iPhone 15 camera tested — portrait mode, night photos and the new 2x zoom

Apple iPhone 15 review.
(Image credit: Future)

I’m a camera guy, so when Apple talked about its “third” camera in the iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Plus during its “Wonderlust” event, my interest was instantly piqued. That’s because those iPhone models are clearly rocking dual-cameras — a main camera paired with an ultrawide one — without a standalone telephoto lens for this so-called 2x zoom. That’s why the iPhone 15 Pro and 15 Pro Max exist: their triple camera arrangements allow for a third, dedicated telephoto camera lens.

You might be wondering how Apple is able to offer a third camera option with its dual-camera setup. Well, it all falls back to the new 48MP main camera, which is a tremendous boost over the previous 12MP main camera of the iPhone 14. Apple says it’s able to deliver an “optical-quality” 2x telephoto to the iPhone 15 and 15 Plus by using the center area of the main camera’s sensor. By default, 24MP photos are produced with the help of pixel binning — so when 2x telephoto images are captured, you get a 12MP photo.

The images that Apple showed off from the 2x zoom looked impressive, filled with sharp details and great color fidelity. It almost looked as good as a shot from a dedicated telephoto camera with an optical lens. But I’m skeptical — so that’s why I wanted to put the iPhone 15's 2x zoom to the test.

Another interesting point here is that the main camera of the iPhone 15 is almost similar to the iPhone 14 Pro, which as we all know delivers flagship caliber results after countless camera comparisons. I want to know if the iPhone 15 is just as good so my comparison included last year's Pro model. Additionally, I can’t forget about other similar rivals at near the same price, which is why I also looped in the Google Pixel 7 into this three-way camera face-off.

While the iPhone 15's 2x zoom is one feature I ultimately tested out, I also wanted to get a sense of how all other aspects of the cameras compare — including its video recording and portrait mode performances. It's a great way to gauge whether it's a worthy contender in our best camera phones list.

iPhone 15 vs. iPhone 14 Pro vs. Pixel 7: Main cameras

These photos of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City show off how all three phones match each other in terms of quality with their respective cameras. Both the iPhone 15 and 14 Pro are identical in terms of detail, dynamic range, and color production performance — delivering excellent detail in the brick work of the nearby building. The Pixel 7 is also equally good with a slightly contrasty composition, but the highlights at the steeple appear to be slightly overexposed.

iPhone 15 vs. iPhone 14 Pro vs. Pixel 7: Ultrawide cameras

The only noticeable difference in these photos of 30 Rockefeller Center is that the Pixel 7’s ultrawide camera has a slightly narrower field of view, so it doesn’t capture as wide of a scene as the iPhone 15 and 14 Pro. Despite that, all three camera phones have excellent dynamic range performance by evening out the exposure between the bright light hitting the building and the shadowed areas of the foreground.

iPhone 15 vs. iPhone 14 Pro vs. Pixel 7: Low light

I’ve always said that a camera’s true performance hinges on its ability to handle extreme low light conditions. It’s probably the single most important area of phone photography that separates the good from the great. 

What’s shocking here is how the iPhone 15 easily beats out the others. Sure, the colors with this tree in my backyard are more saturated than I prefer, but the overall photo is much brighter and sharper. I can make out the details in the tree's branches and bark, which is impressive given that the only ambient light was from my robot lawnmower in the background.

Apple promised sharper details and more vivid colors with Night mode on the iPhone 15, and based on the evidence here, you'd have to say they delivered.

iPhone 15 vs. iPhone 14 Pro vs. Pixel 7: Portrait mode

I like how the Pixel 7 manages to even out the shadowed areas of my face, but it’s not as sharp as what the iPhone 15 and 14 Pro produce — nor is the Pixel 7 as aggressive with the bokeh level of the background and foreground elements. The photographer in me leans more toward the iPhone 15 and 14 Pro because of how they’re able to make the subject pop out.

