaxy Ultra series. I'm not sold on smartphones being good cameras for birding and distant action, though. It's all about the form factor—a tiny, featherweight phone is no pleasure to handhold at extreme telephoto angles, especially when holding it at arm's length. For distant action, an eye-level viewfinder and a heavier camera make for a steadier platform.


Photo Styles and Cinematic Bokeh

Both iPhone 13 camera systems have enjoyed hardware updates, but software is the real driving force behind iPhone photography. The features smartphone photographers have come to rely on in earlier iPhones continue; Portrait Mode blurs background to simulate the look of interchangeable lens systems, and you can adjust bokeh and lighting after you've taken the shot. There are improvements to existing features. Night mode didn't work with every lens in the iPhone 11 and 12 generations, but it does with the 13.

Apple is touting Photo Styles as a new feature. It's a set of custom profiles that give images an artistic tone, similar to the film looks included with Fujifilm X digital cameras. We see it as an improvement on the existing Dramatic, Vivid Cool, Noir, and other film looks available in current models.

If you like to edit your photos you'll want to consider stepping up to the Pro series. Apple's Pro Raw format remains exclusive to the triple-camera handsets. It supports all of Apple's computational photography tricks, but saves images in a more flexible 12-bit Raw format for editing. With the standard iPhone 13 and 13 mini, you have to choose between Raw capture, without the benefit of software help, or snapping compressed HEIF photos with the benefit of portrait mode, stage lighting, Night mode, and the rest.

I've saved the most dramatic shift in function for last—Cinema Mode. All iPhone 13 models can record 4K Dolby Vision video with a simulated shallow depth of field effect. This opens up new creative options for movies—subject isolation and focus racks. The phone can blur backgrounds behind your talent, or shift the plane of focus to highlight an object in the frame.

Apple iPhone 13 : Cinematic Mode
Cinematic mode adds bokeh and focus racks to video.

Apple showed off the feature in an off-brand Knives Out spoof video, and handed off the phone to Point Break director Kathryn Bigelow for a more action-oriented short film. An Oscar winner is sure to produce great-looking content with any modern digital device, especially when backed up by a production designer, cinematographer, editor, and on-screen talent, so don't expect to unbox your iPhone and make a masterpiece off the bat.

We'll have to see what kind of video mere mortals can get out of the iPhone. Apple says it's put effort into automatic tools to help budding filmmakers get better results. These assists include subject recognition and tracking, and is even smart enough to shift focus when an actor turns their head away from frame. And Apple promises some help if you miss focus for a shot. You can change the point of focus after a video has been shot, just as with an iPhone portrait effect photo.

We'll have more on the iPhone 13 and 13 Pro cameras when we've had a chance to review them. Until then, check out this video for a rundown of everything Apple introduced this week.

Like What You're Reading?

Sign up for Race to 5G newsletter to get our top mobile tech stories delivered right to your inbox.

This newsletter may contain advertising, deals, or affiliate links. Subscribing to a newsletter indicates your consent to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. You may unsubscribe from the newsletters at any time.


Thanks for signing up!

Your subscription has been confirmed. Keep an eye on your inbox!

Sign up for other newsletters

PhonespySoftware24 Stories You’ll Like

About Jim Fisher

Jim Fisher

Jim Fisher is our lead analyst for cameras, drones, and digital imaging. He studied at RPI and worked on the retail side of the industry at B&H before landing at PhonespySoftware24. He has a thing for old lenses, boneyards, and waterfowl. When he’s not out with his camera, Jim enjoys watching bad and good television, playing video games (poorly), and reading. You can find him on Instagram @jamespfisher

Read the latest from Jim Fisher