The very best iPhone for photography may be obvious, but the SE changes the game – and older iPhones are almost as good
You may think the question, "What's the best iPhone for photography?" is an easy one to answer. And on the surface, yes, it is. In terms of sheer specs, the iPhone 11 Pro models are far and away the kings. They pack a triple-camera array and Apple's latest and greatest tech, so if you're happy to pay top dollar then they're without doubt two of the best camera phones, period.
However, there's more to any purchase than just spending the most money on the flagship model. There are plenty of older iPhones models that are still incredibly good at imaging, but after a few years their prices have dropped considerably. Though of course, older phones do mean older specs.
Enter the iPhone SE.
The latest iteration of Apple's mid-range model (the SE stands for "Special Edition", with the 2020 version marking the first update since the previous model was discontinued in 2018) takes the price and size of an older iPhone, but adds the processor and software of the latest one. The result? Probably the best budget camera phone on the market today.
This new formula changes the dynamic of the iPhone hierarchy significantly. Yes, the iPhone 11 Pro takes much better photos than the iPhone 8. However, this new $399 hybrid puts the iPhone 11 processor in an iPhone 8 body – delivering images and 4K that punch way above their weight. And if $399 is still a little too rich for your blood, the iPhone 7 can be had for half that price.
So, with all that said, here are the best iPhones for photography across all models, ages and budgets…
The best iPhone for photography in 2020
1. Apple iPhone 11 Pro
Well, let's not pretend we're surprised. The iPhone 11 Pro is brilliant
You can't judge camera phones purely on specs. The iPhone 11 Pro's triple-camera array is hardly cutting edge by today's camera phone standards, but it works brilliantly. The colors, tones and exposures are consistent across all three cameras, and the image processing is perfectly judged to produce natural looking detail and not the usual over-sharpened, over-smoothed smartphone 'look'. The new ultrawide camera is just brilliant for travel photography, landmarks and spectacular interiors, and while it can't quite match the edge to edge image quality of the other lenses, it still produces sharp, distortion-free ultra-wide images that widen your horizons in every possible way. We like the regular iPhone 11 Pro best – the iPhone 11 Pro Max has the same cameras but it's just a bit big, while the regular plain-vanilla iPhone 11 is cheaper but doesn't have the 52mm telephoto lens.
2. Apple iPhone 11
It's cheaper than the iPhone 11 Pro, but you lose the 'telephoto' lens
iPhone 11 vs iPhone 11 Pro? That's a tricky question because it depends on the kind of photography you like to do – or more specifically, the angles of view you like. Both iPhones have the new 13mm ultrawide camera that's brilliant for interiors tall landmarks and travel photography, and both have the standard 26mm 'wide' camera. But the iPhone 11 Pro adds in a 56mm 'telephoto' camera which you may or may not find useful. Camera phone photograph tends to be up-close and 'immersive' compared to regular photography, and wider angle lenses are better. The other key difference is the screen. The regular iPhone 11 screen is mid-way in size between the iPhone 11 Pro and the 11 Pro Max, and it uses a Liquid Retina HD display rather than the Pro's Super Retina XDR screen – but will you notice the difference?
3. iPhone XS
In its time, the iPhone XS was the best iPhone, and it's still good even now
The regular iPhone XS has the same cameras as the Max version. The rears offer two 12-megapixel cameras, one for standard wideangle shots, the other for 2x zoom images. Apple offers a very natural and faithful image preview, which shows a good estimate of the benefits of image processing before that processing has even taken place. The color balance and the character of Apple’s processing are also very pleasant. Other highlights include 240fps slo-mo at 1080p and X-series-only additional modes in the background blur portrait mode, such as Stage Lighting. This blacks out the background, for an image that looks a little like an actor’s headshot. The 2x zoom is also useful, particularly as it has optical image stabilisation just like the main camera. Many people might find this more useful than the new ultra-wide lens on the iPhone 11, so the iPhone XS is still a good option, even though it's now last year's model.
4. iPhone XS Max
It's bigger than the iPhone XS but not necessarily better
The iPhone XS Max has the same camera setup as the iPhone Xs. So what benefit is there here? It’s pretty obvious, really. The Max has a larger screen, which helps when composing images. This is a particularly bright OLED display with max power of around 650 nits. It copes remarkably well outdoors, and goes into a ‘turbo’ mode when required, to make sure you can see the image preview even when it’s sunny. Both X-series phones also have dual front-facing cameras. The imaging sensor is a 7-megapixel chip just like the recent older iPhones, and the second is a “time of flight” camera. This is used solely for depth mapping. Its primary function is to make the Face ID unlock feature work well, but it also improves “bokeh” images. You can alter the blur effect level, effectively changing the virtual aperture, after shooting the image.
