The iPhone 11 Pro Max is capable of capturing truly cinematic video. Find out why I think it’s the best iPhone for cinematic video yet.
Apple’s flagship iPhone 11 Pro Max is the best iPhone camera I’ve ever used. I can say this without any hesitation after many months of shooting photos and video. For the latter half of 2019 and most of 2020 it’s produced the best looking images I’ve ever captured from a smartphone. Read on to find out why I think the iPhone 11 is the best iPhone camera yet.
iPhone 11 Pro Max Cinematic Video Test
This video was shot around Dubai Creek in a few hours. It was also edited and color graded in only a few hours. The only accessories I used are the Ulanzi Video Cage for iPhone 11 Pro Max, a few simple step up rings, and the 67mm 6-9 Stop PolarPro Peter McKinnon Edition Variable ND Filter.
This fast turnaround and film like color are thanks to a new color workflow I’ve been developing. This workflow incorporates a custom FiLMiC LogV2 to ARRI LogC transform and the FilmConvert Nitrate plugin in DaVinci Resolve.
While a color grade is often subjective. This is a straight up Kodak 5207 Vision 3 camera stock plus print film emulation. The video demonstrates the best of what I’ve been able to achieve in terms of a film look from video shot with the iPhone 11 Pro Max. This post workflow is the culmination of two years of experimentation and post production work. Filmconvert delivered the final piece of the puzzle with Filmconvert Nitrate.
Before I get into what makes the iPhone 11 Pro Max the best iPhone for cinematic video yet, I want to make sure you understand some context about my approach to iPhone video.
Shooting for Post Production
The one principle that is the foundation for all my work with iPhone imaging, is to shoot for post. What does this mean?
Shooting for post production means capturing an image that is primarily suitable for further post processing. Post processing includes color correction, sometimes image reconstruction, compositing, and creative color grading.
This means all of the camera settings, and techniques I use are aimed at capturing an image that can be further manipulated. This is not necessarily an image that looks perfect right away on your device.
One thing I need to make clear is the images I’m showing you are the result of professional color correction. Any video frame grabs or videos that you see here are not produced straight out of the camera.
I don’t use look luts, or sell creative lut packs, and I don’t employ quick and easy shortcuts. There are no magical camera settings that will make your video look “cinematic”. It requires a combination of technical and creative factors, time and practice learning new skills.
I want to help you achieve the same kind of image quality. However, you’ll have to learn how to shoot for post, and learn how to put in the post production work.
Don’t worry though, the whole point of this website, and my YouTube channel is to show you how.
iPhone 11 Image Sensors and Optics
An updated camera system is a big part of why I believe the iPhone 11 generation is the best iPhone for cinematic video capture so far. I refer to it as a camera system, because these cameras work together as a whole system. The updates to actual camera hardware seem modest. However, the combination of image information from both wide and telephoto cameras plays a significant role in the improved iPhone 11 low light image quality, ability to capture fine detail and extended dynamic range.
- Wide Camera: 12Mp 1/2.55″ sensor, 26mm equivalent, f/1.8 aperture
- Ultra Wide Camera: 12Mp sensor, 13mm equivalent, f/2.4 aperture
- Telephoto Camera: 12Mp 1/3.4″ sensor, 52mm equivalent, f/2 aperture
Individually, the main wide camera and telephoto are similar to the previous generation. The ultra wide camera is of course entirely new to the iPhone 11.
iPhone 11 Wide Camera
The iPhone 11 wide camera employs the same size sensor as the iPhone XS series and the same f/1.8 aperture. The main improvements that impact the final image are software.
iPhone 11 Ultrawide Camera
The iPhone 11 has a new ultra wide camera and it’s awesome. I was skeptical at first, but quickly found myself using it all the time for photos.
The iPhone 11 ultra wide camera is not as sharp as the wide and telephoto cameras. It has an aperture of f/2.4 and lets in less light than the other two cameras.
I’m more likely to attach a separate anamorphic lens for an ultra wide field of view. The tests I’ve seen of the Moment anamorphic lens (you will also need a iPhone 11 Pro Max Moment case) on the iPhone 11 Pro Max are excellent. It looks sharper and will let in more light than the native iPhone 11 ultra wide camera.
iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max Telephoto
The iPhone telephoto camera is my favorite camera. Now you’ll need the iPhone 11 Pro or Pro Max to have it. This is a curious choice for Apple, as the telephoto camera is far more useful than the ultra wide. However, the ultra wide camera is new and exciting, it’s easy to hype up and market to consumers on a mass scale.
The telephoto camera has an aperture of f/2.0, increased from f/2.4 on the iPhone XS Max. The base ISO of both the wide and telephoto image sensors has also increased slightly.
It’s definitely worth having all three cameras if video and photo are your main priority.
The iPhone 11 Camera System
There is one really significant change in the iPhone 11 that points in the direction Apple is taking it’s imaging system.
For the first time, Apple has begun to employ the cameras together. Computational imaging disassociates the recorded image from the direct capture of light. Instead an image is created indirectly. It is synthesized virtually using the best information from multiple sources. Apple’s camera system is able to create a single image computationally from multiple sources. These sources can be the individual camera modules, or multiple exposures from the same camera.
What do I mean by this? In the native Apple camera app, image information from multiple cameras is used to create one final composite image.
For example, when you switch to the telephoto camera, both the wide and telephoto cameras are used to create the final image. If you cover up either camera with your finger (remember to clean your lens afterwards!) you can see this, it kind of freaks out. This applies to photo and video in the native camera app. This is only when using the Apple camera app, I haven’t noticed this behavior with third party camera apps like FiLMiC Pro that appear to employ only the individual cameras.
