So you want to know how the new iPhone 13 models perform for capturing video and photos. For many years, Apple has relied on improvements in the camera system to move new iPhones. People react strongly to how well an iPhone can capture photos and video. 

As an owner of a less than one year old iPhone 12 Pro, I was skeptical to step up to a new model. However upon closer look, the improvements are sizable. The hardware improvements really affect the photo capabilities of the new iPhone 13.

Additionally, with the release of the iPhone 13 series, Apple has clearly targeted video capture. While I’ve owned every major iPhone in its history, this is the biggest update we’ve seen related to video. Some of the changes are fundamental, while others are logical refinements. But with the iPhone 13, video capture becomes a whole new game thanks to the Cinematic video option.

Editor’s note: All this week, we’re taking a close look at the new iPhone 13 series of phones, focusing specifically on their photography and video capabilities. Click here to read our previous installments.

Three different cameras … or lenses

The quality of lenses on the iPhone 13 are very good. While Apple refers to the lenses on its iPhones as “cameras,” we’ll be calling them lenses from here on out. Clearly the designers have studied the types of imagery that is likely to be captured, and focused on providing improved options. Depending on which iPhone you choose, the number of lenses varies (with the Pro models having an additional telephoto option). 

The iPhone 13 Pro and The iPhone 13 Pro Max
The iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max have identical camera systems.

On the Pro model series of iPhone 13 you get a 6x optical zoom range (3x optical zoom in, 2x optical zoom out). This is from the three lenses on the rear side — telephoto, wide and ultra wide.

The slideshow above shows the three lenses in a photo setting, which gives a 6x range for optical coverage with photos. The video below shows the same when shooting footage.

The iPhone 13 and the iPhone 13 mini compared
The iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 mini offer two lenses on the rear.

If you are using the iPhone 13 or iPhone 13 mini, you sacrifice the telephoto lens for close-ups. This means you only get 2x optical zoom out and instead rely on a digital zoom up to 5x. You get only get two choices on the rear side — wide and ultra wide.

Let’s explore these lenses in-depth a bit more.

Telephoto lens

Telephoto lens on the iPhone 13

The telephoto lens is clearly designed for shooting portraits and getting closer to the action with an optical zoom. It features a 77 mm focal length; offering effectively a 3x optical zoom. Previous models offered a 2x or 2.5x zoom factor. The change in lens did lead to a slight change in aperture, dropping to an f/2.8 aperture (from f/2.2). However you won’t notice, as this lens offers Night Mode as well.  

comparing shots made with the Telephoto lens on the iPhone 13
The image on the left is captures with the wide-angle lens. The one on the right uses the newer telephoto lens found only on the Pro models. Photos by Bryan Esler.

The change from approximately 50mm to 77mm is a dramatic one, and is beneficial to multiple shooting styles. The extra reach and wide aperture makes this lens useful when creating shallow depth of field and natural bokeh for the out of focus areas. The six element lens uses Focus Pixels like previous generations to improve autofocus by detecting color issues with sub pixels. The lens also offers optical image stabilization which reduces camera shake and makes handheld and lowlight shooting easier.

Ultra wide lens

Ultra Wide lens on the iPhone 13

The ultra wide lens is different on the Pro models vs. standard models, with only the pro models offering the new Macro Mode. Let’s talk about the cameras when shooting under standard uses first. This lens now can capture 78% more light, which makes it all around more useful for shooting in tough conditions.

All models of the iPhone 13 feature a 120° field of view and a 13 mm lens equivalent. This is actually a wider angle than a GoPro camera which tops out at 16 mm with Superview in camera (but can be extended to a 155˚ FOV with the optional Max lens mod that can be attached). This is more than capable for showing a lot of action. The 120˚ field of view matches human eyesight if you include peripheral vision.

The lenses do differ in quality though.

  • The iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max offer a much faster f/1.8 aperture.
  • The iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 mini use the same model lens as the iPhone 12 series, offering a f/2.4 aperture.

Additionally, the Pro model lens offers a powerful improvement to the powerful autofocus system. It can now focus at just 2 cm — which allows for true macro photography and video.

This new Macro Mode really kicks in at 10 cm and is useful up to 2 cm. It works quite well for capturing close-up photos, but you will see a shift as you move the camera closer to an object as it engages the macro mode. For best results, be sure to use a tripod or brace the camera.

To learn more about Macro Mode, click here to see our review.

Wide lens

The Wide lens on the iPhone 13

Not much has changes with the wide-angle camera. But the changes it does get are welcome. First up is that all models get the sensor-shift optical image stabilization. This is ideal as it means that the camera itself “floats” or moves to accommodate stabilization. This feature was previously only on the iPhone 12 Pro Max, but now makes it to all four models. If you are handholding the camera (especially if walking around) this is then camera to use.

The Pro models also see a slight bump in aperture, to let in more light.  

  • The iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max offer a wide: f/1.5 aperture
  • The iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 mini use a wide: f/1.6 aperture

Plus, all cameras now get Night Mode. This allows for a longer exposure which then Apple fuses multiple pieces of information together to render a crisp image even when handheld shooting.

This is even better on the Pro camera which can use the LiDAR Scanner for improved photo and video capture in lowlight. The larger sensor on the pro cameras also captures dramatically more light. The camera shows at least a 1 EV improvement for lowlight photography when you compare the 13 Pro to the 12 Pro, and a 0.5 EV improvement when compared to the 12 Pro Max. Apple claims even stronger improvements of about 47% more light than the previous models.

Front facing camera

Woman taking selfie with iPhone TrueDepth camera

This is not the camera you use to make “real” pictures of course … but the need for selfies and video calls does still exist. The TrueDepth camera system is still a fairly capable camera. It remains a 12MP camera with a f/2.2 aperture like previous models.

However all iPhone 13 models see these improvements over the iPhone 12 cameras:

  • Smart HDR 4 for improved image capture under challenging lighting
  • Photographic Styles for preset capture color styles
  • Cinematic mode for shallow depth of field
  • HDR video recording with Dolby Vision up to 4K at 60 fps (compared to HD and 30 fps in iPhone 12)

And if you are shooting with the iPhone 13 Pro or Pro Max, two big improvements

  • True raw file capture with Apple ProRaw (for greater flexibility when editing).
  • ProRes video recording up to 4K at 30 fps (to be released in the future).

What’s different between the Pro and Pro Max?

What’s different between the Pro and Pro Max?

In the past you used to need to step up to the larger (and even more expensive) Pro Max camera to get the best camera features. Personally, I find phones this large a pain to carry and have never been a fan. Now what’s great is that there’s no functional difference. Other than the size of the screen and battery, the Pro Max and Pro cameras have the same functionality.