iPhone 15 vs. iPhone 12 camera face-off — why you should upgrade now

iPhone 15 vs iPhone 12 camera face-off
(Image credit: Future)

An iPhone 15 vs. iPhone 12 camera face-off illustrates just how much has changed with Apple's cameras in the three years since the iPhone 12 arrived on the scene. And it may be the prompt iPhone 12 owners need to upgrade to one of the best iPhones.

Certainly, the iPhone 12 offered very good cameras at the time of its release. But each subsequent iPhone update has brought camera improvements, with both hardware and software moving forward since 2020. The end result should be better pictures from the newer iPhone you're thinking about buying when compared to the iPhone you've been sticking with the last couple of years.

But how much better? To find out, I grabbed an iPhone 15 to go with my iPhone 12 and shot some photos in different lighting conditions and modes to see if the advances Apple has made to its camera phones are all that noticeable. Here's how our iPhone 15 vs. iPhone 12 camera face-off turned out.

iPhone 15 vs. iPhone 12: How the cameras compare

iPhone 12 review

iPhone 12 (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Before we dive into the photo comparisons, let's consider how the hardware difffers on both phones as well as improvements that Apple has made to its photo processing capabilities.

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Row 0 - Cell 0 iPhone 15iPhone 12
Release dateSeptember 2023October 2020
Main camera48MP (f/1.6)12MP (f/1.6)
Ultrawide camera12MP (f/2.4, 120-degree FOV)12MP (f/2.4, 120-degree FOV)
Zoom capabilities2x optical zom in, up to 10x digital zoomup to 5x digital zoom
Front camera12MP (f/1.9)12MP (f/2.2)

The iPhone 12 features a pair of rear cameras, each of which has a 12MP sensor. The main camera on the iPhone 12 is particularly interesting, as Apple switched to a 7-element design while boosting the aperture to f/1.6. (The iPhone 11 featured an f/1.8 aperture on its main lens.) Those changes were designed to improve the iPhone 12's performance in low-light settings.

Additionally, the iPhone 12 introduced enhancements to its Smart HDR and Deep Fusion photo-processing features. The goal there was to better highlight details and textures even in less-than-ideal shooting conditions.

Apple iPhone 15 review.

iPhone 15 (Image credit: Future)

The biggest change you'll notice when doing an iPhone 15 vs. iPhone 12 camera comparison involves that main camera. Apple has upgraded to a 48MP sensor, which captures 24MP images by default. Even better, the higher resolution allows the iPhone 15 to support a 2x zoom feature where it captures a 24MP shot and then crops it down to a 12MP image for what should be a sharper result than anything captured by the iPhone 12's fully digital 2x zoom.

The iPhone 15 uses a 12MP True Depth camera like the iPHone 12, but the aperture on this front camera has widened to f/1.9. That means better selfies in low light, at least in theory.

The most important changes, though, may have come to the supporting software included on the iPhone 15 and powered by that handset's more advanced A16 Bionic chipset. You don't have to switch to Portrait mode on an iPhone 15 as the phone can automatically detect when there's a person or pet in frame. Night mode has seen enhancements to highlight colors and details. And Smart HDR has seen improvements too, resulting in more realistic skin tones and better highlights.

That's what awaits iPhone 12 owners who upgrade to an iPhone 15. And here's how that translates to improved photos.

iPhone 15 vs. iPhone 12 camera comparisons

Indoors, food

Under the unforgiving fluorescent lights of my local supermarket, both the iPhone 12 and iPhone 15 handled a colorful display of bell peppers with equal aplomb. Zooming in on the shots, you could make the case that the focus on the peppers is a touch defined in the iPhone 15 shot, particularly around the green and yellow peppers toward the left side of the photo. But honestly, I would have a hard time identifying which shot came from which phone without any labels.

The iPhone 15 stands out a little better in this photograph of a chicken Caesar salad captured at night with ambient kitchen lighting illuminating the scene. There's nothing that wrong with the iPhone 12 photo, and I'd be happy to share that as proof of my salad assembly expertise. 

But I think the colors are richer in the iPhone 15 shot — notice how the lettuce leaves are a deeper green and how the dressing's color has more depth to it. If you're looking for proof that Apple's photo processing improvements are turning out photos with more vibrant colors and better details, I think you can see some evidence of that here.

Outdoors, scenery

The improvements Apple's made to its phones over the years are a lot more visible when we move outdoors, particularly in scenes with a mix of shadows and sunlight.

Christmas decorations are out far too early for my tastes, but at least the iPhone 15 does a better job presenting this statue of some oversized tree ornaments that's largely in the shadows. The iPhone 12 is working hard to get the lighting balance right and as a result, it loses some of the detail of that ornament on the bottom left of the photo. Zoom in on the iPhone 15's version and you see a lot more details in the surface area of that part of the statue.

For an early morning photo taken at a harbor where a lot of houseboats are docked, the rising sun was coming in at a sharp angle off to my right. That's creating some long shadows that the iPhone 12 does an admirable job dealing with. You could argue that the colors in the iPhone 15 version are a little too warm, but i think it's an accurate reflection of the lighting at the time I took the photo.

