Imaging showdown: Apple iPhone 14 Pro Max vs Sony Xperia 1 iv

These are perhaps my two top picks for imaging in the smartphone world at the end of 2022. Yes, there are some wacky Chinese imaging flagships, and yes, there's Samsung, but I still disagree with so much that Samsung does in terms of colour science and image processing.

It's true that, by default, Apple also does a load of edge enhancement to iPhone 14 photos, but the Pro models (14 Pro Max here) let you toggle on ProRAW, a format that can be shared in the same way as regular cookie-cut JPGs but which forgoes all the populist sharpening and enhancement, so you get the best of all worlds. You get the Deep Fusion and multi-frame combinations, all the software magic that makes modern flagship cameras work, but you don't get the 'nasty' last bit, the enhancement to make photos 'pop' on phone screens - the images are left alone, purer and more useable after the fact. 

Sony provides, by default now, Photography Pro, and as the name suggests, it already spits out un-enhanced images (well done, Sony), and remarkably efficiently in terms of bits and bytes. So I'm comparing its photos directly with the iPhone's with complete confidence. 

As usual, I've avoided too many of what many other blogs major on - sunny day photos, since there's no point. When the sun's out almost any smartphone camera can pull off decent results. So I've concentrated either on zoom or on poorer, lower and artificial light conditions, enough to cause the phone cameras to pull out all the stops, as it were.

Notes:

  • In each case I'm going to be looking at 1:1 central crops, matched for easy comparison, so that you can see what's going on at the pixel level.
  • All 'scene' overviews were from the Sony (just for consistency).
  • See the link at the end of the article for all the original JPGs, should you wish to do your own analysis.

I also want to point out that, going into writing this article, I have no preconceptions of which phone camera will emerge on top, other to mentally note that from the raw batch of images captured so far, I've seen wins for each device. Perhaps as expected - the iPhone should win out for unzoomed photos in hard conditions, while the Sony will have a slight edge when zooming.

Test 1: Cloudy landscape

A nearby church under overcast skies - plenty of texture and detail. Here's the overall scene:

And here are 1:1 central crops from, in turn, the iPhone 14 Pro Max and then Sony Xperia 1 iv:



This one's all about detail and the iPhone wins out by a nose, with more precise detail, with every pixel counting (the Quad Bayer system works well to ensure that there's minimal digital noise or uncertainty), while the Sony's image feels like guesswork in some of the leaf clusters. Don't get me wrong, both phones did well here under gloomy conditions, but I'm picking the iPhone.

Score: iPhone 14 Pro Max: 10 pts; Sony Xperia 1 iv: 9 pts

Test 2: Sunny scene, 2x zoom

It's too easy to just shoot a sunny scene, so let's explore each phone's 'zoom gap', i.e. below the points where the telephotos cut in. Here's the overall scene:


Zooming in by 2x to get nicer boat framing, Apple claims intelligent smart cropping from its underlying 48MP sensor, while Sony's unit will have to use digital zoom on the 12MP main, etc. Here are 1:1 central crops from the 2x zoomed photos from, in turn, the iPhone 14 Pro Max and then Sony Xperia 1 iv:



There's a lot going on here in terms of light, with the reflection from the chrome rails, for example. The Xperia's 2x zoom looks typically digital and a little disappointing - it's almost worth Sony not letting the user digitally zoom at all and requiring them to go straight to the telephoto or not at all. The blotchiness, the noise, and so on. Just say no. Most phone cameras fail on this score, mind you, it's not just Sony here.

On the other hand, the 14 Pro Max launched with Apple making a big thing of having nailed 2x smart cropping into the sensor. Given that the sensor is Quad Bayer, you'd typically lose a lot of colour precision when cropping in, but Apple are past masters at taking a technology and making the most of it - their algorithms get a 2x smart crop to look almost as good as a dedicated 2x telephoto. There's still the glare to take care of from the rail, but the iPhone shot is streets ahead here.

Score: iPhone 14 Pro Max: 9 pts; Sony Xperia 1 iv: 7 pts

Test 3: 10x zoom

If you have zoom, then you might as well use it, especially when it's needed, for this distant office landmark gleaming in the sun - so ideal conditions. The iPhone is all digital zoom from 3x to 10x, the Sony is digital from 5.2x to 10x, let's see how their algorithms do. Here's the overall scene:

And here are 1:1 central crops from the zoomed photos from, in turn, the iPhone 14 Pro Max and then Sony Xperia 1 iv:




The detail (and remember this is a the pixel level, which no one will really see) in the Sony Xperia shot is impressive, considering that the optical zoom runs out at 5.2x. You can make out lifts and levels behind the glass front etc. The iPhone 14 Pro Max, even though its Camera UI goes 'up to 15x', is way out of its depth here and although the final shot on social media is fine, you can see above that there's no real detail at the pixel level - so you might as well shoot at 3x and just crop in, for greater precision.

