Image quality

As we stated in the introduction, the iPhone X's photographic quality is dependent upon both its hardware and software. And unfortunately, our studio scene just isn't equipped to replicate the sorts of behaviors that dictate how the iPhone will photograph a scene; in particular, subject movement and camera shake really impact how your image will turn out, and neither of those is at play in our standard studio scene treatment.

So we'll present some images of our full studio scene to you that we believe are relevant, and look at plenty of samples from the real world that we can use to tease out aspects of the iPhone X's performance that we'd normally look to the studio scene for insight on.

But before we move on to JPEG image quality, we wanted to note that the iPhone X supports new HEIF (high efficiency image file format) compression for still images. This new format allows for images to be stored at half the size of a traditional JPEG with no loss in quality. Not every other device can read them at this time, so you may encounter some issues there - but conversion is easy, and in some cases, automatic upon import (Apple's Image Capture does this, but Windows Photos doesn't currently support the new format or its conversion to JPEG).

JPEG image quality - studio scene

Let's dive in to the iPhone X's image quality in JPEG mode, which is how the vast majority of users will be expected to use it. We've framed up our scene using the iPhone's wider lens, and took these images with the default app, which controls all exposure settings. It's true that we could have used, for example, Lightroom CC to capture a JPEG and have control over our settings, but it uses different processing, and we opted to use Apple's default camera software.

Daylight
ISO 32 | 1/120 sec | F1.8

Low light
ISO 125 | 1/4 sec | F1.8

We should note that there is a slight difference in framing between the two shots. We believe that this may be partially due to the inability to disable optical image stabilization for tripod work, as even consecutive images taken moments apart may differ slightly; but there may be something else at work here (focus, e.g., was not always consistent shot-to-shot, especially in low light).

In any case, we can see that colors are nicely punchy and saturated in the daylight scene. The image also looks nice and sharp at a smaller size, but zoom into 100% and you'll (predictably) be a little underwhelmed. Text above the center is aliasing, but look at the sample of hair and you'll see detail being obliterated.

For low light, we again see that the scene looks fairly sharp at a smaller viewing size. However, for this exposure the iPhone X boosted the ISO value to 125 and dropped the shutter speed down to 1/4s. At 100% you can easily see some noise entering the scene. Details are all-around muddied, with darker areas of the scene in particular taking on a painterly look. Worse, 1/4s really limits the range of subjects you can shoot at these light levels.

In the real world, things tend to move, and we were able to simulate this with our studio scene by having a moving element enter and exit the scene, shooting immediately thereafter. This sometimes forced a shutter speed of 1/30s without the use of HDR, which yields a spectacularly poor shot of our studio scene. This, unfortunately, is more representative of low light image quality when shooting people in low light: misfocus, motion blur, and watercolor-like texture.

Here's a base ISO DNG file for reference. Click through to see a daylight, base ISO shot that's been run through our standard studio scene process.

Daylight image quality

ISO 20 | 1/1499 sec | F1.8
Photo by Carey Rose

Consistent with what we've seen in our studio scene, the iPhone X can ably churn out punchy-but-pleasing JPEG images of static scenes. It looks great on a smaller device, but viewing at 100% - particularly the roadway, or the grass at the left - and you'll see some really large-radius sharpening that looks exceedingly artificial. But in the deep blues of the sky and the deep reds of the Datsun, noise looks to be reasonably well controlled. Exposure and white balance both look to be excellent.

ISO 20 | 1/685 sec | F1.8
Photo by Allison Johnson

Here's another scene where the iPhone produced an image with remarkably well-judged exposure and white balance, even without HDR mode enabled. Sharpening continues to be crude at higher magnifications, but overall, this is a very pleasing result.

HDR

HDR Off
ISO 20 | 1/2000 sec | F1.8

HDR On
ISO 20 | 1/2088 sec | F1.8

The iPhone X comes with HDR in 'automatic' mode as standard. For most users, this will be perfectly fine, as it does a good job of salvaging highlights without looking unnatural.

In this example, you can see how that the iPhone retained a good amount of highlights in the left portion of the scene, though there's a fairly abrupt clipping point where it all blows out to white anyway. There doesn't seem to be much of anything in the way of shadow lifting.

Portrait mode

'Portrait mode' isn't just for individuals - here it helped to blur the background just enough to allow for some separation behind the family.
ISO 32 | 1/120 sec | F2.4
Photo by Rishi Sanyal

As stated in the 'Features' section, the iPhone X's Portrait mode uses parallax information from both rear cameras to glean depth information from the scene, and selectively blur the background behind your chosen subject.

