How to get the most out of your iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Pro cameras: Digital Photography Review

Photo: Jeff L Carlson

Much of the appeal of using your smartphone as a camera is that it’s simple – and for most people, it is. But things can rapidly get complex for photographers who want the best quality and full control when shooting with their phones. That’s the case with the iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Pro.

Which of the phone’s various cameras gives you the best resolution? Which modes override that resolution? When are you capturing an optical image versus digital upsampling, which can switch without your knowledge? To help you get the best quality from the camera that’s always with you, let’s look at these and other situations.

For this article, we’re talking about capturing photos using the built-in Camera app. You can find even more specific features, such as shooting in unaltered Raw format or using manual modes, using third-party apps such as Halide, Lightroom for mobile or Obscura.

Also, even though we’re focusing on the iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Pro, much of the information here applies to the iPhone 14 Pro (which can capture 48MP in Raw mode) and other models capable of running iOS 17.

How to get 48MP resolution on the iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Pro

One of the most appealing features of the iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Pro cameras is the ability to capture images at 48MP resolution, but you won’t get it every time without deliberate preparation.

Each lens on the iPhone 15 is backed by its own sensor, so an iPhone 15 Pro includes four separate cameras, including the front-facing one. Only the main camera includes a 48MP sensor, so for 48MP images, you need to be shooting at 1x zoom. The 0.5x ultrawide and 3x or 5x telephoto (on the Pro and Pro Max models) cameras use 12MP sensors.

Despite that 48MP main sensor, the default resolution is set to 24MP, presumably to rein in large file sizes. To kick that up to 48MP, go to Settings > Camera > Formats and turn on Resolution Control (on the iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Plus) or ProRAW & Resolution Control (on the iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max).

On the Pro models, set the Pro Default option to HEIF Max or ProRAW Max. That enables a control at the top of the Camera app that enables the Max (48MP) resolution.

Make sure the Resolution Control setting is turned on. Look to the Resolution control to make sure you’re capturing 48MP.

When you want to capture in 48MP, tap the control (labeled HEIF Max or RAW Max), removing the diagonal line through the text to enable it. To switch back to the 24MP default, tap it again.

Viewing the information about the photo reveals the resolution. 24MP HEIF capture (exported as JPEG from Apple Photos)
48MP HEIF capture (exported as JPEG from Apple Photos)

That toggle seems straightforward, but sometimes you won’t get the maximum resolution even when enabled. Resolution gets knocked down to 12MP whenever Night mode, Macro mode, or the built-in flash is enabled. Similarly, the resolution is reduced in Portrait mode when a lighting style (such as Contour Light) is selected.

On the Pro models, touch and hold the control to choose a format without navigating back to the Settings app.

Touch and hold the Resolution control at the top of the Camera app on iPhone 15 Pro models to quickly switch options.

How to choose the right format: Raw, HEIF, or JPEG

The default image format for all recent iPhones is HEIF (High Efficiency Image Format), which saves files with the extension .HEIC (High Efficiency Image Coding). It’s a format that compresses better than the near-universal standard JPEG and acts as a container that includes other data, such as depth map information.

If you’d rather store images in JPEG format to make sharing or publishing images easier without converting them later, go to Settings > Camera > Formats and choose Most Compatible under Camera Capture.

To capture in JPEG format, choose Most Compatible in the Camera settings.

On the iPhone 15 Pro models, you can also capture Raw images saved in Apple ProRAW format. Raw photos include more dynamic range information and give you more editing flexibility. However, ProRAW differs from most Raw formats in that Apple demosaics the raw data to create a hybrid image incorporating the iPhone’s computational processing.

If you want to edit the unaltered data from the camera’s sensor, you’ll need to turn to third-party apps that can shoot Raw. If you’re using the non-Pro iPhone 15 models, those other apps are the only way to shoot Raw photos since Apple reserves ProRAW as a feature for its Pro models.

You can capture either 48MP in the ProRAW Max mode or 12MP using the ProRAW 12 setting. When shooting Raw, 24MP is not an option. That resolution is possible only when shooting HEIF or JPEG because the camera captures multiple 12MP exposures and computationally combines them with a 48MP image.

Choose the resolution and format that is active when you launch the Camera app.

How to minimize digital zoom

The ultrawide (0.5x) or telephoto (3x/5x) cameras each capture images optically, where each pixel corresponds to the area perceived in the field of view – if you don’t tweak the zoom. If you choose an arbitrary zoom level between those ranges, such as by pinching two fingers on the screen, the camera zooms digitally and interpolates how the pixels appear based on that field of view, which can introduce softness or artifacts.

