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If you are thinking about getting an iPhone 13, I recommend that you first read my general post on all four of the models in the iPhone 13 line. The iPhone 13 is the primary new model. The iPhone 13 mini is the smaller version of the new model. The iPhone 13 Pro is the more advanced version of the new model. And the iPhone 13 Pro Max is the more advanced version of the new model that adds an even larger screen. For me, the best choice was the iPhone 13 Pro. I consider it to be the “just right” size. The mini is cute but I prefer having a larger screen, whereas the iPhone 13 Pro Max size would be way too big for me. Thus, for me, the only real choice was between the iPhone 13 and the iPhone 13 Pro.
Between those two, for many folks, the iPhone 13 Pro is a better choice for two reasons. First, if taking pictures with an iPhone is important to you, the iPhone 13 Pro is a better choice because it includes a telephoto lens, a macro lens, and better cameras. Second, if you appreciate using nicer technology, then the iPhone 13 Pro is a better choice because of the improved screen with Pro Motion. If you read this post and are not impressed by these features, then the iPhone 13 is probably the best value for you.
Photography: the 3x Telephoto lens
When Apple first introduced the “Pro” version of the iPhone in 2019 with the iPhone 11 Pro, one of the distinguishing features was the addition of a third telephoto camera. That way, instead of cropping a photo to zoom in, which decreased quality and made the picture fuzzier, you could get a higher quality zoomed-in photograph. For the iPhone 11 Pro and the iPhone 12 Pro, the telephoto lens was 2x. Being able to choose between an Ultra Wide camera, a Wide camera, and a 2x Telephoto camera often gave you the ability to take three different pictures that told three different stories, as I showed in my review.
That remains true this year, as you can see from some pictures that I took this past weekend at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans. (I’ve compressed these pictures somewhat to make the size of this post more reasonable, so the real pictures are even better in quality than these versions.)
For example, with the Ultra Wide camera, I can take a picture that tells the story of a cool tree and its surroundings, including the path, trash can, and bench around it.
Using the standard Wide camera, the story is all about the tree itself.
Using the 3x Telephoto camera, the focus of the story is the sign on the tree.
Similarly, this Ultra Wide picture shows a round fountain.
Using the Wide camera, the focus is on the elephants in the fountain.
With the 3x Telephoto lens, the picture is no longer about the elephants; it is a peek-a-boo picture about a golf cart.
As that last photo shows, having a 3x telephoto lens gives you a pretty powerful zoom. How does it compare to the 2x zoom from the 2019 and 2020 versions of the Pro? I found that it made a pretty big difference.
Here is a Wide camera picture of some flamingos. The first picture is the iPhone 13 Pro and the second picture is the iPhone 12 Pro. Although the 13 Pro has a better quality Wide camera for low light, I didn’t notice the difference for an outside picture on a sunny day.
Here is the Telephoto camera with the iPhone 13 Pro, followed by the iPhone 12 Pro. With the 3x zoom, the flamingos fill the screen, which results in a more dramatic picture.
The same is true for video. Here is a short video of some sea lions playing around, first with the iPhone 13 Pro Telephoto lens, followed by the iPhone 12 Pro Telephoto lens. (Both videos were taken at the same time.) The 3x lens lets you get closer to the sea lions, which lets you take a more impressive video. The 3x lens also does a better job of showing that sea lions are very funny to watch.
I had feared that using a 3x lens would mean that small shakes in my hand would be more noticeable, reducing the overall picture quality. Perhaps that would happen with a 4x or 5x lens (if they could figure out how to fit that into an iPhone), but in my tests, I didn’t have a problem with 3x pictures.
Having a Telephoto lens is a great feature that allows you to take different types of pictures. Even if this were the only difference between the iPhone 13 and iPhone Pro, it would be enough for me to pay more for the Pro. Moreover, 3x is better than 2x, so if you are upgrading from a 2x Telephoto camera, you will appreciate the improvement.
Photography: Macro lens
A second advantage of the iPhone 13 Pro is that it is the first iPhone to have a Macro lens. When you get about 14cm away from an object (just under six inches), you will actually see the image on your screen change slightly as the iPhone switches to the Macro mode. At that point, you can get very close to your object, and you can even tap the 3x button to zoom in even more. On the iPhone 13 and prior iPhone models, the iPhone would lose its ability to focus when you got that close.
Macro photography is especially useful when you are taking a picture of a flower. Here is an example of a 1x Macro picture of a flower — which the Photos app tells me is a Ruellia. (That’s a new feature of iOS 15, the ability to identify flowers, pets, landmarks, and more.)
