The iPhone 11 series review: Made for effortless photography

Camera-wise, the iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max are the stars of the show. — Pictures by Erna Mahyuni
Camera-wise, the iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max are the stars of the show. — Pictures by Erna Mahyuni

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 4 — After years after of writing about Apple I think that the “i” in “iPhone” should really stand for “idiot-proof.”

It might sound funny to you but to me it especially applies to the Pro line of the newly-launched iPhone 11 series.

Let me explain.

A reviewer friend of mine complained about the new Night mode on the phones. Night mode here meaning a special mode that brightens up photos taken in poor lighting.

He said that on certain Android phones you could manually activate said mode.

Apple instead only activates Night mode in lowlight though you can turn it off when it does pop up.

I think maybe my friend misses the point. While iPhones have been used to take pretty good pictures for a while now, I think the new phones have finally reached that stage where you can say (and mean it) “Damn, a phone took that?”

A story about the Pro

My epiphany happened on the weekend. I'd stopped at a popular Nyonya restaurant for lunch and just before leaving, I took a couple of quick shots.

They were throwaway shots; the kind you take just to remember a place, not caring as much about light or composition.

Something to look back on fondly, when scrolling through your phone and ignoring your dinner companion.

Just before bed, I looked through the day's pictures to see if there was anything worth putting up on Instagram.

Even indoors, the iPhone 11 standard wide camera manages to capture rich colour even with limited light.
Even indoors, the iPhone 11 standard wide camera manages to capture rich colour even with limited light.

I was taken aback and maybe almost angry — the photos I'd taken, which I'd spent mere seconds on, expending zero effort, were beautiful.

Typically indoor shots with the iPhone (and most mobile phones) will depend on the light. You would usually need to tweak the exposure a little or manually lock the auto-focus.

Let's be honest — that's too much work for some people.

Even with the limited light, the amount of shadows and the less-than-ideal time (harsh afternoon sun isn't the best for picture-taking), the contrast, richness of colour and amount of detail were good enough I could pass them off as a non-phone picture.

The tech behind the 'magic'

So, what changed since the last phone? Apple added another camera so the new iPhone 11 has two cameras while the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max have three each.

The iPhone 11 has one wide-angle lens as well as an ultra-wide cam, both with 12 megapixels while the two pro models come with an extra telephoto lens.

All the phones also have an improved front camera that has been bumped up to 12MP (from 7MP previously) that also supports 4K video recording as well as slow-motion video.

The ultra-wide camera now lets you take more of a scene ― making it great for landscape photography as well as narrow interiors such as inside a car, for instance. It basically offers a 120-degree field of view.

Apple's also tweaked its selfie game — the new portrait mode now works for pets as well but also allows you to tap on any part of your screen to choose a subject to focus on.

While it's not perfect, the background blurring on the Portrait mode is a lot more accurate and still the best in its class.

The various portrait modes are also more polished and new high-key light mono mode converts your portraits into black & white photos with white backgrounds.

What about that night mode? Well.

It's like I'd said: idiot-proof. It turns on as soon as the iPhone's sensors detect a certain threshold and will pop up with a little icon that shows how many seconds you need to hold your phone still.

Photos are brighter and you'll be surprised that even in situations where your eyes perceive dim lighting, you end up with photos that look lit up.

Details however can be a bit soft and night mode doesn't work on the ultra-wide camera mode.

But having nice photos in a dim restaurant is a nice change to the usual blurry ones or slightly manic expressions when you turn on the flash.

The True Tone flash is also slightly improved to look more natural, with less of a harsh cast though previous iPhone's True Tone flashes have all seen incremental upgrades over the years.

Still the best video

While the best phone camera is up for debate, the iPhone has been the best phone for video for quite a while now.

There's a very good reason filmmakers such as Steven Soderbergh chose iPhones and not competing mobile phones to shoot film.

The new iPhones can now support 4K video at up to 60 fps, which is pretty impressive as well as cinematic video stabilisation at 4K, 1080p and 720p.

Subject tracking also means you can keep your focus on whatever you're shooting without worrying too much.

The new Quick Take feature lets you shoot video by merely pressing and holding on the camera button when you're in Photos mode. It's a real timesaver when you're on holiday and realise video of a precious moment would be better than a still.

Is it a good phone, though?

Portrait mode is enhanced for better blurring of the background and now has a new high-key light mono mode.
Portrait mode is enhanced for better blurring of the background and now has a new high-key light mono mode.

Now let's clarify a few things. The iPhone 11 is basically a step-up from last year's iPhone XR and is the most affordable model in the lineup.

Why? It has a less expensive screen though it certainly is still a nice one with a 6.1-inch LCD display with what Apple calls Liquid Retina HD.

Translation: it's very bright and pretty sharp (1,792x828 pixel resolution) and an impressive 1,400:1 contrast ratio.

It also has one less camera and to be truthful — the telephoto is in “nice-to-have” and not “must-have” territory.

Other than that, it's still a pretty powerful phone as it shares the same processor as the other two while still managing 1 hour more battery than the iPhone XR.

That's pretty impressive considering the XR had the longest-lasting battery of last year's iPhones.

If you're a fan of bright colours then the iPhone 11 also offers the most colours though they come in a glossy finish compared to the Pro models' matte backs.

If you do have the spare cash then what do you get for choosing an iPhone 11 Pro?

You get a souped-up OLED display, with a 5.8-inch one on the regular model and 6.5-inch on the larger Max version.

We're talking 2436x1125-pixels and a 2,000,000:1 contrast ratio here which is ideal for watching high-res HDR movies and if you just like nice screens in general.

The iPhone 11 Pro Max is probably the one you should get if you don't mind paying the maximum ringgit for the phone with the biggest screen and longest battery life.

Before I forget: the speakers on all the iPhone 11 can only really be described in one word ― wicked. They're crazy loud with a lot more depth and punch.

Apple says it's “spatial audio” that supports 5.1 and 7.1 surround, and is able to play Dolby formats.

A high-end wireless speaker from Sonos and the like will still sound better but it's a great upgrade if you're watching YouTube or Netflix in bed.

What's good (and bad)?

Apple has been heavily touting the iPhone 11 range's photography capabilities and I can attest to the improvement.

Everything else, though? While I can say that sample pics I've shown people have motivated them to upgrade from their older phone models it's still a tough sell for people in the Android camp.

What I'd like to see in the next iPhone is more options for power users, namely those who expect their mobile phones to be miniature productivity machines.

The new Haptic Touch takes a bit of getting used to and it's a shame that Apple is pushing multitasking more on the iPad than on iOS.

As sweet as the new cameras are, it's not that much of a loss for iPhone X, XS or XR users not to upgrade. Still, it's tempting to plump for a camera that produces photos that require much less editing to be Instagram-worthy.

For now the iPhone 11 series are in the top 3 for best phones of the year; they had better be for their price point.

The latest iPhones are already on sale now in Malaysia so you can have some hands-on time of your own at the nearest official retailer.

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