Given Apple’s annual release schedule, if you were to upgrade your iPhone every time you could, you probably have not been all that impressed from generation to generation in recent years. I think that changes with the iPhone 14 Pro, because the main camera is really something special.
A new year, a new iPhone, and once again you’re probably wondering if it’s worth upgrading this year or waiting one or two more years to get something that will have a bit more staying power. Last year, it was pretty easy to recommend you wait for another cycle to upgrade, but this year the promise of a 48-megapixel camera and a new Dynamic Island instead of the notch are rather tantalizing.
So, is it worth it?
Design and Build
As you might expect, there are scant few visual differences between the iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 14 Pro, but just enough was done to the physical dimensions to make it so that last year’s cases won’t fit on this year’s phone. I have grown to appreciate the similarities in phone design. It was easy to replace one model with another, which is worth mentioning.
Apple did unlock more brightness for the iPhone 14 Pro over last year’s model and I will say it is noticeable. The new Super Retina XDR Display, as Apple calls it, is a custom OLED that has a huge 1,600 nits of peak brightness when displaying HDR content — which is more than twice as much as the TV in my living room — and a ridiculous 2,000 nits outdoors. I never actually thought my iPhone 13 Pro was dim, but since moving to the 14 Pro, I have an appreciation for how bright it can get.
The actual quality of what I’m watching on my phone is probably better with the iPhone 14 Pro, but to be honest I didn’t really notice. I’ve felt that the visual quality has been pretty fantastic for several years now, and that certainly is not any different with this year’s model.
The display also can dynamically adjust between 10Hz and 120Hz depending on what is being displayed so that it is more power efficient, though this feature isn’t new to this year’s model.
Another change is that the iPhone 14 Pro has the option for an always-on display, which is enabled by default. This was what I tried for the first few days, before I decided I did not like it and turned off my display. I have an Apple Watch with an always-on display and there, I get it. You may need to glance down quickly to check the time, and sometimes flicking your wrist or tapping on the screen doesn’t feel like you are wearing a watch. But a smartphone? It feels like something I don’t need and while Apple says it won’t be a major drain on your battery, I didn’t see the point in having it be a drain at all.
The only significant, visible change to the operating system is the Dynamic Island which houses the Front-facing camera and Face ID sensor. I really liked how Apple showed that it could be used and honestly, in a select few circumstances, I think it’s a big improvement over how the operating system worked before. The animation is no longer the main focus of the screen when you do a Face ID Check.
I don’t see Dynamic Island in any of my daily usage. My tiny dog walks up to it when I browse Reddit through Apollo. But that’s it. None of my other apps have found a fun way to use this feature yet, though I assume that will change as time goes on.
I’ll say that the Dynamic Islands have made it more difficult to tap at the top of the screen to auto-scroll up to the top page. As maligned as the “notch” was on the iPhone 13, at least it was a pretty big target. These days, I find myself fumbling a bit just to get it to recognize that’s where I’m tapping. A small nitpick, to be sure.
More than anything, here at PetaPixel we care about the cameras. Apple claims that it makes the iPhone’s best camera every year. This year Apple added a new 450-megapixel quad-pixel main sensor to improve the quality of photos and add new features like an additional [*********************************************************************************************************************************************************]x telephoto.
The biggest change to the iPhone 14 Pro’s camera is the addition of a new 48-megapixel quad-pixel main sensor that Apple says enables better photos and new features like an additional 2x telephoto for a total of four zoom options. Apple claims that the iPhone’s main camera has been the most prominent, but all cameras are now better at low light performance due to the new Photonic Engine.
The flash has also been redesigned with an array of nine LEDs with what Apple calls “adaptive” behavior. Although this may be helpful, it is still flash. I don’t like key lights coming in the same direction as my main camera. This is why I have never liked on-camera flash.
If there is one takeaway I want you to come away from this review with, it’s that Apple has cracked the code when it comes to outstanding photo quality in ideal conditions. In bright, sunny light, the iPhone 14 Pro’s main camera is a marvel. By default, the phone uses all that 48-megapixel data and packs it into a 12-megapixel final image, which results in some of the most exceptional pixel quality I’ve seen out of a smartphone and the best-looking images I’ve ever seen out of an iPhone by far.
That quality gets even more astounding when looking at ProRaw, which produces photos I could swear were coming out of a full-size camera if not for the 12-megapixel size. You can see the finer details, such as hair and grass blades. One complaint I have is that the colors are a little muted in JPEG and HEIC. However, this can be easily fixed.
Another benefit to that 48-megapixel sensor is that it is 65% larger than the one in the iPhone 13 Pro and that appears to be large enough to actually render some background and foreground defocus. Although it was possible in the past, it wasn’t always feasible.
I have come to expect very little from smartphone zooms, but even the new 2x zoom option, which is just a digital crop, looks pretty fantastic. Details are just slightly less crystal clear here than they are in the standard 1x mode, but they still look great. These details are not lost as they would be in a crop.
Apple doesn’t let you shoot full-resolution 48-megapixel photos in its app (or if the company does, that option is so well hidden that no average person could be expected to find and then enable it), and I think that’s fine. If you want that kind of option, there is always Halide, but I think anything more than 12-megapixels on a smartphone is overkill anyway and anyone who is going to take larger photos probably wants the more professional controls that an app like Halide has, which are absent in Apple’s default camera app.