Here is a 2x Macro picture of that same flower:
How much better is this Macro lens than what you could do with prior iPhones? This past weekend I was sitting at my bar and I saw a bottle of Peychaud’s bitters (a key ingredient for a Sazerac cocktail). This picture is taken with the normal, Wide lens:
With my iPhone 12 Pro, using the 2x Telephoto lens, this is the closest picture that I could get without the words becoming too fuzzy to read. And the words are still a little fuzzy.
On the other hand, with the Macro feature on the iPhone 13 Pro, I had no trouble getting a much more clear image when I was close up:
And using the 3x Macro camera on the iPhone 13 Pro, I could get an incredibly clear very close picture, one in which I could see every crinkle in the paper label:
Macro photography is probably not a thing that you want to do every day. But you’ll certainly know the times when you can take advantage of it. When those times occur, it is nice knowing that the iPhone 13 Pro can do exactly that.
Photography: low light
The third advantage of the iPhone 13 Pro’s cameras is that they do even better in low light. This is great because I often want to take pictures indoors when the lighting is less than ideal. Apple explains it this way: “iPhone 13 Pro was made for low light. The Wide camera adds a wider aperture and our largest sensor yet — and it leverages the LiDAR Scanner for Night mode portraits. Ultra Wide gets a wider aperture, a faster sensor, and all-new autofocus. And Telephoto now has Night mode.”
Telephoto photos using Night mode are a significant improvement. When you try to use the Telephoto lens in a low light situation using an iPhone 12 Pro, the picture quality is not great. In this picture, the overhead lights are somewhat low, about the level that you would use for a more intimate gathering. Using the Telephoto mode on the iPhone 12 Pro does result in a closer picture, but the words on the bottles are quite blurry:
But with the iPhone 13 Pro, Night mode on the Telephoto lens results in photos that are significantly more bright and detailed. And at 3x, you also get closer to the objects (or the people) without having to move the iPhone closer:
For all of the times when you cannot do anything about the low light — in a restaurant or bar, indoors in a room without good lighting, etc. — the iPhone 13 Pro allows you to take better pictures.
Prior iPhone models, and the non-Pro models of the iPhone 13, refresh the screen at 60 Hz. The iPhone 13 Pro can refresh the screen twice as quickly, using 120 Hz when it will improve the experience, or dialing down to 10 Hz when nothing is moving on the screen. This makes motion on the screen seem much more smooth. Here is a slo-mo video that Domenico Panacea posted on Twitter that shows the difference:
In real life, it makes things seem much more smooth on the iPhone screen. There have been numerous times over the last few days when some sort of motion has happened on my iPhone’s screen, even something as simple as returning to the home screen, and I’ve found myself amazed that the transition was so smooth.
If you are not a big tech enthusiast like I am, maybe you won’t notice this difference as much. But I notice it quite a bit, and I really like it. (I’ve been using ProMotion on an iPad Pro for many years now, and I really like it there as well.)
The iPhone 13 Pro screen can also be a little bit brighter. In typical usage, the max brightness on the iPhone 13 Pro is 1000 nits, versus 800 nits on the iPhone 13. (The iPhone 12 Pro/iPhone 11 Pro was 800 nits and the iPhone 12/iPhone 11/other models going back to the iPhone 7 was 625.) When watching HDR content, all of the iPhone 13 models can go up to 1200 nits.
I haven’t been using this iPhone 13 Pro long enough to provide personal experience on the battery life improvements. But if Apple’s numbers are correct, they are pretty substantial. For example, Apple says that an iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro can play video for up to 17 hours. The iPhone 13 can play video for up to 19 hours. The iPhone 13 Pro can play video for up to 22 hours. And the iPhone 13 Pro Max can play video for up to 28 hours.
Lots of things that you can do with an iPhone will affect its overall battery life. But when Apple announced the iPhone 13 Pro, Apple said that in typical use it will last about 90 minutes longer than an iPhone 12 Pro. When you are having a long and busy day, having an extra 90 minutes before you need to recharge can make a significant difference in your day.
I haven’t yet noticed the speed improvements resulting from using the new A15 Bionic chip and the 5-core GPU (versus a 4-core GPU on the iPhone 13), but I’m always in favor of making an iPhone faster so that it is more responsive. And my iPhone 13 Pro certainly seems very responsive.
I loved the design of my iPhone 12 Pro because of the flat edges that make it easier to hold the device. The iPhone 13 Pro takes that same great design and adds more battery life, a screen that displays movement more smoothly, and a significantly better camera. The iPhone 13 will also give you some battery life improvements and somewhat better cameras, so it is no slouch. But if taking pictures with your iPhone is important to you and/or if you like the idea of a premium screen, I think that the iPhone 13 Pro is easily worth the $200 premium over the iPhone 13. If you are ready to upgrade to a new iPhone, you have some great options this year.