Macro photography capabilities of the iPhone 13 put to the test

One of the new features of the iPhone 13 Pro/Pro Max is its macro photography capabilities. Early reviews seem to indicate that there is essentially no limit to how close you can get to the thing you’re photographing, so I put this to the test.

I half joke that photographing gadgets is 5% photography, 5% editing, and 90% cleaning. When it comes to macro photography, that would be more like 99.9% cleaning…

The way macro photography works on the iPhone 13 is you just get closer to your subject until it switches to macro mode. That sounds like the perfect user interface, but it’s really not.

I understand Apple’s decision to have macro photography (a) be discoverable and (b) just work, but it snaps out of macro mode as readily as it snaps in. When it does so, it switches cameras – which is, as early reviewers said, intensely annoying.

You start carefully framing, creeping closer, then, bam, you’re looking at an out-of-focus shot of something outside your frame. Apple says it will fix this with a software update.

On a DSLR, macro photography usually requires the camera on a tripod, as you’d be manually focusing, and the depth of field is wafer thin. On the iPhone, the good news is that you can take macro shots handheld, but the bad news is that you don’t really get too much control over what’s in focus. Tap-to-focus is pretty much impossible when you’re so close, and the tap itself will shift the framing.

But provided you are happy with lacking fine control, the results are pretty impressive. You can easily get some interesting abstract shots from things as ordinary as a wool sweater, an office chair, and flowers.

I could definitely see craftspeople finding it useful, whether it’s showing off the quality of professional work…

Or sharing a hobbyist’s work in progress…

Pet photography can be fun too!

Gadget photography… not so much! Every microscopic spec of dust looks like a baseball, and even with brand-new kit, you’d need way more patience than I have to clean it. For example, this looked like it could do with a wipe-down with a cloth, but it doesn’t look terrible, right?

And here’s the macro photo:

I did try to get a clean one, but gave up after 10 minutes with a supposedly lint-free cloth.

Conclusions on iPhone 13 macro photography capabilities

Let’s start with the obvious: Apple hasn’t managed to fit a real macro lens into an iPhone. What it has managed to do is get an existing lens to focus at extremely close distances so that you can take macro-like photos.

If you start pixel peeping, examining images at full resolution on a large monitor, then the limitations start becoming obvious, and the image gets muddy. Here’s a 100% crop as an example:

Photographers aren’t going to be putting down their DSLRs and proper macro lenses in favor of this. For example, I once used a high-end macro lens on a pro DLSR to shoot a series of photos I called London Eyes. Here’s an example:

Here’s another macro shot I took, again relying on very fine focus control:

The iPhone macro capability doesn’t offer either the precision or quality required for images like these. (It does, however, let you get every bit as close as a real macro lens.)

But for most macro-style photography, when viewing on iPhones and iPads, the results look fine, and the same is true of viewing at normal web resolutions.

No matter the limitations, it’s still a pretty incredible capability to put into a smartphone. The vast majority of consumers are going to be wowed by the results, and it’s a great opportunity for fun, creative photography.

Have you had a chance to try the macro feature yourself? Share your own thoughts in the comments. If you’d like to link to examples, Disqus blocks links, so just put a space in the link.

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iPhone 13 Diary: Putting macro photography capabilities to the test