Conclusion

Pros Cons
  • Good color and overall image quality
  • Dual cameras each offer stabilization
  • Portrait mode usually produces pleasing results
  • Innovative 'lighting' modes
  • Display has class-leading accuracy, contrast, color gamut
  • Front camera offers portrait mode
  • Very responsive
  • Intuitive default camera app
  • DNG capture with wide range of third party apps
  • 4K/60p video is of high quality
  • Industry-leading compression methods
  • Default camera app offers limited control options
  • JPEG detail and sharpening lacking
  • AF can often hunt
  • Autofocus plummets in low light, leading to shutter lag that misses shots
  • Lightroom app and Raw capture disable Image Stabilization
  • Efficient new compressed file formats can be difficult to deal with on desktop
  • Portrait mode unusable in low light
  • Very slow shutter speeds in low light can result in blurry images
  • Portrait mode tends to blow highlights
  • Very slippery finish
  • Panorama mode can struggle in scenes with wide dynamic range
  • Expensive compared to its competition

Overall conclusion

The iPhone X is Apple's most capable - and most expensive - iPhone yet. Good thing, then, that it's absolutely packed with the latest in smartphone imaging technology, and is capable of extremely impressive results.

The dual rear cameras offer the user a choice of a wide-angle or telephoto option, are each optically stabilized, and the phone is able to use them in tandem for its background-blurring Portrait mode. Video specifications are equally impressive, offering up to 4K/60p with image stabilization. Apple is also offering new, more efficient compression for both higher quality stills and video, and to keep you from filling up your phone's storage too quickly.

We would be remiss not to call out the iPhone X's screen as a fantastic window into the memories you've captured with the device; but like the rest of the phone, it has some shortcomings. Let's dig in and see how the iPhone X stacks up overall.

Features and operation

The iPhone's IP67 dust-and-moisture resistance rating should inspire some confidence for using the device in inclement weather. Apple has claimed removal of the headphone jack has made this easier, but Samsung's Galaxy S8 retains the headphone jack, and carries a higher rating against water ingress.

The iPhone X has been built with an IP67 water-and-dust resistance rating, which basically means dust should never get in the phone, and it'll hold out water for 30 minutes when fully submerged up to 1m/~3.3 feet (Apple would obviously prefers that you don't test this out, though). The front and back of the phone are made of high-strength glass, and this permits wireless charging at the cost of a very slippery exterior that won't play nicely with concrete, should the two encounter each other at high speed.

The 5.85" OLED display Apple's included on the iPhone X is generally fantastic. While viewing angles aren't super impressive, just about everything else is; color, resolution, and contrast. This display is also capable of true HDR display, and is capable of impressive brightness; basically, your images and videos will show brighter whites and deeper blacks (without clipping them) and midtones will remain detailed and contrasty.

The iPhone X's camera operation is fairly straightforward. The default app is somewhat basic, but offers good image quality in most situations. Portrait mode is one of the headline features; though it certainly can work very well, it tends to trim people's hair at best, and allows background blur to 'spill' onto subjects at worst. The selfie Portrait mode is also limited in application, due to struggles with high contrast scenes including backlit subjects, as well as just how far away from your subject's face you need to hold the phone.

Standard portrait mode Portrait mode with contour lighting

The iPhone X also comes with panorama capability, though we've been more impressed by competitors' implementations in terms of exposure and handling of scenes with a wide dynamic range (Google Pixel 2's HDR panoramas are impressive). Lastly, the 'Portrait lighting' modes intelligently simulate lighting on portrait subjects, and allow you to experiment with different ones after a photo has been taken. We're fans of 'studio' and 'contour' lighting, but the stark cut-out look of the 'stage lighting' modes seem a little on the gimmicky side to us.

Image Quality

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

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

The image quality you'll get out of the iPhone largely depends on what type of user you are. Casual users will be well-served by the JPEGs produced by the default camera app; they're usually well-exposed, though can be overexposed with blown highlights and what looks like cloned-in skintones over hot-spots when it comes to people photos (in comparison, a Pixel 2 tends to religiously preserve highlights). Colors though are generally pleasing and images offer the perception of good detail at normal viewing sizes. If you zoom in to check out different parts of the scene, though, you'll notice that fine details really suffer. White balance strays to the warm side, which we generally prefer for photos of people.

But if you want the absolute best image quality the iPhone has to offer, it's best to shoot DNG Raw files using a third party app, such as Lightroom CC, VSCO or Camera+. All have their ups and downs, but all present possible advantages to shooting in DNG; namely better fine detail, and better control over highlight retention and rolloff (the point at which bright parts of the scene clip all the way to solid white). Processing Raws is obviously more work, but we think it's well worth it for anyone wanting to view iPhone images on large displays or make prints larger than 4x6 inches.

This is all very counterintuitive to current smartphone photography, though. Raw image capture doesn't take advantage of computational approaches that, for example, enable the multi-image capture approach a Google Pixel 2 uses to simulate a sensor 9x its size. Furthermore, Raw capture apps cannot activate image stabilization. That means that Apple has work to do in the computational photography department.