The ultra wide camera seems to be treated individually. Similarly the wide camera doesn’t seem to be dependent on the telephoto camera. However, I believe this is just the beginning of camera virtualization.
More than the cameras themselves, the real improvement is the next generation imaging pipeline.
Refined Neural Image Processing
What makes the iPhone 11 generation camera system so significant is what Apple have managed to do with software. Apple have employed some very smart image processing. To understand why the implementation of this technology in the iPhone 11 is so good, I need explain the biggest flaw of the previous generation iPhone XS, XS Max and XR cameras.
The iPhone XS Max Tone Mapping Problem
In September 2018, Apple introduced what I believe is the most important imaging technology to come to the iPhone camera in recent years. Apple began to employ machine learning and neural processing to dynamically optimize how an image is recorded, this is often referred to as Dynamic Tone Mapping. While significant, it also proved to be the worst to work with.
Rewind to September 2018 and I was in Barcelona with the FiLMiC Pro team on the day the iPhone XS and XS Max hit the Apple stores. It was fantastic to be able to get hands on, shooting video from day one.
However, within ten minutes of shooting with the iPhone XS Max, it was very clear something was wrong.
The iPhone XS, XS Max and XR introduced an aggressive dynamic tone mapping that would create completely unusable images in high contrast and brightly back lit conditions.
It would also try to counteract any manual attempt at adjusting or locking ISO or shutter speed, either within FiLMiC Pro, or externally using physical ND filters.
Tone Mapping in the iPhone 11
Yes, SmartHDR in the iPhone 11 is cool, and as a concept it was cool in the iPhone XS generation cameras too. It just didn’t work. However, I do admit after fighting with it in the XS Max for a year, I think Apple are really onto something. The future of digital imaging is computational, I believe it.
Thankfully all of this seems to have been refined massively in the iPhone 11.
Dynamic tone mapping is still present and active, but it works much better now than it did with my XS Max and is less aggressive. The inconsistency of before is now, let’s say, far more consistent. The fact that Apple’s smartHDR and tone mapping algorithms are now working so well is why the iPhone 11 has been the best iPhone for cinematic video capture yet.
It will be exciting to see where Apple take this technology next.
iPhone 11 Dynamic Range
The ability for iPhone cameras to capture detail in both highlights and deep shadows has been improving steadily. I have noticed this progression from the iPhone 6S / SE to iPhone 7 Plus onwards up to the iPhone XS Max and now the iPhone 11 Pro Max.
I believe the iPhone 11 shows an improvement to the native dynamic range of a single exposure, that is an image not augmented by smartHDR. Of course, with the addition of smartHDR, layering and compositing the best image information from multiple exposures into a single frame, the dynamic range of the iPhone 11 series cameras is expanded even more.
This ability to finally capture film like dynamic range in a variety of conditions is one of the main reasons I believe the iPhone 11 Pro Max is now the best iPhone for cinematic video capture.
iPhone 11 Processing Power
The A13 Bionic with its third generation neural engine is remarkable. It handles the heavy lifting of complex computational image processing such as FiLMiC Pro’s LogV2 without breaking a sweat. In fact, what impresses me more than sheer computing ability is how cool my iPhone 11 Pro Max runs.
Despite the delay of FiLMiC Pro’s promised simultaneous multi camera capture. I have little doubt the iPhone 11 will handle the load even for extended periods. I will update this article with my multi camera findings when this is released.
Where I would often see the iPhone 7 Plus freeze up mid shot, and have been wary of shooting in the Dubai heat for extended periods with the XS Max, I don’t worry at all about the iPhone 11 Pro Max. In terms of reliability the iPhone 11 Pro Max has proven itself to be the best iPhone for cinematic video capture in a variety of climates, conditions and when pushed hard all day long.
iPhone 11 Battery Life
The battery life of the iPhone 11 Pro Max is incredible. I can shoot for more or less 12 hours, which is a whole day on a single charge. This is during heavy use, it will last much longer if you’re not pushing it. Of course your mileage may vary depending on how you shoot. I tend to shoot intermittently for ten to twenty minutes per hour while wandering around different locations. I like to sit and review clips also, so it’s a lot of screen time.
Now in my fifth month of using the iPhone 11 Pro Max, I’ve only now started to see a slight drop of about an hour. I still consider this enough to shoot for a whole day on a single charge.
Must Have iPhone 11 Video Accessories
The most important accessory to consider when shooting video with any iPhone is an ND filter. There are a number of ND filter solutions available that are designed to mount filters over all three cameras. The solution I use depends on how I’m rigging up the phone.
My favorite is the Moondog Labs Multi Camera Filter Mount, which attaches to any case with a bayonet lens mount, and provides a 52mm threaded filter mount compatible with any 52mm filters. Larger filters can be used with a step up ring.
Crowning the iPhone 11 Cinematic Video King
All things considered, the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max especially are worthy upgrades for anyone prioritizing mobile image capture and content creation. DxOMark scored the iPhone 11 Pro Max at 102, sharing top position with the Xiaomi Mi CC9 Pro Premium Edition. I believe the telephoto camera, extra screen real estate and battery life make the investment in the iPhone 11 Pro Max worthwhile.
On the flip side, buying an iPhone 11 Pro Max only for video doesn’t make a lot of sense when you can get a Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 4K, including a license for DaVinci Resolve Studio, and a lens for the same money. However, the iPhone is also a capable photo camera, which the BMPCC4K isn’t, and you can even edit your movie on your iPhone if you want, which the BMPCC4K can’t.
If you’re ready for an upgrade anyway, or excited about mobile content creation for any other reason, then the iPhone 11 Pro Max makes a lot of sense. In my opinion, the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max certainly live up to the Pro moniker for heavy duty content creation. Without a doubt the iPhone 11 is the best iPhone right now for cinematic iPhone video capture.
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