The main camera is a special case. At 1x and with HEIF Max or RAW Max enabled it records 48MP of optical information. The 2x level remains at 12MP because it’s a crop of the main camera sensor. But for the other zoom levels, including 1x with HEIF Max turned off, the iPhone uses computational photography to create a final 24MP photo. It pixel-bins the sensor (grouping sets of nearby pixels to act like a single, larger pixel) to create a 12MP image and then combines that with a 48MP reference image.

With the Pro models’ 1.2x and 1.5x zoom levels, the camera is cropping the 1x frame and then upsampling to make the 24MP photo. The results are usually quite good, which is no doubt why Apple makes 24MP the default resolution.

At the 1.5x zoom (35mm equivalent), the image is captured at 24MP. (Shot on iPhone 15 Pro Max.) At the 2x zoom (48mm equivalent), the image is 12MP. (Shot on iPhone 15 Pro Max.)

If you want to minimize that upsampling, you can go to Settings > Camera > Formats and change Photo Mode to 12MP, which gives you the pixel-binned version without the scaling, at the expense of overall resolution.

Sometimes, though, the camera system attempts to be clever. For instance, if you’re using the telephoto camera (with an aperture of f/2.8) on the iPhone 15 Pro and the system calculates that there isn’t enough light to get a good exposure, it automatically – and silently – switches to the main camera with its wider aperture (f/1.78) and digitally crops to capture the same field of view.

You can confirm this in the Photos app by tapping the (i) button and seeing which camera was used. The result may be acceptable because the better-quality main camera uses a crop of its high-resolution sensor to mimic the zoomed-in field of view. However, it may not be what you wanted.

In this case, the room was darkened and the 5x telephoto was used. The Camera app decided that the 5x telephoto camera wouldn’t capture enough light, so the photo was actually made using the main camera simulating the 120mm field of view.

Ideally, the solution here is to add light to the scene somehow, move to a position that lets you get a similar composition using the main camera or capture a 48MP photo and crop it later during editing.

An even more drastic version of this auto-switching can happen on the iPhone 15 Pro models using Macro mode. The mode uses the ultrawide camera with its 2cm (0.78 inch) focal distance to capture subjects close up. (Even though the iPhone 15 and 15 Plus include an ultrawide camera, the Macro feature is reserved for the Pro models.)

When the camera senses objects very close to the lens, it automatically switches to the ultrawide camera (without changing the zoom indicator). You can display a button that appears when this happens by going to Settings > Camera and turning on Macro Control.

Macro mode uses a cropped portion of the ultrawide camera’s sensor, no matter which camera you’ve selected. This can become a blurry problem if you start with one of the telephoto cameras. To replicate the same field of view, the iPhone blows up a severe crop of the ultrawide camera’s sensor, and you wind up with a blurry mess.

The 1x view is active, but the camera detected close-up items and activated Macro mode (the yellow button at top). When you start with the telephoto camera (3x on the iPhone 15 Pro) and use Macro mode, you end up with a mess.

How to capture low-light photos

Computational photography has greatly improved shooting low-light photos with smaller sensors. The iPhone’s Night mode can do a great job of illuminating dark situations, even if you’re shooting handheld. If the lighting is dim enough, the Night mode icon at the top of the screen turns yellow and displays the number of seconds needed to capture a good exposure.

Normally, that countdown is dictated automatically, but you can specify a different duration. Tap the carat (^) button at the top of the screen to reveal additional controls (which appear below the image preview), then tap the Night mode icon above the shutter button. This gives you a slider to set the exposure duration. When you tap the shutter button, you’re asked to “Hold still”: try to keep the crosshairs aligned to improve the sharpness of the image.

Night mode determines the exposure time for a dark scene (top), which can be adjusted using its control (below the preview). When hand-holding in Night mode, try to keep the + icons aligned during the exposure.

However, even with this manual control, the Camera app still limits the exposure time based on its reading of the available light and whether the internal gyroscopes detect that you’re shooting handheld, such as setting the Max value to 5s or 10s. To extend that time to 30 seconds in especially dark situations, put the iPhone on a tripod or stabilize it so it’s not moving.

Photo: Jeff L Carlson

This photo of the sky was captured using a tripod and a 10-second exposure. (iPhone 15 Pro capture, white balance adjusted in Lightroom.)

Another way to get decent photos in the dark, without Night mode active, is to make sure you’re using the main camera, which has much better light-gathering ability than the ultrawide or telephoto cameras.

Photo: Jeff L Carlson

iPhone 15 Pro Max main camera without Night mode.

