I have been using an iPhone 11 Pro (256 GB space gray) extensively for over a week, and I’m very happy with the 2019 version of the iPhone. For an overview of the new features, take a look at this post, which I wrote when the iPhone 11 Pro was announced. In today’s review, I am focusing on the features that stood out the most to me as I was using it, especially the photographu improvements and the better battery life.
Photography: three cameras
If you enjoy taking pictures with your iPhone, the iPhone 11 Pro is a big improvement for numerous reasons. The most obvious change is the new Ultra Wide camera — obvious because you can now see three lens when you look at the back of the iPhone. The Ultra Wide camera lets you take pictures that simply were not possible before. After trying it out for the past week, I find that there are two reasons that I really like this Ultra Wide camera.
First, the Ultra Wide camera allows you to capture the entire scene that you want to capture. This was the advantage that I expected. For example, a few days ago, I walked into the Carousel Bar, one of my favorite bars in the French Quarter in New Orleans, which is currently celebrating its 70th anniversary. I love this bar for its great cocktails, but the bar is famous because of its slowly rotating main bar which looks like a carousel. When I walked inside and tried to take a picture with the normal 1x camera, which Apple calls the Wide camera, I wasn't able to capture the entire carousel even when I had my back to the wall.
But when I switched to the new Ultra Wide camera, I was able to capture the entire carousel:
With that Ultra Wide picture, I can see the ground and see how the carousel rotates, something that one cannot see in the 1x picture. I can even see the sign on the window, so when I back on this picture in the future. I will remember that this was when the bar celebrated its 70th anniversary. By showing the entire carousel, the Ultra Wide camera lets me include everything that I want in the picture.
Unlike the iPhone 11, the iPhone 11 Pro also features a Telephoto camera (just like the iPhone XS). Even though I was standing in the same spot, with the Telephoto camera I was able to focus on the details on the top of the carousel.
Sure, I could have just walked closer to the bar to get a picture like this, but then I would have been right on top of the people at the bar. Plus, sometimes moving closer is not an option. When I take pictures or videos of my daughter playing soccer, I use the Telephoto camera almost the entire time; it’s not like I can walk out onto the soccer field to get closer.
After taking these pictures at the Carousel Bar, I continued down Royal Street to my real destination: the Louisiana Supreme Court. Again, the 1x Wide camera did not let me take the full picture of the building that I wanted. Even when I was across the street with my back to the front of the shops facing the Supreme Court, this was the most that I could fit in with the 1x lens:
But with the Ultra Wide camera, I could see the entire building:
Because it is such a wide angle lens, you do get some distortion, with some objects appearing bigger or more stretched. But the Ultra Wide camera lets you capture the entire scene that you want to be in your picture. In the past, I would try to make the 1x camera capture a big scene by using the Panorama feature, but whenever you have movement in your photos (such as people walking) you get poor, sometimes comical, results with a Panorama photo. Thus, I love having the option of using the Ultra Wide camera so that more is in my picture.
The second advantage that I have seen with having three different lenses on the iPhone 11 Pro is that it allows me to tell a different story. We've all heard the phrase that a picture is worth a thousand words. How you frame your shot will change, sometimes dramatically, what those words are.
Let me show you what I mean. In front of the Louisiana Supreme Court there is a statue of Justice Edward Douglass White, who served on both the Louisiana Supreme Court and, for 26 years, on the U.S. Supreme Court (10 of those years as Chief Justice). By standing on the top step in front of the statue I was able to take three different pictures using the three different cameras, and they each tell a different story. With the Ultra Wide camera, the picture shows the story of the statue as a part of the front of the Supreme Court building. This picture is just as much about the building itself as it is the statue.
When I look at the picture that I took with the Wide lens, I no longer pay attention to the building behind the statue (except perhaps for the sign saying that this is the Supreme Court of Louisiana). Instead, this picture is about the pedestal and the statue.
Finally, when I look at the picture taken with the Telephoto camera, the story is all about Justice White himself. Unlike the other photos, I find myself looking at his face and other details in the statue.
You can't say that any one of these three photos is the best photo. It's just that they each tell a different story. With three different lenses, you get to decide which story you want to tell with your pictures. Or better yet, take multiple pictures, and then you can decide later which picture best represents the moment that you want to capture.
Here's another example, three pictures of a jazz band playing on Royal Street in the French Quarter. The band was playing on the side of the street, and while Royal Street is sometimes closed to vehicles, it happened to be open to traffic when I was taking pictures during my lunch hour on Friday, so a big crowd was watching from across the street. In this first picture, I used the Telephoto camera to get a fairly cropped picture of just the band. When I look at this picture, my mind focuses on the people in the band. (The version on my iPhone is even better because thanks to the Live Photos feature, I can hold my finger down on the screen and hear the band playing a few notes.)
When I look at the picture taken with the Wide camera, I'm no longer thinking about just the band; now, I'm also thinking about the band in the setting of the French Quarter with the interesting balconies.