Score: iPhone 14 Pro Max: 7 pts; Sony Xperia 1 iv: 9 pts

Test 4: 7x zoom

A London landmark, shot from ground level and zoomed here a little less than the example above, at about 7x, to frame detail near the top. Here's the overall (zoomed) scene:

And here are 1:1 central crops from, in turn, the iPhone 14 Pro Max and then Sony Xperia 1 iv:


An obvious and clear win here for the Sony Xperia 1 iv, with its 5.2x (max) telephoto option, meaning that it's only doing an extra 2x digital zoom on top - quite clear and detailed even at 1:1 here. I expected more from the iPhone 14 Pro Max, as its digital zoom is normally more effective, but the extra 4x needed over its 3x telephoto results in indistinctness at the pixel level, as here. From my own experiments, I'd say don't take the iPhone over 5x unless you just want something for sharing on lower resolution social networks. 

Score: iPhone 14 Pro Max: 7 pts; Sony Xperia 1 iv: 9 pts

Test 5: Indoor landscape

Yes, a landscape indoors, the huge foyer of a hospital. Here's the overall scene:

And here are 1:1 central crops from, in turn, the iPhone 14 Pro Max and then Sony Xperia 1 iv:


Both photos are excellent, of course, and even here at 1:1 crop you have to squint to see differences in detail. But the iPhone is clearer and more detailed... just. Plus its image is brighter and digitally 'cleaner', again thanks to the purity that comes from the Quad Bayer pixel-binned output and thanks to the new 'Photonic Engine', I suspect, so I'm giving it a win by a point here.

Score: iPhone 14 Pro Max: 10 pts; Sony Xperia 1 iv: 9 pts

Test 6: Indoor colour

Also in the hospital, here's a colourful plaque in evening indoor gloom (darker than the scene shot looks), but the camera phones did well. Here's the overall scene:

And here are 1:1 central crops from, in turn, the iPhone 14 Pro Max and then Sony Xperia 1 iv:



There's not much between the photos or crops here, note that the lines in the images are reflections of the walkway rails in the glazed covering. I do prefer the Sony's colour handling overall, though the margin is small. 

Score: iPhone 14 Pro Max: 9 pts; Sony Xperia 1 iv: 10 pts

Test 7: Dark plates

Talking of low light, let's cut to the chase. A colourful set of plates in almost complete darkness. My eyes couldn't make out what was on any of them. Here's the overall scene, with the Sony showing them far lighter than it was in the room!:

And here are 1:1 central crops from, in turn, the iPhone 14 Pro Max and then Sony Xperia 1 iv:



Frankly unbelievable results from the iPhone 14 Pro Max here, showing almost daytime colours and detail with next to nothing to go on, albeit from a three second handheld burst. Amazing how far phone imaging in low light has come. The Sony's shot is a good compromise between performing miracles and showing the scene as it was to the eye, so it's hard to criticise it too much. But the iPhone has to take this by at least a point. In fact, two.

Score: iPhone 14 Pro Max: 10 pts; Sony Xperia 1 iv: 8 pts

Test 8: Night time

A real world low light shot, the local golf club house, floodlit. Here's the overall scene:

And here are 1:1 central crops from, in turn, the iPhone 14 Pro Max and then Sony Xperia 1 iv:

Although the Sony's photo is pretty capable, given that you're seeing 1:1 detail here that you'd be unlikely to see in a shot shared to social networks or even printed, the clarity and sureness of the iPhone 14 Pro Max's photo is again astonishing. The combination of 'PureView-like', Quad Bayer pixel binning, and Apple's multi-frame combination algorithms produce almost perfect results with very little noise or artefacts.

Score: iPhone 14 Pro Max: 10 pts; Sony Xperia 1 iv: 9 pts

Test 9: Night time, minimally zoomed

The same golf club scene, but this time minimally zoomed to 3x (3.5x on the Sony Xperia 1 iv, since that's the start of its telephoto range). So we're not on the main sensors anymore, we're talking about smaller, longer optics, plus in the iPhone's case we've lost that Quad Bayer system. But at least there's no digital zoom involved. Let's see how well the telephotos do under adverse lighting conditions.

Here are 1:1 central crops from, in turn, the iPhone 14 Pro Max and then Sony Xperia 1 iv:

This time things are closer, with some noise and artefacts. You could argue that the iPhone crop shows more detail, but that's mainly down to contrast algorithms, with the Sony's colours being more accurate plus the Xperia's telephoto is 'longer' and you're zooming more without degradation. Honours even overall.

