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iPhone XS Max vs. iPhone 7 Plus Camera Face-Off: How Much Better Is It?

If you bought an iPhone 7 Plus about two years ago, you might be considering an upgrade to the new iPhone XS Max. And there are many reasons you should — the latest iPhone is the most powerful handset we've ever tested and it features a gorgeous 6.5-inch OLED display that's even larger than that of Samsung's Galaxy Note 9.

But it also comes with redesigned dual-rear cameras with larger image sensors for better performance in low-light scenarios. And that means a big improvement over phones released not that long ago.

How big an improvement? To find out, we took a little photo tour, pitting the XS Max against the 7 Plus. Here's what two years of camera advances can do for your photos.

The Cameras Compared

Both handsets use 12-megapixel cameras for both the primary wide-angle and secondary telephoto lenses, but that's where the similarities end. The iPhone XS and XS Max, which feature the same cameras, offer bigger pixels within the image sensor that allow more light to reach the shutter.

The XS camera also has a slightly larger aperture for the telephoto lens, f/2.4 versus f/2.8 in the iPhone 7 Plus, as well as optical-image stabilization on both lenses. Only the primary shooter on the 7 Plus gets OIS.

The iPhone XS also adds Smart HDR — a new feature that leverages the faster image signal processor in the A12 Bionic to capture a greater number of exposures during each HDR shot. The processor then combines those images into one optimized version that pulls the best aspects of each.

While the 7 Plus also benefits from an HDR mode, it's not quite as refined. Additionally, the XS and XS Max allow for adjustment of the bokeh in Portrait Mode shots before and after taking the picture, which older iPhones cannot do.

Skyscraper

We started with shots of some skyscrapers overlooking Bryant Park on a slightly overcast afternoon. And while the iPhone 7 Plus achieved a perfectly serviceable representation of the scene, it lacked the color and dynamic range of the XS Max's attempt. Smart HDR was clearly working its magic here. You can see farther into the trees through the lens of the newer iPhone, and the highlights, like the gleaming silver building to the left, aren't quite as blown out.

Portrait

Next, we turned around to snag a few portraits. This was really no contest — the XS Max delivered a photo of my colleague Caitlin that was considerably more balanced, with realistic contrast and bokeh that steered clear of invading the foreground. Not only is the overall frame blurrier on the 7 Plus, but Caitlin's eyes are lost within the deep, dramatic shadows that the older iPhone casts — an eerie effect, to say the least.

Flower

Of course, you don't just have to use Portrait Mode for people — it works wonders on other objects, too, like this flower in the park. Straight away, you can tell the 7 Plus struggles with the highlights, as the fringes of those red-orange petals are immersed in pure white. However, both phones deserve credit for sharply exposing the flower, as it had been swaying in the breeze the whole time during shooting.

iPhone Xs MaxView Deal

Restaurant

This round proves even an old iPhone can surprise you every now and then. The 7 Plus does a better job of staying with the XS Max than we anticipated inside a warmly lit restaurant. The colors aren't quite as robust as what the new iPhone captured, and there's more noise than we'd like, but the 7 Plus somehow managed better dynamic range and retained more detail in the shadows. On the other hand, the XS Max doesn't get thrown off by the harsh light from the window in the background, so this one is a bit of a wash.

Dark Room

If you really want to see what the XS Max can do in the least favorable conditions, try snapping a picture inside a nearly pitch-black room like we did here. Noisy and muted are the words to describe the 7 Plus' attempt. The older phone isn't far behind the XS Max in overall brightness, but looking at the XS Max's version you'd never guess our studio was as dim as it was — the photo is that sharp, thanks in large part to that new supersize image sensor pulling in what little light there was in the room.

Optical Zoom

Here we see the improvements Apple has made to the XS Max's secondary telephoto lens, which the phone relies on for that 2x optical zoom. Peering in on the Chrysler Building from street level leads to a dismal and dreary image on the 7 Plus. The XS Max dials up the exposure, giving the scene some much needed life and returning a smidge of color to the cloudy sky.

Bottom Line

There's no question that the iPhone XS' cameras are better than those in the iPhone 7 Plus, and noticeably so. That may be unwelcome news for those who'd like to hold onto their handset for as long as possible, but the fact is that two years makes a massive difference in the development of mobile photography.

Aperture control on the iPhone XS Max

Aperture control on the iPhone XS Max

The XS Max's Smart HDR mode helped produce shots with greater depth in the highlights and shadows, allowing you to see more gradations of color than the 7 Plus could provide. The new image sensor proved its worth by delivering brighter and less noisy low-light scenes, while the new aperture control setting for Portrait Mode unlocks the potential for you to decide precisely how blurry you want those backgrounds to be.

Overall, the refinements Apple has made over two generations are abundantly clear. That leaves aspiring shutterbugs with a simple decision: If you want the best photos on your iPhone, upgrade to the iPhone XS or iPhone XS Max.

Credit: Tom's Guide