5. iPhone XR
It's a great camera phone at a good price, but there's no zoom
The iPhone XR is one of the most interesting phones in the 2019 line-up from an Apple fan’s perspective. It’s now and older, cheaper iPhone (still not that affordable, mind). The lack of a zoom camera is its biggest loss. The iPhone XR has only the one rear camera, the same 12-megapixel stabilised get-up as the iPhone XS. You get great images, sure, but a zoom is handy for gigs and other situations when you can’t simply move closer. Here you have to use a compromised digital zoom. Other differences? While the iPhone XR has the same processor as the pricier iPhone X models, it uses an LCD screen rather than an OLED. This screen is larger than the iPhone Xs’s, though, and battery life is far better than that of the smaller, fancier iPhone Xs too.
6. iPhone 8 Plus
Starting to date in design terms, but still holds up well as a camera phone
In one sense the iPhone 8 Plus may seem a step above the iPhone XR. It has a 2x telephoto camera, with a 12-megapixel sensor. Don’t mistake this for a like-for-like alternative to what’s on offer in the iPhone Xs Max, though. This telephoto lens is not stabilised, making it more likely you’ll get blurry images when light level is sub-optimal. In daylight, however, the iPhone 8 Plus takes excellent images that aren’t too far off those of the newest iPhones. The phone itself now seems rather dated. It has a 16:9 5.5-inch screen with relatively large borders, and what now seems a fairly lazy screen to surface ratio. Still, this only becomes an issue in a direct comparison. We were perfectly happy with the iPhone 8 Plus in 2017. Things have changed since then, but not that much. Our hands haven’t suddenly shrunk.
7. iPhone SE (2020)
iPhone 8 body + iPhone 11 processor = iPhone SE
The iPhone SE (2020) is a brilliant proposition: a $399 / £415 / AU$749 iPhone that takes the form factor and camera of the iPhone 8, and pairs it with the processor and software magic of the iPhone 11 Pro. The result is a pocket-friendly handset in terms of both size and price, with fusion technology that delivers highly respectable photographs and 4K video. Its smaller 4.7-inch 720p screen isn't as bright and doesn't refresh as fast as the flagship models, but that also means that its battery doesn't get gobbled up as fast either. It sticks with Touch ID instead of Face ID, and boasts Qi wireless charging. It's IP67 water and dust resistant, and features image stabilization for rock-solid 4K 60fps video. Between the A13 Bionic chip and Apple-standard software updates, the iPhone SE is the best value handset out there.
8. iPhone 7
It came out in 2016 but the iPhone 7 is still good for photography
Now here’s a blast from the past. The iPhone 7 was released in 2016, and is testament to iPhones’ supreme shelf life. On paper its camera sounds almost identical to the iPhone 8’s. It has a single 12-megapixel rear sensor with OIS and an f/1.8 lens, and a 7-megapixel selfie camera. Apple made notable improvements in 2017 that are missing in this older model, and photographers will notice. Autofocus is slower, dynamic range is a little worse and colour reproduction is a little less punchy or charming, particularly in less than ideal lighting. It’s still a good camera, particularly as a breezy auto mode shooter, but the years are taking their toll on this most affordable iPhone. Step away from the camera and the iPhone 7 looks almost identical to the iPhone 8. Both have 4.7-inch LCD screens of 1334 x 750 pixel resolution. You miss out on HDR support for the phone’s own screen (it still takes HDR photos), and the TrueTone feature. This alters the display’s colour profile to suit the ambient lighting.
9. iPhone 7 Plus
The Plus-size version of the iPhone 7 does come with two cameras
The iPhone 7 Plus was the first Apple phone to have a 2x zoom camera. This seemed very special back in 2016, but today? Not so much, but it’s still useful. This phone stacks up much like the iPhone 7. Dynamic range and colour benefit from less optimisation, although the actual sensor is genuinely different too. Low-light performance is only OK by today’s standards. Still, the main camera is stabilised so the low-light shooting experience is still better than that of some mid-range and entry-level Androids. The phone’s design is very similar to the iPhone 8 Plus’s. It’s relatively bulky, and has a 16:9 screen and a dated shape. iPhone build ages well, though, and this still feels like a top-quality mobile.