There’s been a lot of buzz from both video makers and photographers about the camera capabilities of Apple’s iPhone 13 Pro since it launched last fall. With its three-camera lenses, an updated A15 Bionic chip for processing, up to 1TB of storage and new features like Cinematic shooting mode, it’s no surprise the iPhone 13 Pro ended up on a number of best gear of the year lists in 2021.
If you are a video shooter with a phone upgrade on the horizon, there’s a lot to like about having a pocket-sized camera for capturing 4K footage on the fly. But is the iPhone 13 Pro’s camera actually good enough to compete with a professional video setup?
While that may still be debatable, over the last month Apple has released a handful of impressive promotional videos with the tagline “Hollywood in your pocket,” demonstrating the video features on the new phone including Cinematic mode, Advanced Low Light Video and 3x Optical Zoom. Let’s take a look and see if they’re ready for prime time.
In the clip above showing off Cinematic mode we see two detectives sitting in a car having a discussion that alludes to the focus capabilities of the iPhone 13 Pro. The detective behind the wheel remains tack sharp, while the detective in the passenger’s seat is in soft focus.
At the 46-second mark we see the detective behind the wheel turn to his colleague in the passenger’s seat and the point of focus shifts during a key moment of dialogue. At this moment the phone is using machine learning to replicate a technique called focus racking that can take years behind the camera to perfect. It’s a specialized job that on a commercial video shoot or film set is handled by an assistant camera person.
The effect looks pretty nice in this clip, although it’s certainly not as precise as what you might get with a skilled focus puller. And, as many early reviewers pointed out, when you are shooting in Cinematic mode, the phone’s footage caps at 1080p and can only be shot at 30fps. There’s no option for 4K or 24p, which the iPhone 13 Pro can capture otherwise.
Although we certainly like Cinematic mode in the new iPhone and see how it might influence the look and feel of online video in the next few years, we’re not ready to say it’s impressive enough of a feature to replace a professional camera—especially given the limitations of 1080p.
Advanced Low Light Video
In the second clip above spotlighting the iPhone 13 Pro’s “advanced low light video” capabilities, we see a woman wandering through her home at night following a mysterious voice that seems to be coming from the basement. If you’ve shot video with a smartphone in the last decade you know quality degrades quickly when you aren’t shooting in bright conditions.
The newest version of the iPhone performs 47 percent better, according to Apple, than the iPhone 12 thanks in part to the F/1.8 aperture found on all three of the phone’s lenses. In the sample above we see this as the woman descends the steps into her basement and video quality stays crisp, even with a warm backlight behind her. We think this new feature has some real potential when it comes to capturing nightlife and live events.
3x Optical Zoom
The third and final clip shows off the iPhone 13 Pro’s 3x optical zoom. Shot in black and white, the footage starts on a very wide angle of a man sitting in an armchair staring into the middle distance. The phone’s camera begins to slowly zoom in on the man as a woman enters the frame and calls out to him. “This slow unnerving zoom suggests that you are descending into madness,” she says. By the time the clip ends the man’s face has essentially filled the frame—all without losing any noticeable video quality—something that’s hard to find on a smartphone from a few years ago.
As the sample videos show, the new camera system on the iPhone 13 Pro is really impressive when it comes to video capture, but there are some drawbacks, the 1080p footage cap and fps limitations when shooting in Cinematic mode being the most glaring. It means you won’t get the kind of resolution offered by a dedicated video camera and it really limits how the footage can ultimately be used.
But for projects that will primarily be viewed on small screens like your phone, this does seem like an impressive capture tool when paired with a smartphone gimbal. The iPhone 13 Pro might not quite be #HollywoodInYourPocket, but it has the video chops to serve as a BTS (behind-the-scenes) camera or one for shooting clips for social media. It definitely makes us curious about what Apple has in store for the video features we will see in an iPhone 14 Pro.