iPhone 14 Pro Max vs iPhone 12 Pro Max: How much better are the cameras?

iPhone 14 Pro Max vs iPhone 12 Pro Max camera shootout
(Image credit: Future)

The iPhone 14 Pro Max is a very formidable flagship, and lot of that has to do with its cameras. In fact, based on our testing we've named the iPhone 14 Pro Max and iPhone 14 Pro to our best camera phone list.

You get a new 48MP main sensor that delivers a lot more detail in Pro Raw mode, or you can opt for 12MP shots with brighter and crisper results from the larger sensor. The iPhone 14 Pro Max also benefits from a new Photonic Engine for better low-light performance and other upgrades.

But what do all these enhancements mean for everyday picture quality? To find out, I did a direct iPhone 14 Pro Max vs iPhone 12 Pro Max camera comparison in a number of scenarios to see how much of a difference there really is.

As it turns out, the iPhone 14 Pro Max cameras are indeed better, especially in low light, but the iPhone 12 Pro Max remains a great camera phone. 


The iPhone 14 Pro Max has an advantage here because of its brighter and faster sensor. It manages to capture more light and the result is a richer fuchsia and light purple with a wider range of pink tones in the flowers. There's also more contrast between the brighter and darker sections of the petals in the new Pro Max. There's more dimension to the photo, whereas the iPhone 12 Pro Max's shot looks flat.

Chrysler building (12x zoom)

Because the iPhone 12 Pro Max maxes out at 12x zoom and the iPhone 14 Pro Max 15x, I took a 12x zoom shot of the Chrysler building using both phones. And this one is no contest. You can make out more more detail in the top of the building with the 14 Pro Max, especially in the curved sections bathed in sunlight. Even the flagpole in the foreground is sharper if you look at the end through the iPhone 14 Pro Max. 

Night mode indoors

I have to say I was expecting more of a difference in this indoor Night mode photo of Halloween decorations. Yes, the iPhone 14 Pro Max's image is a touch brighter when you look at the eyelets in the boots, and the tops of the candles are a bit better defined. But the iPhone 12 Pro Max's shot is pretty solid given the very dark conditions. 


For this photo, I purposely angled the cameras up slightly so I could catch the leaves atop the structure, and I have to say I prefer the iPhone 12 Pro Max's photo in this case. That's because it captures a brighter overall pic as you look at the stone above and to the sides of the statue.

The iPhone 14 Pro Max gets points for delivering more detail in the stonework, especially toward the bottom and the right side of the frame. It's a more even exposure as well. But the iPhone 12 Pro Max's shot pops more overall to me. 


The difference in color temperature is interesting in this comparison, as the iPhone 14 Pro Max captures a warmer image of this statue, while the iPhone 12 Pro Max's image runs a bit hotter and is bit overexposed where the sun is strongest.

You can accuse Apple of oversharpening the iPhone 14 Pro Max's shot, but I prefer the better looking detail in the stone leaves and faces shooting out the water. 

At 3x zoom, the iPhone 14 Pro Max extends its lead a bit, though it's at an advantage because the optical zoom for the iPhone 12 Pro Max stops at 2.5x. As a result, the water coming out of the fountain looks crisper through the newer iPhone. 


This is the most dramatic difference I saw between the iPhone 14 Pro Max and iPhone 12 Pro Max cameras. I took this photo of blueberries and strawberries at dusk, and you can tell immediately that the iPhone 14 Pro Max produces the more appetizing image. You can make out the nooks and crannies in the juicy red raspberries and there's a shine and level of detail in the blueberries the iPhone 12 Pro Max lacks. 


Both the iPhone 14 Pro Max and iPhone 12 Pro Max deliver a pleasing portrait here, which was taken right before sunset. If I were to share one of these images, I'd probably pick the 14 Pro Max because my face is more evenly lit (even if there might be some artificial smoothing going on). And while the bokeh effect on both shots is good, I stand out from the background more through the 14 Pro Max. 

Flower close-up

For my next test, I shot this close-up of a bougainvillea flower in Bryant Park, which is pink with bands of white. In this case I actually slightly prefer the iPhone 12 Pro Max's image, because the flower pops out more from the green leaves. And there's an equal amount of detail in the petals. I even give a slight edge to the older 12 Pro Max here, too, especially as you look towards the edge of the petals. 


The iPhone 14 Pro Max easily wins this round using the ultra wide camera. Everything from the ground and bridge looks brighter through the newer iPhone, and there's also more highlights in the surrounding trees versus the iPhone 12 Pro Max. The blue is richer, too. Once again I'd rather share the 14 Pro Max photo. 

48MP vs 12MP photo and cropping

iPhone 14 Pro Max photo of shed

(Image credit: Future)

One of the unique benefits of the iPhone 14 Pro Max is that that you can enable a ProRAW mode to take 48-megapixel photos in the camera app. And this gives you the ability to crop or reframe your shots without losing as much detail as you would through the 12MP iPhone 12 Pro Max. 

See what happens when we zoom in below, and keep in mind that we saved both images to a JPG format for the sake of comparison. 

As we zoom in to the tree and bird feeders, you can see that the iPhone 14 Pro Max retains a good amount of resolution in the tree bark. And there's more noise in the iPhone 12 Pro Max's image. Note that this was before doing any color correction, and the 14 Pro Max shot doesn't benefit from the same post-processing that the 12 Pro Max's pic does.

Bottom line

The iPhone 14 Pro Max is clearly the better camera phone. But how much better? I'd say substantially so when you have less light, especially outdoors. I was also impressed with the higher level of detail through the iPhone 14 Pro Max, such as in the fountain shot and the building with digital zoom.

However, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is no slouch, and there were a couple of instances where I actually preferred it over the newer iPhone.

What the iPhone 12 Pro Max doesn't have is a 48MP main sensor, which opens up all sorts of creative possibilities for reframing and cropping in ProRAW mode. So, yes, the iPhone 14 Pro Max is superior, but maybe not so much that you feel like you're missing out. 

Mark Spoonauer

Mark Spoonauer is the global editor in chief of Tom's Guide and has covered technology for over 20 years. In addition to overseeing the direction of Tom's Guide, Mark specializes in covering all things mobile, having reviewed dozens of smartphones and other gadgets. He has spoken at key industry events and appears regularly on TV to discuss the latest trends, including Cheddar, Fox Business and other outlets. Mark was previously editor in chief of Laptop Mag, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc. Follow him on Twitter at @mspoonauer.