More significantly, I also think the overall composition of the iPhone 15's shot is better. Notice the richer colors in that old telephone booth being reclaimed by nature or the deeper yellow of the apartment building in the far background. All that detail helps the statue in the foreground of the picture stand out a little more so that the overall image doesn't feel as flat as it looks in the iPhone 12 rendering. 

Here's another example of how the iPhone 15 is better equipped to balance shadows and sunlight, this time with a shot from its ultrawide lens. The mosaic and fountain at the center of both phones' shots looks fine — the iPhone 12 even does a good job highlighting the indvidual tiles that make up the night sky and sunflowers in the mosaic. 

But with sunlight streaming in from the side, the iPhone 12 ends up white-washing the pillars surrounding the mosaic on either side. Those same pillars are a darker beige in the iPhone 15 photo, and the result is a better composed photo.

Zoom photos

As noted, neither the iPhone 12 and iPhone 15 have a dedicated telephoto lens. However, you'd expect the higher resolution of the iPhone 15's main camera to pay off in sharper zooms, at least at the supported 2x level.

When I pressed the 2x button on the iPhone 15's view finder to zoom in on a sculpture of frolicking frog children, I was pleased with the results, even if the statue itself fills me with unease. There's scratches and distress that show up in the iPhone 15 photo that just aren't visible in the iPhone 12's digital zoom. Also, the frog child in the center of the photo has a little bit of residual fuzziness around his head that's a by-product of the digital zoom on the iPhone 12. 

The iPhone 15 keeps things a lot sharper, and as a result, there's a clear difference between the frog and the background, creating a photo with a greater sense of depth.

The iPhone 15 struggles when you push the zoom to 5x, as I did in this photo of the Oakland skyline. Things just aren't very focused as you blow past the 2x zoom that the 48MP main camera can handle — look how fuzzy the Tribune Tower appears in the background. The iPhone 12 fares no better, as 5x is its maximum digital zoom. Not only does it have the blur of the iPhone 15 photo, but it distorts the colors as well.

Special modes, night and portrait

Our portrait mode test offers the one photo sample in this camera face-off where you could argue that the iPhone 12's effort is the better one. The iPhone 12 portrait has a warmer tone that brings out the color in my daughter's cheeks and hair, though it's almost a little too over-exposed by her forehead. The iPhone 15 opted for a cooler tone, which I think dulls the color of her eyes.

That said, there's a case to be made that the iPhone 15 has sacrificed warmer colors for more detail. It does a better job of preserving my daughter's freckles, which are harder to spot in the slightly washed-out iPhone 12 image. You can also spot wisps of loose hair in the iPhone 15 photo that have otherwise been blended into the iPhone 12 portrait background blur.

The iPhone 15's superiority over the iPhone 12 really shines through when testing out night mode on this nearby mural. Some might complain that the iPhone 15 shot is overly dark, as shadows conceal some of the girl's face and it's hard to tell where the building ends. However, I think it's a better balanced shot than what the iPhone 12 has to offer.

In an effort to show off more of the mural, the iPhone 12 has over-exposed some of the shot, adding a glare to the building. Yes, the whites and pinks of the girl's clothing are brighter in the iPhone 12 photo, but the iPhone 15 depicts them more naturally, making for a more detailed photo overall.


Both the iPhone 15 and iPhone 12 can shoot up to 4K video, though the iPhone 12 has missed out on some video improvements over the years. For instance, the iPhone 13 introduced Cinematic Mode, letting you change the focus of your video on the fly, while the iPhone 14 brought up Action Mode for super-steady video. The iPhone 15 supports both of these capabilities.

To show what Action Mode brings to the table, I capture two contrasting videos of a particularly bouncy stroll along the waterfront — one with the iPhone 15 and the other with the iPhone 12. In both cases, I held the phone in my hand as I shot and walked, with no tripod or gimbal to offer any sort of stabilization.

iPhone 15 video:

iPhone 12 video:

To my eye, the iPhone 15 footage seems a little more stable. There's bouncing, sure, but the video itself feels more fluid. Pay particular attention to the last 7 seconds or so as the water from the harbor comes into view — the iPhone 12's video looks especially shaky at this point.

iPhone 15 vs. iPhone 12 camera outlook

In some ways, I was impressed by how well the iPhone 12's cameras continue to perform after all these years. Apart from the zoom shots, you wouldn't delete any of these photos from your phone in a blind rage over how poorly they captured the scene.

That said, the iPhone 15 clearly produces more colorful, balanced photos with better details. Even the portrait shot where the iPhone 12's result is arguably better features more detailed skin and hair textures in the iPhone 15 photo. And night shots aren't even close between the two phones.

There's a lot of iPhone 15 vs. iPhone 12 improvements that could justify an upgrade, from the brighter display to the more powerful processor to the lack of a notch. But the cameras on their own may be enough to convince you that now's the time to replace your aging iPhone with one of Apple's newer releases.

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Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.