Most of the time, we've found this to work well with individuals, small groups, and even objects at moderate distances. That said, it will often noticeably trim people's hair, or have some blur 'spill over' onto your subject. Overall, though, it's going to be great for the casual user.

Note the blur spilling over onto the post just under the sign.
ISO 100 | 1/60 sec | F2.4
Photo by Carey Rose

If you do find yourself using portrait mode often, though, you may benefit from manually enabling HDR mode yourself. For whatever reason, the iPhone X is quite reticent to enable HDR while in Portrait mode, which can result in some unpleasant highlight clipping.

For this portrait mode shot, the iPhone X chose not to use its HDR capability, leading to clipped highlights on the subject's face.
ISO 64 | 1/120 sec | F2.4
Photo by Rishi Sanyal

Selfies

The big story surrounding the front-facing camera on the iPhone X is that Apple's TrueDepth technology, which allows you to unlock your phone with your face, also allows for portrait mode in selfies.

Be aware, though, that high-contrast scenes and backlit subjects will see the phone throwing up its arms, and proclaiming that the subject is too bright for it to blur the background behind you.

No blurry background for this grumpy selfie taker.

After that screenshot, I lowered the phone and attempted to change settings, but accidentally took another selfie instead - this time with Portrait mode enabled, which did an admirable job separating my face from the background.

No, this is never anyone's 'best angle,' and no, I am just not that much of a selfie guy.
ISO20 | 1/120 sec | F2.2

Low light

This continues to be an area of struggle for smartphones, but it isn't terribly surprising given just how small their sensors are. But under the right circumstances, you can certainly get usable photos with the iPhone X.

The iPhone X will often resort to very slow shutter speeds in an effort to keep the ISO value down, which works fine for subjects with limited movement.
ISO 800 | 1/4 sec | F1.8
Photo by Rishi Sanyal

The iPhone X tends to lengthen its shutter speed all the way to 1/4 second in an effort to keep the ISO value down, and aided by optical image stabilization, you can get away with reasonably sharp handheld shots with those settings. Of course, this only holds true so long as there's nothing in your frame that's moving - otherwise, the phone may detect that and raise the shutter speed, and therefore the ISO value.

Portrait mode, which uses the longer (but slower) lens on the rear of the phone, works reasonably well for moderately low light situations, thankfully keeping the shutter speed a little higher than with the wide-angle lens.

In this shot, taken as the light was fading, the iPhone picked a very sensible exposure - and though you can see the effects of noise reduction, the result is pretty darn good.
ISO 500 | 1/30 sec | F2.4
Photo by Rishi Sanyal

It's also worth mentioning that the autofocus of the iPhone X, which is usually very good in bright and moderate light, can perform really poorly and result in mis-focused shots when light levels get dim, even if you're using the flash as a focus and exposure aid.

Raw capture

With any number of third party apps, you can capture Raw files as DNG on the iPhone X. And yet, will you see an advantage from processing your own files, and removing all of Apple's clever algorithms from the mix?

To our eyes, it looks like a resounding 'yes.'

Processed from DNG capture
ISO 25 | 1/10 sec | F1.8

Out-of-camera JPEG
ISO 50 | 1/15 sec | F1.8

The DNG capture was taken in the Lightroom CC mobile app and edited in Adobe Camera Raw, while the out-of-camera JPEG was taken using Apple's default camera app. Exposure on the out-of-camera file was set by tapping the top part of the waterfall, which you can see still blew out to white. The DNG was exposed by keeping the camera to its base ISO, and setting the shutter speed as low as possible without overly clipping the highlights.

In DNG mode, you can also more finely tune your noise reduction and sharpening settings, and while these may not make a huge difference for viewing on other smartphones, they'll make an enormous difference if you plan to view your images on a larger monitor, or even make modestly sized prints.

Let's look at one more Raw example, this time compared to an HDR image we looked at earlier.

Processed from DNG capture
ISO 20 | 1/1800 sec | F1.8

Out-of-camera JPEG
ISO 20 | 1/2088 sec | F1.8

For this, the Raw image was also captured in Lightroom CC mobile, but this time with settings at 'auto.' You can see some clear differences right away; namely, that shooting in Raw allows you much more control over highlight rolloff than you'd otherwise have, and looks more natural to our eyes than the HDR JPEG. The color in the sky is more neutral in the Raw image, and though the image is overall noisier, we prefer the extra detail captured, particularly in the water.