Could I really use an iPhone for travel photography?

That's the question I asked myself. I liked the idea of having a third camera that could fit in a pocket, but could the iPhone 15 Pro Max actually be used for 'real' photography? As 'weather resistant' as professional cameras and lenses are, I don't like hiking in the rain with my gear. I've always admired those professional photographers that carry their gear in the pouring rain or change lenses in dust storms; sometimes, that's what it takes to get the shot. I'll do what I have to do to get the job done, but I still wish I cared a little less.

Maybe an iPhone 15 Pro Max could be good enough for my blog and website photography, especially in inclement weather, or when carrying a 'real' camera would be impractical? That was the premise, at least. I justified the rather eye watering price as a business expense; even if it couldn't do the job of a 'real' camera, it would still be suitable for real-time social media 'content creation' for clients.

This isn't going to be a pixel-peeping technical evaluation. There are plenty of those out there. This will be a brief, photo oriented review, focused on travel photography, discussing the dynamic range, image quality, low light performance, and what it's like to work with the RAW files.

A panorama taken at Twin Peaks in San Francisco.

Disappointment and pleasant surprise...

Bottom line up front: It was a surprisingly difficult evaluation to make. There were areas where the iPhone wildly surpassed even my wildest expectations and other areas where it fell significantly short of them, and it wasn't always clear why it performed better or worse than expected in certain situations; I suspect there is a lot of computational photography occurring in the phone, and there are times when it works well and other times where it doesn't.

Image Quality and 'Focal Lengths'

For the first part of this test, I went to Brittany, France in winter. It was the perfect place to test the iPhone because it's always raining there in winter. There's a saying in Brittany: it only rains twice a year, but it lasts half a year each time. Hiking in nature in Brittany in those conditions can be treacherous, with mud everywhere. I slipped and fell because of the mud on more than one occasion. It was also an excellent location to test the image quality of the iPhone 15 Pro Max because of the landscapes there; the cliffs are textured and rocky and rugged, and the lighting conditions can be surprisingly challenging for a camera sensor. Then, I went to San Francisco for a few days during an extended layover on my way to Southern California. Another good photographic destination.

One of the first things to note is that there are three 'lenses' on the phone and four different 'focal length' shooting modes, a standard 24mm that can shoot at 48MP, a 0.5x '13mm equivalent' that can shoot at 12MP, a 2x '48mm equivalent' that can shoot at 12MP, and a 5x '120mm equivalent' telephoto mode that can shoot at 12MP. In my experience, only the 24mm shooting mode in 48MP produces serious, usable photographs that could possibly be used in lieu of those taken with professional camera. The ultrawide '0.5x' 13mm and '2x' 48mm normal yield usable results, producing usable images in ideal lighting and when the subject is up close. The '5x' 120mm shooting mode is the least usable, especially in low light. Here's a photograph I took of a Coyote in the evening with the 5x telephoto mode:

It's bad. It's real bad. It's so bad it's almost artistic in its rendering. Even in ideal conditions, I don't find the 5x telephoto mode to be very useful. It has virtually no utility to me. A modern interchangeable lens camera would have had no difficulty with the above photo. With my Canon R6 Mark II, that would have been an easy photograph at f/2.8 at 1600 ISO. Using the 5x telephoto for landscape photos in better lighting is similarly frustrating, but not quite as bad:

I kept that image as large as possible on the blog to illustrate the limitations at the 5x telephoto mode. Notice the post processing I had to use, to compensate for the inherent lack of image quality at 5x. Blow is a 5x telephoto photograph taken of the San Francisco skyline. Again, I've kept the image as large as possible.

The Ultrawide, 0.5x 13mm mode is a bit more useful, though, and does produce some more than adequate photographs in varying conditions.

The 24mm, 48MP mode is where the iPhone 15 Pro Max really shines, especially when shooting in 'RAW Max''. It produces ludicrously large files, usually in the 65MB range. That's almost double the size of the RAW files from my Canon R6 Mark II and R8. Those file sizes don't tell the full story, though. It's clear that not only is the sensor of the iPhone small, physically, but that the lenses also aren't capable of resolving 48MP. The 24MP of the R6 Mark II with a quality lens would be able to produce larger prints than the 48MP iPhone at 24mm. The images produced by the iPhone at 24mm in 48MP RAW Max mode are quite impressive, nonetheless. Here are some examples from San Francisco.

