Why iPhone 12 mini Takes Amazing Photos

And you thought the XS camera was good

Key Takeaways

  • The iPhone 12 camera has an ultra-wide lens, the XS has a 2x telephoto. Both have a standard wide lens.
  • The iPhone 12 camera’s night mode is plain incredible, and the XS can’t come close.
  • Portrait mode is better on the iPhone 12, despite only using one lens.
The iPhone 12 mini dual cameras.
 Apple

The iPhone 12 mini has the same camera as the regular iPhone 12, and it’s just amazing. It still doesn’t beat a regular camera, but it could easily be your only camera.

Comparing the iPhone 12 camera against the iPhone XS camera is more useful, generally, than a year-by-year comparison, because most people don’t buy a new pocket computer every year. The 12 thrashes the XS in low light, makes a good case for not needing an extra telephoto lens, and the video is in a different league. But the XS still has a great camera, capable of some awesome shots.

Night Mode

This is the big change, and one where the XS fails hopelessly. Night mode arrived in the iPhone 11. It takes seconds-long exposures, and uses the iPhone’s motion sensors to nullify the camera shake that would normally ruin a shot.

It then uses the computer to process this image into an incredibly detailed night shot. Unlike the night mode on Google’s Pixel phones, the iPhone’s still looks like it was taken at night.

Comparison of the iPhone 12 (left) and the iPhone XS (right) night modes.
Comparison of the iPhone 12 (left) and the iPhone XS (right) night modes.  Lifewire / Charlie Sorrel

The iPhone 12 adds night mode to the ultra-wide camera, not just the wide lens. The results of the regular wide camera are better, thanks to the wider aperture being able to gather more light.

One tip—if you put the iPhone on a tripod, the camera app will extend exposures up to five seconds—much longer than the handheld maximum, which appears to be three seconds. 

Another tip: Use the self-timer, or your Apple Watch’s Camera Remote app, to trigger the camera when on a tripod, so you don’t make it wobble when you tap the shutter button.

Telephoto vs 2x Digital Zoom

The iPhone XS has a 2x telephoto lens. The iPhone 12 has a 0.5x ultra-wide lens instead. This means that, in order to zoom in, you have to use the 2x digital zoom, aka a crop. This uses the center of the image, and discards the rest. This results in an image with fewer pixels, and lower quality.

However, even the XS (and also the iPhones 12 Pro) will sometimes switch to the regular wide camera and use the cropping method. Why? In low light, the telephoto’s smaller maximum aperture means that the photos just aren’t as good. So, I figured I’d pit the iPhone XS’ 2x telephoto against the iPhone 12’s crop, to see if there’s much difference.

In these shots, I’ve further cropped the images so that you can see the difference close-up.

A telephoto comparison of the iPhone 12 and the iPhone XS camera.
Telephoto views from the iPhone 12 camera (left) and iPhone XS camera (right).  Lifewire / Charlie Sorrel

The iPhone 12’s image isn’t too bad, but it suffers from a crispy, over-sharp look. The results are similar if you crop the photo after taking it. The XS images, zoomed by a lens, and using the full sensor, are much better.

Sweater Mode

"Sweater mode" is the nickname given to Deep Fusion, which improves pictures in middling light by taking several exposures, and combining them into one picture. The process is seamless. You should just get better pictures in tricky lighting conditions. 

A comparison of an image taken with Sweater Mode (left) and without (right).
A comparison of an image taken with Sweater Mode (left) and without (right). Lifewire / Charlie Sorrel 

Ultra Wideness

While the iPhone 12 can fake a telephoto lens by cropping, there’s no way for the XS to fake the incredible Ultra-Wide lens, which has a 13mm equivalent focal length.

This lens gives spectacular images, with crazy perspectives, and even crazier distortions. Try putting your subject’s face at the edge of the frame if you want them to hate you. The ultra-wide is a lot of fun, and the XS has no way to play along. The only downside is that you will often catch your own feet in the picture. 

Portraits

Like the iPhone’s 12 Pro, the XS uses two lenses to capture a background-blurring Portrait-Mode photo. The telephoto lens takes the picture, and the wide lens provides depth information to help separate foreground and background.

The iPhones 11 and 12 lack this telephoto, so they fake portrait mode using machine learning to guess what parts are subject, and what parts are background. The results are amazing.

In the iPhone 12, Portrait Mode is much faster at locking on to a subject, and can apparently lock on to anything. I managed to take a portrait shot of a light switch on a white wall. The XS is so picky about the distance to the subject that I gave up using it, preferring to post-process my pictures in the Focos app instead. 

With people, the 12’s portrait mode also seems to give better results, with more natural separation around tricky parts like hair. But, as you can see in the photos, the XS has the edge. Because it is using two cameras to calculate the actual depth of the scene, it can make more accurate separations.

A portrait of a rose take with the iPhone 12 (left), the iPhone XS (middle), and processed with the Focos app (right).
A portrait of a rose take with the iPhone 12 (left), the iPhone XS (middle), and processed with the Focos app (right). Lifewire / Charlie Sorrel 

Above, the pink rose portrait taken with the 12 is pretty cool, but not exactly realistic. The XS gives better portrait results overall, but has more trouble capturing them.

And finally, the 12 uses the 1x wide camera for portraits, whereas the XS uses the 2x telephoto. 

Overall

The cameras in the iPhone 12, combined with the much-faster Neural Engine on its A14 chip, make for a way better shooting experience, and better results—in general. And the 12’s night mode is just incredible. But the XS has better portrait results, and still has a great camera. Also, the XS’s telephoto lens is clearly better than a 2x digital zoom.

That’s partly to do with the XS being—technically—a pro-level iPhone, and partly to do with physics; lenses are still better than computers at some things. But if you’re currently happy with your iPhone XS, you might want to think twice about replacing it.