One of the new features that Apple introduces with the iPhone 15 is the ability to capture regular photos and then transform them into portraits later on. The new focus and depth controls in the iPhone 15 can be accessed through the Photos app, just as long as faces are recognizable — allowing me to select them and adjust the aperture. It also works on pets, too. I love it because I can shoot now and worry later, plus I don’t have to waste the extra swipes in the Camera app to get to the dedicated portrait mode.

iPhone 15 vs. iPhone 14 Pro vs. Pixel 7: Selfies

At arm’s length, the iPhone 15 and 14 Pro have a slightly wider view with their respective front-facing cameras — while the Pixel 7’s a bit narrower. Nevertheless, I’m drawn to the iPhone 15 because it’s the best of the three at selfies. Sure, the overall composition from all three are identical at first glance, but I can see how the iPhone 15 has sharper details when I crop into my face. You can see it in the wrinkle on my forehead, along with my hair.

iPhone 15 vs. iPhone 14 Pro vs. Pixel 7: Video performance

All three phones can shoot at 4K 60fps, which is the industry standard for high-end phones. Yet again, I can’t tell the difference between the iPhone 15 and 14 Pro with these videos of the Prometheus statue at Rockefeller Center — with both capturing the same amount of details and dynamic range performance. The Pixel 7’s video recording isn’t too shabby, but I can make out noise in the shadows and it’s a tiny bit softer.

iPhone 15 vs. iPhone 14 Pro vs. Pixel 7: 2x zoom

Before I finally get to answering my question of whether or not the iPhone 15's 2x ‘telephoto’ zoom is legit, I want to show you how all three phones handle 2x zoom. Taking the same scene of the golden Prometheus statue in front of 30 Rock, the 2x photos from the iPhone 15 and 14 Pro look identical. The details, contrast, and color production are all the same, while the Pixel 7 is just a notch softer on the details. It’s not bad at all, but I can see how the details in the ring around him aren’t as sharp.

In the other 2x zoom shots of these figurines, the iPhone 15 and 14 Pro produce the same amount of detail even when I punch into the photos a bit more. I also like how they do a better job at boosting the shadows than the Pixel 7, which tends to lose detail.

iPhone 15: 1x versus 2x zoom

After looking through countless photos using the iPhone 15’s main camera to capture photos at 1x and 2x, I determined that the new phone's 2x telephoto camera is nothing more than a digital zoom. I know, it’s not what people may want to hear, but that’s exactly what’s happening here. Although, I wouldn’t say it’s a gimmick because the 2x zoom photos are actually usable — for social media sharing, that is.

Using the same 1x and 2x zoom photos of the golden Prometheus statue, cropping the 1x snapshot by 50% matches the framing of the 2x zoom photo for an equal comparison between them. The details are exactly identical, which means it’s nothing more than just a digital zoom. However, Apple doesn’t exactly describe it as a digital zoom because of the process — wherein it uses the middle part of the camera sensor to capture 2x zoom photos. Plus, there’s also the image processing of Apple's Photonic Engine that tweaks it.

Another example of this is with the photo of the chrysanthemums, where the cropped image of the 1x photo lines up exactly to the 2x zoom one. Even the bokeh level of the background in the 2x photo is identical to the 1x shot. If this were truly a 2x optical lens, we would see improved clarity — something that’s evident when I compare the 3x zoom photo of the iPhone 14 Pro against its 2x zoom shot (which essentially is a digital zoom).

Is the iPhone 15 2x telephoto zoom legit?

Apple iPhone 15 review.

(Image credit: Future)

This is a tough question to answer because I’m normally against digital zoom. Despite this, I have to admit that Apple’s claim of “optical-quality” from its 2x telephoto zoom is justified — thought the images are best reserved for social media. For sunny conditions or when there’s plenty of ambient light, I can use the 2x zoom with confidence.

However, I would suggest to try and stick with the 1x zoom capture as much as possible because there’s greater flexibility in post to crop the image to your liking. Rather than settle for the framing of the 2x zoom shot, sticking to the 1x zoom would give you the option to frame the shot later on. The iPhone 15’s main 48MP camera is impressive due to the excellent performance of its sensor and image processing.

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John Velasco
Senior Channel Editor for Phones

John’s a senior editor covering phones for Tom’s Guide. He’s no stranger in this area having covered mobile phones and gadgets since 2008 when he started his career. On top of his editor duties, he’s a seasoned videographer being in front and behind the camera producing YouTube videos. Previously, he held editor roles with PhoneArena, Android Authority, Digital Trends, and SPY. Outside of tech, he enjoys producing mini documentaries and fun social clips for small businesses, enjoying the beach life at the Jersey Shore, and recently becoming a first time homeowner.