The ultra-wide camera has also been improved and Apple says that in addition to software side boosts, the actual sensor is nearly twice as big as the one found on the iPhone 13 Pro.
The result is that photos taken with the wide camera generally look pretty good, but they don’t hold a candle to the quality of the main camera in any lighting condition. While photos taken during daylight are acceptable, I believe the wider camera works best when capturing a complete scene and not creating an artistic effect. This utility is important, but it shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Overall, the quality is improved over last year’s iPhone 13 Pro but not to anywhere near the degree of the main camera changes.
The telephoto camera hasn’t received the same boosts as the other two cameras, and it shows. While yes, photos look slightly better thanks to Apple’s Photonic Engine, it’s still the same sensor as before and that means it’s the weakest of the options. If you’re going to zoom, lean more on the 2x than the 3x since at least the 2x takes advantage of Apple’s newer, larger sensor.
Compared with the 2x zoom from the main camera, the 3x of the telephoto lens is only worth it when there is a lot of light to work with. The quality of the images drops dramatically once things get dimmed. I found myself using the telephoto lens the least on my iPhone 13 Pro and I don’t see that changing on the iPhone 14 Pro.
Night and Other Modes
The idea of portrait mode is nice, but I’m still not a fan. The digital bokeh that is added to give the appearance of a larger sensor has, to me, not improved very much since its introduction, or at least any improvements haven’t kept up with my expectations of what they should be. Generally speaking, Portrait mode distracts me more by blurring the background than an in-focus, untouched background does.
On the flipside, Night Mode is pretty impressive and does make a notable difference in quality compared to not using it. You can choose to set the exposure time manually or calculate longer exposures. I don’t have the steadiest hands, but even I was able to get a tack-sharp photo that had a two-second exposure time that was captured in Night Mode, which produced a photo with better color, better fine details, and better overall results.
Night Mode of course works best with the main camera thanks to the much larger sensor. It’s usable with the ultra-wide, but I was not happy with any of my low-light photos taken with the telephoto camera.
Macro Mode returns and it works about the same as last year, although there are reports that it doesn’t focus quite as close as the iPhone 13 Pro camera’s did. I can’t say that I noticed, since I was able to get very close to subjects and render them with excellent detail.
It’s a fun mode and one I use more than you might think, since I have a habit of sending photos of the flowers and fruits from my garden to friends and family.
We don’t talk a lot about video here at PetaPixel, but Apple has made some serious improvements to the capability of the iPhone for shooting movies that we would be remiss if we did not mention them. Most people will be able to see that Action Mode can produce smooth videos even when you jostle the phone around. I was honestly shocked at how good the camera was able to stabilize movement even before enabling Action Mode, but after turning on the new feature footage legitimately looks like it was shot with a gimbal.
That said, it’s not without a downside. Action Mode results in a downgrade in resolution, and the maximum footage that can be captured is 2. 8K at 60 frames per second. When I turned on Action Mode, pixels were less clear when viewing on a large monitor. This was not apparent on my iPhone for comparing footage. That footage is still what I would call “fine,” but it’s definitely not as crisp and sharp as the footage is when Action Mode is disabled. It’s good to have choices. Sometimes you just need smooth shots more than resolution.
The iPhone can also finally shoot in 4K at 24 frames per second, which is a framerate that is preferred by visual storytellers for looking more natural than 30 and especially 60 frames per second, which can look jittery or overly smooth.
The footage shot on the iPhone 14 Pro looks really, really good. The iPhone has been our pick for the best smartphone for video for the last year, and I don’t see that changing.
A Legitimate Camera
We’ve been inching closer and closer to full-size camera quality in a smartphone and while Canon, Sony, Nikon, Fujifilm, and the like are all pretty safe when it comes to a combination of resolution and quality, Apple is probably going to start making them sweat.
Apple seems to realize that you don’t have to put a lot in your smartphone. However, that does not necessarily mean that it is a great camera. It’s why I’m not impressed when I see a 200-megapixel smartphone announced, because I’m not convinced that the use of those pixels is going to be great. Here, Apple shows that with just 48 megapixels, it is able to create a finished 12-megapixel photo that I would swear was taken on a full-size camera if I didn’t know better.
The rest of the package doesn’t feel all that different, if I’m honest. Yes, the Dynamic Island is cool, but is underutilized. The screen looks great and is bright. However, the model from last year will be more than adequate. The rest of the changes really feel like an iOS 16 thing, which is available on more devices than just this phone.
But the camera’s performance is amazing. I have never seen this level of improvement in an Apple iPhone. This time, for the first time in a while, I can very easily recommend the iPhone 14 Pro to iPhone 13 Pro owners if the camera is the most important thing about a smartphone to them.
Are There Alternatives?
Most of those who have grown happy living in Apple’s walled garden of an ecosystem aren’t going to want to even consider leaving it, but those who can be convinced there is a lot to like about the Vivo X70 Pro+ as its camera system is seriously impressive and our current top pick for Android-based devices. Sony’s Xperia Pro-I is also pretty outstanding if you can be convinced to jump over to team blue. Finally, the Google Pixel 6 Pro is a solid pick, though you might want to hold off on the next-generation device from Google at this point.
Should You Buy It?
Yes. Even if you’re using last year’s iPhone 13 Pro, if the camera is really important to you, this is actually worth the upgrade. If you’re on any older iPhone model it’s an even easier recommendation, as you’ll be even more wowed by how much better the experience on iPhone 14 Pro is even beyond the camera improvements.