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And here's some examples from Brittany, France, at 24mm 48MP Camera RAW

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As you can see, these are incredibly high quality photographs. Not only is the image quality more than enough for social media, but I would venture to say that the image quality is acceptable for travel blogging and travel photography websites. I wouldn't want to shoot a wedding with it, but I wouldn't feel terrible leaving my camera at the hotel while traveling, knowing I could capture high quality photographs, even if only at 24mm. I am deeply, deeply impressed. Some of those photographs taken on the Brittany Coast were in very challenging lighting conditions, in scenes requiring a lot of dynamic range. To be completely honest, with how poorly the Canon RF 24-105mm f/4.5-7.1 STM performs at 24mm, this isn't that unattractive of an alternative.


Panoramas are probably my favorite part of the iPhone 15 Pro Max, in terms of travel and landscape photography. I hate stitching images together in post to make panoramas. It's one of my least favorite things related to photography, which is a shame because I absolutely love the results. The iPhone takes incredible panoramas; the quality is exceptional and website/blog worthy.

RAW Files, Low Light Performance, and Dynamic Range

This is another area where the iPhone 15 Pro Max falls a tiny bit short of modern interchangeable lens cameras, but not by too much. I've been very spoiled by the RAW files of the Canon R6 Mark II. There is so much recoverable detail in those Canon RAW files. It's mind blowing, coming from the days of DSLRs; it's possible to underexpose so much and still get a properly exposed image in post-processing. The iPhone RAW files have a lot of recoverable details, but they can't be pushed 4-5 stops, like they often can with my Canon RAW files. In terms of recoverable details and dynamic range, the RAW files from the iPhone can be reliably pushed 2-3 stops. I'd venture to say the iPhone 15 Pro Max might even be on par with the Canon RP in terms of RAW files. If you don't shoot RAW and prefer JPEG, then this isn't relevant. The iPhone 15 Pro Max produces very nice JPEGs straight out of camera.

Below is a comparison between the RAW files from a Canon R6 Mark II and the iPhone 15 Pro Max. Both images were about two stops underexposed, on the left is straight out of camera, and on the right is how far they can be 'pushed' in post-processing. It's important to note that the images below were taken in pretty low light. On the Canon R6 Mark II, I was shooting at 24mm f/2.8, 1/20th of a second, and 3200 ISO. So, it was not a bright scene by any means. It's also a relatively high dynamic range scene, being backlit.

Here's the RAW file from the iPhone. On the left is the image straight out of camera and on the right is after being pushed approximately 2.5 stops.

The RAW files from the iPhone are gorgeous and can be pushed at least a couple stops in post processing.

Below is the RAW file from my Canon R6 Mark II. The same as above, the straight out of camera file is on the left and the processed image on the right.

As you can see, there is a bit more detail and dynamic range in the RAW files from the Canon, but otherwise, they're remarkably similar. There's a little less depth of field from the Canon, as a result of the larger sensor.

Below are extreme crops from the processed images, with the Canon image on the left and the iPhone image on the right.

As you can see from the string on the soap, there is more usable resolution from the Canon images, despite the iPhone being literally double the pixel count. That is most likely due to the 24-105 f/2.8 USM L Z on the Canon; it is an exceptionally sharp and impressive lens. If I had the 24-105 f/4.5-7.1 STM on the Canon, the iPhone would have been at least equal. The performance from the iPhone is staggering, considering it came from a phone.


This was only a brief evaluation of the iPhone 15 Pro Max. There are a lot of in-depth, technical reviews and comparisons available out there. This was just a brief summary of my experiences using it, as a photographer, for travel photography.

Surprisingly, the iPhone 15 Pro Max is capable of replacing an interchangeable lens camera for me, in a relatively narrow set of circumstances. It can produce extremely high quality images suitable for social media, website, blog, and printing use. It has wonderful dynamic range, produces great RAW files, and provides great resolution and imagine quality, even in low light. It's clear that it relies heavily on computational photography to achieve some of these results, but it does it very well, usually. The biggest caveat being that the iPhone only performs at this level at 24mm. For me, using the iPhone 15 Pro Max for photography is no different than carrying a camera with a fixed 24mm prime lens. I will find a way to frame a scene to make 24mm work rather than switching to a different focal length in the phone. This isn't ideal, but it's not that much of a limitation.

The iPhone 15 Pro Max won't replace my Canon R6 Mark II or R8, but I won't feel as bad leaving them at the house or in the hotel, knowing that I will be able to capture extremely high quality photographs if there's something that inspires or moves me. There are so many shots I've missed over the years because I didn't bring or carry my camera with me. Those regrets will be a thing of the past now.

As a professional, it's a game changer, too. With the rise in popularity of (and demand for) real time, social media 'content creation', the iPhone 15 Pro Max is an invaluable tool in the wedding, event, and vacation photographers toolbox. It's also invaluable for website and blogging purposes, especially travel. It won't replace a real camera for me, but knowing that I can use the pictures I take with it on my website and blog is both a comfort and a luxury. I highly recommend it.