Photo: Jeff L Carlson

iPhone 15 Pro Max main camera with Night mode active.

How to lock focus and exposure

This feature has existed since the first iPhone camera, but many people don’t know about it. You probably know that you can tap an area of the screen to set focus, which also adjusts the exposure value. But if you tap elsewhere or reframe the scene, the focus and exposure shift based on that new area. If you move the camera, it attempts to reset the focus and exposure based on the scene.

To lock focus and exposure, touch and hold the area you want to focus and meter until an AE/AF LOCK badge appears at the top of the screen. To turn off the lock, tap anywhere in the scene.

Touch and hold an area (indicated by the box on the image) to lock exposure and focus.

How to apply exposure compensation

The iPhone’s exposure metering is usually pretty good, but you may want to adjust the exposure manually. But because the Camera app lacks a manual shutter speed control, you need to change the exposure value (EV).

To do that, tap the carat (^) button at the top of the screen to reveal the additional controls, then tap the (+/–) button to display the Exposure slider. Drag to the left or right to decrease or increase the value. A new badge at the top of the screen indicates the EV amount. That compensation stays fixed while you’re shooting until you reset it (tap the badge to display the slider again).

Adjust the Exposure Compensation control to set a fixed EV between shots.

A quicker approach (that isn’t sticky) is to tap the screen to set focus and exposure, lift your finger, and then drag the sun-shaped exposure icon up or down.

Drag the exposure icon down reduce the exposure. Drag the icon up to increase the exposure.

How to capture in Burst mode

For years, the way to shoot bursts of photos on the iPhone was to touch and hold the shutter button. Now, though, that’s a shortcut for recording video. Instead, drag the shutter button to the left to capture a burst.

Another option is to enable the Volume Up button to be used as the burst trigger. Go to Settings > Camera and turn on Use Volume Up for Burst feature.

Drag the shutter button to the left to capture multiple shots in burst mode. Burst mode photos appear in a group in the Photos app. Tap Select to choose which ones to keep.

A burst is saved in the Photos library as a single group of shots, regardless of how many frames you shot. Tap Select to view them all. Tap to select your favorite images from the bunch, then tap Done, at which point you’re asked if you want to keep the entire set or only the ones you selected.

How to record video to external storage

Now that the iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Pro models use USB-C for wired connections, the Pro models can finally record video to external storage such as an SSD or a memory card reader. That’s great news when you’re working with Apple ProRes 4K/30 files that occupy as much as 6 GB for every minute of video (or higher for some formats and resolutions). Naturally, there are caveats to making it work.

Only video saved in ProRes format can be recorded externally. First, go to Settings > Camera > Formats, enable the Apple ProRes option and choose HDR, SDR or Log encoding. Next, when you’re ready to record, tap the ProRes button at the top of the screen to enable ProRes, and also specify the resolution (HD or 4K) and frame rate (24, 30 or 60). ProRes 4K/60 is available only when recording externally.

Hardware-wise, you need a USB-C cable that supports USB 3 speeds of at least 10Gbit/s; the cable that comes with the phone supports only slower USB 2 data speeds as it is mainly intended for charging. The storage device must write at speeds of 220MB or faster and be formatted as APFS or ExFAT.

Lastly, make sure the external device is plugged in and the Camera app is reading it. You should see “USB-C” near the port.

Look for the «USB-C» badge to indicate that video will be recorded on a connected external device.

Note that it’s possible to shoot still photos and save them directly to external storage, although the Camera app does not currently do this. The app Photon has this feature. We expect other developers to follow suit.

How to record spatial video for the Apple Vision Pro

The iPhone 15 Pro models running iOS 17.2 and later have another video trick. It can record spatial videos for the Apple Vision Pro. When viewed on the iPhone or any other device, the video looks the same as you shot it, but on the Vision Pro, the depth information generated during recording adds a 3D element to the footage.

To enable this option, go to Settings > Camera > Formats and turn on Spatial Video for Apple Vision Pro.

In the Camera app, switch to Video mode and hold the iPhone in its landscape orientation. Provided there’s sufficient light (the mode won’t activate in dim environments), tap the Spatial Video button that appears. If the app can’t easily discern subjects in front of the camera, it may direct you to move farther away.

With the Spatial Video for Apple Vision Pro option enabled, tap the Spatial Video icon to record footage with embedded depth information.

Now that you know about how the iPhone 15’s camera works under the hood, it should be a little easier to bully it into giving you the results you want instead of just the results that it thinks you want.

Let us know in the comments if you’ve run into unexpected complexity or if there are other features our readers (or their friends and family members who they might forward this to) should know about.

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