The final picture is taken with the Ultra Wide camera, and this photo tells a completely different story to me. I took this picture when no cars were passing and thus the street was empty. With the wide open street in front of the performers and with relatively few people in the picture, this picture creates the illusion that the band is just playing without an audience or anyone else listening to them. As I noted, that's not true — there were actually lots of people standing next to me on the other side of the street from the band — but nevertheless this picture makes me feel almost a sense of loneliness. Or, more optimistically. a sense of dedication to music even if nobody is paying attention.
I'll show one last example. This first picture, using the Telephoto Camera, makes me concentrate on a small group of people standing in the alley next to the House of Blues on Decatur Street in the French Quarter.
But when I look at this next picture taken in the same spot, using the Ultra Wide camera, I barely even notice the people, and instead the story is about how long this alley is.
Although I've focused on photographs, the three lenses are also great for videos. I took a lot of videos of my daughter's team playing a volleyball game. With the Ultra Wide camera, I was able to capture almost all of both sides of the court at once. With the Wide camera, I could see one side of the court but not the other side. With the Telephoto camera, I was able to focus more on the expressions on my daughter's face. I took video clips with all three cameras, then later I took the highlights from all three different cameras and created a short movie using Final Cut Pro on my iMac. The final movie is great, and is much more interesting because it alternates between different views thanks to the three different cameras.
With the ability to capture more in your photographs and the ability to tell different stories by using different lenses, the three-camera system on the iPhone 11 Pro is fantastic for photography.
Photography: low light
The other big advantage of the iPhone 11 Pro (and the iPhone 11) is the ability to take much better pictures when there is very low light, such as when you are in a bar or a restaurant at night. This is not the first time that Apple has improved low light photography on the iPhone. That was also a feature of the iPhone 7 in 2016, and if you look at my review you will see some low light comparison pictures taken with an iPhone 6, iPhone 6s, and iPhone 7.
But this feature works much better, in much lower light, on the iPhone 11 Pro (and the iPhone 11). It is so much better that Apple gave it a specific name: Night Mode. For these next few pictures, I turned down the dimmer on my overhead lights as low as they would go. In this first picture, I used my son’s iPhone X. Even though I tried to hold my hand as still as possible, the picture looks pretty poor with the light this low.
The next picture is with the iPhone Xs. It is a better picture, but still not that great.
With the iPhone 11 Pro, the iPhone senses that it is in a low light situation and then tells me to hold my hand still as it keeps the shutter open for three seconds to gather as much light as possible while also doing a good job of reducing blur in the picture. The end result is dramatically better:
But that's not all; the iPhone 11 Pro has one more trick up its sleeve. If you use a tripod or set your iPhone on a flat surface such that the accelerometer inside of the iPhone senses that there is no movement, the app will give you the option to keep the shutter open for even longer. For this picture, the phone let me choose up to eight seconds, which resulted in this picture:
This is a good point for me to mention that all of the pictures in this post have been reduced in size and quality so that this page does not take forever to load. Even so, if you click or tap on the last two pictures to see versions of them that are 1,500 pixels wide, you can see the difference if you look closely. To make the difference easier to see, here are cropped versions of both pictures showing the Lego figures; the left side is when the shutter was open three seconds, and the right side is when the shutter was open for eight seconds. I encourage you to click this picture to see it larger:
Everything is a little more grainy on the left side, and everything is a little more sharp on the right side when the shutter was open for longer. The picture that took eight seconds to take is the one that I would want to keep.
In the above examples, Night Mode allowed me to capture a picture when the lights were low enough that I could see with my eyes, after they adjusted to the light, but a normal cellphone camera would have trouble. Night Mode can also be used to create low light photos that are far better than what you can see with your own eyes, especially if you can use a tripod or set your iPhone down on a flat surface to keep it still. For the next set of pictures, I went to my backyard around 10pm. There was some light coming over the fence from my neighbor's house, but my backyard was pretty much completely dark. I took this first picture with Night Mode turned off on my iPhone 11 Pro, and this is actually pretty close to what it looked like to my own eyes; I really couldn't see much of anything:
For the next picture, I turned on Night Mode, used a tripod, and let the Camera app use what it selected as the default setting, which kept the shutter open for 10 seconds:
Obviously, this is a dramatic difference. Indeed, this picture makes everything look much brighter than it was in real life. For example, the sky looks blue enough that you might think that the sun had just set, even though I took this picture around 10pm. Do you want to take a picture in which you can see more detail in the photograph than you could with your own eyes? For me, that depends upon the circumstances, but it is nice to have the option.
Next, I told my iPhone to stay open as long as possible, and with the steadiness of the tripod and this very low light situation, the iPhone let me choose to keep the shutter open for up to 28 seconds. (I’ve never seen my iPhone 11 Pro offer more than 28 seconds, so I think that is the maximum.)
At first look, the 28 second picture looks pretty similar to the 10 second picture:
But if you look closer, the 28 second picture is much less grainy. In this next composite picture with crops from the last two pictures, the 10 second picture is on the left and the 28 second picture is on the right. Both pictures are somewhat blurry, but considering that it was almost pitch black, it is amazing that you can see this much, and in the 28 second picture there is much less distortion.
