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Test driving (and documenting) the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

Written by Journalism Senior Teaching Fellow Rob Layton.

Australian iPhone fans who set their alarms for the wee hours of October 13 were no doubt excited and disappointed as they watched CEO Tim Cook and his executives talk and walk an empty Apple Park in a slick pre-recorded product launch video.

Excited for all the annual event showcased (normally it’s held in September so we assumed it was postponed due to Covid, although Apple never actually disclosed why) and disappointed to find the iPhone 12 range would be in staggered release. In fact, the flagship 12 Pro Max would not be available until a month later.

Whatever the reasons, I was fortunate to be granted exclusive pre-release access to the Pro Max, and it’s a privilege that was not lost on me.

As soon as the flagship hit my desk I set about organising a series of photo shoots that would be used to illustrate a review of the phone, published in The Australian newspaper’s web and digital editions.

I have been using smartphones professionally since iPhone 6 for photography and video storytelling. For the past five years, I have been practising and teaching mobile journalism here at Bond, the first university in Australia to incorporate mojo (as it is known) formally into curriculum via a dedicated subject.

This work has connected me to individuals and organisations who are global leaders, including the BBC and Al Jazeera, and put me on the conference circuit as I train journalists and communications specialists around the world in how to use their phones for professional content creation.

Most of my smartphone photography is in or around the ocean at Burleigh Heads, and usually at dawn.

Using an iPhone in low light is challenging, because the small sensor struggles to capture the light, but I have learned to go with the flow and embrace those limitations. This is why much of my low-light work I let the shadows fall to black.

All smartphones these days use software to some degree to overcome those hardware limitations, but, as Scotty on Star Trek always said, “you cannot change the laws of physics”.

So a 47% larger sensor, deeper photosites (the pixels within the sensor. Think of them as buckets in the rain. The wider and deeper the bucket, the more rain it collects) and wider aperture (how much rain is let in) all promise low-light magic.

And I wasn’t disappointed. This picture of a surfer on the beach is one that I've been wanting to do for some time. I shot this just after 4am, Nautical Twilight, which is about an hour before sunrise. So it was very, very dark.

My previous experiences of using phones for portraiture at this time hasn’t been great, because the phone has always struggled in such low light conditions and my subject’s face has always had what’s known as artefacts. These are splotchy areas of colour that, when zoomed in, look like paint brush strokes. This is due to the computational nature of Apple’s Portrait Mode, in which a series of images are shot (four short, four longer and one extra long) and the final picture generated from the more than 24 million pixels of those nine frames.

This one-second Night Mode shot shows incredible fidelity in light, colour and texture. I had to adjust the exposure in the native camera to stop it from looking too bright.

I had another shoot that evening in a bar that generously let me use their venue before opening, and one of my Foundations of Content Creation students helped as my assistant. This was to test Portrait Mode in low light, with another shoot with another model the following evening at another location.

I packaged all my shots for The Australian, and worked on the review with technology writer Chris Griffith. That was published on official launch day, a week before public availability.

I was pleased the Oz displayed my pictures so well.

Since then I have been using the 12Pm daily, and pushing it to the limits to see what it can do. I’ve become more familiar with Apple’s new camera pipeline, shooting in and out of the water (more of this on my Instagram account) and am getting ready for the release of ProRAW, Apple’s new proprietary image format that promises to take photography to the next level. If the advances in the 12 PM are any indication, I believe that claim.

For some time I have been convinced that computational photography and videography is the way of the future, and my experiences with the iPhone 12 Pro Max cements that position. Happy shooting.

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