Score: iPhone 14 Pro Max: 9 pts; Sony Xperia 1 iv: 9 pts

Test 10: Low light colour and text

In a hospital car park, this meter wasn't especially dark, but with the tiny text at a few metres it's a good test of optics and sensor. Here's the overall scene:

And here are 1:1 central crops from, in turn, the iPhone 14 Pro Max and then Sony Xperia 1 iv:


Both phone cameras do very well here, keeping colours accurate and the 1:1 crops here show text content clearly - the Sony's main camera isn't quite as 'wide' (despite the same 24mm focal length), resulting in a closer view of the subject than the iPhone. (I suspect one of the two has a slightly misreported focal length.) See the blue graduated flag on the display, for example, I'm going to give this one to the Xperia by a nose.

Score: iPhone 14 Pro Max: 9 pts; Sony Xperia 1 iv: 10 pts

Test 11: Night time detail

A glorious night time sight for urban snappers - a London landmark lit up with occupants and oodles of detail to capture. Here's the overall scene:

And here are 1:1 central crops from, in turn, the iPhone 14 Pro Max and then Sony Xperia 1 iv:

I should note that you can ignore differences in luminance, since the iPhone's view looked so bright on the screen that I actually tapped to set exposure while the Sony's view looked OK and I didn't. In hindsight I should have tapped to set exposure on that as well, but oh well. What we're looking at here is clear detail.

And, in that sense, I have to give this to the iPhone, whose 1:1 crop looks so clear and crisp that it could be mistaken for a zoomed shot, i.e. with a telephoto lens. But no, this is a simple crop of a 'pure' pixel binned 12MP photo, and all handheld all the time, of course. Very impressive, which is why I've been sharing this example on social media. The Sony's shot is good enough taken as a whole but it's a bit indistinct down at the pixel level, as you can see above.

I'd give a two point margin to the iPhone, but I feel guilty about not also tapping to set focus and exposure on the Sony, so I'm being kind.

Score: iPhone 14 Pro Max: 10 pts; Sony Xperia 1 iv: 9 pts

Test 12: Night time gloss

On our way out of London, I spotted this sports car in a hotel forecourt. Here's the overall scene:

And here are 1:1 central crops from, in turn, the iPhone 14 Pro Max and then Sony Xperia 1 iv:

Again, massively impressive low light HDR and crisp detail from the 14 Pro Max, look at those alloy wheel details. The Sony does well for the overall snap and it's hard to fault it too much. But it's coming up against the best of the best here for low light performance.

Score: iPhone 14 Pro Max: 10 pts; Sony Xperia 1 iv: 9 pts

Verdict

Scores on the doors:  iPhone 14 Pro Max: 110 pts; Sony Xperia 1 iv: 107 pts

I should remind readers that this is all with the iPhone 14 Pro Max in its 'purist' shooting mode, i.e. with ProRAW toggled on (and set to 12MP in Settings beforehand). It's perfectly fine to do this without ever worrying about the complexities of Lightroom or Photoshop or whatever. It's just a single toggle in the Camera UI and then you share wherever needed or edit in Photos without a care in the world, and the only downside is that such images are 25MB or so rather than 3 or 4MB. With today's storage options and chip speeds, I don't think this is an issue. Obviously, you don't need this purity for most things you'll snap - receipts and plates of food and fun people shots (and so on) can all be left with ProRAW off. But when confronted by a lovely landscape or nature shot it's a one second toggle to flick on and get results as shown above.

In terms of results here, it's clear (and expected) that physics wins when zooming and the 5.2x upper telephoto lens on the Sony Xperia 1 iv has the upper hand over the iPhone's 3x optics. But it's also clear that for the most part the 14 Pro Max edges the Sony out, especially for unzoomed (or 2x) shots, with superb clarity and detail. You won't be shooting squirrels at the end of the garden with the iPhone but you will get fabulous photos the rest of the time.

The Sony Xperia 1 iv's camera system really isn't far behind, mind you. It lacks some of the imaging smarts (texture analysis, heavy HDR, subject recognition, etc.) behind Apple's Camera system, but it can still produce beautifully arty shots while also  offering a multitude of shooting modes and 'pro' settings for the adventurous.

PS. If you'd like to analyse the original images from this article they're online here.

PPS. If you like this feature and want to support my work then please do so here via PayPal. Thanks.

Comments

Bajlozi 3D said…
Super fair!
Robin Ottawa said…
Great work. I'm glad to see you hard at it still and appreciate the adjustment of lighting conditions. This is a very pertinent comparison, as you say, and as an Android user I'm happy to see I would get the better zoom camera.

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