As you can see, the new Night Mode on the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro gives you the ability to take pictures in circumstances in which, for all practical purposes, you had no ability to take a picture in the past. You can take a picture when the light is low that matches what your eyes can actually see. And if you keep your iPhone perfectly still, you can even take pictures in low light that are better than what your eyes can actually see.
Other Photos improvements
Although the three cameras and Night Mode are the major new features, there are other nice improvements in the Photos app. As I mentioned in my initial overview of the iPhone 11 Pro, the new QuickTake feature means that you can hold down the shutter button that you normally use to take a photograph to switch to taking a video. By saving you the time and trouble of switching modes manually, you are much less likely to miss an opportunity when a video, not a photo, is the perfect way to capture the memory.
I also like that, even when you take a 1x Wide photograph, the iPhone stores the 0.5x Ultra Wide photo for 30 days, as long as you have this feature enabled in Settings -> General -> Camera -> Composition. That way, if at some point during the next 30 days you are looking at your photo and you decide that it would be better if you could get just a little more in your shot, you can zoom out and take advantage of the additional image area that was captured by the Ultra Wide camera. Or, if the 1x Wide photograph is not straight, you can straighten the picture without having to also zoom in.
And there are other improvements like better selfie pictures, better video quality, etc. But the three cameras an the Night Mode are, in my opinion, the two best photography improvements.
The other major improvement in the iPhone 11 Pro is increased battery life. Apple says that the iPhone 11 Pro lasts four hours longer than the iPhone XS. The iPhone 11 Pro Max (which I have not tested) gets five additional hours of battery life over the iPhone XS Max.
Although I haven't run any scientific battery tests, I have noticed a huge difference in battery life. In the past week, I don't think that I have seen my iPhone go below 50%. Admittedly I do sometimes charge my iPhone at my desk, and whenever I am driving around using CarPlay the iPhone is getting charged, but I did all of those same things with my last iPhone and the battery life was much lower at the end of the day.
Unlike the photography section of this review where I had lots to say and lots of pictures, there isn't much more to say about the better battery performance. However, that shouldn't take away from what a dramatic improvement this is. If you want extra battery life without having to worry about carrying around charging cables and/or external batteries, you'll love the iPhone 11 Pro. (And thanks to its larger size and larger battery, the iPhone 11 Pro Max gets even more battery life.)
More to come
As much as I like these new features, there is more coming in the future. As I noted in my prior post, Apple plans to add a feature called Deep Fusion that will improve pictures taken in normal indoor lighting situations. And a feature called Ultra Wideband isn’t of much use today, but presumably in the future will open up new possibilities for precisely locating another item.
For the 2019 version of version of the iPhone, Apple focused on the two areas that are the most important for most people: photography and battery life. If you are just using your iPhone to help you get your work done, then the photography improvements are not that big of a deal, but if you enjoy taking pictures like I do, this is a major improvement. And everyone will appreciate the additional battery life in the iPhone 11 Pro. A few extra hours at the end of the day can make all of the difference in the world when your day doesn’t end until well past 5pm.
And those are just the improvements from last year’s model. If you are upgrading from an even older iPhone, you will see even more advantages, such as the HDR photograph improvements and better performance from last yearand the edge-to-edge OLED screen and Telephoto camera from two years ago.
Even if you are ready to upgrade, you don’t need to get the iPhone 11 Pro. Although I generally don’t recommend the entry-level version of any iPhone because I think many folks won’t have enough space, you can get the iPhone 11 128GB for $749, which is $400 less than the iPhone 11 Pro 256GB which costs $1,149. You don’t get the nicer OLED screen or the Telephoto camera, and there are some other differences like being a little less water resistant and the 128GB vs. 256GB capacity. But $400 is a big difference, especially if you don’t care very much about photography.
You know how you use your current iPhone. If you use it to take pictures and you want to take better pictures, then the iPhone 11 will be a good phone for you. And if you think a Telephoto camera would be useful to you, then the iPhone 11 Pro may be a better phone for you. You also know whether you have battery issues with your current iPhone. If you don't need extra battery life, then the iPhone 11 might be best for you. But if extra battery life would make a different to you, then you'll want to look at the iPhone 11 Pro. And finally, while I haven't reviewed it myself, if you want the largest screen and don't mind holding or carrying around a larger phone, then the iPhone 11 Pro Max might be best for you.
For me, I don't like the large Max size, but I do like the features of the iPhone 11 Pro. In part this is because photography is important to me. I love being able to look back at older pictures of friends and families, and once you take a picture, you can almost never improve a picture or video at a later date when the quality wasn’t there in the first place. For example, as I look back at videos of my kids when they were very young, I took most of the videos using an HD video camera which recorded to tape, but I also took some videos using the smartphone I was using at the time — a Palm Treo 650 or very early iPhone models. I’m so glad that I have videos of that time period taken with the HD video camera because the quality of the other videos is so low that it distracts from the content. Taking better pictures and videos today is something that I will appreciate in the short term, but I will appreciate much more in the future. And while I didn't really have a need for extra battery life, I have to admit that it is really nice to have it. If you have the same priorities that I do, then you'll love the iPhone 11 Pro.