The iPhone X also comes with the option to capture still images in HEIF, which stands for "high efficiency image file" format. It's a standardized compression method, and not necessarily just an Apple-specific option. Optimally, it should cut down on JPEG file sizes by half, while not impacting image quality. More importantly, it allows for 10-bit image capture in the P3 color space with HDR gamma curves - which allows for colors, contrast and tonality (particularly in smooth skies and gradations) far beyond the sRGB space we're accustomed to. That's a big stepping stone to the future, leaving the decades-old JPEG in the dust (thankfully) and opening the door to HDR display of HDR photos. While it's hard to elaborate upon what that means, generally speaking it ensures that HDR photos don't have that 'flat' HDR look and, instead, look more like the real-world on HDR displays.

Some devices may have issues reading these files, but JPEG conversions are fairly painless, though you may need some conversion software if you're a Windows user.

The iPhone X's telephoto lens allows you a different framing relative to the standard lens without the image quality penalty of a digital zoom.
Cropped slightly to straighten horizon | ISO 16 | 1/800 sec | F2.4
Photo by Carey Rose

The built-in HDR implementation does a good job of retaining highlights in high-contrast scenes and we leave it enabled most of the time; still, it's not quite up to the quality of a processed Raw file. If you're shooting JPEG, we'd actually recommend you leave HDR 'on' all the time, since it ensures multi-shot capture which helps image quality.

Low light shooting exhibits some interesting problems. Autofocus performance, which is impressive during the day, can miss with disappointing regularity as light levels drop. Also, the shutter speed will too readily drag all the way down to 1/4 sec, and though the iPhone is supposed to detect movement and boost the ISO and shutter speed to avoid handshake or subject blur, this doesn't happen reliably.

Video

The iPhone X is capable of capturing really impressive 4K/60p video. Detail levels are phenomenal and compression artifacts, such as banding or blocking in blue skies, are nigh invisible. Image stabilization tends to become less effective as you move up the quality ladder from 1080/30p to 4K/60p, but it's better than no stabilization at all.

We heartily recommend sticking to 60p when shooting video on the iPhone X, particularly for daytime shooting; the 24p and 30p modes can result in unpleasant 'juddering,' indicative of the phone using a very high shutter speed relative to those slower frame rates, no doubt due to the wide apertures of its lenses and the lack of any built-in ND filter. Also, to appreciate higher resolutions like 4K, you tend to need higher frame rates to capture that higher resolution, unless your footage is static for very smooth and slow.

Similar to how the iPhone X can use the HEIF format for stills, it can use the HEVC (high efficiency video coding) for video clips. It's required to record 4K/60p video clips, since they're so storage-intensive. Again, as with the HEIF format for stills, you may need re-encode your clips manually to view on another device, but programs like Apple's Image Capture automatically convert them upon import to a Mac OS device.

Unfortunately, in low light be prepared for lots of focus hunting. Given the depth of field from its sensors is so deep, it'd be nice if the iPhone would just stick to a hyperfocal distance instead of repeatedly, and distractingly, racking through the focus range.

The final word

The iPhone X is easily one of the most advanced phones on the market, and one of the most capable photographically. Its combination of really impressive specification with simplicity of operation is an Apple hallmark. This is great for casual users, but more advanced customers may find that they'll need to turn to some third party software to get the results they want. But there are, of course, plenty of options out there on the App Store.

For users who are simply interested in the iPhone X as a photographic tool, the elephant in the room is Apple's own iPhone 8 Plus. It's a good bit cheaper, and capable of nearly identical image quality - the only real differences between the two photographically is that the iPhone 8 Plus' telephoto lens lacks stabilization, and you can't 'portraitize' yourself with the front-facing camera on that model either.

But the iPhone X's fresh, premium design and high-tech screen might add enough value to the overall package to make it more than worthwhile for the right user, particularly if that user already has a preference to remain in the Apple ecosystem. In the end, there's really no doubt that the iPhone X is among the very best smartphone cameras on the market, worthy of consideration despite the high price of entry.

Apple iPhone X
Category: Mobile Phone
Camera and Photo Features
Screen Quality
Ergonomics and Handling
Video Quality
Still Image Quality
Speed and Responsiveness
PoorExcellent
Conclusion
The iPhone X offers users a versatile, simple and powerful smartphone photography experience. Dual lenses give users zoom flexibility, the lighting effects present in Portrait mode are impressive, detail in video capture is excellent, and the beautiful display really makes photos and videos come to life on the device. Low light performance can be disappointing, though, and the new file formats aren't the friendliest for Windows users. Overall, the iPhone X is one of the most capable smartphone cameras on the market today.
Good for
General shooting in good light, photos of people, those looking for excellent video quality.
Not so good for
Those who often take photos in very low light, power users who may want more flexibility than Apple's ecosystem and default apps allow.
89%
Overall score

Sample Gallery

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