5 Months With the iPhone 12 mini Camera

It loves to be pushed

Key Takeaways

  • All camera phones take great snapshots in almost any conditions.
  • The iPhone 12 is surprisingly good in low light, in B&W, and with flash.
  • There’s still a need for pro cameras that offer more control.
Apple iPhone 12 mini on a table with a red and blue background.

Onur Binay / Unsplash

Any smartphone camera can take great snapshots, but the iPhone 12 camera can provide some incredible images when you push it to its limits.

I’ve had this iPhone 12 mini for five months now. Its small size and flat edges are extremely welcome, and there has never been a time when I wished for a bigger screen. But it’s the camera that is the real star, and not for the reasons I might have imagined back when I got it.

"Phones can do things that pro cameras never will, like editing, posting to Instagram, and automatically recognizing your friends and family."

Expectations

Phone cameras have been better than old point-and-shoot cameras for years now. Sensor technology is better, and phones can use their powerful computer brains to process images instantly. The iPhone even has a special chip dedicated to the kind of AI needed to process image data.

But while night mode, portrait mode, panoramas, and "sweater mode" are impressive, they still can’t beat a top-of-the-line "real" camera. Equally, phones can do things that pro cameras never will, like editing, posting to Instagram, and automatically recognizing your friends and family.

A photo taken with an iPhone 12 mini camera showing a fence from a bottom-looking-up view.

Charlie Sorrel / Lifewire

Around the time I got the iPhone 12, I also got back into using regular cameras. What follows, then, is a look at how the iPhone has impressed me after almost half a year, and how it compares to a dedicated camera.

Easy-ish

A camera phone is always in your pocket, and when you point it at your subject, you see the exact photo you’re about to snap, before you even take it. DSLR and film users can only dream of such ease.

It’s almost impossible to take a bad photo with the iPhone 12, no matter what kind of light you’re using. The only way to ruin a photo is with bad composition.

A photo taken with an iPhone 12 mini showing a view looking up a building with read and blue plastic on the windows.

Charlie Sorrel / Lifewire

That’s not to say the iPhone is perfect. I came to the 12 mini from an iPhone XS, and the built-in camera app got a lot more confusing in the interim. That’s partly because Apple added extra features (like Night Mode) and partly because Apple loves to fake UI simplicity by hiding essential controls.

There are alternative camera apps available, like the excellent Halide. But they don’t integrate into iOS as well as the stock app, and you cannot access them from the lock screen.

Flash for Effect

Night Mode is impressive, but I’ve been even more surprised by the flash. I use a manual flash on my Fujifilm X-Pro3 and fire it straight at my subjects for a deliberately harsh result. I tried the same with the iPhone 12, and it does a pretty great job. Highlights rarely get burned out, and the pre-flash is fast enough that it doesn't slow down shooting.

An artistic direct flash image from an iPhone 12 mini showing a bottle near a post with graffiti in the background.

Charlie Sorrel / Lifewire

Warning: using an on-camera flash can result in some terrible images, the kind we used to have to endure before our phone cameras worked so well in low light. But used with intention, the images can be startling.

B&W

Another often-overlooked feature of the iPhone is that you can switch on filters before you take the photo. I like to keep it set on the Noir black and white filter, which offers a contrasty monochrome image with inky blacks.

An image for the iPhone 12 mini camera showing a person walking on a snowy night with cars parked in the street.

Charlie Sorrel / Lifewire

Combined with the flash or with night mode, you can get some interesting images. Above, you can see a photo I took during a walk on a snowy night last winter. I just held it by my side and shot without looking. Try that with a regular camera and see what you get.

Why Bother With A Real Camera?

If the iPhone is so good, why even bother with that X-Pro3? Or with film? Good as it is, the iPhone has several shortcomings. Images look great on the iPhone’s screen, but if you blow them up and print them, you’ll see the difference.

Also, I can shoot photos at ISO 20,000 with my X-Pro3, using the B&W Acros simulation, and the results are just beautiful. Try that with any phone.

A photo taken with an iPhone 12 mini showing two spot lights lighting a building at night.

Charlie Sorrel / Lifewire

The other reason to use a camera is control. On the X-Pro3, every important function has a button or a dial. You also can swap lenses and use external flashes.

The iPhone 12 has an incredible camera, but it’s still a phone camera with a small sensor, using a computer to fake a lot of big-camera tricks. But if you don’t care about printing or carrying around an expensive box just to take photos, then the 12 is all the camera you need. It’s just fantastic.

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